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.