Affirmative Training and Spoiling Horses

Most of us hear voices. We might be working with our horses on an issue and floundering in the moment, because we hear a threatening voice in our heads. It could haunt us from the past; a trainer from decades ago, something said on a video or written. For some of us, the harsh threat of a parent echoing from childhood. “You are spoiling that horse.”

People tell me frequently the voices are all too real, coming from railbirds at their barn or cowboy advice they didn’t ask for.  Sometimes the most critical voice is our own, after years of hearing those voices, we can question ourselves, again and again. Our confidence takes a hit.

Now is a good time to remind ourselves we are predators. We might try to be different, but the urge is still there. It’s our natural tendency to pick a fight. It takes no special skill to see what’s wrong and then like a lynch mob, our default position is to judge and punish the offender; jerk the dog on the leash, correct the horse so he’ll learn he is wrong. Half the time we make a correction to appease other people as much as train our animals. These voices we hear, literally or in our heads, are like background music, sneaking up, not to lift us to dance but to dull us down to our worst instincts. Sometimes so subtle we don’t see it coming.

These days, I see horses at clinics mostly. Your horse is never at his best at a clinic; it’s just true. Maybe it’s the trailer ride away from his herd, maybe it’s the new surroundings with other anxious horses. If the clinic is happening at your own barn, your horse will respond to the general chaos of being invaded by strangers. Yikes, money has been spent to learn something and the horses are all upset. That adds another layer of anxiety for the participant, and when you bring your horse, who now has separation anxiety from being taken away from the strange horses he’s trying to connect with, into the arena alone, both of you are barely throat-breathing and on your tippy-toes. Welcome to my clinic.

Those old voices say we should push the horse through their fear, ride them to submission. Let a horse get away with it and they win. If you let your horse win just once, he will be ruined forever. Hogwash.

I start by “babying” the horses. I’m proud to do it because I understand that a frightened horse (or rider) are in their sympathetic nervous system. Flight, fight, or freeze, it isn’t a good place to learn for either. If I want to be heard as a trainer, I need to help both horse and rider relax and return to the vicinity of the parasympathetic or restorative phase of their nervous system. That’s science talking, not a voice we are used to listening to. So a good first step is to have another horse in the arena. It’s easy enough to do and it benefits both horses. Why wouldn’t we?

At a recent clinic, I was suggesting it to a rider, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it because it would be a crutch. At her horse’s age, shouldn’t he be over this? Wouldn’t that be a bad thing giving in to his anxiety?

Separation anxiety isn’t a problem for horses. They are herd animals and it’s natural for them. Separation anxiety is a problem for us when we go against that. Punishment destroys trust and the only way a horse will find the confidence to separate is when we manage to be affirmative leaders, providing a similar safety that the herd does.

I’m sure the voices in her head debated it, but it was a clinic and she took my suggestion. In this case, she brought her gelding out with his boss mare. The mare was at liberty in the arena when we started, first walking the perimeter. The horse and rider went to work, soon the older mare parked on the rail near the auditors with a look that said she’d had enough and would rest right there. Meanwhile, the partners had a great lesson, confidence grew, and they forgot the mare. Having her there to launch the lesson was a small kindness that set the stage for partnership, not abandonment.

The rider and I are both writers and words matter to us. We talked about her word choice. In this definition a crutch has a connotation of being weak and cheating, it’s a word those old voices might use as an insult. It was the first place both of us went, but the literal definition of a crutch is that it’s an aid to help us stand until we can hold our own selves up. A crutch isn’t used to beat something down, it’s meant to help us when we lose balance, to allow us to move forward and become stronger. How did this word get so twisted?

Less Correction, More Direction.

Affirmative training happens through successive approximation. At the start, the horse doesn’t know what we want. We play Hot and Cold, that childhood game. We give a cue and he does something kind of like what we want, and we say YES to let him know he’s getting warmer. We confirm the right action and ignore the rest. It’s a universal law that the thing we pay attention to grows. Instead of living in a cycle of punishing the wrong, we practice the art of seeing good and praising it with gratitude. Then watch your horse’s confidence grow.

It’s silly to think we need to train trot transitions or obstacles or even piaffe. Horses do those things naturally. The only thing we have to offer horses in this chaotic world is confidence.

Is affirmative training spoiling a horse by using a crutch? Maybe so, but if it’s a crutch that supports me to rise above my predator instinct, I’ll use it proudly. Maybe then my horse can rise above his prey instinct and feel safe with me.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

48 thoughts on “Affirmative Training and Spoiling Horses”

  1. And yet again, friend to all beings, your words move me to truth full tears. A timely message now and for every fortunate moment I spend with my precious horse and other beings who seek my leadership.

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  2. While I would love to come up with a more eloquent comment, it seems like one more time all I can figure out to say is I love this. Thank you for sharing yet another insight into what I strive to do, the relationship I want with my horse. Beautiful words.

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  3. I really enjoyed this blog post. It makes complete sense to me and has given me a bit of faith that I won’t euin my horse by offering her her friend in a scary situation. Thank you for that 🙂

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  4. It’s been exactly one month since you opened my eyes to these methods and ideas, and I’m not sure you would even recognize my horse if you saw him today. The changes in him are astonishing! It’s changed me too. I’m so happy. Thank you for opening my eyes and teaching me to BREATHE!!!

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  5. As usual, Anna, I love this approach on so many levels! Several years ago, when I decided to jump into owning and working with horses, I realized I knew little about horsemanship. I found a place to board my 2 horses and was excited to start learning. Well, I quickly started questioning methods that, although acceptable to the majority, were unacceptable to me. I purchased and moved my horses onto my own property where I decided I was going to work with my horses my way, which I’m proud to say is aligned with your methodology. I refuse to let anyone else ‘train’ my horses. I have all the time in the world to gain trust and do the things I do with them, from ground work to riding. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and knowledge ❤🐎
    Ps. My herd = 14 now and I live for these amazing creatures!! My heart is full.

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  6. This is so timely for me, Anna! I’m working at replacing those critical voices in my head with your voice, and others of your ilk. And then, finally, I want it to be my own voice that imparts harmonious confidence.

    Thank you yet again!

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  7. Anna, I so agree that these voices come from the “teach ’em who’s boss” tradition and are supremely unhelpful. I think anytime we are not listening to the horse, but listening to our inner dialogue can be problematic. Including the opposite: the horse can be acting rudely and our inner dialogue tells us we have to be loving and understanding, so we don’t correct him. I wish we didn’t intellectualize so much, but its who we are.

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    • You make an excellent point, Therese, but I personally don’t see horses as ever acting “rudely”. As I see it, they are always doing what they feel is in their best interest to do at any given moment. That doesn’t always coincide with what we desire or what is safe, but I believe that “rudeness” is a human construct requiring knowledge of what is polite and rude within a given societal context, and then a deliberate choice to do the rude thing. I don’t think this is how the equine mind processes information at all — they are simply trying to meet their own needs. If their need happens to be something we perceive as pushy or rude, we slap those labels on the horse and act accordingly, feeling justified to “get after” the horse with punishment or correction. You are absolutely right, though, that some people can be so far on the “sunshine and rainbows” side of the spectrum that they fail to help the horse understand how we need them to behave in order to be safe and a joy for us to work with — as Anna says, they are not providing clarity for the horse. Either way of thinking would be what my mentor, the great Canadian horseman Josh Nichol, calls “emotional horsemanship”, which he defines as perceiving the horse’s actions through a distorting lens of human emotion. When we do that, whether we are being too forceful or too lovey-dovey, we are failing to see the truth of the situation from the horse’s point of view, and our ability to guide them towards the behavior we want is compromised. Emotional horsemanship affects our choices, our intention, our presentation, and our timing. Lastly, I would say that we can’t ever be too loving to our horses, and that we must always strive for understanding — but if you truly have that understanding, your love will manifest in always striving to help the horse to be at peace within what we ask of them, which is about finding a way to teach them rather than correcting them. This way of working with horses creates the most “polite” and easiest to manage horses I’ve ever seen, both on the ground and under saddle, yet preserves the bright light of life in the horse’s spirit, building a bond that is truly valuable to both horse and human.

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  8. I see separation anxiety with the boss’s mare here as an excuse. She just doesn’t like the rider. The mare gets distressed when asked to stand and wait, hold cattle, leave the home yards alone, because of the way her owner rides; a whole raft of things going on which I can see, which I could correct, and have corrected for myself, beginning with a smaller snaffle, chuck the rings (running martingale, burn them all), let go the reins, and don’t over-tighten the girth. The first time she threw her head in the air and rushed (rings gone), I let her go, she stopped and asked “What, no fight?” With me she is relaxed, leaves home, waits about, and she gave up all the screaming and whirling about calling for help. With everyone relaxed and confident, nothing hurting, and a little empathy, the mare was transformed. All her carry-on is simply a cry for help. When people ride out together there is some decorum, a herd thing going on. Some horses lack confidence out alone, with the reaction usually escalating to a struggle and a fight. Takes two to fight. Takes two to pull. Thanks Anna, this is a good one. I like the other horse placidly hanging around. Whatever it takes for peace.

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      • Sure its a natural instinct, and the very first thing they resort to when they feel hurt or threatened. (I didn’t like that word “excuse” when I used it, so maybe “natural response”?)

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  9. Having just had a knee replacement 3 weeks ago I’m on crutches. I can stand and move about my little house without them BUT I am very vulnerable and it would be easy to lose balance so I’m sticking with the crutches for now. I know I won’t always need them and as my leg is strengthened through exercise etc I will be able to go on without them. I have a very nervous horse who’s had a lot to overcome. It’s taken a long time to gain his trust, but now, 4 1/2 years on he is amazing! Only just started riding him this year due to a number of issues. He has changed so much he’s like a different horse. These principles in your blog resonate……love it! Thank you!

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  10. Absolutely love this. Your words keep me grounded in what I believe when the voices from past and present would try to convince me otherwise. Thank you. 🙂

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  11. Double Ditto to all of the above! Life can be stressful. Using a crutch every now and again to relieve that stress works for our barn. I’m not above filling that prescription whenever it is needed. Thank you!

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  12. Absolutely, amazingly right! For all of our predatory instincts, humans can act like a herd – of sheep – following along behind the leader who tells us they know better than we do when, in fact, they are mired in the past, actually following along behind their own “leader”.

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  13. I think a particularly key statement you made here is, “…the only way a horse will find the confidence to separate [from his herdmates] is when we manage to be affirmative leaders, providing a similar safety that the herd does.” I had a very dominant yet also very sensitive Morgan who would scream his head off if he was left home (or elsewhere) alone, but as long as he was with me, he would quietly go off anywhere with no hesitation. I was asked on several occasions how I managed to get such an obviously “herd bound” horse to ride out “alone”. I explained that when I was riding him or leading him, he was not alone — he was with me, and that gave him as much of a sense of safety as another horse would. As for how that came to be, it was an in-depth process of building trust, meeting his needs with consistency and clarity, and thus earning (not taking) the position of guide. Not an easy task with such a strong-minded horse, but a challenge that taught me so much and took me onto entirely new paths. To those of you struggling with horses who don’t yet take comfort in your leadership, please be patient — with both your horse and yourself. Building that kind of relationship is a distance race, not a sprint. It has everything to do with truly understanding what it is your horse needs from you, and as Anna so eloquently explains, that has nothing to do with force or punishment.

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  14. This is great. And this is “out of the box” thinking. It’s a sign of an open heart to honor the horse not “buck up” and fight through it. The simple act of kindness (toward the struggling horse) is a lovely set up for success! Beautiful. Makes my fill.

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  15. Thank you for another incredible mind changing blog.
    On my side, I hear voices in my head when I am with my horses. I hear them. Strangely, the more I listen, the more they speak. I feel spoiled!

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    • I too feel spoiled, awed, by mostly seeming to know what to do. The horse god keeps an angel on your shoulder, as I’m sure he does Anna’s, also mine. Certainly he looks after his own, while displaying a most wicked sense of humour towards some who refuse to listen.

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