The Art of De-Escalating

It’s an ordinary day. Quiet, no wind. You could be on the trail or in the arena. You might be thinking about work or what to make for dinner or how much you love your horse. Something changes, but you don’t notice. Then that something changes some more. Maybe your horse’s stride gets shorter, maybe he loses that nice tail swing. Now his poll is tense and his eyes wide. You are starting to notice by now. Without asking, your body takes over. Legs clamp down, hands pull the reins and bit tight to your belly, metal on bone in his mouth. You’re more worried about what he might do than what he is doing. You’re as tense as your horse. It doesn’t matter what he saw, you’re both clenched! Breathing? Forget it.

Or you’re training something. You’re not confused about how to ask; you’re actually confident you know how to train it. It isn’t your horse’s first time doing it, he knows what you want. But he’s resisting. So, you ask again. Your cue is a little louder this time as if you are enunciating it. Still resisting. So, now you spell it out, bluntly with heavy cues, your jaw set. His jaw set. You might notice the start of frustration, but you’re too distracted by his resistance, so you don’t notice. You apply more pressure. Horses are supposed to give to pressure, right? His poll is high and tight, his flanks feel like boards. Kick him some more, he’s disrespecting you. Harder, feel your heels hit. And he bolts. Breathing? Forget it.

The only cue you want to give is a loud, resounding, “NO!” But that isn’t even a cue, is it?

You’re having a runaway. No doubt about that. Sure, you can blame it on the horse, but can we talk about the runaway that you had, all your own?

The first case might be debatable. You can say he started it but it’s a small consolation. You joined in with enthusiasm, of a sort. It’s still your job to bring it to a safe end.

In the second case, it is totally on you. Most of us were taught to escalate our cues; that with each ask, we raise the volume, with the idea being that a horse will choose a smaller cue next time. It’s that old idea of respect; that your horse will obey you if they respect that you mean what you say. It’s what we were all taught, and it isn’t totally wrong.

It’s just that horses can’t learn when they are afraid. Some horses will blow up and some shutdown, but no learning. They have an autonomic nervous system and when the flight response kicks in, that’s all. Or they’d be dead. We have the same type of nervous system, but we don’t run as fast. It’s our default to fight.

If this isn’t bad enough, horses have the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. But you’re in a full-blown fight, and he’s in full-blown flight, so this information isn’t exactly helpful now.  Science says his response time is 7X quicker than ours. How are we supposed to be the leader when we start this far behind?

Escalating cues equals escalating anxiety. For both of you.

Do over: There are things visible in hindsight that might not have been as clear before the runaway. You are not in control of a horse. There is no bomb-proof, there is no scenario where a horse stops being a prey animal. Humans, on the other hand, can change their behavior and if we can respond differently, there’s a chance to help horses be more confident when something does happen.

The thing before the thing… The first thing that happens, for both horse and rider, is that breathing stops. Our nervous system does that all on its own. Notice your tight ribs, his tense flanks? Once adrenaline kicks in, it’s hard to fight instinct.

The art of de-escalating begins with breath awareness.

Stay in the moment. You can’t pretend nothing is happening, but you can train yourself to breathe. When panic thoughts come, politely excuse them. You can learn to refuse to take the dare; your quiet breathing will have a positive impact when your horse is frightened. Yes, this is all happening in a split second. It’s the place you have to start. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it’s where you have to begin.

Adversarial cuing breaks trust. Less correction, more direction.

If you’re training and he resists, reward him for thinking. The cue doesn’t need more force behind it. Lift the energy, leave the emotion out of it. Think of it as explaining rather than yelling.

Breathe and ask again, slower and lighter. Be more mindful, rather than escalating the cue. Reward him when you can tell he’s thinking about it, so he’ll learn to trust himself. Let the mental part before his physical response matter, because responsiveness and trust start in his brain. Good training isn’t only about the physical answer; we have to see the whole horse.

You must let him move. Don’t throw away the reins, but at the same time, he needs slack to breathe. A dead hold puts a not-imaginary brick wall in front of him. His only way out is to bolt or rear. Give him some slack, think of it as a cue to relax. You can ask and release with the reins, you have the last resort of a one-rein stop, but give him a chance to find himself in partnership rather than punishment. This is the seed of confidence; reward that. Let him find his feet and hold himself.

Get on the good side of their response time. If they come apart 7X quicker than we can respond, then they also come back together 7X quicker. The sooner you breathe and get present in the moment, rather than rolling down the hill like a hysterical snowball, the sooner your horse can feel calm again.

If a calming signal is a horse’s way of telling us they are no threat, and it is, then we can give the same signal back to them. Demonstrate the quiet you want him to feel.

Horses don’t just learn from us when we’re giving a cue. They also learn something about us.

Twice a week for eight years, Blog Love! It’s our anniversary. Cheers!

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

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “The Art of De-Escalating”

  1. EXCELLENT!! Required reading for every rider and perfect explanation of how counter productive escalated cuing is just as adrenaline is climbing in the partnership! Getting softer in the request, the breath, the direction, the “here’s your yes!” instead of “no!” I can’t wait to play with this, Anna! Each recommendation I’ve tried has brought my partner and I closer in kindness and clarity.

  2. “… rolling down the hill like a hysterical snowball…” Describes me 3 years ago when my OTTB spooked the first time I rode a lesson in the outdoor arena. All I could think of was holding on so I wrapped my arms around his neck as he took flight. He swerved left at the end and the laws of physics took over. I went right, right through the board fence. I didn’t blame him. I knew I did all the wrong things which just added fuel to his flight. My intellect knew what I should do but it took 2 years to rewire my habit of tensing. Just last week he spooked as we turned down the centerline. I didn’t tense or bobble just used my outside leg to get him back on track. Quite a milestone! My trainer was thrilled.
    Happy anniversary, Anna! And thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom.

  3. Happy Anniversary. Your work is timeless and gives me something to add to my relationship with my horse every week. What do you know about horses now that you didn’t eight years ago? Any beliefs you’ve abandoned? Realizations? Or about your students?

    • Great questions. I don’t think that I am much different than before, but probably more affirmed. Writing teaches me, horses teach me. It all works together, at the same time, I remember my mentor and I feel like at my current age, the age she was when I rode with her 30 years ago, I’m finally starting to understand a little bit about horses. Thanks, Shannon, for asking!

  4. Anna this is fabulous. thank you. i just took my boy away somewhere new and he stayed overnight (big ask) and came out high and tense the next day. in the arena i stayed on the ground and tried not to enter his anxiety bubble, but to create a new,calm one. I kept hearing many of your words. breathe! and just tried to help him move ….but in a calmer way …” … really didnt take long, and then he stopped running, then he matched my breath, we both took an extra deep one ………and came towards me to rest. it was a special moment. i got on, rode, and he was soft and relaxed. my instructor was pleased with my ability to read my horse, and surprised at how much we later achieved . so a HUGE thank you your writing has really helped give me a focus in those sometimes scary times.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I believe this is a major AHhaa for me. I am super excited to meet you next week at the clinic in Snohomish. Congratulations on your anniversary.

  6. A life lesson for any relationship, though I sure am grateful to have horses in mine. This applies to my Toy Aussie dogs, too, not sure about my cat . . . Never had donkeys or goats . . .Grateful to have your thoughts in my life, hope to make it personal some day!

  7. Happy Anniversary!..and thank you once again for a superb piece of writing that is not only amusing to read, but SO important that it should be compulsary reading for every rider. Anna, you are amazing!

  8. Reading this post, I was reminded of yesterday evening in our arena.

    I was riding Archie, our 3-yo AQHA stud colt. I’m starting Archie with a bosal and this was our 5th or 6th ride, together.

    The ride went well. We walked, trotted, and loped each direction a little, then quit before anyone got frustrated. I dismounted, loosened the girth, and started leading Archie toward the arena gate.

    Initially, he responded to a light ask and started following me. Then, for whatever reason, he locked up. I responded by adding a little pressure and holding it, waiting for some small try…a step…or shift of weight. I held…and held…no change. I thought about increasing the pressure, but was not sure the bosal would stay on…it’s not really designed to work as a halter.

    So, I’m holding pressure thinking, “Come on, Archie! Give me something, so I can give back. Just a little weight shift. Okay, just some sort of softening. I need something, buddy!” And, of course, I’m thinking whatever I do I cannot release pressure without a try, or he’ll think he doesn’t have to do what I ask.

    After a good five minutes of standing there with no change, I decided it was starting to get ridiculous. I released pressure, stepped back to pet his face, then led off again, at a slight angle (not straight on) and Archie nicely responded and followed me like there was nothing to it.

    I’m still figuring this horsemanship stuff out…and I know I probably get it wrong as often as right…and I’m sure some folks would say I handled that wrong yesterday evening.

    But, it sure was nice to feel like we de-escalated the confrontation to find a way to communicate effectively. 🙂

    • I agree, de-escalting is good science as well as training. I know in your world there is a belief that horses give to pressure but my experience says that horses release to release… Great comment, Joe. Love to hear someone isn’t fighting young stallions.

      • “Horses release to release.”

        That’s interesting. I’ll have to give that some more thought as I work with our horses. Although I’ve never heard the phrase before, I know there’s truth to the statement. The horse relaxes when I relax. I’ll have to think about how best to apply that in training.

        Thank you, Anna!

  9. If I were a riding instructor, and God knows I’ll never qualify, the first thing I would teach are human calming signals. They’d have to pass a haunted house-like adrenaline test before they could ever get on a horse. Think it would work?

    Happy Anniversary! Eight years of twice a week is astounding. A+ for consistency and brilliance!

    Seeing you on the 20th! YAY!

  10. Love this, thank you so much. Relaxed breathing and a very quiet slow manner is now enabling me to catch my once ‘flighty’ young mare. I will use your training when she gets scared and goes to bolt.?

  11. Happy Anniversary! I wish it had not taken me so long to find your writing, a year or so ago, but I’m very thankful I finally did. Thank you not only for your words, but for sharing your point of view.

  12. Happy Anniversary, Anna!!!! So much wonderful, useful advice and loving care for both humans and horses (and dogs, kids, spouses, etc. by extension).

  13. Can I just insert you into my brain all day every day? This is true whether in my class room when I’m dealing with my 6th grade students, my personal children, my husband and even my stress load at work. I have gotten better but I have a LONG way to go. I needed to hear this today when I was teaching my horse to transition (on-line) without pulling on the end of the rope. Beautiful at the walk…..gorgeous at the trot. But as soon as I asked for a canter, tension entered. White eyed, stiff necked, faster and faster her legs moved and my 22′ line was tight as a tight rope. I was just looking for her to put slack in the rope. That’s all I wanted. Round and round and round she went until I felt the slack. Release. I’m wondering if there was a better way. I’m wondering if I missed something long before that I could have released on. I’m wondering if I was breathing. I am so thankful for you…for reminding me what I needed to be reminded of all the time. Will I ever learn? Happy Anniversary. Please don’t stop doing these blogs. I want to come train with you……..

    • Oh trust me on this. You really don’t want me in your brain.

      Horses have canter anxiety for good reasons and it sounds like a standoff. You don’t have to wait for her to slack the Rope. You can do it first. Like a leader, you can help her. Waiting for the horse to release is old school; she might be fearful at the canter because she can’t get out of it easily. (Very common) Going forward, I’d ask for the canter smaller and quieter, she can hear you. And then ask her to drop back to the trot after a half circle or so. As for pulling, maybe you started it or maybe her, but you can stop it, by slacking the rope. You might have to do it a few times, but release teaches release. Good luck, Vicki. Go slower for her.

      • Thank you…slower was the right answer. I asked for two strides and back to the trot, then walk. I only asked for small transitions. Tension never entered. I don’t know who put it there in the first place but it doesn’t matter. You are right…..I CAN take it out. Thank you Anna.

  14. Fix problems not possibilities. That’s been my mantra lately. I’ve just started riding again after a serious accident in January left me with multiple broken bones (horse slipped and fell on the ice). I’m relieved to find I don’t have much fear, but I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t worry about something that might happen . . . because that tension translates to the horse and increases the chance that it will happen! Luckily I’m starting back on a gentle soul who doesn’t worry much and that helps me stay calm too.

    • Liz, glad you are still in the land of the living. Hope the recovery is going well. And thanks for the comment. Worry is huge to horses; it lurks like a coyote.

  15. I love your suggestions to help make my relationship better with my horse. Sometimes we just need a little refresher suggestion. Thanks for all your great advice.

  16. Happy Anniversary, Anna! Thanks for showing me that there is so much more to my relationship with my horses than just sitting on them…This is a huge comfort as I grow older and have fewer moments where riding is possible! Love your work!

    • I don’t talk about the aging thing, but you’re right. And it works the other way, too. I’ve had a couple of young horses need to retire and of course, they’ll stay here. It’s still a full relationship. Thanks, Judy.

  17. 🙂 “the thing before the thing” I remember Ray Hunt asking that very question of SO many riders in his clinics. So…what happened before your horse got upset? what did he do before he bucked you off? what did you do before he bolted??? Oh my goodness – yes! If only our brains responded with not only more speed, but with clarity – everything would be so much easier. As a rider, I absolutely need to learn to breathe continuously and pay so much more attention to my horse. Love your posts! I will forever be a “student of the horse”…and of myself too.

    • That’s my plan, to continue to be a student. Their senses mean they are just that far ahead of us! Thanks, Lorie.

  18. I had a very bad trail riding accident that resulted in a hip replacement combined with a fear of riding that I had only read about and never experienced on my own. After reading Stable Relation and your blogs, I decided one day that I just needed to ride like I used to love doing without worrying about my hip or being consumed by fear. This was a few months ago and it was ONLY in an arena but I actually trotted my mare and rode in a saddle for the first time in a long time and it felt great. Since then I’ve been on two trail rides that began with an all consuming fear combined with anxiety and tears but both rides ended well. Your wisdom and ability to communicate from the horse’s perspective has really helped me to be a better partner for my mare. I owe her and my best riding buddy a lot of thanks for being so patient with me. Thank you Anna for helping me to get back in the saddle again.

    • Oh my heart. Reading this is really humbling… well, done Michelle. And no, it isn’t my writing. It’s all about you and your Mare. Riding is relatively easy until an injury like yours. Is it dorky to say I’m proud of you? It’s a big deal to face fear and you rock. Thank you for letting me know, glad you have physically recovered enough to get in the saddle. I’ll trust your mare with the rest.

  19. Anna, where have you been ?
    Why oh why have I only just discovered you ?
    I’m a completely mad 57 English woman living in Bulgaria. Living the dream with my long suffering husband, various dogs and cats, and a beautiful East Bulgarian mare called Karina.
    I bought her as an untrained 4yr old, the only experience she had of humans was brutal. That is the way here, all macho and dominant. We’ve had her just 3yrs now and it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride. I’ve had a lot of scary moments and many have been due to my own lack of confidence. Escalation has often been the order of the day and I’ve found myself clinging onto a totally hysterical horse who doesn’t know whether to go forward or backward.
    My background is “old school” English foxhunting. Firm contact & always in charge. But after around 20yrs out of horses I feel like a novice again. However, I am enjoying a whole new way of thinking and trying really hard to give Karina the most natural and relaxed way of life possible. She is never shut in, free to wander day and night, between sand covered yard, roomy stable and small paddock. She is barefoot.If you saw the brutality of the so called farriers here, you would be horrified. And the shoes are really bad, sort of one size fits all…make the foot fit the shoe,not the shoe fit the foot.
    So anyway, after all that, your advice about breathing, listening to your horse and remaining calm is so helpful. Kind of obvious really, but we don’t always see the obvious, unti someone else points it out.
    I’m reading your blogs over and over until they are firmly implanded in my head.This may take some time !
    Still returning to default sometimes when panic sets in. It’s not always easy, the other day two gypsies came past us on a narrow track in a horse and full gallop !!
    Macho boys who think that sort of thing is funny.
    Karina and I will overcome. She’s a delight and so keen to please.

    Thank you, love your philosophy.

    • Hi Kate. Bulgaria? Wonderful, thanks for reading. For what it’s worth, most of us started that old school way and change is as hard for us as it is for horses. Your comment is wonderful, thank you, and I agree. You and Karina will overcome!!

      • Yep Bulgaria !
        When my husband suggested we move here, I had to look it up in the atlas. A challenging, but wonderful place to live.
        Just been out for a long reining session. On the way we met 2 tethered horses, a goat and the usual mix of free range chickens and geese. Total calm preveiled and nobody got over excited. Every day is an adventure..!

        Looking forward to your next post.


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