I rarely have any idea where I’m headed. I get in a car with a stranger outside of baggage claim and go to a horse facility I’m not familiar with. I don’t know the participants or the horses, their histories or skill level. It’s fine though, I’d wind up giving a different clinic each time, anyway. I always have a plan, my clinics are based in a “concept”, so we’re all tethered to an idea, but then the horses take over. That’s the challenge with wanting your horse to be a partner; they get a vote, too. It must be mutually beneficial.
It’s rare when a horse is at his best when I see him on the first day of a clinic. There’s been some serious grooming and a trailer ride to a place they may not know any more than I do. There might be stalls or maybe pens, but it isn’t like home and it’s already full of strange horses who are all on edge for the same reasons. There are strange smells and odd shadows. It’s a busy place. They may not sleep well; they may not even lay down. They have no idea if they are ever going to see their herd again. There are youngsters and new partners and rescue horses, each a unique individual. We all hope there’s that a certain sort of mature mare who’s used to this kind of weekend and will flick an ear to tell everyone to snap out of it and take a breath, for crying out loud. If not, I do my best.
On top of it, each horse’s human is usually a little excited. Humans come because they love their horse and want to do the best possible for them. They’re eternal students of the horse; they try hard, feel vulnerable, are there for all the right reasons, but still a bit nervous with anticipation; they probably alarm their own horses a bit. It’s complicated.
Some people think it’s wrong to put a horse in this kind of stressful situation. I get their point. When a horse is afraid and in his sympathetic nervous system (flight/fight/freeze), he can’t learn. The problem is that we can’t save horses from stress. I define stress as being alive. Wild horses feel stress from drought, pain, and changes in their herd. Here in the domestic world, we have vet emergencies, natural disasters, and an infinite number of unplanned opportunities. Horses need to be able to get by in our world, so they will be safe if the unthinkable happens. What if they outlive us?
One solution is to train horses to be relaxed and confident. After all, it’s not like horses need to be trained to canter. They’ve been doing flying changes in the pasture all along. We might use transitions as conversation starters, but the real topic must always be confidence. How to allow our horses the autonomy to be confident partners? We humans like to think that training could work like mind control; that we could teach them to lay down their instincts somehow. That won’t happen but we can encourage them to be problem solvers, resilient and engaged.
Disclaimer: there was a time that I thought teaching a horse to relax was nebulous hogwash. Training confidence even more so; after all, my own confidence came and went like a stray cat.
If stress is the nature of being alive, how can we make it work for horses, rather than against? People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that isn’t the same as confidence. It’s worn bravado. Maybe your brain is wandering off to your own bad memories now. The mistakes and scares; the times your horse spooked or hours later, the trailer remained empty. The trainers who yelled at you to calm down. The times you were told you were ruining your horse, but you were doing your best, and then you felt even worse about it. The nerve-wracking challenges out on the trail or in front of the judge. Everything you’ve read or the videos you’ve watched that make it look easy, but the horse looks sour. The memory of every wreck you ever heard about; the injuries to horses and people that haunt you still. All the contradictory training tips and all the bad advice from railbirds. Or professionals.
Is this how horses feel when they get flooded by too many cues, too many contradictions, too much micromanaging direction? If there’s anything as anxiety-inducing as being a horse, it might be “training” one.
When people ask what flooding means I’m reminded that water always seeks the same level; that we are as flooded as they are a lot of the time. The reason to understand how horses think and learn is that repeating bad training techniques, that are ineffective, damages a horse’s emotional wellbeing as well as not solving issues.
Great, you say. Now what?
Where does courage begin in horses? Think of every foal; their ears forward, their eyes wide, as they negotiate the world. Isn’t that brave? A horse that’s curious is engaged and thinking. He’s using judgment and when we reward thinking, we’re affirming his intelligence. It’s time to let your horse get curious again, even if it takes him a while to trust it.
My favorite way of encouraging curiosity is leading from behind. It’s letting your horse call the shots, so it’s harder for us than it sounds. It wakes up stoic horses, it gives reactive horses choice. It’s an activity that means something bigger to horses than us and that might be the best reason to let him lead you. Give it a try and if you’re worried that you’re training it wrong, re-frame that. It’s meant as an exercise in curiosity for both of you.
Leading from behind requires a human, despite being worn down by self-over-cueing, to turn stress into a prettier color. It’s getting honestly engaged with our horses rather than using a technique; more creativity than answer by rote. It’s the practice of being in the moment and letting less be more. We “train” less and they solve the challenge on their own. Our biggest job is to breathe and acknowledge their intelligence.
Curiosity grows into courage and confidence. It looks like safety when a predator shows compassion. It looks like trust when a horse stands in his own autonomy.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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