Serenity NOW! (Training Calmness)

She wrote, “I struggle with him to stand still. I suspect he recognizes I am nervous.”I’m answering an email question from a novice rider whose horse doesn’t always stand quietly. She thinks that she might be part of the problem. Naturally, I love this rider.

First, what is fair to expect from a horse? If you think your horse should stand flat on a loose rein while the rest of the horses leave for the barn at a high gallop, well, you’re in for a disappointing and fast ride home. If you think that a halt should hold for an hour without moving, or during a dust-devil attack, again, not really fair. If you believe you should be able to control him totally, then I recommend riding something with an ignition.

We can begin with a horse when you’re willing to negotiate. The other word for that is train. Suppose you are sitting in the saddle and your horse takes a step to the right, so your right foot corrects him. But then he steps forward a stride, so you use your reins to pull him back. Then he tosses his head to one side, so you use the opposite rein to straighten him, and then he backs up. You put enough leg on him to stop him but he continues to jig. You’re too nervous to notice you’re tense, your reins are tight and your cues have an edge of panic to them.

Right about now, some idiot will tell you that you need a stronger bit. It would be fine with me if you tell them they’re an idiot. Thank you.

It’s hard to not accelerate one correction after another if all either of you know is that everything you do is wrong. The more corrections you make, the deeper the hole the two of you are in. If you stop to think about it, he actually is being responsive to the cues you give him. And if it feels like you’re training your horse to be fussy, well, you are.

But dear Rider, thank you for your honesty. Yes, your horse feels your nervousness. If it was easy to snap your fingers and make the fear evaporate, I’m sure you would have done it. So you “struggle with him” to stand. Is it possible to cue him to relax; cue him to come to rest instead?

Take a breath. You’re in a rut of nagging and correcting. Some horses will shut down just to make the barrage of cues stop, and some will get worse, but either way, your horse isn’t learning anything going forward, by having his past behaviors corrected. In other words, can you change the tone of the conversation by asking him to do something, rather than correcting what he has already done.

Here’s where some trainers will tell you to circle your horse, with the idea being that eventually he’ll want to rest. But circling can become a kind emotional evasion for the horse; a way to disconnect. Pretty soon anxiety seems to become part of his personality. Yours, too.

If you are emotionally active in the saddle… he will reflect that.

First, before you address your horse, take an internal inventory. Do a literal scan your body for tension. What do you feel? Is your seat tense in the saddle or are your knees tight on his flanks? Consciously soften your seat and let your knees feel light enough that an egg wouldn’t break under them. Grasping him with your legs is a cue to go forward, so take a moment and breathe looseness all the way to your ankles. Then check your shoulders–do they belong up by your ears? Release them soft with your breath, let your elbows become kind and elastic, and your wrists be free and open. Finally, how’s your jaw? If you can’t do a human version of a lick and chew, neither can your horse.

Become conscious of your own body but don’t judge. Thank yourself for the awareness. When you feel anxiety, train yourself to exhale slowly. Fear is something that gets stronger in the dark, so drag it into broad daylight and invite it along for the ride. Pretty soon fear will behave like a sullen teenager because you’ve ruined its fun.

So now you and your horse are walking together. Pick an easy day because training a new behavior in the middle of a rodeo isn’t the best choice for either of you. Feel your body move in unison with his, and his body move in unison with yours. Say whoa, melt into the saddle and rest your sitbones. Slack your reins and trust him. Then count to one, reward him profusely, and ask him to walk on. Muster a laugh. Horses like us to laugh.

Repeat this simple walk-halt transition. Don’t hang yourselves out to dry; try to walk again before either of you get too anxious. Good Boy! Then notice that your horse likes not being corrected all the time and reward yourself for that. Gradually add trots and canters, and let the halts last longer. Take forever, and say thank you every time.

Losing awareness of your breath is natural. No guilt, just start again. Count three strides on the inhale. Hold it one stride. Count to three strides on the exhale. Breathing will slow everything down. You’ll know when you get it right because your horse exhales with you.
This re-training will take time. Reward his effort every time he gives you approximately what you want. Then run your body scan again. It’s possible neither of you is perfect just yet. Give your horse time to notice how nice it is being calm together. Give yourself some credit for that and feel your own confidence grow.
Then comes that perfect day with a group of horses, but someone stops breathing and grabs their reins a little too hard. The other horses sense a tussle of panic in the air.
Without thinking, you exhale and your horse stands still. And in hindsight, the idea of training a cue for calmness doesn’t feel impossible at all.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Serenity NOW! (Training Calmness)”

  1. Wonderful post – I love it!!

    When I came back to riding after 25 years out of the saddle my first trainer was an old and dear friend very accomplished in dressage, which I had decided I wanted to learn. I was so nervous – my body felt different in the saddle, I had two children who would need care if I fell off and broke something, and I also struggled with the frustration of having the *memory* of what it felt like to ride well but my body was just not cooperating.

    I’m not exaggerating when I say that 95% of her instruction was the word “breathe.” The fancy dressage mare trotted off like a freight train. “Breathe.” She tossed her head at the walk. “Breathe.” She wouldn’t halt. “Breathe.” She went to the arena gate. “Breathe.” And when she trotted off and jumped over the mounting block my tension let go and my body relaxed and grabbed the old muscle memory of what to do taking a jump and the fancy mare relaxed! And so did I because suddenly I felt like I could trust my body again. And still, the instruction was “breathe.” It fixes pretty much everything! 🙂

  2. Love this!! I have two new to me horses and I am a lifelong novice rider…no pro training here…LOL. But I love to learn and I do try to remember to relax no matter how nervous I may feel at the time. I can see it in their eyes when they feel me relax and that is such a great connection with them. Something that is so hard to explain to non-horsie friends. I too may need to print this post and keep it as a reminder!

  3. Hi Anna, Thank you for another good essay. Breathe, breathe, breathe seems to be the solution to most of our riding issues. A friend’s daughter is an eventing rider, and the daughter talks to her horse during the entire X-C phase. She says the talking helps her to breathe and stay relaxed. A trainer friend also taught me a good lesson. There are times when it’s very important for a horse to remain perfectly still (during mounting & dismounting for example), but other times it’s not as important (for example, your horse is standing ground tied in the aisle, or you’re waiting for your friend to adjust her stirrups, or you’re waiting for your turn to enter the arena, or you’re standing in a cool creek with your friends, etc). The trainer says it’s okay to let your horse take one or two steps. He says the first step might be just that your horse wants to adjust his weight. With the second step your horse might be thinking about “leaving”. With the third step your horse has committed to “leaving”, and that’s when he’ll remind the horse to stand. He says let the horse make the error, then correct. It helps the horse to understand an error was made. If you’re constantly correcting for every move, the horse can’t understand what you want. Then, as you say, both horse and rider get frustrated. I never thought about this, but this is a trainer who talks about being fair and consistent with the horse. I had never really thought about the “fairness” part.

  4. I love this Anna! I love that you mention that horses like us to laugh. I was doing body work on one of my favorite horses at a big barn, and we both heard all of this laughter coming from the arena. There was a group of women there who had let their horses run loose and they were running, bucking and farting. The women were laughing with joy. As the horse I was working on and I watched, we looked at each other and the thought popped into my head ” We love when you laugh!” And I laughed. And it changed how I am with my own horse. I am filled with joy no matter what we are doing. When you laugh, you breathe 🙂 Singing is good too!

  5. My 70 year old body is not my 50 year one. The old “go to ” memory of younger days is locked in a box of arthritis . Breathing I can do. Learning how to melt and let go– not easy. I can laugh, breathe and pray. But oh how I forget. Good reminder Anna!!!

  6. You always have the right post at just the right time. I’ve been riding my whole life, riding decently for a little over a decade now 😉 , and still forget this. My last two rides were awful and wonderful, there were two things that made them so different. On the second we, the horse and I, laughed and had fun together and I remembered to breath.

  7. You’ve made me realize that the times my horse was standing still, (sometimes even cocking a hind hoof), were the times I was gazing off at something else, almost not paying attention to her or where I was or what she was doing. Consequently she really wasn’t doing anything but standing there! I also can’t agree more with picking your time and situation when you want to work on something new. I had someone tell me I shouldn’t allow my horse to jig around while I was getting ready to saddle her, I should “make’ her stand still. All very well but the day was a humid, thundery kind of day and the bugs were on a mission. Trying to MAKE her do anything while we were both hot and itchy could’ve led to a disaster. Instead I commiserated with my horse and we shared the discomfort and neither of us took it out on the other. I know that was not her normal behavior and next time, a nice cool dry day she was back to her congenial self.

    • Amen, Sherry. When good horses have bad days, the last thing they need is to be punished for it. “Make her stand still”, how silly. Good call, and thanks for sharing this comment.

  8. My favorite lines in this blog: “Fear is something that gets stronger in the dark, so drag it into broad daylight and invite it along for the ride. Pretty soon fear will behave like a sullen teenager because you’ve ruined its fun.” A wonderful thing to teach to everyone.

  9. Thank you so very much. The reminder to breathe can never happen too often. My horse and I have had almost a year off due to getting his cushings and chronic laminitis managed. Now he is like a new horse and I’m a bit intimidated. It will be a new beginning. The reminder to breath and stop the nagging and over correcting are huge. And to laugh. Perfect. I’m 67 and Jade is 24. I feel very blessed to have another fresh start.

    • Blessed indeed; we never do outgrow these wonderful creatures; we’re never done with them. Good luck with being back in the saddle. Great comment, we’re pulling for both of you.

  10. ❤️❤️❤️ Love this post too. It is such helpful information, and it comes with instructions! You must have been overhearing my conversations with my friend, Kate Dunn, also a devoted reader, because you are giving us spot on answers and suggestions about things we discuss after our lessons. I can’t wait to try halting without reins and calming my sweet little guy, who tends to speed up at the trot, probably because that’s what I’m telling him to do but don’t know I am doing it. He has gotten much too much rein because I didn’t know there was another way😳 ! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Keep writing and often. You do it so very well, and it’s such a pleasure to read.

    • Ohh! Speeding up at the trot is a good topic, thank you! and it kind of awes me to think that you and a friend talk about the posts after lessons…thank you for sharing that. I work hard to get it right when I’m writing and it’s so nice to hear back. Thank you.

  11. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time!! So many want to blame the horse, and it’s the rider a high percentage of the time. Breathe. It helps in so many areas of your life and your horse will appreciate it too 💕💕

  12. Great advice. Breathing is my first step now in the saddle and one I constantly return to during the ride. Still have to do it consciously. Love your essays and books. I’m re-reading them-something I rarely ever do with a book. I want to get every nugget out of them.
    Happy (belated) birthday too!

    • I think being conscious about breathing is just the way it’s done. It’s how my connect to the present moment…either that or I can’t do it without thinking about it… Thanks for reading (and re-reading.) I appreciate it, Martha!


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