Common Sense about Horse Communication

The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours.

I’ve never trusted my own senses. I consider it a good thing.

While I was still in grade school, I broke my nose on a sheep. These things happen; he was a big cross-eyed ram by the name of Grandpa. So, I don’t have a good sense of smell, but no worries, if I imagine what it might smell like I get by. It should impact my taste but you can’t convince me that raspberries taste better to you.

I was born with flimsy eardrums and flunked all my hearing tests in school. Two childhood surgeries later, no improvement. My parents debated whether I wasn’t able to hear or just didn’t listen. I do in fact have a hearing loss. It’s the lower tone range, so it’s mainly men I don’t listen to. I mean hear.

My eyes are my strongest sense. I have a spectacular eye for detail. But even on my best day, if I hadn’t learned to triangulate llama noses, I’d never be warned about visitors on my farm.

It bears repeating: The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours. Every moment.

Horses have a better hearing range with greater frequency than humans. They use it as an early defense system and we usually decide they’re distracted.

Their sense of smell is not as good as a dog, but still much better than ours, as evidenced in the spring when they become besotted with of the smell of new grass. We can’t tell unless a lawnmower has been by.

Their sense of touch is extremely acute; they can feel a fly on their lower hind leg. Do you think we might over-cue?

And vision -the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal. And like most prey animals, their eyes are set on the sides of their head, allowing them close to a 350° range of vision. Horses also have both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can process two separate images at the same time. Go ahead, pause here to push your glasses up your nose.

Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than the truth about our own limited senses.

Compared to prey animals, we’re not nearly as aware of our surroundings. We tend to be loud and dominating, especially with our hands. We act like we know everything.

Back in the day on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris translated the “News for the Hard of Hearing.” He’d stand at the side in a bad parody of an ASL translator, cup his hands to his mouth and yell. Just holler it out. It gave me a deliciously guilty, politically-incorrect laugh.

But that’s how we are next to horses. We stand and yell, our normal tone qualifies, slowly enunciating each syllable as if the horse is deaf or stupid, or sadly, a child. We repeat ourselves, we escalate our cues. It’s what we were taught to do but they “heard” us the first time. It’s pretty arrogant for a human to think a horse isn’t aware of things twice as obvious to them as they are to us.

As the theoretically superior animal, it’s up to humans to learn the horse’s language. This is where not trusting your senses comes in handy for a horse-woman. It makes it easier to want to listen if you aren’t sure what’s going on.

I use the word “conversation” when writing about communicating with horses… but I don’t mean verbal. It isn’t about constantly chattering along, explaining to the horse that his mane is being brushed, that you’re going to pick up his feet now, that the saddle is next. He knows.

And it isn’t just baby talk and explanations about grooming. We sit crooked and our legs flop. Sometimes we kick with each stride. We twist around in the saddle like kids on a school bus. We can’t look to the side without flinging our shoulders around. You’d think we didn’t have peripheral vision

We create such a racket to their senses, that horses stop listening, not being disobedient but just to quiet the roar. It’s a calming signal to us. The cue that we can do less.

Much of what we do with horses is for ourselves. We use them for comfort and that isn’t a bad thing… unless we never give back. Unless we always think that it’s all about us. If you are looking for a better relationship with horses then listen more. Strive to understand them more for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.

Instead, let the air rest. It’s easier to listen then. Be curious in silence.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let the rest go. It’s the opportunity your horse is waiting for. He might need a while to trust it but then he’ll tell you his side of things. It will make perfect sense.

Sometimes now as a clinician, I find myself speaking to a group while standing next to a horse. I’m talking as clearly and audibly as I can for the humans, even as I’m aware that I’m sounding like “News for the Hard of Hearing” to the horse.

They tolerate my noise because of another sense that I think horses have. It’s an awareness of intention. It’s the sentiment beyond silence.

I think it’s the best we can hope for from a horse; to find a bit of grace for our loud and rude ways. Perhaps he hopes that one day humans might learn to communicate.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

Photo by Sheri Kerley

I’ll start with the bad news. For those of us who grew up cantering in the living room and then one day heard the term “natural horsemanship” and thought it meant we could be a horse in a real herd, I have some lousy-bad news:

There will never be a day when a horse looks at a human and thinks they see a horse. Give it up. It was just a sales pitch for something else entirely. You don’t get to be a horse. Sorry.

The good news is that if we become a slightly more well-mannered version of ourselves and listen in their language, horses will return an in-the-moment relationship so intense, intelligent, and profound, that for the first time in your life, you won’t mind not being a horse.

I’ve written about calming signals since 2014. Calming signals are subtle body messages that horses use to let us know they feel anxiety or conflict; that they are no threat and we don’t need to act aggressively. The signal demonstrates desired behavior from us at the same time. He might look away, stretching his head down as a way of asking us to relax and go slow.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. We tend to be too loud and bossy.

First, think of the barn as a foreign country. Then decide what kind of tourist you want to be. You can play the part of a privileged elitist throwing alms to the poor or a peace-maker negotiating with heads of state.  It’s up to you but you don’t own this place. You are a visitor. Remember your manners.

First, clean yourself up. Take this part very seriously. No, they don’t care what you wear but clean your mind up. Excuse your emotions, you won’t need them. Same with expectations and plans; horses don’t think about the future. You’re the only part of the interchange you can control, so take your time. Square your shoulders and balance your thoughts. Every time you want to talk, breathe instead. Get comfortable with silence. Learn to love the peace in waiting because it’s real.

If quieting your mind is hard for you, consider a yoga or meditation practice. Do it for your horse. If your emotions rule your life, you’re in overwhelm and horses don’t like that. Sure, you can use your horse as a therapist but why would you want to put those feelings of pain and insecurity on him? (Says the woman who literally went for couple’s therapy to talk about her horse.)

Warm up your senses. Tune your eyes to small things. Listen to your surroundings and slow down your perception of time so that you can be fully present. Each of their senses is more acute than ours so we need to start by being sure we are using the marginal senses that we do have to their full potential.

Think more awareness and less intellect. If you wonder if a response is a coincidence or that you might have imagined it, then believe it was real. With your limited senses, it’s probably true.

At the same time, be strict not to draw human conclusions. A horse might be giving you welcoming signals but doesn’t mean that he’s a sweetheart or a caregiver or a Zen master. Just let him be a horse.

You’ll need to learn their language. You probably know the swear words: pinned ears, bared teeth, the threat to kick. We can avoid those by listening sooner, to the smaller messages. Calming signals include looking away, narrowing eyes, stretching his neck to rub his nose on his leg or graze when he isn’t hungry.  Signals are as varied as there are unique individuals and there will never be a precise translation.

How to answer back is simple. You let your body demonstrate calm. You breathe. You balance and wait. You put your emotions on him but in a good way. You let him feel safe.

Give him a release by stepping out of his space. Let him know that you heard him, that you understand that he’s feeling anxiety and you respect that. Step back. Look for a release in his jaw and mouth, for soft eyes and a relaxed poll.

Nothing good is learned through fear, so let the anxiety pass before doing more. Let him assimilate what happened. Let it rest awhile. Ask again, but discipline yourself to ask smaller this time.

If he swings his head back toward you, he’s volunteering. It’s what you want; give him the reward that he wants. You resist the desire to hug him and babytalk. Instead, give him his space and exhale. You’re training him to trust himself. He’s been heard. Let him rest in that confidence.

Someone asked me this week, after a particularly communicative session with her horse, “Does it feel as good to them as it does to us?” In my experience, some horses are slow to start. It’s as if they haven’t been listened to for so long that they’ve given up. Others yell hysterically for the same reason. Hold steady to the calm and peacefully persist.

Once it all shakes out and they trust that line of communication, they become chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary. Horses constantly interrupt me in lessons to say the exact thing I’m trying to articulate. I’m humbled by their brevity.

Do I think it feels as good to them as it does to us? No. I think it feels even better. Equality is the ultimate freedom.

Donkey calming signals are like horse’s, but longears are smarter and hence, more subtle. Are you good enough for donkeys? There’s one calming signal that donkeys are particularly famous for using. We call it being stubborn, but I think they see it as not giving in to loud-mouth idiots who don’t take time to listen. It certainly doesn’t take a donkey more time to answer. They just resent being hurried.

What would happen if humans adopted that particular donkey calming signal? What if we got stubborn about going slow? Stubborn about listening and not fighting? Stubborn about whispering because we’re predators and lucky that horses even consider partnering with us in the first place.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

We’re breaking in a new farrier here at Infinity Farm. The new guy is soft-spoken, uses a nice pink hoof-stand, and has an easy laugh that the mares like. We’re like any other herd. We’ve got some quirks. Not all of us got a great introduction to humans.

The farrier and I trim our way through the pens. The geldings are dependable and the mares tolerant. Lilith, the carbon-dated donkey, turns to face us, lifts her nose level with her ears, and brays like a fog horn. Her feet are fine this visit and we’re all relieved.

Bhim’s next. He came here from a rescue for training a few years back and I’m still working on it. I consider him a bit complicated. He considers me expendable. The farrier waits while I move forward with Bhim’s halter. We do a slow-motion dance; two steps this way, a dramatic pause and our shoulders turn. I know we must agree on this part. He continues to think I might go nuts. I continue to out-wait his low opinion of humans. A few more steps of the dance, slow and deliberate, and the halter is on. We walk back to the farrier who says, “Will you teach all my mini clients to do that?”

Funny you should mention that –there’s little I like to train more. I love a nuanced greeting, a dance of equals, each of us offering something positive. Haltering Bhim is a process. But that’s true for all horses.

Sometimes we chase them till they’re out of breath, the predator way. Sometimes we coyote-coax them with treats. Sometimes, (my least favorite), we march right up, pull the halter on snug, and pull them away from breakfast.

In each of these examples, the horses were giving calming signals. In each example, the horses were speaking more eloquently than their human.

A Calming Signal is the subtle language of horses. It’s a peaceful message to let us know they feel us there, disturbing the Zen, and they are no threat to us. We usually answer by letting them know we are an unpredictable war-like species.

Our haltering method is usually a complacent habit, even with hard to catch horses, and not something we think about much. At the same time, that initial moment of greeting creates a first impression that a horse remembers.

Let me put it another way: How do you like your significant other to greet you? By threatening or bribing or just grabbing you by the hair and pulling you along? It’s no surprise when a horse isn’t responsive in the saddle if we’ve already let them know that we’re lousy communicators on the ground.

How a horse greets us is his honest expression and if we mistake that for disobedience or stupidity or laziness, we are the ones with the problem.

Reset: Complacency is your enemy. It makes you dull-headed and lead-footed… not traits horses appreciate, but more than that, you’re missing the fun.

Before entering the pen or stall, remind yourself of the wild luck and hard work that put you in front of this gate. Take a breath and soften your gaze. Check yourself for anxiety or expectations. Use your peripheral vision and listen to your surroundings. When you’re presentable, enter the pen and stop.

Don’t “hide” your halter behind your back, horses see that as the first sign something weird is going on. If your horse moves away, you’ve got some work to do. If your horse runs up to mug you for treats, same thing.

It’s that stoic horse who stands where he is with his eyes half-closed that is the most interesting to me. Does he pretend you aren’t there? Or is he preparing for a loud advance?

Take just a step or two toward him and say whatever you want because words don’t matter. Ask for his eye. Think of it as a greeting more eloquent that words. Ask with your eye and breathe. If he moves away, know that you were too loud. Or it might be that your history is too loud. If he doesn’t acknowledge it at all, know he heard you and then ask even smaller.

If you want to know how you could possibly ask smaller than your eye looking at his eye, then you’re on the right path.

Reset your previous reset: We are predators by nature. In comparison to horses, we are loud and obnoxious by accident of birth. Even when we think we’re quiet, we roar. Take another breath and empty your mind of the loud jangle of expectations. Quiet the tick-tick-tick of your mental stopwatch. Let your shoulders drop the weight of needing to get it right all the time. Pooch out your belly and trust the ground to hold you.

Then ask for his eye in a lackadaisical way, because you are pretending to be free of expectation. If your horse flicks an ear or blinks an eye, that’s your reward. You receive this gift without judgment about its size or expense because you are an adult who’s above that kind of spoiled-child behavior. Exhale and let him know that you heard him. Say thank you with a pause of time.

About now, your horse looks right at you. Take another breath and maybe a small step sideways. The dance starts with a subtle invitation. Perhaps he moves a hind leg to re-position himself and so perhaps you take a step back this time. Across the distance of the pen, he looks at you with new eyes, slightly shifting his weight, and  pondering the possibility…

The halter was a prop. Something real just happened; he volunteered to meet you in the middle. The world has shifted. Say Good Boy and let him watch you leave the pen.

Then feel your reward. It’s so light, you could be imagining it. If you tried to clutch at it, it would skitter away like seeds from the head of a dandelion. So, you let it be. The best things grow, not with force, but with freedom. It’s an invitation to dance beyond ropes and words, and maybe even gravity.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Energetic Tidiness in the Saddle.

WM BrisaEye

Some of us climb into the saddle and have all kinds of crazy dangerous things happen–right out of the blue. We didn’t do anything at all, and for no good reason, the horse came apart.

Some of us are almost okay in the saddle, carefully moving along until it happens; the horse jerks, we lose balance, and jerk back. It happens so quickly that we scare each other half to death.

Some of us think of our horses as therapists. When we’re cross or out of sorts, all we have to do is go to the barn, climb into the saddle, and in no time at all, we’re feeling better.

Finally, some of us, the very luckiest ones, have horses especially interested in teaching their riders some energetic tidiness.

Right about here, I’m going to stick up for horses. They don’t come apart “for no good reason”; they don’t have some sort of vendetta to hurt people. Short of a bee sting, or some other sharp pain, they give us a series of warnings that things aren’t right. About the time we notice them, we flinch and get defensive. It’s just common sense that losing confidence makes us insecure. So we ride with timidity or bravado and not all horses, especially those with confidence problems of their own, tolerate it well.

It’s an unpopular thought but just because some horses seem good at dissolving our negativity, is it fair to expect it of them? How does the therapist part of his job affect the other work he does?

In these examples, the rider’s mental awareness limits the horse’s behavior options. We all acknowledge that the most challenging horses are the ones who teach us the most, but can we articulate how they do it?

As a riding instructor, I think about it a lot: What does it take for a rider to improve? Sure, there’s always technique involved. Balance and communication in the saddle is crucial. On the mental side, it’s all about energetic balance. If a horse is nervous, do we get scared or become Zen masters. If the horse is dull, can we lift our energy a bit to aid them? The bottom line is we must admit the impact our mental state has on our horse at any time.

We all know that horses sense our fear but it’s more than that. They sense confusion, distraction, and all sorts of lesser emotions. They can even mistake anticipation for anxiety–just like us. That last situation happens while riding with other people and at shows.

If our thoughts and emotions are running like a rat-on-a-wheel we aren’t much of a leader. Again, just common sense. The difference between riders who continue to have the same tense ride year after year and those riders able to progress with their horses boils down to mind control.

No, there is no way you can exert mental control over your horse. No way to control the environment, either. The only thing that will ever be within our control are our own thoughts and emotions.

The first thing to know is that a good rider doesn’t just ignore her fears and concerns. Denial is how most of us got in the nervous hole with our horses in the first place.

It’s a positive action to choose your state of mind; to discipline your thoughts to stillness. Think of it like picking up your bedroom. Put your fear and drama away in your underwear drawer with your flimsy doubt. Close it. Check the floor for stray socks, expectations, over-wrought dreams, and thoughts about aging; those all belong in the hamper. You can do the laundry later. Might be time to get rid of that Megadeath poster…

Now straighten your shoulders as if they’re sheets on your bed. Smooth yourself out. Then open the closet and take out a clean outfit of calm-listening. Accessorize with sparkling intention. Settle your intelligence and awareness inside a helmet and breathe. This is energetic tidiness. You’re ready to ride.

It’s hard in the beginning. Giving our horses on our best parts takes focus. Use kindness to spur yourself to understanding. When a bit of doubt crops up, kick it under the bed, and take another breath. Let your horse see your peace. Even if it’s fragile right now, hold it to the light and let him reflect it back to you. It’s no different from learning to keep your heels down. Repetition builds habit.

Being committed to listening in your inner stillness is wildly attractive to a horse. Horses recognize it because it’s how they are, too. There is strength in vulnerability.

When I look back to my own furious efforts to improve, I’m sure I drove my horses nuts. I wonder at their tolerance. Trying too hard, even to improve, looks exactly like anxiety and pressure. Luckily, horses read the quality of our intentions as clearly as our fear. It’s here that positive change begins.

Soon enough the rider begins to find a tidy and still place inside her horse, too. It’s the place we always dreamed of, that we obliterated searching for, and now we find it, in plain sight. It was that rat-on-a-wheel self-criticism that made it harder than need be.

Eventually a day comes when your energy becomes an aid to your horse. You can share your energy if his is lagging. You can comfort his pain with breath instead of worrying him with baby-talk. You can lift him with compassionate strength in a way that you didn’t always know you could.

I’m not saying that horses or people will ever be perfect. Every relationship is a negotiation: some days they carry us and some days we carry them. If your overall tendency is fine with you, then be grateful. If you think there’s room for improvement, then commit to change your mind about horses.

Know that riding starts deep inside of you. It’s always you; the leader is the one who goes first and shows the way.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Calming Signals and Equine Gastric Ulcers.

WMcalmingsignalThese are two of my favorite topics and I write about them often, but this post is about how calming signals and gastric ulcers can relate to each other.

First, are you informed about gastric ulcers? Its knowledge that every horse owner should have–no different from hoof care or dental floats. (Click here for my articles about ulcers.) Horses have a rather delicate digestive system and when a certain series of events happens (it’s different for each horse) gastric ulcers can form. Causes include trailering, unnatural feeding and management, training stress, or even a change in the herd.  Worst of all, 50% of the diagnosed ulcers were found on horses who showed no symptoms. There’s a proven link between ulcers and colic, and sadly, the conditions have too many things in common–like extreme pain. It’s no surprise that ulcers are usually first recognized as a negative change in behavior.

First we must resolve the ulcers. Get veterinary help and adjust to more natural ways of keeping horses: less stall time and more social time, free feeding to mimic grazing, and digestive supplements and ulcer remedies when needed.

Then evaluate the training side. If our handling of horses can cause ulcers, then is it possible that positive training could help alleviate them as well? When your horse struggles, does your presence support him or do you reprimand him for telling you he has a loss of confidence?

No one proudly admits that they train with violence and intimidation; we all use the same positive words, but our actions don’t necessarily match. Too many horses who are fearful and stressed terribly, are then forced to submit to training aids that cause panic, while their owners refer to them as hot. Or lazy or crazy or just bad.

This week a new client complained that after years of working with trainers, no one had ever taught her methods to actually communicate with her horses. How is that even possible?

Some of us treat our horses as if we’re drill sergeants at a military school, barking out orders and demanding immediate obedience. Others behave like indulgent parents of a toddler crying in the candy aisle of the grocery store–whining, cajoling, and nagging endlessly. Both approaches are alike: they both attempt to dominate the horse into submission with no real understanding of the horse. Both ends of the continuum need to find a listening middle ground. (Yes, I think both methods, in the extreme, are equally cruel. Killing a horse with kindness is just as crazy-making to a horse as badly used whips and spurs.)

Can we just be real? Horses are honest for the most part and giving the best answer they know. Can we lay down our egos long enough to connect with our horses; instead of barking out a lecture, can we just have a conversation? Can we give them a chance to volunteer? Maybe we would get more respect if we offered some trust first.

Mutual peace and partnership depends on our understanding of horse’s calming signals. Calming signals are the way horses (and dogs, the term coined by Turid Rugaas, refers to both species) communicate. Most of us know what ears pinned flat means, but just like us, horses have plenty of feelings before they reach anger.

The horse in the photo is looking away. She isn’t bored or distracted; she’s telling me that she needs a moment. That I’m being a bit loud in my body language and I don’t need to push since she isn’t resisting. She’s giving me a cue to go slower; be more polite. Is civil herd behavior too much to ask?

When your horse turns his head away, do you pull it back? That can be the same as answering his request for peace by starting a fight. Remind yourself, for the millionth time, that horses have much keener senses than we do, that they react 7 times faster than we do. What we mistake for dullness is actually them asking us to use our indoor voice and if we want better relationship with our horses, we need to pick up our game.

We must improve our listening skills because our horse’s well-being and health are at stake. We may not be able to end the natural causes for ulcers, but we can mitigate them. We can train relaxation and confidence–and be rewarded with a smooth canter depart as a by-product. Too many of us train for result and not relationship.

Whether his physical discomfort is from extreme weather changes or moving to a new barn or trailering to a show, it’s your job to help him. And as the supposedly evolved species, it’s up to us to be worthy–not the other way around. Leadership and confidence requires us offering to listen and then negotiating the best answer for everyone. If you want to be a dictator you’ll limit yourself to fighting and never get to dance; you’ll never get his best ride.

If you do aspire to better communication, it can be a slow process to wait and allow horses to volunteer, especially if it hasn’t been encouraged in the past.

Want to know a secret shortcut; a way to listen to calming signals even if you aren’t sure what your horse’s resistance is saying? The secret is that you don’t have to know each intellectual detail; you don’t have to define each signal in human terms to acknowledge it. Just slow down, judge less, and keep an open mind. Then take the advice of Maestro Nuno Oliviera, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.”

And when your horse finally offers you his full heart, when you are finally gifted with his honest trust and confidence at last, know that he benefits physically, mentally, and emotionally, even more than you. The other word for that is leadership.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

How to Listen to Your Horse.

WMNubeEarsblueI had a friend who visited my farm during my first years here. She arrived for the weekend with books and wine. We’d cook and stay up late. In the mornings we took our coffee out into the pasture, still in our flannel pajamas, and looked at wild flowers.

I’m sure I talked about my horses too much, but she talked about everything else in the universe, so it was probably fair. She loved words and her voice had a musical quality. She never stopped talking but I didn’t mind.

To say she wasn’t a horse person was an understatement but one visit she asked to ride.

Spirit was the best choice. Back in the day, before his promotion to Grandfather Horse, he was a tolerant guy who loved people who didn’t know how to ride. Have you known horses like that? He found non-riders just a little less trouble. So I tacked him up and my friend mounted and they went for a walk-about. I worked at barn chores but I could hear her chatting with him; the notes of her voice carried in the breeze as they wandered through the pasture and around to the front of the property.

There were a few  of moments of silence, and then my friend squawked. I looked over and she was moving Spirit as fast as she could toward me, rocking in the saddle, kicking, and calling my name with one hand waving over her head as she urged him on. Eventually they got close, moving along at what you could only call a medium walk at best. Spirit will tell you there is a real up-side to non-riders.

“He talked to me. Spirit talked to me, I heard him.” She was thrilled.

Usually I keep quiet about horse talk but after a couple of glasses of wine, I could’ve related a comment from my horse while telling a story, or maybe my friend was just surprised to hear another voice in her head.

“What did Spirit say?” She seemed excited but it wasn’t like she was really riding him. I was sure she imagined it.

“Well, he told me to be quiet, that I talked too much, but still, I heard him,” she said.

Dang, that was him all right. He didn’t hold with chirpy drivel and one person’s musical notes might be another horse’s finger nails on the chalk board.

“Yep. Sounds about right.” Time for her to get down. She may have heard him, but now it was time to listen.

Disclaimer: I’m no animal communicator. I’m talking about just the everyday “can you scratch my backside” sort of chat.

Here is how to start: Clear out the mental litter, like work rants and to-do lists. Leave real life at the barn door and let you brain settle and breathe.

If the first message you get is something like “You need those thousand dollar breeches with the baby seal skin full-seat,” or “You really should fly to Spain and look for a pasture friend for me”, I’m guessing that it isn’t actually his voice you’re hearing. Start over. Clear you mind of work drama again, lay down the baby seal club again, and keep your horse fantasies to yourself. Listen to the quiet, just be.

If you are grooming his rump and he nibbles at his flank, take your curry right there and go at it. Tell him good boy. It isn’t a coincidence, he’s pointing where it’s itchy so take him at his word. If he shows you another spot, go right there and reward him for asking again. Teach him to talk by listening.

All this gets more important once you hit the saddle and you hear his small voice say My right shoulder is the stiff one. What you actually notice is that he is counter-bent and now is when you normally pull that inside rein. Instead of your usual counter-attack, bring your calf quiet and sweet to that soft spot just at the girth and let him feel it quietly rest there, following each stride he takes. You don’t have to kick him, just remind him that’s where bend starts. No louder than that curry conversation while grooming, just consciously follow him.

He’ll resist, reminding you that he isn’t kidding, it’s really stiff. You remember what a tight neck feels like, so your heel urges softness, like a warm touch. As your sit bones ask for a forward, rhythmic walk, let your inside rein ask for a poll release for just an instant. Don’t even hold it long enough for him to answer, it’s just a suggestion that it might feel good to him to loosen his poll. Let him think before answering.

“As long as he stiffens his poll, he also stiffens all of his other limbs. We may therefore not try to address them until he has yielded in his poll.” (E.F.Seidler, 1846)

Your horse can’t say it any clearer, his shoulder is tight and you have a choice. Teach resistance by jerking the bit against the bone of his jaw, or you could release that inside rein just an inch and release his poll just enough to remind him what a release feels like. Just like he showed you the curry spot, show him a softness in your asking hand. Then a tiny ask again, opening your inside hand another inch, wider not back,  and still in rhythm with his stride, while your inside leg supports his tight shoulder with warmth and softness. Think heating pad.

Give him a moment to read your intention to soften, and not fight. Keep walking and let him feel your patience with his shoulder. He will give it to you when he trusts your cue to release is not going to hurt and his muscles are warm. Releasing on cue, being supple, is how your horse tells you he trusts you to not bully him, but instead help him where it hurts. Just like the curry, this is a language you can build on. Trust = Relaxation.

It isn’t any different than if someone grabbed your face. It’s a decision you make to trust that person and surrender to a kiss, or flinch and escape. Asking for bend is just that intimate, just that vulnerable. Violence is always a poor excuse for understanding–it’s just common sense to distrust a bully.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.


Seeing Things Like Horses Do.

WMfine eyeWe see things differently than horses.  And like usual, I think we should try to be more like them.

To start, one of the easy ways to tell if a mammal is predator or prey is eye position. Predators, like us humans, have our eyes close together, aiding our depth perception and ability to see in 3D, while prey mammals tend to have wide-set eyes with a nearly 360 degree range of vision. They have side-vision on both flanks to see predators. In over-simplified terms, humans scrutinize a small area but horses literally see the big picture. We’re that way about more than just our visual senses.

Meaning a rider might say out loud that she has a problem with a canter depart. Or getting bend. Or head tossing. Anyway, as your horse will tell you, saying it out loud is about all it takes to get a fleeting moment-in-time to form up into a totally aggravating thorny little rock that’s impossible to ignore.

Humans like to shine a spotlight on such a rock and then go at it with a magnifying glass and tweezers. We fuss and poke at it. We repeat the poking behavior again and again, as if doing the same thing will magically get a different result. Instead we prove our wrongness again and again.

Horses, on the other hand, don’t keep secrets well. And they have just one way to communicate with us, and that is with their behavior. So sometimes an honest horse behaves badly and we might try to take control and correct him, when all he wanted us to know was that his back hurt. Or that he was tired. They act out their discomfort in a version of equine charades, trying to get us to listen and we tell them to shut up and keep working. Sigh.

It’s so rare that I see a horse willfully disobey. Usually something is hurting them. It could look like simple confusion about the cue but we are so rat-on-a-wheel focused on getting the right answer that we hurry the horse and interrupt him right about the time he was just ready to answer, and then do that a few more times, until the horse is totally out of balance–anticipating and resisting at the same time.  Horses really struggle when cues contradict each other. Especially if that something still hurts.

But by now you have driven your horse nuts, at least temporarily, because you keep poking at  your little thorny rock instead of hearing what he said in the first place.

Reminder: If your horse is laid back, calm and never complains about anything, listen extra-carefully. It isn’t that nothing bothers him; he’s just as sensitive as any other horse but when other horses come apart, he shuts down. Don’t mistake his silence for agreement.

One of the few things we humans have in common with horses is fluid communication. We have a hundred meanings for the same vague word, just like horses have a hundred meanings for an ear movement. To understand horses, we need to understand that individual horse’s entire body language. It’s a lot to take in, and then it can change in a heartbeat. Any five people might come away with a different, and not entirely wrong, message. Sound complicated? It is, and since we have that razor-sharp mind for turning possible symptoms into huge training issues, half-halt your brain to listen with a wide open, creative intellect. Let your heart have a listen as well.

Too often we humans micro-manage a small situation with fear or anxiety or an unrelenting need for perfection. Any horse will get the “I can’t please her no matter how I try” feeling and the conversation stops once we make the horse wrong. Then he gives up connection and we are left staring at our small thorny rock.

My advice is to get a horse-sized view of the situation.

First, do no harm–is he sound? Don’t just nod, look at the big picture and really check. How are his teeth? They impact his TMJ, and pain in the poll is enough to ruin his balance and that  ruins everything else. He can have a “tooth lameness” that destroys his canter. No kidding.

Is he muscle or joint sore? It’s another huge question with no quick answer. It would be easier to ignore it, tighten the girth, and push him on. But that might be how you got in this fight in the first place.

Then take a wider environmental view. Is a weather front coming? Have there been changes in the barn? Could he be missing someone or up all night partying with a new friend? Is he uncomfortable because his stomach is empty enough that painful acid is splashing? If it isn’t immediately obvious, give him a break.

Always know his life is much bigger than the moments you’re in the saddle.

A wise vet told me once that diagnosing lameness, (or anything else for that matter,) is like pulling skin off of an onion. There is always another layer just underneath. That’s why it feels like fixing one thing makes another thing come apart. That’s just horses. We’d do well to get used to it because the wider and more inclusive view we take of every aspect of their lives, the better partner we become.

Most of all, remember this: Horses are honest. There’s no reason to think he is trying to deceive you and it’s Neanderthal thinking to insist you have to win every fight. Listen and give him the benefit of the doubt. Earn his trust–by trusting him first.

And then take a walk together and breathe. More problems are solved at the walk that anyone–but a horse–would ever guess.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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What does the horsie say? Seriously.

WMHannahHugOur barn rat, Hannah, didn’t meet the horses her first visit to the farm. She was only 3 days old. We waited till her second visit later that week. It was love at first sight for all of us. By the time she was toddling and learning to talk, she knew all the horse’s names. Her parents taught her the animal sound game, “What does a horsie say?” Hannah’s answer was a high-pitched, arching trill, “Nei-ay-ay-agh!” Her voice is so high that it is almost inaudible to anyone but the dogs.

Warning: Do not be fooled by the tutu. Don’t let the pink-themed wardrobe distract you. Don’t let the near toxic level of cuteness cancel out the message.

With the parent’s game over, Hannah wandered down the stall row and came to Grace’s pen. The mare met her at the gate with her nose toddler high and gave her one of those deep growl-y mare nickers. Almost a moan, slow and quiet. And Hannah answered her back. The toddler’s voice droped so low that she almost sounded possessed. Which she clearly was. But not in a bad way. “Uuh-oo-oo-uuh” came from behind Hannah’s belly button and barely cleared her lips. But Grace heard it.

Hannah is bi-lingual. She has one answer for humans, and a separate answer for horses. She is that smart.

Disclaimer: I think kids are kind of in the same boat as mini horses. They are fully complete, sentient creatures who know as much as anyone else and deserve respect, but we see them as pint-sized caricatures of the real thing and diminish them. What if Hannah shares that deep well of intuitive knowledge that horses do, and just lacks the superficial communication skills that we adults use? The horses seem to think she is communicating fine.

Most of us have had that experience of seeing horses take care of little kids. The same horses that are a total handful for adults who ‘know how to ride’. At the same time, we remember riding as kids, free and effortless. We knew less and got more from our horses. When did riding get so complicated? What have we forgotten?

Hannah is right, we do need to use a separate language for horses. They don’t speak English just because they can take a canter cue from the word Canter! Responding to a verbal cue is good, but was it the actual word they understood, or your body language before the word? We can chatter away at them; we can coo and cluck with our horses and feel just great. Don’t mistake that with a real relationship based in a shared language beyond words, spoken with our bodies and our intentions. A trainer can’t literally teach relationship, they can only try to inspire a rider to feel it, and then acknowledge it when a horse and rider have the experience. Trainers are translators.

If humans are the more evolved species (the jury is out on that but going with that assumption,) then it is up to us to move beyond our more limited senses and evolve our language to meet the horse. More importantly, if we want to progress farther with our horses, we have to communicate even more eloquently. Just getting louder doesn’t work.

How many times do we climb on a horse and then talk about him behind his back. We sit in the saddle and ignore him, while we have an intense mental conversation with ourselves about our horses. We check mental lists of technique and we put dark thought into anxiety or worry. Our critical thoughts run like a rat on a wheel, while we pander to our worst opinions of ourselves.

How is the ride going so far? Is this any different than texting and driving?

Let’s focus on us first. Take a body check. Are you sound? Is your body soft and open, or does tension in your shoulders cut off you off at the neck? Are your hips tight and restrictive on the ground? Don’t expect a horse to do their best work if you are lame or stiff.

Slow down, take some time and breathe. Inflate your ribs, let them be elastic. Exhale out the day’s drama. Inhale and know that you have all the time you need. Exhale out any erratic human emotions. Inhale and know you are fine as you are. Exhale and feel balance in your body. Here and now, reset yourself to less judgement and more acceptance. Less thinking and more feeling. Less correction, more direction. Be. Here. Now.

By the time you get to the mounting block, know that you are crossing a border into another country. You can play the ugly American, talking loud and looking for a McDonalds for lunch, or you can open your mind and learn the local customs. The best trips are the ones where both sides respect and learn. And the sum of these parts make a better world.

It’s the one thing that all my clients say they want most of all: A better relationship with their horse. Take a cue from Hannah. If you want to have a more elite connection with your horse, develop your nicker.

Meanwhile, Hannah and Grace are still at the gate. It isn’t about treats, and it isn’t that the mare can’t leave if she wants. They are being together. They are acknowledging each other by sharing breath, sharing time, and sharing their heart’s language. Existing in the present moment without expectations or demands is an art form. Respect the masters.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.