Creativity and the Problem with Training Techniques.

We were standing around the barn after the vet had left, a group of trainers and riders and horses, telling stories and laughing. I can’t remember what I said now, but the European trainer got suddenly serious with me, saying “You know there is only one right way to train that, don’t you?” I don’t remember what was said after that. The sentence shocked me, the accent made me feel scolded.

When I started back with horses after leaving home, I had two geldings who were as different as black and white. Some of it was physical; not the same conformation or size or age, but their personalities were polar opposites, too. One was arrogant and one had no confidence. One was always too quick and one liked to “conserve energy.” One was food aggressive and one wandered away from his grain. One way to train? I hadn’t even had one way to tack up.

The European trainer worked with nice horses, who performed well or flunked out. In a way, it wasn’t the worst thing. If you don’t feel you can get a good result with a horse, it’s best to say so. Most of the horses I trained came with a “history”, which is a code word for coming apart before, and an owner who wasn’t ready to give up. Good clients for me since I’m the sort who won’t flunk a horse out.

What do you do if quitting the horse isn’t an option? Some ask for advice and get fifty opinions claiming there is just one thing that will work, but they all contradict each other. Some will search the internet for a simple answer, trying a different technique every day for a month, but ending up with the same dazed and confused look their horse has. Frustration rules, they plead to the sky, a trainer, or the barn cat, “Just tell me what to do!”

The problem with a canned training technique, whether it’s an old DVD or on YouTube, is that it’s all great if your horse does the identical thing that the horse in the video does. But if your horse gives a different answer, you’re stuck. We must understand the “why” underlying the technique before attempting the “how,”  to ensure we don’t damage our horses.

Seeing a training issue from the horse’s side, it’s almost as if the human says something like, “Where is North Dakota?” and looks expectantly at the horse, who doesn’t have any idea. The human has been taught to escalate cues if the horse is resistant and soon the human’s voice has gone harsh, a whip might be tapping somewhere, and no one is breathing. It’s an impasse, the human can’t back down, now yelling, “Where is North Dakota?” and the horse is moving into his sympathetic nervous system, the flight/fight/freeze mode. No good learning can happen now.

This isn’t abuse, it’s just the nature of a human working against the nature of a horse.

Let’s say you know better than getting a stronger bit or wearing spurs. How to proceed? Stop fighting! It takes real leadership skill to wage peace. It means we prioritize the horse over our emotions. This is an acquired skill, it takes practice.

First and always, make good and sure the horse is sound. Don’t assume it, horses aren’t natural fighters and most of the time resistance comes from pain. Then get mentally engaged with the idea of how horses learn. Think less about an answer by rote and more about learning to communicate in the horse’s language.

Critics of our education system worry that we’re producing test-takers instead of creative thinkers. I worry about the same thing in the training world. We want to recite the right technique so the horse will perform the right task. We grade each effort as pass or fail. Horses look like robots and at the same time, we hope for beauty and finesse. We’re crazy-making.

Worst of all, when we use canned techniques without understanding who horses are and how they think, it’s the equivalent of an angry adult demanding compliance, “because I said so,” with the end result more important than the methods used. Instead, we should be engaging the horse’s curiosity and rewarding the try, beginning a path of learning that neither side ever wants to end.

Training techniques do have a place. Consider them the cheerful classroom where we meet, the studio where the art is created. Techniques are the starting place, not the be-all, because training should be less about blind obedience and more about understanding and perception from both teacher and student. One size never fits all but that’s the best part. It means we constantly add to our well of understanding of horses, that they will be endlessly fascinating in their individuality, and training will never be an answer by rote for us, either.

The topic of creativity is missing in everything I read about horse training, except for the words of classical riding masters who frequently said riding was an art.  They didn’t mean it as a figure of speech. It was literal.

Are you intimidated to call yourself an artist? Does the word come with baggage and expectation? Would you need to wear black? I had a long art career and I credit my success to growing up on a farm. It’s about getting by on wits and some twine, working with materials on hand. It’s thinking things through before rushing ahead, and knowing that sometimes trying an alternate route is better. It’s having a goal that’s hidden from view, and thinking it’ll be fun finding it. Instead of yelling, “Where is North Dakota?” louder, it’s starting the conversation by saying, “Want to go somewhere?”

How important is creativity? It’s how fear turns into curiosity. It’s how brains win over brawn. It’s the action of being in the moment with a horse and letting go of the need to control how the conversation unfolds. Creativity is changing perspective and experimenting, letting natural anticipation work in your favor.  It’s discovering a way to only say yes to a horse, and still get the result you want.

Creativity is how a human becomes more interesting than grass.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Join us at The Barn, our online training group at annablake.com
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Anna Blake

82 thoughts on “Creativity and the Problem with Training Techniques.”

  1. I’m not a commenter, but I just had to let you know that this is the best thing I have read in a long time – it speak to me so much, and I deeply appreciate you speaking these truths out into the world! Thank you!

  2. “We must understand the “why” underlying the technique before attempting the “how,” to ensure we don’t damage our horses.”

    Exactly! 🙂

    And if we understand the “why” then we can adapt the technique to different situations and different personalities.

    Thank you, Anna!

  3. I think that this is my favorite post out of the 5 or 6 years I’ve followed you, Anna Blake! So clear and sensible!

  4. I love the picture of your Spirit Horse and The Artful Dodger. Reminded me of wonderful times. Keep the lessons coming Anna. We’re all still infants in this learning process.

  5. My husband comes from and grew up on a small island in the Caribbean where resources are costly due to high import fees. “Creativity” is his middle name. Back in the States, years ago we went on a judged pleasure ride. One of the “obstacles” was: “Your horse has a stone in his foot. You’re out on the trail. What do you do.” I had a hoof pick in my fanny pack that I used to pry the “stone” out. I got a 10 out of 10. My husband looked around, found a stiff tree branch, quickly fashioned a pick out of it and pried the “stone” out. He got a zero! Of course he didn’t argue over it. But I always preferred riding with him because I knew whatever happened, he knew what to do with the resources that were available.
    Did I mention he’s a live-in-the-moment kind of guy? Our horses really love that about him!

  6. I love the “where is north Dakota” analogy. What a great way to describe it. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are almost no ‘always’ or ‘nevers’ with horses and folks that use them should be taken with a grain of salt. Well, almost all the time lol.

  7. Impeccable timing with your post today …. hope to work with Cash this weekend on improvement with boundaries, and that should ( hopefully) involve finding my creativity rather than my inner critic. What you write here is so true; I know from personal experience as I have a horse who has been in no way encouraged or helped by traditional, cookie cutter methods. For him, escalation of cues results in shutting down or panic, and who can blame him? He hasn’t a clue where North Dakota is ! Neither do I for that matter….

    Your experience reminds me of being at a clinic, and one of the participants said to me, ” You know a horse can be WRONG don’t you?” Didn’t Tom Dorrance remind us that a horse is never wrong, only doing what he thinks he is supposed to be doing, and how can that be wrong? But you are right, too few horse people write or train in this way.

    Anyhow, thanks Anna ! Another timely and well-articulated post.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I did write this for the interaction in the Barn this week… and best wishes to you and Cash, that you might wind up in North Dakota but some alternate route.

  8. Seems like I’m always typing the same thing: I love this! Where is North Dakota? And yes, that’s what we do and then get frustrated when the horse doesn’t have the right answer, so thank you for putting it into words so well.

  9. I do love the Parelli system it’s emphasis on reading the horse and being in the moment. It has saved my life (more than once) and turned my horses into solid citizens who actually like me. However, it has many layers and must be studied. Too many people think it’s about cookies, hugs and playing games until the horse just does what he’s asked to shut the human up. That’s because the only read the first few pages of chapter 1.

  10. What a wonderful blog post. I’ve increasingly come to realize, I think, that there are trainers who teach you how to ride and then there are trainers who teach horsemanship. (Be wary of all of them!) And I think people should be required to study mindfulness and calming signals before they can own a horse (or work with a horse). We have such subconscious hard drives and a lot of the time we aren’t even aware of what our brains are telling us! Man have I made mistakes and they haunt me. So thankful for enlightened people like you Anna who are bringing a new consciousness to the human-equine partnership.

  11. Anna, you’ve articulated what I’ve followed, and been saying, for years: “cookbook” training is only a starting place, a tool in the trainer’s toolbox. Those tools only work if you can apply the things NOT amenable to a DVD or YouTube video; I can’t teach creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, patience, timing, feel, or sensitivity, and those qualities are what separate teachers from trainers. Your European colleague would have gotten a hearty guffaw from me with his absolutism, accompanied by a quick rejoinder that there is no “right” way for much of anything in the horse world; only what’s most effective for me as an individual teacher, and the horse as an individual student.

  12. Shared. The caveat to the statement that training horses is an art is that, like any artist, there must be a close and personal relationship with the medium. Whether it’s paint, music, or marble – there must be an emotional connection to the object. For me it’s horses. Training horses is the art of the dance; matching movements, emotions; getting out of the way or lifting the partner when the dance calls for it. There’s no one way to paint, sculpt, sing, dance, or train horses. One required element is love.

    Fabulous article. Thank you.

  13. You are the trainer I want to be with! Do you give clinics in Montana ever?
    I live inMissoula Mt. What is your schedule like?
    I’ve been reading your blog and know that you resonate with my experience of being with horses.

  14. I agree with Gregory. I like getting lots of tools so I can reach for different ones when the one I have doesn’t work. It must be to alleviate anxiety that some need to have “The Answer.” But how boring! Much more fun for us and the horse if something doesn’t work and you have to rethink things. When something doesn’t work, that is information in itself and helps you understand more about the horse. So then you try to figure out what it means and try something else. This is not lost on the horse; they see that you are trying to understand and the relationship grows.

  15. Oftentimes I’m wary of posting my experiences with my horse and how a problem got solved because I think I may not be sufficiently educated in horse communication to have arrived at an approved result via an approved pathway. Nevertheless, I’m just going to put this one out there because it was simply so freaking amazing. In my last lesson, we were asking my mare, who knows all the cues perfectly, to canter from a walk. The cue was simply inside seatbone forward, nothing else. She is downhill and would prefer to pull herself into the canter from the front rather than push off from the hind leg. We would like her to at least make an effort to engage the hind leg. I gave her the exact same light cue a few times and she got progressively fussier about it each time, to the point that she finally stopped and began snapping her head against the bit. So I just sat there without any reaction with the intention of waiting it out, when I decided to push my hands forward and let her take charge of the reins. She was dumbfounded–there was nothing to pull on or grab out of my hands. She decided in that moment to simply stand there and relax, maybe because that was what I was doing. After about a minute I returned my hands to their prior position, asked her to walk, then asked for the canter off my seatbone. And, there it was, no muss no fuss. I suspect my mare just needed her brain to stop running at 100 miles a minute which then enabled her to pay attention to my simple aid. If my trainer sees me going in a productive direction she often waits to see what I come up with rather than telling me what to do. This was one of those times.

  16. Yes!! The European trainers all work with horses that have been raised a certain way, under certain conditions, and, when you think about it, because they get to reject horses that don’t fit their fairly narrow parameters, they have a pretty limited toolkit. The horses that teach you everything are the ones from outside the box, the ratbags, the complicated ones.
    My current project is a Standardbred who was apparently compliant in his training, a good boy in the racing stable, who took to saddle without complaint – so long as “being ridden” was just following along. His myofascial therapist thought he had issues, both physical and emotional, from his racing days, which I thought reasonable, but didn’t quite get until, on a beach visit, he spied a horse in a racing gig in the distance and totally freaked out! He got a therapist because he had training issues with me, notably a distinctly variable desire to go forward. This has turned out to be a confidence issue, and we are winning, but the answers from the books would have destroyed him. Listening to the horse has – no surprise! – turned out to provide the answers, and, together, we’re winning. He’s even discovering that he really is allowed to canter, and won’t get thumped for it.

  17. Love your articles! My mare frustrated me for a long time before I figured out that her training was in reining. Once I changed my riding ways, she did just about everything I asked. There is more than one way to ride a horse and more than one way to train.

  18. As always, you write as though you’ve been eavesdropping in my head, though with greater clarity than I manage. One of my problems with riding disciplines has been how “anticipation” by the horse is discouraged or penalized; I think this risks stultifying creative thinking efforts by our horses. These days, my pony is not being ridden. Over the years she has learned a number of “tricks” (head down, yawn, back up, Spanish walk, to name a few). When I visit her in her paddock and she smells the apple pieces in my pocket, I will ask her what she can do. She’ll throw a trick at me, and get rewarded. Then I ask, “What else?”, and she’s rewarded as long as it’s not the same behaviour. She’ll do five or six, never in the same order from one day to the next. I’m hoping that she will make up some new behaviours, and am curious about what she will come up with; this will take courage as well as creativity on her part.

    • Smart girl, just love this. Today I asked a horse for one thing and he gave me a very smart answer, not even near what I thought we were talking about… it’s intelligence, nothing less. Thanks, Susan. Smiling from down here.

  19. My former trainer told me (repeatedly, because let’s face it – I’m dense) “horses don’t understand no”. She was also fond of telling me “mistakes are just opportunities for training,” and “never let the horse know that wasn’t what you (thought) you were asking for”…

    A sublime post Anna – thank you!

  20. Dressed up in black, I’m ready to perform. I have the map on my stand right in front of me and the technique to get there. Why does that clown in front of me keep asking how to get to North Dakota when my map clearly indicates a possible route to the sublime?

    My brain just had to reframe that!

    I sure do hate being yelled at to do something especially when it doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’m a human.

    One of my favorite questions I like to ask orchestral conductors if I’m sure they’ll take it in the right spirit is, “When did you decide to stop being a musician and become a conductor?”

    Let’s all be artists. We are all artists. Autonomous artists.

    I loved seeing this picture of the two boys. I’m tired on this overcast day and rambling, but most importantly here, let me thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking post.

  21. Just when I think you can’t possibly better your last blog I find this gem ! Thanks as always Anna for your insights 😊

  22. I enjoy your posts so much. In my own life, I’ve found it’s best to think of having a relationship with each individual horse, rather than having a “training session.” Just as each relationship with another person is different than all your other relationships, so is each relationship different with each horse. When I pony, I never know exactly what I’m going to do when I go out. I always let the horse tell me what he/she wants or needs. Learning the horses’ individual personalities is one of the most fun things in my job. It keeps it new and fresh every day. I’m very lucky in having a job I love, and I consider it very lucky to have found your web site. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  23. Last Friday, I attended a World Horse Expo and watched a number of clinicians. While watching one well-known clinician with his young horse, I found myself tense, worried about the horse and judgmental. Once I noticed my clenched jaw and found my shoulders up by my ears, I paused, took a deep breath and then relaxed realizing that just like raising children, there are a number of “right” ways to train. All of the clinicians I watched that day had something interesting to teach me. And, what could be better than learning about horses all day? All I had to do was observe, listen and breath.

    I was so pleased to find you. . . . I recently downloaded the podcast “Come Along for the Ride, and listened to your interview and promptly purchased two of your books. My horse and I are fortunate that we have a trainer whose philosophy mirrors yours. It is a pleasure to read your work.

  24. Thank you ,again.
    I have been having a “crisis of confidence” lately.
    Everyone has an opinion, a cure, a gadget, a way to help, fix, etc.
    And so many times they just seem wrong, in my heart, but I don’t know the ‘right’ answer.
    I have to keep reminding myself that is ok.
    I need to keep reminding myself to be patient and he will show me.
    I always joke that I speak French, he speaks Japanese and all our communication is in Braille.
    Thank you, thank you, for words that help keep ME grounded, for him.

  25. Inspired indeed. Writing is like riding? Mind control or channel? The horse god keeps an angel on your shoulder. If you acknowledge this and give thanks for every little miracle, and I include the writing (inspired – in the spirit), you will see more miracles, more often.

    Reading your works, I am learning. This morning filly (unbroken but over 2yo) was well up the paddock, unhearing and unseeing, unresponsive, her feed down in the yard and gate open. She is usually about and waiting before I go feed the old mare. I had to go past her out and over the road to feed her mother, then walk down to the yard with her. I’m not totally sure of her loose in the paddock, and carrying my long stick, so as not to get mugged. Playful. The stick is for cues only. We walked down together, she’d follow, but I couldn’t convince her to step along beside me. Then it happened, as we walked a little apart, I sidled up beside her and we did 50 metres in lock-step, together, free. I had never thought of such things before I found you here. Thank you.

  26. With horses – as with most things – no one – ever – knows it all. Theres always more to learn & mull over – especially here! No longer putting this information to hands-on, practical use – just socking it away & getting my horse fix where I can. Life just isnt the same without horses in it!

  27. Maggie, I totally agree. No one knows it all, that’s why we talk horses! I’m 71, been at it all my life with my “specialty” being green 3 y olds, never spoiled one, and I’ve learned so much more right here with Anna than I knew was possible. Only now have I a better understanding of the mind of the horse. Anna manages to kick off the most amazing conversations.

  28. Anna, this so perfect and,as always, cuts to the chase through all the confusion. The timing on this blog is as if you were speaking directly to us. 🙏🏼💖

  29. Love this! I always think that Barn Cats make the best sounding boards, and they can also teach you how to not give a crap about bystanders’ non-helpful opinions 🙂

  30. Anna, so much of what you said applies to teaching kids. Kids seldom admit that they don’t understand what the teacher said because they would never want the other kids know it. A good teacher watches body language and facial expressions and finds another way to explain something in a way that works for such kids – and on an individual basis . To repeat the lesson the same way, louder or with irritation, certainly NEVER did anything but add to the problem. I know that I never would have let my teachers know I didn’t get it . . . especially in math. Can’t tell you how many apples my dad cut up to explain fractions to me!
    One way doesn’t work for all . . . be they horses, dogs or humans. The European trainer was totally off base and out of line!
    Thanks for your message. <3

  31. Yes I studied the principles of training and worked diligently on techniques trying to figure out feel and timing and try. I sought the best advice I could find and listened and watched countless videos….but the day I consciously decided to “listen” to my horse, to slow everything down, to ignore everything else and just breath….well I finally realized what feel is but he taught me that as he had been trying to do all along.

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