Seriously Lighthearted

Do you ever get the impression that your show up at the barn and your horse is watching you with an expression of “who are you today?

Most of us have a few different personas. There’s the one for work; you watch your language there. The one for your oldest friend from high school; she’s the arbiter of honesty.  There is a “first” persona, for first dates, job interviews, and meeting strangers formally. We’re usually tense and shiny then, from trying too hard while simultaneously hoping to appear totally natural. Whew.

It isn’t that we’re being dishonest, we’re just choosing a version of ourselves for a particular situation. Some of it is following a set of rules that we imagine is required. It’s being professional or respectful or nervous. It’s being witty and conversational when you’re an introvert and you’d rather be mucking the barn.

And sure. Some of us create personas that are dishonest.

We have barn personas, too. Some of us put our horses in our old friend category; we can be whoever we want around them. Some of us want to do the right thing so badly that we show up like a Teacher’s pet, reciting rules precisely, wondering if there’s a horse making faces behind us.  Some of us pick a persona of a little girl around horses, giggling or swooning.

And some of us were taught that horses need a dominant leader, so we train with bravado, like Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road. (I just loved her make-up. Didn’t you?)

Truth #1: You can be whoever you want at the barn. It’s all good as long as you don’t ever complain about anything your horse does. Ever.

Truth #2: You’re not fooling anyone. Not your trainer or friends. Least of all, your horse. And if you have a mare, she knows the truth about you that day, before you get up in the morning.

Now shift perspective. Pretend it isn’t all about us. See it from your horse’s side.

Say you treat your horse like an old friend. You come late, you’re in a hurry. You dump your day, share joy or anger or frustration. How does he feel about that? A stoic horse shuts down from the emotion. Horses don’t hear pronouns; your stress is now theirs. Stress abides and soon he gives calming signals about his stress. It’s okay. We’ve been using horses this way forever, but you have to wonder, do I want to give my horse (or my oldest friend) my best self or leftovers?

Are you a little Type A? Just to save time, raise your hand if you aren’t. I’m not sure why perfectionists are drawn to horses but we are. We nit-pick, micro-manage, and fall short of our own ridiculous standards. We create a crust of self-loathing. Horses experience it as never being right. Not you, them. They never feel good enough, like everything they do is partly wrong. Sound familiar? Horses lose confidence. It kills their try and eventually their souls, but we might think they look like push-button horses. (Mares, not so much.)

Are you a little girl in the barn? Okay. Your horse can babysit you.

This last one is touchy. Do you arrive at the mounting block in domination mode? It’s the most complex barn persona because it’s how most of us were taught. Be the boss and demand respect through fear. It’s also the one most riders I work with tell me is the one they hate the most.

(If I had a nickel for every rider who’s told me she gets a lump in her stomach, that it just doesn’t feel right, to assert harsh leadership, well, I’d have twenty more retired horses in my barn.)

What does a horse think about the dominant persona? As prey animals, they will submit in fear to a predator. Flight is the first response, but you can fight through that to submission. And since horses don’t have social media, they don’t know the #metoo hashtag. But fair warning; some mares never get the hang of submission.

What do horses think about personas in general? I think we confuse them with the gap between who we are deep down and this surface behavior that can mean so many things. And more so if we change personas frequently. We confuse horses with our incongruency.

Domination seems to work because horses may be hard to fool, but are fairly easy to intimidate. That kind of training won’t make a horse trustworthy, and not surprisingly, that’s how they see us. Untrustworthy. There is no trust in domination, on either side. No wonder some riders get a lump in their stomach.

You don’t need to change a thing. I’m just suggesting you notice the role your particular persona plays for your horse. If you have the perfect partnership, wonderful.

If you think it might be time for a persona upgrade, that you are serious about wanting more and better with your horse, then consider being seriously positive.

Demonstrate the persona change you’d like to see in your horse. Be seriously relaxed in your own body, soft shoulders and soft belly. Most of all, a soft jaw. The easiest way is to breathe, smile, and say “good” every chance you get.

Be seriously patient and your horse will offer his heart. Be seriously grateful and it will change your own heart. Most of all, be seriously lighthearted because horses like us that way.

Horses want honesty. They can tell when we pretend to be someone we’re not. The more I’m around horses, the more they show me it’s our true intention that matters most. Horses blossom when we become the best version of ourselves.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Learning to Love Negotiation

Rule number one about horses: There will be a high learning curve. Most of us are drawn to horses because we feel some sort of connection. It doesn’t matter if we grew up with horses or only saw them in books, eventually, we find our way to a barn.

When we get there, some of us stand in silent awe and some of us are so overwhelmed by emotion that we might as well be screaming for the Beatles in 1964. It doesn’t matter where we start on that emotional continuum because as time passes, we’ll make every stop. Each of the seven deadly sins will be our own.

There is hardly a lesson where I don’t use the word continuum. In my mind, I see it as a pendulum on a clock, swinging in an arc from one extreme to the other. We are too afraid or we are too complacent. We punish too much or we sent no boundaries. We try too hard or we quit too soon. We are silent with our cues or we scream bloody murder.

Too much or too little, we understand the extreme edges of the continuum but the subtleties of the sweet spot in the middle can be hard to locate.

Humans aren’t great with nuance. We’re predators and we want what we want. Now. Our idea of leadership is to get our way and often we define success by clawing our way to money or fame. Even that isn’t enough; then we worry about how other people will judge us.

Meanwhile, horses are prey animals and that means constantly being aware of what’s happening outside their own mind and negotiating their safety. In herd life, the best leaders are the ones who keep the herd secure.

It’s right about here that I wonder for the umpteenth time, what is it about horses that draw us so strongly. It certainly isn’t our similarity.

Then, to make it all a bit more complex, not all humans are created equal. (We make laws, but it’s still true.) Some humans, predators by birth, also have the experience of being prey in our own herd. We have experienced the dark side of domination and we know that fear doesn’t equal respect. We know what it means to not trust our own kind.

When we want to escape the world, we go to the barn to find that equine connection we crave but as we begin learning horsemanship, often we’re taught to train with intimidation. The irony should not be lost on us.

This is all true before we every pick up a lead rope much less ride, and it deserves our consideration as we teeter on this continuum. Some humans have been negotiating their position in the world forever. What if that was an asset while working with horses?

Have you noticed that I’m being very careful with my pronouns? Our culture describes behaviors with a gender-related pejorative term. “Act like a man.” “Throw like a girl.”

And in an age when bullies can be mistaken for as strong leaders, being a good negotiator doesn’t have much rock star appeal.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a horse. That gift of acceptance over criticism has a huge value to a horse who’s fearful. Fear is a wild emotion that doesn’t go into a corner well. There is simply no aggressive response that works against fear. Traditional thought is to push a horse through it but no matter how exhausted a horse gets from intimidation the result is not going to be positive. Fear becomes institutionalized, not released.

Instead, let the negotiation begin. Can I ask for his eye? Good, release. May I enter his space? No? Okay, I hear you. Breathe. Step back. He looks at me like I might be unusual. I am making the middle of the continuum look attractive. I linger there, and let him take it in. Moments pass. May I come? Will you consider connecting?

Maybe he turns. His eyes go deep and dark and quietly, he offers me something indescribable. It might be his heart and the vulnerability slams me with awe. No, now especially, breathe! If a trainer feels frustration or anger, they should step back and decompress, but I do the same thing when I become besotted. For as much as I do love horses, I respect them more. Any communication that we have with runaway emotions, positive or negative, will cloud the negotiation. I want to be a place of safety, so I choose to stay emotionally level. My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.

I thrive on the creativity needed when working with horses, especially the ones who have been trained to not trust people. Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?

What if we let go of that certainty of ego and judgment and learn to honor the skill of negotiation.

Name-calling right or wrong is a superficial dead-end position to hold.  Positive training means making confidence easy for a horse. That’s setting it up so you can say yes, all the time. It isn’t a lack of respect in the horse or the trainer but the exact opposite. When that mutual respect becomes a habit, it turns into trust.

Great trainers of any discipline come to the place of understanding beyond domination.  Leadership is a humble service given with kindness. Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.

If I were to use a gender-related pejorative term for that, I might say they train “like a girl.” In the perfect world, it would be a compliment.


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

Bend… Like a Crescent Moon.

I arrived at the barn mid-fight. The barn manager was refereeing a dust-up between a trainer and a boarder who was not his client. The trainer had tied a horse’s head, snubbed down tight, to its side and left in a stall. The boarder went into the stall and untied the horse. The trainer cried trespassing and the boarder cried cruelty. From over my shoulder, I heard the trainer growl, “Mind your own business!” at the boarder, an unapologetic older woman.

Horses usually like to bend one way better than the other; a soft side and a stiff side. You could think of it kind of like being right-handed, only with horses most are more willing to bend to the left. It means the horse would be weaker on one side which translates to a lack of balance. In other words, the horse is never straight. It’s natural for the horse, but if we want the horse strong and balanced, we work both sides. Ambidextrous is the human version of straight.

I heard an anecdotal reason once, that a horse’s bend preference depends on which direction he was curled in utero. I don’t know if it’s true, but it stuck with me because it reminds me that bend is “natural” and it’s an easy visual to understand.

Bend means a gentle arc from a horse’s nose to his tail. That the inside rib-cage is slightly compressed and the outside rib-cage slightly expanded. Think riding a circle. It’s why one direction is easier than the other.

I have no excuse for this trainer but I know what he thought he was doing. His theory was that tying the horse around means the horse fights with himself, rather than a human. It’s a common misunderstanding, like pulling a horse’s head around to your foot while mounted. They say a rider should work the stiff side twice as much as the soft side, too. Common ideas, but that doesn’t make them right.

The problem is that it gets adversarial quickly. It’s the frustration of egg-shaped circles and wrong leads. We decide the horse is disobedient, so we kick more and pull our inside reins. We drill that stiff side repeatedly, trying to soften it, but our resistance creates even more stiffness. Some of us escalate to a physical fight while others set a hard hand and hold a grudge. And yes, resort to tying his head to his side and leaving. It gets personal.

That’s the disconnect. Remember your mental image of a foal in utero. It’s not disobedience. The horse isn’t resisting you out of defiance. He’s literally stiff. Think of how stiff feels; you would defend a sore shoulder. You’d lose balance and straightness just like they do. Only theirs isn’t an injury or an attitude. They’re born this way. It’s natural.

We kindly want my horse balanced and strong and flexible, but from this standpoint wouldn’t it be smarter to massage them into it and not pick a fight? And lucky us, we have the good use of an inside leg to do it.

Start over with new understanding. Walk a large circle his easy way, probably left. Feel your sit-bones rise and fall with his stride, as your legs lightly follow the sway of his barrel. Begin by taking stock of your rib-cage. Inhale to inflate your lungs. Feel your ribs symmetrical and your shoulders level. If you aren’t sitting straight, your horse can’t balance your weight evenly. As you walk the circle, you have a slight turn to your waist; your right shoulder is slightly back.

Visualize bend like the soft edge of a crescent moon. Bend refers to that sweet outside arc of the horse, so counter-intuitive as it is, forget your inside hand. Drop your eyes for a moment and look at your horse’s withers between your reins. You want to ask your horse to shift his withers toward the outside rein. Think withers. Forget his neck, feel of your inside leg at his girth. Each time his barrel swings to the outside, pulse with your inside calf, gently asking his shoulder to release just a hair at a time. There is no force, just a rhythmic swing. It almost feels like a leg yield out on a circle, but again, that inside leg is relaxed and just cuing once per stride. Slow.

Imagine a line from your inside leg that travels diagonally through the horse to his outside shoulder. Ride that line, ask your horse to step into that outside rein. Your outside rein should work like the rail of the arena, containing and supporting the bend, which you’re remind yourself a million times, refers to the outside arc of the horse, and so, leave the inside rein alone. Foot!

There’s a dressage phrase you might consider tattooing somewhere: Inside foot to outside hand. 

Reverse and walk the other way on the circle. Now you are going his stiff way, but his rhythm is still working, so you continue the process. Be slow and quiet. In the beginning, he’ll be stiff and you’ll imagine that your inside leg is like a heating pad, gently warming as you ask his withers to the outside. Your inside leg pulses just as softly, and the response you get is probably less, but that’s fair for a stiff side. If your horse relaxes his neck longer, that’s huge. Just walk and ask, inside leg to outside rein, for bend, but reward him generously for the smallest effort. Massage him soft, and notice that your inside hand is still not pulling. Be patient. If he isn’t soft at the walk, nothing will improve at the trot and the canter will be worse.

From here continue to change direction frequently. Rather than naming the bad side, reverse so often that you can’t remember which side is which. Then, since you aren’t fighting one side, neither is he. Let both bends flow from one to the other walking serpentines and circles until there is no stiff or soft. Feel his balance and fluidity. Feel that same emotional balance in yourself.

Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Part Two: Norman, Is That You? (The Reactive Horse)


Last week, I wrote about horses who are The Strong Silent Type. This horse is the opposite.

Describing him sounds like reading the judge’s comments on a marginal dressage test: Tense in the back. Tight in the poll. Hollow. Too quick. It doesn’t stop there. He has twitchy eyes, a furrowed brow, and he clenches his jaw. Sometimes his head is so high you almost unable to see around it and the muscle under his neck is stronger than the one on top. His flank feels rock hard and his breath is as shallow as yours.

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” -Norman Bates, Psycho

And it isn’t just physical. It’s the way his mind works, as well. He reacts; when a different horse might reason it out, he jumps to conclusions, usually the worst. Everything seems like it’s on the big screen; he’s dramatic and impulsive.  Sometimes he gets sullen, almost pouting, and a minute later, he’s hysterical, jigging as if his hooves were on hot coals.

People cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!” -Norman Bates, Psycho

He’s just really sensitive, they say. Really? I consider most horses on a continuum; one end being stoic and the other end being reactive or demonstrative. It isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

My horse acts this way because he’s hot-blooded, they say. Sure, some breeds are more energetic and athletic than others, but to my eye, many of these reactive horses look frightened or in pain. Can the rider truly tell the difference between personality and behavior? Are they certain he is sound?

Does your horse make strange faces? Maybe he twists his neck and chews his tongue. He paws with impatience and pins his ears when it’s suppertime. Or he grinds his teeth, or flips his head, or you can routinely see white around his eyes.

Could your horse have ulcers? They are ridiculously common and practically all the behaviors I’ve listed so far could be symptoms. Think about it; no one denies the connection between ulcers and colic, still horse’s number one killer. On the high side, we didn’t always know as much as we do now; it’s actually a great time to have ulcers. There’s so much help available. (Just to clarify, stoic horses have as many ulcers as reactive horses do, but worse, they just keep it to themselves.)

What if these behaviors that we correct or punish are actually calls for help?

She’s just mare-y, they say. No, mares aren’t just naturally cranky. Their hormones make them more like stallions than geldings… and ovarian cysts are one of the most under-diagnosed conditions. On top of that, the discomfort of that situation could cause a secondary condition of ulcers. So, lighten up on name-calling mares already.

He’s an alpha horse, they say. But just like humans, leadership isn’t the same as dominance. The herd hierarchy has much more nuance than that. In my experience, alphas like a break from trying to control the universe and enjoy the peace that comes from positive training.

He’s never quite mean, they say. It’s almost like he tries too hard. Exactly! Reactive horses are responsive, intuitive, and connected. They have contagious enthusiasm, backed by intellect. They are radiant and intense and luminous. And yes, they have hearts that burst with try. Don’t believe me? Watch a thoroughbred run in slow motion.

More often, it’s us that fails them. We think it takes courage to ride a reactive horse, but what if compassion is really what’s needed?

Disclaimer: Horses are fully dimensional sentient creatures. The continuum between stoic and reactive is meant to help understand that horses are not brain-dead plow-horses or ditzy hotheads. They are individuals with complicated combinations of temperament, training, and past experience.

Anxiety is a different thing entirely, not necessary, or permanent. There are positive solutions that will build partnership, and from that place of security, allow the horse to give you his most brilliant work. Essential point: A good rider listens to every horse with wide-open ears, accepts who the horse is, and then begins the conversation right there.

How to best partner with a reactive horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. And you might want to sharpen your own attention a bit. Now, if you want to dominate something, control your own self; make your seat soft. Breathe slowly, deep into your lungs. Require your cues to him to be invisibly small. Most of all, don’t pull on his face. Why make him feel claustrophobic when the responsibility for elastic, soft contact belongs with the rider?

Horses and humans both tend to speed up when they get nervous or think they’re losing control. Resist the urge. Go slow. Runaways happen one step at a time and if it seems like the energy builds stride by stride, perhaps he’s never been taught the joy of a downward transition. (Stoic horses excel at this.) Reward him for doing less.

Walk a lot, then ask for a trot, but in just a few strides, before he accelerates, exhale back to the walk. Repeat, and for now, always bring him back before the anxiety grows. (Neanderthal training methods would say that you’re teaching your horse to quit by cuing a short trot, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Running a horse until he’s tired and submits doesn’t train him; it institutionalizes anxiety.) Downward transitions allow his trot will be more relaxed because he knows how it ends. Teach half-halts and halts from your leg. Leave his face alone.

School lots of downward transitions, with immense praise. Breathe. Let it be a slow dance.

Reward the least thing, so he understands that less is more. Let your mind be slow; he’ll take the cue from you. Give him the confidence to let go of his fear and know he doesn’t need to try so hard. Then, when his poll is its softest, shut-up, jump down, and step a few feet away from him. Watch him bask in the glow of being anxiety-free. See him stand quiet and still, let his eyes go soft, and droop that bottom lip.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

The ultimate goal is riding well enough to help each horse find the center of this stoic/reactive continuum. So, with trust and contentment, the horse is free to feel the dynamic strength and power of his own body. Relaxed and forward. 

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

The Trailer Isn’t the Problem.

WM Trailer GraceThe owner said his horse had trailer issues. He’d watched a video and used a whip and rope, with bad results. Then he hired a local trainer but after two hours of fighting with his hysterical horse, she gave up and left. Now the horse was even worse, the owner said, and dangerous.

The trailer isn’t the problem. It’s always my first thought. Continue reading “The Trailer Isn’t the Problem.”

Behavior, Personality, and Anxiety.

WMfine eyeCan you tell the difference between personality, who a horse is, and behavior, what a horse does?

With people it can be a bit easier because we are used to separating the two. We’re taught to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” Most of us know someone who is kind and funny, but a hot mess when they’re drunk. This is progress from generalized beliefs about groups resulting in racism, sexism and all the other “isms”; better than grouping people together without concern for who they are as individuals.

Horses are honest animals. It’s a rare and crazy thing that a prey animal should volunteer to partner with a predator, but they do. When watching foals play, they are curious, tentative, smart, and agile. They are born ready to respond to reward and they are easily frightened. We have a vote in what happens next.

I know a horsewoman who prides herself on being good with horses. She owns a small herd and tells me, over time, that each one of the horses is hot. It’s just who they are. There are young horses, old horses, and several breeds, but each of them has behavioral problems that look nearly identical. Did I mention her hands are brutal?

When they don’t listen at the walk, she sends them to the trot, and when that comes apart, she pushes them to the canter. She just rides them through it. She runs them fast and hard to get the energy out of them and she is a brave rider. Eventually they become exhausted and give in. Lots of us were trained to do it this way and it even works to a small degree for some horses. But for others, it accelerates to hysteria and becomes a chronic pattern. It’s how an elder horse can still be dangerous. And I’ll say, misunderstood. Is he really hot or honestly fearful of the pain and tension felt from his rider?

Historically women were judged too high-strung and emotional for many jobs. We were excused from important positions because we were inadequate by virtue of our sex. We might as well have been name-called Arabians, for all the false assumptions that were made.

In the end, horses are some combination of DNA, accident of birth, and experience. We can’t change the past for them, but we can improve their experience. We can reshape their future.

This is where recognizing anxiety becomes important. When you see a horse with wild eyes, a stiff neck, and a tense tap-dance of hooves, it’s easy to recognize the short list of negative behaviors. Is he mad or aggressive? Is he hot and crazy? Does he need to be exhausted for his brain to kick in? Or does he have some sort of plan to personally humiliate you, or ruin your breeches because they’re expensive, or test you for some random reason that he made up when you didn’t give him a carrot when you haltered him. And who is it sounding unbalanced now?

The foundation of dressage says that a horse should be relaxed. We don’t do it to please the judge, we do it for the good of the horse. It should be obvious to a rider that a horse can’t learn if he’s afraid. Or more truthfully, can’t learn anything positive. He can learn humans are callous and cruel leaders. We can train him to know we have no compassion.

There is one other option. Instead of running him into the ground or psychoanalyzing him, how about helping him relax? Instead of pushing him to distrust you at even faster gaits, how about walking and giving him enough rein to breathe. It isn’t as dramatic. It takes more skill and patience than bravado. And you have to listen to the inside of your horse instead of being distracted by exterior behavior. First you have to remember who he is and then you have to remind him. It’s what a positive leader does.

Because even if you can ride through the behavior, anxiety is a killer. Anxiety is the base ingredient in your horse’s overall well-being and has a direct connection to his health, happiness, and long-term soundness and ride-ability.

Here is the physical part: a horse’s adrenal glands are located in front of the kidneys in the lower back. It’s their job to manage stress by producing the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol, as well as the hormone adrenaline, when the fight-or-flight response is activated.

If anxiety and stress become a habit, the adrenal glands become over-worked, causing adrenal fatigue or burnout. Horses struggling with adrenal fatigue show symptoms that can seem a bit bi-polar: they are excitable but with little stamina, meaning short bursts of energy in between crashes. They can be unpredictable, often having complete meltdowns over seemingly little things.

Chronically anxious horses have a high rate of stomach ulcers and colic. It’s also proven that stress affects the immune system, so these horses have a harder time fighting off illness, and are more likely to suffer more severe reactions to insect bites, parasites, and vaccinations.

Do you still want to screw up your courage and dominate him through his fit? Statistics also tell us that a huge number of rescue horses are given up because of behavioral problems. How many of those horses could be good partners if we had dealt with the real problem instead of fighting the symptoms? When will we finally learn to listen and not take his clear message as an insult to our egos? And even if you don’t want to do better for your horse, how is this level of stress working for you?

Breathe. Give peace a chance. Sing it at the walk.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Buying the Right to Make a Correction.

WMprettyTomShe’s Tomboy. I don’t write about her often enough; she’s a little more serious than my corgi men. She’s a Briard, a French herding breed that has a very protective side. Tomboy appointed herself my personal bodyguard when she was a tiny pup and has done a flawless job of guarding and herding me for twelve summers. Her commitment is fierce.

On that particular day, I was having a party on the farm. There were lots of dogs running and Tomboy broke up a few light dog altercations but mainly she had my back. Relentlessly. Then the guy arrived on a motorcycle.

The guy was dating a friend and we were all welcomed him because of her. I’d met him and his dogs previously. He made sure everyone knew he was a man of great faith. He had two yellow labs and every time he came close, they both hit the ground and rolled belly up. I took their opinion into account as well.

He parked his bike and walked toward me, and quietly, Tomboy moved from behind me to block his path. She just put herself between us; no growl, just a watch. The guy took a step to go around her but she moved to keep her position. Then he told her to lie down, but she stuck to her spot. He said something I didn’t entirely hear, while smiling at me, and it dawned on me that he was going to roll her.

Wikipedia’s explanation: “An alpha roll is a technique used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).”

Rolling a dog is a controversial technique, but in our case, it was black-and-white-wrong. She wasn’t disobedient; she didn’t trust him. She’s always been a good judge of character so I believed her. But he had no right to punish her in the first place, so I got between the guy and Tomboy, because I have her back, too. I asked him to stop. He started to explain to me what he was doing was helping me train my dog. I said, “She’s doing her job.” I thought about his dogs and stood my ground. “Back off.”

Like most of us, my charming hostess thing only goes so far. And this guy was an arrogant jerk, but we commonly see riders like this in the horse world. They confuse leadership with belligerence. And yes, professionals do it as well. The belief is that if we show weakness the war is lost and the animal will be spoiled. Worst of all, it negates the horse’s intelligence. Lots of us were started with this method with horses. I certainly was.

It’s obvious that this guy had no right to correct Tomboy, but when do we have the right? Even with our own horses and dogs, when is the most effective time? And when are we taking their behaviors too personally and missing the message?

First, if you are embarrassed or frustrated or mad, just take a break. Emotions are selfish; it’s not about you. I’m always surprised when people think that their horse has a vendetta against them, when the simple truth is that behavior isn’t personal. Is your horse healthy? Could he have ulcers? Is he hungry? Set him up to succeed by making sure he is ready to learn.

An animal can’t learn if they are afraid–obvious and simple. It’s the reason we harp on about relaxation in dressage. Sure, they can learn fear and distrust; the guy’s labs were proof of that. If we walk into a pen like a Neanderthal with a club, we’ve lost already. We have to define ourselves as a leader, yes, but someone who inspires confidence and safety. In other words, we have to evolve out of the old model if we want a better response.

On any given day, I believe we have to buy the right to correct a horse. How else could it be meaningful? It can be as simple as asking for his eye or acknowledging a calming signal. Especially with our own horses, let them volunteer. Don’t do it for them. Allow them to participate by coming to you or lowering their heads–engage them. If catching is an issue, then that’s the place to start healing old experiences. If your horse acts like you’re a predator, take the cue. It’s the starting place.

Never underestimate the power of touch. Current research says that horses prefer a scratch to a pat as a reward, but I prefer a flat hand laying still. Connection with a horse is as simple as touch and as intimate as breath. It’s enough.

Then ask for his best work by communicating with subtle clarity. Consistently. It sounds idiotically simple but we train response or resistance. Dullness or energy.  If you don’t like what your horse refects back to you, take him at his word, and negotiate with the new information. See yourself as intelligent.

The positive model of training has lots of gray area. If the horse is spooked and distracted, he won’t always hear you whisper. Sometimes you might need to give him a bit of a startle to get his attention. The art is to be able to adjust your cues without emotion. If you have to be loud, do it just once, and then get quiet and find a way to say good boy in the next minute. You want the first thing he hears to be a reward. Be generous, work toward a tendency of patience, and then when you make the inevitable mistakes, he will show you that tolerance as well.

WMTomwatchingFinally, humor me with one more photo of Tomboy. I was having a sick day, lying on the couch dozing, and she was on my chest. This is my favorite photo of Tom. She was keeping an eye on me because I was sick.

Loyalty…Partnership: they’re words we value and always our goal–but we can’t demand them or coax them with cookies. They’re a gift, given in exchange for respect.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Cowboys, Dressage Queens, and Respect.

WMRein napI got badmouthed by a cowboy recently. He dressed the part way too seriously.

It’s okay, in dressage we think of ourselves as eternal students. There isn’t a day that goes by that horses don’t teach me something. I expect the same from people. I would have liked to have a friendly conversation with this cowboy, but he talked behind my back, so I didn’t get the chance.

Like every other riding discipline, there are some lowlife that wear the western outfit, down to chinks and neckerchief, but don’t reflect the highest in the breed standard, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes the term cowboy has a bad connotation–to cowboy a horse around usually means rough handling. We’ve all seen enough shank bit jerking, tie-down bracing, spur gouging, and general training profanity to last a life time.

But there are some dressage riders I wouldn’t want to lay claim to either. Our breed standard runs the gamut, as well. Intelligent horse people should never judge an entire group by the worst example. I’m reminding myself of that right now.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, a suggestion: when you see a woman with well-earned gray hair and an accent like mine, it’s a safe bet that she probably didn’t grow up in British riding yards where English saddles were the norm, or the Spanish Riding School, learning elite equestrian principles while wearing full seat breeches and tall boots. More likely, I grew up like you; I rode whatever horse I could catch on the farm. I didn’t have to choose between English and western tack, because we had none of either. Yes, I’m suggesting we may be more similar than different.

I appreciate cowboys. Some of the kindest, most courteous people I know wear that Hat. Mutual respect has always been part of that code toward both horses and other humans. And some percentage of cowboys have always trained horses using compassion and kindness, since cowboy-ing began.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, suggesting that the young horse I’m working can be intimidated into work faster is certainly one method. Or maybe if you watch a moment, you’ll hear this horse tell you that violent approach was tried already and that’s when his problem got bigger.

“The horse is a mirror. It goes deep into the body. When I see your horse I see you too. It shows me everything you are, everything about the horse. I try to face life for what it is. There’s heartache, but it’s a good thing. I’m trying to save the horse’s life and your life too. The human is so good at war. He knows how to fight. But making peace, boy, that’s the hardest thing for a human. But once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back.” Ray Hunt

There was a time that I was happy in a western saddle, slowly building from a lope to a gallop, leaving 11’s in my wake. If you haven’t heard the term, 11’s refers to the marks on the ground left after a reining horse does a sliding stop. Yes, I’m a post-cowgirl who peeked through a door to a different kind of riding, one that intrigued me. The training process was slow but the results seemed ethereal. I decided to take my reining horses and give it a try.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, cowboys didn’t actually invent horse training and not every horse will be improved by ranch work. And hard as it is to believe, there is a whole horse world out there, past the cows. It isn’t that it’s better or worse. It’s that there is always more to learn and having an open mind is the best training aid that ever existed.

I knew a lifelong cowboy who was invited to a dressage barn to ride upper level horses for a month. He took the dare and when he returned, he sought me out for some gleeful dressage chat. His eyes were bright; he was filled with awe to have experienced a totally different dimension of horses.

“It’s amazing what you can learn after you’ve learned all that you think there is to learn.” Ray Hunt.

At the same time this week, I continued an ongoing conversation with a couple of other cowboys who are questioning the way they have always done things, wondering if there’s a better way to work with horses, and asking my opinions. Conversations like this one can be so affirming on both sides. Every time people manage to evolve a bit, horses benefit.

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, yes, I found a home in dressage, but I still share your heritage. America has a proud history of good horsemanship. We aren’t gangsters, we are communicators. Suggesting that a horse will benefit from speed and fear demeans good trainers of any discipline.

“My belief in life is that we can all get along together if we try to understand one another… You’ll meet a lot of people and have a lot of acquaintances, but as far as having friends—they are very rare and very precious. But every horse you ride can be your friend because you ask this of them. This is real important to me. You can ask the horse to do your thing, but you ask him; you offer it to him in a good way. You fix it up and let him find it. You do not make anything happen, no more than you can make a friendship begin.” Ray Hunt

Dear Mr. Cowboy-outfit, kindly don’t assume that because I dress differently, I’m don’t understand horses. Kindly don’t assume, because I work quietly and slowly, that I am unskilled. And because I still carry that cowboy heritage along in my dressage saddle, I wish you didn’t reflect so badly on good horsemen and horsewomen who still wear the Hat.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Being Grateful for Things You Don’t Like.

WMDodgerRideMy favorite training mentor had a habit that drove me nuts. She would be working with a horse who spooked or flipped his head or had some other issue that made him a disaster and when she climbed on, if you were close, you could hear her say in a low and quiet voice, “Goody, goody.” She would have a small smile and be cheerful.

The woman was nuts. It was like she couldn’t tell right from wrong. She loved a bad ride. It wasn’t that she wanted the adrenaline thrill of trying to stay on, and she didn’t pick fights. She just thought a conversation with a horse got more interesting once some resistance showed up.

I was a novice rider just beginning to compete a young horse and neither of us was very confident. One of us was trying way too hard. And it was so important that he was perfect. We hated problems. Okay it was me, I hated it when he was bad.

So I was a conditional rider. I did well if my horse was confident and in a good mood, but if something went sideways, I couldn’t cope. I didn’t act out and jerk on his mouth or use a whip. Instead I got quietly resistant. Every cue started with the disciplinary word don’t. Don’t spook, don’t run off, don’t quit. If I could just try to control his every breath, just not allow him to come apart… I was totally focused on resisting my horse’s resistance.

So naturally, my trainer ruined my Zen by celebrating the bad like she did.

Let me be clear: She was right. I was wrong and being a judgmental jerk, the kind of person who discriminates against imperfection. The kind of person that I don’t like much.

There is a tiny moment. It’s wedged right between the point where everything is going well and you love your ride, and that point where both you and your horse start to come apart. This tiny moment is when we stop listening and start ordering. And when a confused or frightened horse gets told that he’s wrong. Understanding gets sacrificed for external appearances. We become bullies, jerking and kicking, or just holding on for dear life. We become part of the problem.

But in that tiny moment, when you just start to feel him tense, you have a choice. You don’t have to flinch and take the bait. In that tiny moment, you could confound nay-sayers and defy common sense and choose to get happy. What possible good can come out of making your horse wrong?

Instead, you can take a breath and discipline yourself. You can do something totally crazy, you can smile and let your hands breathe out some reins. You can embrace the moment, leave the criticizing to others and get on about helping your horse. Less correction, more direction.

Amazingly, in that same tiny moment, he is right there wanting to hear from you. Horses live in the present and because horses don’t get stuck using right or wrong labels, they are more fluid. Their minds are capable of change, at least to the degree their rider’s are. In that instant you can turn things around with a pat. You can change who you are and how your horse responds.

I rode with this genius trainer for five years. I learned some fancy party tricks and by the end, people thought I had a great horse. The truth was even better than that, but first I had to learn to see my horse as perfect and willing, especially when appearances were deceiving. I held to that truth and it made all the difference.

At this time of Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for horses in my life, but even more than that, I am grateful for this bit of knowledge, passed down from my mentor. It’s enough to make you laugh at its simplicity–this awareness that it’s all good, if you approach it that way.

Too Pollyanna-ish for you? It’s true there are some big ugly issues in the horse world, like slaughter and abuse. Things so nasty that it’s easier to look away and ignore them. It can take some strength to look that kind of darkness in the face and not flinch. To take a breath and start to work on a positive solution. My perfect horses taught me that keeping an open mind and expecting the best beats name-calling and whining about what is wrong–every. single. time.

“My horse has a problem with his canter depart.” “You can’t save them all.”

Now I’m the trainer and with a nod to my mentor, I say, “Goody, goody.” Because I know the one the rider thinks has the problem, is not really the one with the problem at all. Because this is a chance for something good to happen.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Listen First, Train Later.

Photo by Patrick McMahan
Photo by Patrick McMahan

The first time I met him, he was two months old standing in a stall with his mom. He was bright and intuitive, an Andalusian/Appendix cross and soon, my 50th birthday present to me.

We did it all right. I worked with him lightly over the next months and we got to know each other. The breeder did a slow-motion weaning process that was less stressful. We took our time and prepared ahead. I was actually aware that over 60% of foals develop ulcers when they are weaned.

When the day actually came for the colt to travel to my barn, I hauled a peaceful gelding up to keep him company in the trailer. We arrived early in the day, did a quiet job of loading the colt and took an uneventful hour drive back to my home barn.

The colt made friends with a donkey first, but everyone liked him and there was no drama. We spent the first afternoon exploring, friends dropped by, and he got hay snacks through the day. Everything was perfect.

That night I called the breeder to let her know we had arrived safely and settled in. I praised the colt for being brave and managing the day so well. I told her I was surprised to see him be so food aggressive at dinner time and she said that was odd, he hadn’t been that way in the past. We both did a phone shrug and I thanked her again.

The next morning I set about training some table manners. I asked him to step back and he pinned his ears, and we worked from there. He was a very smart horse who learned quickly. In no time at all, he was much less intimidating around hay and I was feeling great about my training skills. That was just the first time I didn’t listen to this colt.

This is going to sound very obvious, but still, here goes:

Horses don’t speak English. They speak Horse. As the theoretically more advanced species, it’s up to us to learn their language. The primary way they have to communicate with us is through their behavior. If we judge every behavior as bad or a training issue, we aren’t listening as well as we could. My new colt told me in the clearest way that he could that food hurt his stomach, that he was in pain, but regrettably, I trained that symptom away.

And just as obvious, training away a symptom is not the same thing as healing it. It doesn’t address the actual problem so it will pop up again as another behavior and the miscommunication plants a seed of mutual confusion or maybe even distrust. Everyone tells me that their biggest goal is to have a better relationship with their horse. The best body position in the world will never take the place of a good ear.

Just to be clear, it is never okay with me for a horse to have bad ground manners and be dangerous, even if they are in pain. Part of the art of training is finding a balance of respect and honesty. If that’s working, a horse shouldn’t have to fight to be heard. If we listen to his small voice, or even just acknowledge it, he begins to trust us. And conversely, if we discipline a horse every time he tries to tell us something, he will shut down or go nuts. Just like we do in real life.

Think of being with horses as a game of Charades. Their team is up and instead of categories like movies or book titles, they act out a behavior for us to guess the meaning. It might be a limp or excessive spookiness, or head tossing. We check for physical causes, then emotional ones. If we are brutally self-honest, we check to see if our horse is mirroring our own fears or anxiety. It’s confusing and our perception might be challenged. That’s why training is an art, remember?

“The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.” -Elie Wiesel

Once you have listened to the message, then by all means, train away. Positive training is a calming gift. It is a way for a horse to find peace, a way he can know where he belongs in a chaotic world.

Too many times, we identify our horses as having bad human habits: “He is just being lazy.” “He’s crazy, he’s seen that a million times.” “He’s a nervous Nelly, he just wants to run all the time.”

Our first imperative in working with horses is always their well-being. Horses live in the moment and their reality is physically sensed through their bodies. Good riders calm their own brain chatter and get present in the moment. We will get better results if we listen with an open mind and not just treat our horses like badly behaved boyfriends.

The gift that comes with bad behavior is a chance for positive leadership. It’s a chance to reward his vulnerability and honesty with compassion rather than punishment. Lots of us didn’t grow up in homes that ran by these rules, and the help we give our horses heals a bit of us as well.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.