The Middle Path: Discipline

“I’ve noticed that you sometimes seem to take reader requests for your blog, and I was wondering if you might sometime be able to talk about the specifics of correction. I find myself struggling sometimes to know exactly what to do, not wanting to be too harsh but at the same time not wanting to be a namby-pamby nag.”

It’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Dominating a horse into terrified submission is always a bad idea. I’m not sure that nagging them into a stupor is any kinder. Finding the middle path with a horse, between these extremes, is the sweet spot where communication flows without stress and confusion. Name that place confidence.

First, I am always going to wonder why we feel such a need to punish or correct horses. The obvious answer is that they aren’t doing what we want. Most of us feel some sort of nebulous voice warning us about respect or the danger of wild animals or the opinion that the natural world must bow to us because humans are superior. The voice has a slightly parental ring to it.

Most people tell me that they feel uncomfortable punishing animals, in spite of that traditional back chatter. It makes for an over-busy brain. Once and for all, pick a side. Dump the concept that correction or discipline as a necessary part of training. Tell those Neanderthal voices to shut up and correct the internal anxiety in your own mind. In that moment of peace, recognize that discipline is your friend.

Think about the idea of correction. The behavior that just happened is already in the past, but we are choosing to drag it back into the present, so we can discipline our horse about something he thinks is finished. Sure, he does learn from being corrected but not what you want. Punishment damages the trust our horses have in us. Really think about that. Then, correct yourself; let go of your grudge and get back in the present moment. Reward your own discipline.

If something went wrong, on the ground or in the saddle, correct your judgment and take a breath. Hear the amen choir coming from your horse, who is now starting to love this new definition of discipline.

Did your horse swing his head too close or push into you? You’re in his space. Discipline yourself to step back and let his anxiety cool. Watch for calming signals. If he licks or yawns or shakes his neck into a stretch, good job. You have listened to him. Real love means giving him autonomy.

Did your horse nip at your hand? He’s in pain; don’t you dare correct that. Behavior is the only way horses have of telling us how they feel. Listen to where it hurts. If he doesn’t stand still while saddling, think about ulcer issues. Correct your quickness. Slow down and pay attention any misbehavior, translated as discomfort. Listen to his body, regardless of your time constraints. Now that’s real discipline; put your horse’s needs above your ego. Good girl!

Let’s say the thought that you might be a namby-pamby nag crosses your mind. Take the idea seriously. Have a no tolerance policy for muffling your own voice. Correct your mind-jumble. Pause, inhale and say exactly what you mean in a clear cue. Focus and don’t apologize or let yourself be distracted.

Stay on task, don’t repeat yourself. Watch his eye; his face. Is he thinking about it? Of course, especially if he’s giving calming signals. Reward him right then. Reward him for thinking; build his try. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Let him figure it out. Discipline yourself to give him time to do it himself.

Training isn’t a right or wrong game. It’s that kids game of Hot and Cold. Ignore his cold responses and let him know when he’s getting warmer. Be generous in praise of all things heading the right direction. It’s called progressive approximation and it’s how all of us learn. Discipline yourself to be ridiculously cheerful and positive. Now you’re mentally looking forward and your horse can’t tell the difference between discipline and partnership. Yay! Winning!

Search your memory. Was there a time that being called out and humiliated taught you anything positive? Did someone feeling sorry for you make you stronger? Have you ever felt betrayed by someone who under-estimated you? Then correct yourself when you say words like “rescue” and “problem with my horse.”

If you don’t like the plight of the horse, get off FB and into community government. Donate the money spent on manicure and hair dye, and get ready for world transformation. Create actual change but understand whining about it in front of a horse does more damage to how he relates to you, than it does good in the world.

Correct your definition of training problem; stop seeing horses as hapless children or dysfunctional victims. They are not stuffed toys who magically heal us. We must do our own work before we can help them. Discipline yourself to see horses in their full glory. Strong and intelligent. As perfectly capable of trust and partnership as humans are. Aspire to keep that promise.

Continue to cue cleanly, clearly, and consistently. The other word for that is honesty. It’s a profound relief to just say what you mean. No longer biting your tongue, soon confidence seeps in because honesty just feels good. Nice correction, give yourself a pat. Most women have known enough confident asshats that confidence has gotten a bad name.

Redefine confidence is a sense of positive well-being based in honesty. Set about demonstrating that for your horse. Know that training a horse to have confidence,  to feel peace and acceptance, is the resolution for every problem he will ever encounter. Leadership is giving a feeling of safety. Correct your stiff contradictions and anxiety about not being good enough. Recognize you’re passing it on to your horse, causing the behaviors you want to correct in him. Discipline yourself to accept your shortcomings and promise to do better. Love yourself as much as you love horses.

Your horse doesn’t care if you’re always right; he just wants to trust himself through your partnership. Your confidence is his confidence. Train that.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 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. 

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “The Middle Path: Discipline”

  1. This is a wonderful piece of writing Anna. I’m thinking, yet again, that the message has a rather universal application.

    And as an aside, I wish I had read this line decades ago. “It’s a profound relief to just say what you mean. No longer biting your tongue, soon confidence seeps in because honesty just feels good”. It took far too long to learn on my own (and I am still working on it).

  2. Yes, this is a good one. Thank you! At some point I’d love to know more about pain signals. That comment about nipping at your hand was interesting to me and I’d love an elaboration. My OTTB has been a mystery, I’ve always had a feeling that something is not quite right and have been going over him with a fine-toothed comb with my vet. Trying to follow my gut when people say just to “work through it.” or something like that. Trying to understand what he’s telling me.

      • Thanks Anna. I had a feeling there might be a past one in there somewhere. Since I am a newcomer I haven’t read your entire oeuvre yet! I have learned the hard way that I have to take the reins with the health of my horses–steer my vet, ask questions relentlessly, research, but all the while maintain a good relationship with her–be fair and kind. It’s hard for them to walk into the barn and understand what is going on with a horse when they don’t have the benefit of seeing them day in and day out.

  3. This post is going to stick with me, Ic an tell. I’m thinking you should call your “method” Slow Horsemanship as in Slow Food and Slow Money which are all good things in my mind 🙂

  4. “Redefine confidence as a sense of positive well-being based in honesty.” So much good stuff in this one, but this quote sums it up for me. It has the right feeling that “discipline” should have. Thank you for writing this!

  5. I love this one, Anna, and I didn’t cry! I laughed at a couple things, but mostly trying to read and absorb what you’re saying because it all just makes so much sense to me and is how I want to be with my horse. Thank you again!

  6. Wow, so much more than just about training a horse! This section, “If you don’t like the plight of the horse, get off FB and into community government. Donate the money spent on manicure and hair dye, and get ready for world transformation.” made me think of a number of people I have “unfriended” on FB because of their rants on politics and the condition of the world. Quit ranting about it and do what you can to change it! Maybe it’s just me, but this one was a whole lot more about life than just horses and riding. Thank you!

  7. I can’t believe how difficult it is to follow this advice when it really is so simple, but I keep trying!! It’s a very yin/yang concept I suppose. That’s why I keep reading the Friday blog…..the little horse trainer that could!! Fixing the perceived “problem” in horse behavior truly starts with us humans.

  8. Generally I love your approach. But this one just doesn’t work for me. The other day I took my horse out of his stall. It was very cold outside. He had been turned out the previous day and ridden the day before that without problems. On the trail he’s a gem. But the other day he ran me over coming out of the stall and nearly dragged me down the aisle. Then he nearly ran me over going into the arena to be turned out again. There was no taking a breath and considering what he was thinking. He WASN’T thinking. So I let him know by halting him a couple of times and backing him up, that even though he was feeling frisky, he still had to have manners. I was a bit hard on him the first time I disciplined him because he was not listening or thinking. Thereafter he was back to his usual polite self. Years ago I learned the 3 second rule: you have three seconds to respond to something your horse does. I think that works better than what you suggest unless I am completely misunderstanding what you wrote.

    • If a horse behaves out of their usual range of behavior, then I always know he is telling me something, and usually that something hurts. Without seeing this myself, I won’t debate it with you. It was an out of the ordinary day for both of you is my guess. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Thanks for that. The only thing I “punish” is a deliberate bite. My mustang came with a lot of ortho issues and once she learned that I “heard” what she was saying when she swung her head around while using Masterson Method bodywork, things began to change. Now she is “the princess and the pea” and uses that head swing to let me know of the slightest discomfort. She sometimes attempts a feeble nip when frustrated with training. Anything more than that she finds that she’s run into my elbow. Oopsie. My struggle is with clarifying my communication, paring it down, and, getting out of her face! Liberty work has always been our best (even though she’s turned into a great saddle horse) and lately I’ve opened it up into much larger areas and encouraged her to PLAY with me. Made all the difference in the world.

    • Hi Kerry. If you are doing bodywork, especially, I have to be clear. She is not being naughty. She is communicating clearly. How can you be certain it is the “slightest discomfort?” I do some bodywork, too. I am a professional trainer who works with rescue horses and therapeutic riding horses. I’ve never met a horse who was dishonest. But we can disagree. Thank you for commenting. Good luck with your mare.

  10. Thanks, Anna. This one really hits home for me. I especially like the “hot/cold” metaphor! And the direct/honest/truth approach…ahhh, what a novel idea! Sort of off topic, but I also agree with the comments about contributing your own observations to your vet seeing as how we are with our horses more often than our vets are and can see changes that our vets cannot know about. This led to a diagnosis of Lyme’s for one of my horses that he would not have been tested for had I not persisted. While I didn’t know them as calming signals before reading your recent article, I had been able to recognize when he would exhibit behavioral changes, and communicate them to me through calming signals.

  11. *sigh* Yes! It’s so much more difficult for me to love myself, than for me to love my horse and others. But when I am kind and tolerant of myself, I find that I’m so much better at passing that love and kindness along. Breathe, grin and ride on…

  12. *Redefine confidence as a sense of positive well-being based in honesty*

    This. In the overwhelmingly male population of my profession (landscaping), my confidence is often – make that usually – redefined as a quality that is less desirable. It is a struggle to feel comfortable being myself, and then I go get on my horse.

    Making the above words part of my 2018 strategies. Thanks Anna!

  13. Thank you…this is the praise I needed to encourage me to stay on the right track for being with my mares…we all work and learn better with praise and encouragement….nothing defeats us more than being put down, attacked, shouted at when we are trying… different to any horse or animal. I will be staying on the path I’m on…praise love keeping a happy smiling face …remembering when something didn’t turn out to my expectations to rethink how I can present it better to help them understand what I’m searching for.

  14. I hope I have enough fascia around my barn to paint this onto it in calligraphy…: “Know that training a horse to have confidence, to feel peace and acceptance, is the resolution for every problem he will ever encounter. Leadership is giving a feeling of safety.” So beautiful.

    • When I was riding a young, spooky Arabian, my trainer told me it wasn’t about the scary thing, it was about “being on the aids”, dressage talk for being connected. There are dozens of classical dressage master quotes that say the same. This isn’t a new idea. But thank you for including me in your barn, Michelle!

  15. Enlightened training? Grounded training? Observational training? Seems all “training” has to have a label these days, or I guess you could tag “horsemanship” onto those labels and there you go. A training method that really considers the horse. Wow!
    It seems like so many of today’s methods of working with don’t really deal with the horse and where the horse is coming from, which contradict what you are talking about. It has always seemed crazy to me the amount of pressure many people use to move a horse but when I look at it from the perspective of person/horse I can see it often takes a huge amount of pressure to move a person from one idea to another. Perhaps when they project an idea onto their horse they feel justified or that it’s necessary to be so big. I see people bullying their horses all the time in the name of training, and now I wonder if that is the self talk they use on themselves? And why is it so many feel they must “conquer” their horse, as if it’s an adversary they can’t give any ground to?
    This post has made my brain spin (in a good way) and I thank you (again) for your insight and your ability to word that insight so it makes sense and I can FEEL its rightness.

    • I get negative comments on FB that leave me wondering if people can tell the difference between a horse with manners in pain from a “naughty” horse they believe is looking to attack humans. Domination training is alive and well. Thanks, Jane. Great comment.

  16. This is the game changer. And it is so difficult. I have always erred on the side of wishy washy. Which I’ve recognized this past year as not being confident in what I know. Or don’t know. So many factors for so many years have contributed to that. It’s time to let them go. I’m beginning to recognize and distinguish between what is really me not being confident and what is me listening. Because many well meaning onlookers don’t distinguish between the two. “Just give him a good kick.” Not going to happen EVER again. “Tell him clearly what you want to accomplish and why.” I can do that. He might have a good reason to disagree but we we are having a conversation. Seriously big sigh.

    • Amen! And if the opinions of railbirds worked, I’d be out of training work. As long as folks train with harshness, there will be horses who flunk out. So Sad. Thanks Patty, and good for you. Keep studying and learning, but know that confidence is a different art.

  17. Isnt it sad that for all the natural horsemanship talk – so much of it isn’t! The world of Ray Hunt & Tom Dorrance are so far from many who proclaim “natural” horsemanship. Actually, Anna, we need to rename it! How about natural HORSEWOMANSHIP? I think, on the whole, women have a better handle on it. (MOST women) I realize there are some who are just as determined to be “the boss” as any guy is. But – heres my feminist side – such as it is – most of us have had to put up with the macho thing ourselves at one point or another. Kind of gives a whole different outlook on working with a prey animal.

  18. This has given me so much to think about and work on! Your approach is so positively transformational. I’ve been working on how I work with my horses for a long while now, but realize more and more what a distance I still have to go, and looking forward to it with more enthusiasm than anything I’ve tackled so far in my life, because the results are so very, very gratifying. I could say more, but I have to go talk to my horses, right now, and see why that mare puts her ears back every time I put a saddle on her back! Thanks Anna. Looking forward to your clinic in NZ!

    • Oh, Phyllis. That first sentence of your comment…. I feel exactly that way. It amazes me after a lifetime with horses, that it’s getting ever more fascinating and rewarding. We are meeting in NZ? Wonderful! Thanks for commenting!

  19. Great post. Reminds me of our conversation … a friend asked me if you were referring to me as this is an issue I’m working on…. but I assume this inquiry comes up from a lot of people ! Glad you are writing about this.

  20. Thank you Anna…I’m the person who wrote to you a couple of months back with this question. I’m a relative beginner who finds myself in my mid 40’s with two beautiful horses in my yard. I’m often at a loss for what to “do” in many situations and afraid of doing the wrong thing. I totally get what you’re saying and it has made a subtle but significant difference in the way I relate to my horses. As usual, I find that the difficulties I have with them are metaphors for life in general. Damn it. Anyway, grateful I stumbled across your blog and thank you for taking the time to address my request with such insight and depth.

  21. A question if I may: I am an elderly rider with a rescued horse – neither of us have much formal riding schooling. Ninety-eight % of the time we get on just fine – outriding/exploring together peacefully, a few canters or just walking if that’s what suits, four or five times a week. A few times a month he spooks moderately, usually at something quite logical from his perspective; now and then I have no idea what his problem is. Sometimes that’s fine, I sit it out and we move on. Other times, I become afraid and feel at risk – we are in a confined space and if I fell I could land on a fence, for example – so I get off. Lead him back to the problem area and let him, at his own pace, approach, sniff it and overcome his fears. We stroll on, and when my heart is beating normally, I get back on him and continue our ride. Works for me but I am niggled by advice from others that I SHOULD NOT dismount but tough it out – that I am teaching the horse to manipulate me to dismount. I cannot, at 70, afford to fall off – done a bit of that in past years and always been lucky – so I think I am being sensible. Your take please Oh Wise Anna. I am too young to stop riding! mj

    Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, IRDNC trustee CSN trustee ONE WORLD CONSULTING cc Swakopmund Namibia +264-(0)81-1276995

    • The idea that anyone wants to criticize your riding means they might be jealous… No. Getting off does no such silly thing. Making your horse feel safe is good leadership. Besides, we always get off; their logic fails because it’s how every ride ends. MJ, you have my respect. Ride on!

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