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. 

Big Dreams, Low Expectations

I’ve become a real party-pooper when it comes to talented young horses.

It isn’t that I can’t see the potential; that my heart doesn’t catch in my throat at that fresh brilliance. The beauty of a young sound body, a quick mind, and that total possibility. I know what it feels like to train a horse who catches on fast and offers more than you ask. A horse who seems to not want to stop; who’s curious and willing. A horse who really tries to please, so you get caught up in the thrill of progressing quickly. You’re sure he’s a prodigy, that he will be the exception to every rule.

Horsepeople are dreamers. Even the old-timers. Even when we know better.

So, you or your trainer ride him every day. You haul him a few times a month, he’ll get used to being alone in the trailer. Sometimes you ride twice a day. You know there are abusive trainers who push young horses too fast, but that’s not you. Besides, he says yes. He asks for it.

I’m going to make a painful comparison now. Doesn’t this sound like something they used to say about young girls who dress up on a lark and try to pass for eighteen?

I became a party-pooper about young horses from working with mid-life horses in trouble.

Standing next to them, it’s easy to imagine them younger. Looking at his eye now, you know he wasn’t born this way. That there was a time when he reached out as much as he is tucked inside now. That he was the kind who once gave his body and his heart but has lost the trust to let you stand at his flank. Looking at his stiff body, you can still get a sense of how brilliant his trot used to be. His poll tenses nervously if a human is within ten feet. You don’t have to be a professional to see that his face has been ridden hard. His face, that once reached out with curiosity and courage.

The problem with young horses who are over-achievers is that we humans take this period of youthful grace as who they are. We get attached to brilliance and label it their base level work. On a day when he loses confidence, a day when that young horse goes more like a normal, slightly resistant horse, we think they are guilty of a list of failings and we start the fight. Our change is imperceptible at first. Our dream of them is bruised so we lose just a bit of faith.

Maybe some harsher aids will get his brilliance back.

NO! If that previous sentence doesn’t make your teeth scream, you’re doing it wrong. Not sorry for my bluntness. I’ve been around horses enough that when I see that broken horse, it’s easy to imagine who he once was. The flip-side is that it’s also easy to see the perfect youngster, possibly broken by eight or ten.

To be clear, I’m not talking ambitious trainers starting long yearlings to sell before they’re four-year-olds, fast and dirty and half-lame. I’m talking about people who love their horses and are enthusiastic about good care and training. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill when things start out so strong.

But young horses start to question training at a certain point. It’s normal, not a betrayal or a rebellion. You should see it as a sign of intelligence. The question we ask isn’t if our horse will hit a bad stretch in work, but what will I do when he inevitably does?

Because all training, even positive training, carries some stress. Just like living in a herd has stress. Normal stress is caused by being alive.

And it isn’t just young horses. You might be re-training a rescue horse or even just beginning with a new-to-you horse. Progress can start fast and feel great at first. There will be bumps; he will regress. How will we deal with that?

The traditional answer has always been discipline. “Push him through it. Don’t let him quit.” The reason I’m so against this way of training is the number of horses who flunk out, damaged and frightened. Certainly not all horses but too many.

So, this is my annual reminder that horses aren’t any closer to perfect than we are. They have bad days but we don’t have to turn it into a bad month. Or a bad life. At this time of great stress holiday season, it’s good to give horses a break and remember the big picture.

Most horses live a long life. Not long enough for us loving, greedy humans, but still, a long life. The majority of their lives is spent learning, and then aging. That mid-life sweet spot is comparatively short. Rushing to the sweet spot to make it last longer is the real dream (or fault) most of us share.

Understandable that we might push harder than we intended. It doesn’t make us bad riders, just human ones. Forgive yourself. And forgive horses for not living long enough.

Then pretend you have all the time in the world. Keep an eye on the horizon and celebrate how far you’ve come. Remember how special it is when a horse volunteers. Remember that you sit in a sacred place. If you want to discipline something, start with your mind. Say good boy often.

When you do hit a training block, don’t fight. Shrug. Exhale. Ride around it and approach it in a different way. Railbirds are notoriously short-sighted, so work for your horse instead. Riding isn’t war; it’s an art. You and your horse are building a masterpiece.

If you want to work something on contact, keep your expectations on a short rein. Then your dreams can gallop the infinite, where they belong. Learn to tell the difference.

It bears repeating: The arc of a horse’s life (or our own) doesn’t look like a golden rainbow. It looks more like the jagged readout of a heart monitor. There are ups and downs in each heartbeat. It’s how you can tell we’re alive.

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

 

 

Photo Challenge & Poem: Serene

The cowboys I knew didn't dress like 
the movies. No neckerchiefs or fancy 
Mexican spurs. They wore easy smiles 
under the brim of a dusty hat. Rough 
hands with thick knuckles, able to 

soothe a horse or build fence or squat 
to look a girl in the eye and listen. 
The first to offer help, the last to 
doff their hat at the dinner table and 
thank the cook. Full-grown men, heroes 

who live by the Boy Scout code with 
humility. Much easier to be like these 
men-with-hats who chase horses with 
flags, jerking halters in predatory 
attack. When the horse finally shuts 

down, drenched in fear, the men-with-hats 
claim a thing they call respect. An hour 
later a small group of men-with-hats, each 
carrying sticks with flags, wait to load a 
horse too wild to lead. The trainer backs 

the trailer to an alley chute. It takes a 
couple of tries and the men-with-hats make 
small mean jokes, no one offering to guide 
her in. The trainer steps from her truck, 
head down, an apology for what she knows 

they've been saying. The men-with-hats send 
the horse, an unhandled mare carrying a foal  
due soon, into the trailer. The trainer pulls 
her rig forward, lets her dogs out to pee, 
returning with some business in a plastic bag. 

She heads back to her farm taking a thing 
I call respect with her, while the men-with-hats 
slouch in a golf cart and fluff up their pride 
with impatience to close the gate behind her.

 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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. 
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. And then I write a poem. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Serene

Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

You love horses. No, you really, really love horses. Because they are so amazing. We share videos of blind horses cared for by sighted ones. Ponies who tolerate wild kids and horses fulfilling last wishes of our own elders with gentle kindness. There are brilliant competitors dancing and racehorses running on heart. Trail horses who carry us to peace of mind. And don’t forget mules fighting coyotes. We marvel at their intelligence and courage. Yay, Equines!

Then there’s a moment that happens. The instant when that “magical” horse does some small movement that looks normal, like something your horse does. Or the instant that your horse takes a couple of steps of piaffe for the fun of it. Or your horse does a beautiful liberty movement that you only notice you asked for in hindsight. It’s noticeable. Maybe not identical but so close. The lights and mirrors go black and you have an inkling that your horse could do the same thing that previously looked like magic. And that what looked like magic was just being a horse.

It’s a great moment. The line between magic and normal needs to be blurred. Horses are much more than beasts of burden. At the same time, believing some horses are mythical creatures with magical powers does a disservice to rescue horses and grade horses and most likely, the horse in your own barn.

I think the biggest challenge facing most horses is our own mental limitation on what we think they are capable of understanding. We have an innate us/them mentality. We think that other horses achieve a particular behavior because of some intangible circumstances not available to the average horse and rider. Just not true.

But how much do we actually believe in their intelligence? Their ability to understand what’s going on? How often do we act like they need training for common sense, and in that moment, seek to dumb horses down?

Some of it boils down to a question of trust, but when we think about trusting our horses, it usually involves our physical safety. We trust them to clear a jump, to come back after a gallop; we aspire to trust their responsiveness in some way we call normal.

Say you’re asking for a simple in-hand obstacle like stepping onto a tarp on the ground. If he is standing with his hooves right next to it, do you feel you need to do more to explain, like lead him or cluck to him or teach it as if he’s never seen it? Or do you trust that he recognizes the obvious?

Think of all the practical but lame reminders we give teenagers, like to take a coat along. Of course, they roll their eyes. It’s clear we don’t trust them to come in out of the rain. You can say you’re just being helpful, but the other side of that states a lack of trust that they can manage the basics and that’s a horrible confidence builder. Would teens be different if we trusted they’d figure it out without us belaboring the obvious?

I recently read a brilliant article that said by demonstrating things to kids instead of letting them figure it out, we actually show them that we are capable, and they aren’t. In other words, constantly bailing kids out of their situation creates a kind of learned helplessness –the opposite of our intended goal.

Horses are no different. The chronic habit of humans re-training or over-cueing is a kind of lack of trust in our horse’s intellect.

The idea of allowing a horse autonomy, the freedom to volunteer, requires a suspension of disbelief. It means that you extend trust… not that they won’t hurt you but trust that they are smart and can answer the question. Giving the cue louder doesn’t make it more understandable. It just adds more anxiety. Ask quietly, with confidence in both of you. Then rather than doing the task, give him the time and support to figure it out. You get to pick the topic and he gets to pick the time.

Maybe trust is another word for patience.

If you believe that horses are sentient, then I challenge you to communicate with him that way. Mentor with your body, notice your own energy. Suggest rather than demand. And you know you should be breathing more.

Do your cues take on the urgency and size of semaphore signals on an aircraft carrier? Maybe a little less training enthusiasm and a little more confidence in your own ability and your horse’s desire to align with your intention. Let it be easier.

It’s possible they won’t give us the answer we want immediately. It might be confusion or a lack of confidence but don’t give into doubt. It’s up to us to find a quiet way to ask, or cut the task into smaller pieces and be grateful for every tiny effort. Successive approximation.

In that quiet moment, can you see a small change in his eye? Does his poll soften? In the past you may have thought he was dawdling or resisting the cue, but looking closer now, do see his intelligence? Reward that; connect with the action of him using his mind.

How horses and riders get stuck in the same place for long periods of time is that we don’t hold ourselves to conscious creativity in our equine conversations. We don’t progress because we unconsciously become repetitive naggers instead of scintillating conversationalists. If we believe that horses can read our minds in other situations, why would we have to resort to semaphore cues for something obvious and easy?

Trust your horse can a true partner and not a minion. Let him rise to the occasion and feel pride in himself. Trust his intelligence because his species has survived for thousands of years. Celebrate that intellect as a thing that you both share.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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. 

Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

Last week I answered a reader question about Making War on Horses and it got a predictably positive reception. It’s preaching to the choir for my readers. This week’s question is the flip-side of that last one, and a bit more challenging.

By reader request:

“I still have questions about how to express love to a horse where it feels good to both you and the horse. I know now for them it is a lot about being calm and not having busy energy in their presence, and sometimes not much touching, while for most humans it’s about petting, sweet talking and getting close. Geez…..seems pretty polar opposite.”

Sigh; a question that I want to answer with a question: Why is it such a big deal to us? Why must we express our love to horses in such noisy needy ways? Tell the truth. Doesn’t it seem a bit desperate sometimes?

We approach loving horses a little like a bowling ball approaches a triangle of pins.

It’s like we’re awkward insecure teenagers who want to show the world we can get a date. We coo baby-talk, manipulate them with treats, and find that itchy spot so we can make them make faces. Perish the thought that a horse might not want our white-hot affection; if he even feigns interest, we pounce. We cannot keep our hands (emotions) to ourselves.

I’ve said it before; the thing I hate about horses, other than their tiny feet and frail digestive systems, is that their best reward is a release –our least favorite thing. It’s the polar opposite mentioned in the question. I hate that moving out of their space is a reward so much that I ask horses to prove it a few dozen times a day. They happily oblige.

Look at it this way. If you were angry or frustrated with your horse, it would make good sense to take those big ugly feelings and back away. There’s no room for anger in training. Is it possible that when our feelings of love and equine addiction become overwhelming, we should do the same?

I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes I’ll be working with someone’s horse in a lesson or clinic, and he will do something that’s just spectacular. I’ll be gobsmacked; his behavior just pours gasoline on my burning heart. The reason to step back, exhale, and murmur “good” in a moment like this is that my emotional love-fit is as selfish as a temper tantrum would be. It’s all about me and I’m the one always lipping off about being an advocate for horses.

Or more importantly, I want to give my horse time to process what has just gone so well, so I step back or get very still, and let it be about him. I give him time. I shut up.

And I remember an old self-help book by Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages. Back in the day, I hated his excruciating explanation of why, if you really wanted your lover to give you flowers but instead they changed the oil in your truck, it was the same thing. In other words, an act of service is a gift of love, even if it doesn’t smell that way. It followed, if you wanted someone to feel your love, you should express it unselfishly, in a way they understood. It’s an evolved concept if you lean toward immaturity and really want the damn roses.

I’m a horse trainer but the truth is that I’m a couples therapist. I know a pretty fair amount about riding and training, but more often, I translate language between humans and horses, trying to iron out misunderstandings.

Horses do not thrive on drama. Love and anxiety are contradictions to a horse. I wish humans didn’t equate the two either. Emotional runaways, whether it’s anger or affection or even extreme confusion, aren’t positive input.

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I love a horse hug as much as anyone but more than that, I care that he feels confident and peaceful. Safety means more a horse than our undying chatter about love.

If it’s one of those days when a sideways look might reduce you to tears, consider loving your horse enough to stay away. Just because we feel better around a horse doesn’t mean it’s our right to dump our hard feelings on them.

The most common miscommunication I see between horses and riders is our apparent unwillingness to recognize anxiety. Years ago, looking at a horse for a client, the mare’s face showed every painful ulcer symptom I know and the sellers stood around laughing about how she liked to make “cute faces.” Worse yet, we commonly mistake signs of anxiety for affection and end up encouraging their anxiety.

How to tell if your love language is good for your horse? Quiet your mind. No, really. Then be honest and look deeper than what you want to see. Are his eyes soft? His face smooth? Does he show peace? It’s a lot less romantic than your horse mugging you but love shouldn’t look like insecurity.

How to let your horse know you love him? Develop a quiet mind. Give him a release but then pause. Wait for him to answer. It might be closing his eyes or licking. The huge calming signal response is a stretch and a blow. If you love him, give him time and space. Show him that respect.

Want to know my worst fear about my blog? Because I don’t believe in domination training, I fear that my message will be misconstrued to mean don’t ride, don’t ask for improvement, and just generally, let your horse walk all over you and call it love. Humans are such extremists; swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the far other is equal dysfunction.

I want clients to Ride the Middle. To have polite and complicated conversations about willing responses, balanced transitions, and eventually the weirdness of half-pass. Conversations that involve getting one good step, laughing, and taking a break. Conversations without blame, where we ask for the best of each other. The very best.

It isn’t just that we train performance horses, but we train in such a way that horses volunteer, feeling strong and confident. That’s love in action.

….

Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist: Horse Version

You know how the cat magically goes to the person with the allergy? Or she goes the person who happens to agree with Preacher Man, the Corgi, who believes that all cats are agents of the devil? Meanwhile, the person who loves cats is cooing and coaxing with raw fish but the cheeky cat hoists her tail a bit higher and gives us that view as she saunters her way out of the room. Cats think people try too hard. They’re suckers for the one who plays hard to get. Corgis are doomed.

How to catch a cat: Just don’t. Don’t look, don’t talk, and absolutely don’t let the thought cross your mind that you’d like to scratch those ears. Then relax and let the cat sneak up on you from behind. Cats can’t resist mystery.

Now pretend that a horse is as smart and curious and playful as a cat. And you want to think you are at least as clever as a corgi. This part is much more complicated because we’re only human.

Sometimes we let our minds get a little soft. We are prone to thinking we’re not predators or prey; instead we act like intellectuals, spending time in our minds and mistaking that for the natural world where cats and horses live. In other words, we’re boring.

We debate training technique but then work by rote, busy with opinion and not being fully present with the horse. We unconsciously halter the same way every time. We lead them like they are bricks on the end of a rope.

What if we thought of ourselves as artists? We agree that riding is an art, but do we hesitate to call ourselves artists? That’s silly; it takes an amazing amount of creativity to get out of the house in the morning.

We are a creative species but we get lazy and use our intellect to doubt ourselves. We let ourselves be ordinary when all we need is a bit of conscious energy. Energy that we can dial up or down like a thermostat on an oven.

Creativity isn’t a mystery, it’s a habit like brushing your teeth. Or cooking with spices. Or loving someone. Creativity is the cherry on top; it’s the extra dollop of energy that adds zing to life. It’s a skill –like horsemanship, only with a smile on your face.

When I meet a horse, I start with a simple question like can you please take a step back? I ask him with the method I least expect the horse to know. I ask politely and he thinks about it.

His owner wants him to succeed, so she interrupts and tells me how she cues him to back. To be clear, all three of us know he can back. And I could care less if he backs, I am establishing a conversation.

If a horse has just one cue, how do we know he isn’t answering by rote, too? Unconscious action might be the first thing we teach horses. I want a fresh response, so I want to engage him. I want to be interesting and mysterious. That’s how he’ll know who I am.

The two things I know more than anything else about horses is that they like consistency. They are like us that way, they like dinner on time and the comfort of knowing they are safe in their home.

And second, horses get bored easily. Just like us. Are you both so used to acting by rote than you think it’s normal? Is your horse unresponsive? Would your horse say that you are?

So, I give the horse a minute to up his game. Anyone can back, I want him to be curious about me. Not because I have a stick or a loud voice but because I listen to him. If he looks like he’s thinking, then I reward him profusely and it’s game on. But if he looks like he isn’t thinking, I’m not fooled. Horses are as smart as cats; I reward him, too. Because energy should always be rewarded.

Here’s the secret: Disarm him with unpredictable release.

Be brand new; fluid in your movements, soft in your eye, agile on your feet. Step out of his space. Unpredictable release.

Go in his pen and actively don’t catch him.  Hold the halter in your hand and studiously do not try. Unpredictable release.

Go to the mounting block and don’t mount. Scratch his withers and go untack him. Unpredictable release.

Work at liberty but trust him. Ride bareback and massage his ribs with your knees. Ride with a neck ring that you are patient with… patience is creativity, too.

Instead of warming up with too much contact too soon, along with too much distraction and worry, warm up with too much music and fluidity. Unpredictable release.

Being mentally active means the rider is using less physical strength but keeping her energy up. He mimics you. If he isn’t forward, well, wake your-own-self up, change the length of his stride, longer or shorter using just your sit-bones. Think with your seat and legs. Still your voice and breathe. Crank up the music.

Long walk in a soft leg yield, barely asking his withers to the outside. Think inside leg to outside rein while moving in serpentines. Continue reversing direction until neither of you can remember having a stiff side.

Sometimes ask for tiny things and sometimes big. It isn’t that you don’t train the hard challenges; it’s that your train them as if they’re fun.

Then ask again, and be ready for a different answer. You don’t know what he’ll do and that’s the best part. It’s the call to energy and creativity. Unpredictable release.

I want to be the most interesting thing in the world to my horse. I want our conversation so scintillating that he hangs on my every word, and by that I mean, that I don’t cue by rote. I keep my energy percolating.

I want to have the consistency that makes him feel safe and yet still be mysterious and interesting enough to hold his attention. I want him focused on me and I’ll train that by focusing on him. I want him to think it’s more fun working with me that staring at plastic bags flapping in the wind.

Ride like a cat. Listen, bat some ideas around, then mentally pounce on one and chase it down so you can play with it. Now reward your own creativity for making work feel like play.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Leadership Percentages and Confused Horses

Pause here. Look in his eye. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. If we’re going to agree with scientists that horses are sentient beings, with feelings not unlike our own, when will we start treating them that way?

In riding lessons, I ask math questions a lot. Not real math, of course. It’s more a theoretical sort of math, like “what percent of your horse is forward” or “rate this trot on a scale from one to ten.” It’s short-hand to quantify where we are compared to where we started and where we’d like to be.

The usual way I hear short-hand math talked about in the barn is to quantify leadership. Like most horse things, there is a long continuum of opinion. Some demand their horse submits to 100% human leadership. Equine slavery, I’m thrilled to say, is not tolerated here. It’s easy to deplore. We shake our heads and tsk-tsk our tongues. But 100% cheerful compliance would be great.

We want a partnership with our horses. And once we really agree to that, the confusion and weird math begins. Should it be a 50-50 balance? Does the human get the deciding vote, 51-49? Or because you have a goal with your horse, 60-40? Or maybe you missed the vote entirely and you just go along for the ride, 90-10, to his favor.

Definition of leadership: The ability to provide another sentient the feeling of safety. In this case, a horse.

Humans are extremists. Sometimes, in an attempt to evolve and not dominate horses, we just chatter away kindly. We over-cue, carefully introducing their halter for the millionth time and the horse might even politely sniff it. Maybe he thinks he should because we act like it’s a brand-new thing each time. We chatter about cleaning his feet and might even think he’s listening, when the truth is that it’s the same order of hooves every time. A horse would have to be brain-damaged to not learn that pattern and obligingly pick up his foot.

In other words, we think we’re training things that they know inside-out. It’s like reading a grade school primer in college. Boring at best. Worst is they think we aren’t all that bright. What would it take to teach up to his level?

I think horses kindly recognize human chatter as a calming signal. Meaning it calms us to chatter away. Maybe they assess what percentage of their rider is stressed out and roles reverse.

Definition of chatter: The rattle and bang of constant noise. Legs and seat and hands and voice that just never stop flapping and nicking and correcting. As annoying as flies buzzing, landing, circling, and buzzing some more. It’s the crazy-making babbel that any self-respecting horse would shut out to save his sanity.

About this time, since we don’t want to dominate or chatter away, we decide to listen. No, really listen. We learn their calming signals and their unique detailed preferences. The more we listen, the more they share, affirmed that humans are pulling it together. It’s thrilling to have a corner of understanding that didn’t start in a human brain, but instead is something you learned from a horse. Listening is pure joy.

We listen to our horses so hard, with such focus and patience… that our horses hear crickets. Silence from us. They revert to doubting our intelligence and worry that they are the only sentients in the room. Horses might wonder if, between the scream of domination and the silence of listening, humans are void of the ability to have a simple conversation.

Definition of a conversation: Cues that might be body language or movement, or intention –eye contact along with a thought. The least important part is verbal. The most important part is that there are two sides conversing.

The focus is to shape a response on both sides. You give a cue for walking and pause. He considers the request and walks. You release your cue and breathe normally and follow the flow of his walk. In the beginning, it feels stilted like an Intro to French class. (Bonjour, comment vas-tu? Bon, Merci et vous?) But don’t get impatient and talk over each other.

Any positive training conversation starts with rewarding a good basic response. Behavioral science calls it ‘successive approximation’ implying an approximate answer, not the correct one.

In other words, one of you giving your best hints until the other guesses the right answer, like a game of equine charades. Creativity! A language between two species is born! Hear the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You get it.

How to quantify that kind of leadership conversation? 50-50 feels too flat and dull.

I think it might be an 80-20 percentage, but not static. The idea-and-response flip sides between the human and the horse in an instant. It’s a flash of intention and a spark of response. A cool breeze of release followed by quicksilver inspiration. So fluid that he finishes the thought before you fully articulate it. And his response was lighter and more beautiful than you imagined. It’s a dance that switches leader and follower every few strides.

If a rider complains about a lack of response in their horse, guessing that they only have 20% their horse’s attention, I think a better question might be what percentage of their attention is on their horse? Do we think it’s his job to hang in suspended animation until our next command? Isn’t that how domination works?

Why do humans limit an animal’s response by talking down to them? What if a better name for an unresponsive horse is a bored horse?

The art of communication with horses means evolving a language of successive approximation to a place of happy response on both sides. It takes a quiet and quick listening mind on the part of the human, along the same amount of physical self-awareness that a horse has. That’s the hard part. It would always be easier for a human to dominate or be passive.

Pause here. Look in his eye again. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. The question isn’t if he’ll meet our expectations. It’s what will we need to do meet his.

(Next week: How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist.)

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Redefining Work Under Saddle.

I had a blog request, in two parts. First: “[Does] training and working a horse inherently make a horse less “happy.” I know I am happier on vacation, but that doesn’t mean work is bad for me. Balance is key right? When is it too much? When is it too little? I had one trainer tell me “don’t let her (my mare) get away with that! You work 8 hours a day, she can give you 45 minutes.” 

First, is she sound? She can’t give you 45 minutes if her saddle doesn’t fit or if her feet aren’t trimmed properly. It’s too much time if her back is sore or if she has ulcers. Is she in her heat cycle? Here is the tricky part: What if you think it’s all good but she’s still cranky? Who’s right? Of course, she is. Keep looking.

Let’s assume all is well. Does working a horse make them inherently less “happy?” Well, horses are all individuals. That’s what’s fascinating about them. I’ve known many horses who were unhappy under saddle because of harsh training but also from just being misunderstood.

It’s depressing but I think some horses trade that hour under saddle for the rest of their life. Kind of like doing the dishes in exchange for a meal, they make a trade. I’m not critical; I like horses being owned and cared for. Some humans live lives of quiet desperation; I suppose horses could do the same.

It’s humans who make training hard work. We’re perfectionists and we like drama. We approach every new thing like a potential problem. A problem getting him in the trailer. A problem to get him over cross-rails. Early on, I had a client who moaned endlessly about her horse’s problem picking up the canter. (Is it obvious who it was that had the problem?) In the meantime, horses begin to hate arena work.

That doesn’t mean that horses want a life loitering in the pasture, eating treats, and waiting for the next farrier visit.

I think the majority of horses don’t want either extreme; not vacation and not work. They want a relationship with us. It’s a crazy notion. Humans aren’t a very emotionally stable species but perhaps they see some potential in us.

Second: “[My mare] was stopping at the gate every time we walked/trotted by clearly thinking the increase in physical exertion was unnecessary. She was not winded, or sweaty or tired in any way. Just didn’t enjoy my increase in focus and being pushed to work harder. I was new to riding and [my mare] was not new to riding.”

You’re partly right. It doesn’t sound like she’s tired but that doesn’t mean she “clearly” thinks the physical work is unnecessary. It’s easy to misread horses by superimposing human thoughts. Perhaps if you are new to riding, she was being patient. She knows more than you, after all. (Mares always do.) Of course, she doesn’t like being pushed to work harder. Why would she?

I’ve never met a horse or rider who’s benefited from domination. I’m not necessarily talking bloody whips and spurs. It could be the force of nagging passive aggressive legs and marginally repressed frustration or anger.

It’s about now that a rider could feel like giving up on lessons. You could decide that training and competing are cruel and you don’t want to fight. So, you think about just wandering the property or sticking to ground work or even retirement. But I still don’t think that’s what most horses want.

Stopping at the gate is a clear message from your mare. It isn’t a disobedience. You’re doing what your trainer suggests but your horse gets an opinion, too. A better question might be, “How can I have a better partnership with my mare?”

In case it isn’t obvious, beginning to ride is easy enough. Progressing past that entry-level is the hard part. That’s why there are so many long-time novice riders. The reason to hire a trainer and try to push past that point is because horses tolerate us when we ride badly. They routinely save our lives, literally or figuratively, giving us more grace than we deserve. Consider learning better riding skills, like following hands and an independent seat, as a thank-you gift to your horse.

If you are almost overwhelmed, then good. You’re starting to understand how challenging it is to ride kindly and well. It may take the lifetime of a horse to become a better rider for the next horse. You have no time to lose.

First, make sure you are laughing in your lessons, even if you throw your hands up at the same time. Horses like us when we laugh and it’s an antidote to trying too hard. Take riding seriously but do it with a light heart. Remind yourself that you love your horse. Then trust your horse to tell the truth.

Start here: Is your warm-up effective? If not, it’s the deal breaker from the horse’s side. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. If a horse wants out of the arena, we need to improve their experience there. Done properly, the “work” should make your horse feel strong, supple, and balanced.

If work has become a four-letter word to you and your horse, exchange it for another four-letter word –play. Horses taught me the more we blur the line between work and play, the better we all get along. It’s a change in perception.

Defining training as hard work that will only be learned through harsh struggle makes riding feel like a factory job.

Lift the conversation. Training is easier than that. Humans and horses both learn through positive reinforcement. In the end, good training is simply a collection of positive experiences. That’s the goal each ride. Warm-up well, ask for a few steps at a time, and reward your horse generously. Be zealous–even ambitious– but have laughter be your music.

Horses are beings of light. And so are we, remember?

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

Running in Circles

 I was asked to write about lunging and I assume this means with no swear words. I don’t know why I said that; lunging is one of my very favorite activities. Oh, I remember now. Lunging is misunderstood, misused, and it can drive horses lame or crazy or shut down so far that their eyes look dead.

Like every other training aid in the horse world, it’s either a gift of communication and connection or a weapon of anxiety and domination. The very worst part? It’s a missed opportunity.

And like usual, no riding discipline is immune. It seems to start in the same place; lunging is used to run a horse into exhaustion. No matter the stress on joints and tendons, no matter the behavioral issue, just run ’em out of it. As if exhaustion ever trained anything positive.

The varied English disciplines go crazy with all kinds of gear meant to gimmick movement or head position or bend. Draw reins, side reins, pessoa… the list goes on. Trainers use them so they must be okay, right? When you research the purpose of these contraptions there’s a sales pitch that might almost sound like a miracle cure. As if saying it made it true. As if a forced position could be anything but cruel.

I’ve also seen a lunge line used with great lightness and finesse to help a horse find his balance and strength. I’ve asked untrained colts and gnarled rescue horses to transition through the gaits from my breath alone, and been given responses so quick that I doubted them. Longer strides and shorter, stretching, bending; anything that can be done in the saddle, can be done on the line. A soft request, delivered with patience and grace, can give a horse a fluid sense of confidence that is nothing short of glorious for both of you.

A few years back, a certified natural horsemanship trainer came here to evaluate a rescue horse. He was in my holding pen which happens to be round. The trainer landed like a helicopter, slapping a flag all over, and scaring the bejebbers out of both me and the horse. He panicked and ran, beginning a process that seemed to require tearing him down as step one.

It’s a common technique; it might get results with some horses. But I’ve also worked with horses who get hysterical when even asked to circle.  Not just nervous; full-blown hysteria. Training methods that involve physical intimidation aren’t dependable. Horses do not learn when they’re afraid, and we’re not that smart then either.

Too many of us have been taught some version of “tie them to the trailer, jam them on the bit, run them hard, and let them figure it out.” The idea is to let the horse “fight himself.” Even if it was a good idea, it’s a lost opportunity. At a time when we could be building trust by helping the horse, we abandon them to their situation. Then we get frustrated when horses don’t trust us.

Lunging a horse is an opportunity to connect, to partner and communicate in a supportive way. It’s an opportunity to play and work and feel strong, without the distraction of carrying weight. Lunging is a training aid. An aid, just to be painfully literal, is supposed to make it easier.

If I’m working with a young horse, or it’s a crisp day, or it’s been a while since the last ride, I might start with some free lunging. That’s a fancy term for letting the horse run at liberty in the arena. I like to cheer every explosion of bucking and farting. It’s a way that horses adjust their backs, literally getting the kinks out. When they run fast, I wave my arms encouraging them. When they begin to slow, I pretend to chase them and they pretend to be afraid. That flag of the tail and dip of the nose as he bolts past me is just him giving me a bit of a hoot in return.

If a liberty run isn’t possible, I’ll use a lunge line but encourage him to play when we start. It’ll be a bit more polite but bucking and head tossing is fine if he isn’t fighting the circle.

After he’s had some time to play, begin to ask for transitions. Be calm, give clean cues, and reward his response. Then ask for something else. Let transitions steady him with confidence and balance him with partnership. Let that lunge line tie the two of you in communication and understanding.

Here is the important thing about lunging: As much as it might warm a horse’s muscles, it’s meant to engage the mind even more. Use it as a time to warm up mentally, even more than physically, so that when you do mount, you and your horse are already working together.

Running in circles like a headless chicken is not the same thing at all. 

It’s easy to name call those who are ignorant or impatient. Those who don’t know better and those who are lazy or in a hurry. And particularly those who truly believe horses are fodder.

Some think that positive training is fine for trail horses but when the work gets harder, the rider has to get harder, regardless of disciplines. Even as positive trainers compete and win in all disciplines, the unstated feeling is that you must dominate the horse for any evolved performance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I don’t think the problem is with training aids at all. The problem is with us. We’re limited by our judgment and marginal awareness. In our weak hearts, we bully horses because we don’t believe horses have the capacity to choose to join us freely. We don’t believe we’re capable of inspiring the kind of work we want. We underestimate horse’s intellect and sense of humor. We think we have the only brains in existence.

Harsh training is a statement that denies the fundamental beauty, strength, and intelligence that horses embody from their first day. Worse than that, we become a flat mean caricature of our own potential, as if the only way to assimilate some of their magic is through domination. The first tenant of training horses should be that we aspire to their level.

Or maybe we have it backward. Maybe horses are the training aid meant to teach us something beyond aggression and belligerence. Something like self-respect and civility.


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

Teaching Your Horse to Relax

The rider said that her mare had an undeniable “rushiness” and was always tense. The mare is five years old and in their first months together, the mare has had good ground manners. She tied and picked up her feet but walking out of the barn, she was way ahead or the rider had to pull her. The mare didn’t know how to stand still and wanted to walk in circles. Sometimes she got pushy with her muzzle.

The rider got criticism from other people at the barn; the mare just needed to work more, she was bored, that all horses need a job, etc. But working in the traditional ways (lunging) made the mare even busier and soon frantic.  Finally, the rider settled on the goal of teaching her to do nothing. A great idea! And now supporters were talking about sitting in a chair in her pen.

Humans can be such extremists.

The rider has a good start; she’s listening. The mare is very young and moving a horse to a new barn is much more challenging for them than we understand. Settling in with a new owner and a new herd takes time. We can list her bad behaviors but focusing on correcting her mistakes and not dealing with the underlying problem will only have limited success. The mare sounds very anxious.

After such a huge life change, I’d expect this young mare might have a sour stomach, if not ulcers. First thing is always to make sure she is physically okay. Because change is hard and these calming signals may also be symptoms of pain.

Some folks would say that mares are just that way. They use names to describe mares that we women don’t like being called. Well, it’s true that mares are more like stallions than they are geldings… they have hormones. In my experience, mares don’t enjoy blind repetition of menial work like some geldings can. Mares are smart and want more engagement. I think it speaks well of them to require their riders to be more creative.

And kudos for stopping the frantic lunging. It sounds like this young mare knows all about it. People mistake the purpose of lunging and use it to wear a horse out. It wears out they bodies, too, and while exhaustion can pass for obedience, it doesn’t teach the horse a thing. Or most riders either, apparently, since it is still common advice.

Sitting with her is harmless enough. It’s fun in the pen with horses. Some people bring a book. The mare can tell she isn’t being asked to do anything so it’s probably peaceful. But be clear; this isn’t building relationship either. The stress comes with being handled and that’s where the healing will come, too.

Responding to horses doesn’t have to be fast and aggressive. Or dull and passive. We can do better than these extremes.

First, this mare gets quick from anxiety. Every time you see a hint of anxiety, slow down right away. Help her feel safe. Rather than punishing her behaviors, find ways to reward her. Affirming good behaviors builds confidence–the opposite of anxiety.

Less correction; more direction.

To get ahead of her behavior curve we must go from being reactive to her problems to proactive to help her past them.

If she is quick, I’d ask her for slow answers. Leading her, I’d ask for a few steps. Start at her speed and then slow your feet. If she gives a tiny hesitation, reward her generously and walk on. Ask for some long strides and then short strides. Eventually, when she is following your stride changes, ask for a halt. Ask with your exhale. Ask with your feet. Leave the lead rope hang. If she barely pauses, reward her and walk on. The next time she’ll give you more because it went well. Because she can listen to your feet better than your hands.

Be the change you want to see in your horse. If she is hot, you cool your body movements. If she is reluctant to walk, you lighten and lift your body movements. Correct yourself. Ignore what you don’t like. Reward her every try.

Do it all in slow motion. Affirm peace. Let your exhale be audible. Lead by example; keep your heart quiet, your breath deep, and your hands soft. Let there be hang time after your cues. If you don’t want her to escalate, then don’t you escalate. Be relentlessly focused and internally slow, even if you are walking quickly.

It won’t be perfect. In the beginning, it’ll be a hot mess and your only goal is to interrupt your mare’s free-fall to panic. If there is a hesitation in her anxiety, reward that.

Think of the words good girl as an affirmation of what will come, rather than a reward for a completed behavior. Eventually the two of you will fluidly shadow each other, but for now, lower your expectations. Nothing kills her try quicker than being told everything she does isn’t good enough. Humans understand that feeling, don’t we?

Reward anything that looks thoughtful. In the past, cues have escalated to punishment. She’s been trained to answer too quickly. Give her time to reason it out. Slow. Down.

Sometimes she’ll hesitate too long. She isn’t being disrespectful. I think they know when it’s been too long and sometimes do a deer-in-headlights response, frozen waiting for the inevitable punishment. On the surface, it looks like disobedience. Take a breath and change the subject. Save her from that dread; start over fresh.

Demonstrate the behavior you’d like your mare to emulate. The patience you show her today will be returned to you. At some future time, when other horses might quit or panic, she will hold strong. She’ll pay it back when it matters.

Next week I’ll write about lunging as a positive aid rather than a punishment. For now, I want to affirm the importance of positive early training.

I’m on the board of Colorado Horse Rescue Network and we had an open shelter day recently. The goal was to help people who needed to let go of their horses. Of the thirty-five horses that were relinquished, twenty-three were mares. Those numbers are common; mares outnumber geldings in rescue. It says more about humans than mares, I think.

Good training requires us to go beyond old methods and understand the value subtlety and finesse. Training is an art. Let it lift both of you.

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