This chestnut mare is all that. Alert. Intelligent. Willing. And in possession of the quickest response time of any domestic animal; seven times quicker than us. Each of her senses is better than ours by a good bit, but then we hardly use the senses we do have. We’re so unaware of our surroundings, we wouldn’t know a thing if horses didn’t warn us. Instead, we overthink training techniques. It’s always easier to have a conversation with ourselves about human logic than to try to understand the beautiful complexity and intuitive wisdom of a chestnut mare.
At a recent professional’s day on Calming Signals, a woman who I later found out was not a “horseperson”, used the word desensitize. I jumped all over it. Then I apologized. Turns out she was using the word in another context entirely. I’d still like it to be relentlessly flogged out of the horse training dictionary. And ripped brutally from our training toolboxes.
It isn’t that I haven’t heard the desensitizing sales pitch. Be clear that logic to humans doesn’t always hold for horses. Do we think horses can’t tell the difference between human behavior and horse behavior? If a training technique throws a horse into their sympathetic (flight, fight, or freeze) system, they can’t learn. We can dominate them into submission but is that the same thing as understanding? Eventually, they will return to their parasympathetic system, and horses are certainly capable of remembering who scared them in the first place.
I understand the theory that some training aids are an extension of the hand, an idea no horse would agree with. Watch their breathing go shallow, see their eyes go dark. The whole point is to threaten horses but they can understand us at a distance. We don’t need a longer arm with an extra digit like a plastic bag or a flag, but the goal is flooding. If you aren’t familiar, flooding is how you feel when you are grabbed from behind in a dark stairwell, and the perpetrator puts a hand over your mouth. It’s a panic response. Be most clear that the term desensitizing is a sales pitch for training that goes against building the trust most of us want with our horses.
It isn’t enough to know that horses are flight animals, we must understand what it means. Horses are fatalists. They think everything is life or death; that’s what it means to be a prey animal. When they are afraid, they must run. If they can’t get away, they fight, rearing or kicking or biting. And some horses freeze, almost like other species might play dead to evade predators. Too often we mistake a quiet horse for a shutdown horse. We cannot desensitize an animal that depends on its senses to survive.
It isn’t enough to know that horses are stoic, we must understand what it means. Horses hide their pain and anxiety. It is dangerous to show weakness to predators and to their own herd. I won’t say that horses lie but they are designed to act stronger than they are. Humans need to remember that and adjust accordingly. The tiniest calming signal has huge meaning from a stoic horse. It’s how they suffer the most at our hands; we miss their calming signals for pain and fear. Rather than seeing what makes us feel good, we need to listen with the mind of a prey animal. Instead of putting them in our shoes, we need to put ourselves on hooves. Maybe horses aren’t domesticated at all, but some have learned to hide their fear better than others.
Horses exist on a spectrum between flight and freeze and we judge them reactive or shutdown. Reactive or damaged horses can almost seem hardwired to spook, almost stuck in the sympathetic system, because of how they responded to our training. Shutdown horses are as dangerous, they will tolerate anxiety and fear until they can’t, again, in response to our training.
How can we change that repetitive habit in a reactive horse’s amygdala to leap to the flight response? How can we awaken a shutdown horse? Or if you are an equine brain geek, how can we form new neuropathways in the horse’s brain, causing new dendrites to grow, literally encouraging mental health?
We could train in a way that the scary thing becomes a curiosity. Then the world becomes a playground. Evoke a different brain response by training with light energy, lots of breathing, and then get creative. Ask questions and let your horse figure them out. When he does it by himself it builds confidence, curiosity turns into courage, and new neuropathways. Creating curiosity takes more energy from us, but that’s also how we prove ourselves worthy of a horse’s trust.
Be affirmative, say YES: The horse is trying. He’s getting closer. He could use some energy. He needs a boost to his confidence, a reminder of who he is. Say YES to hold energy high. YES as the reward for staying in the process, until successfully completing it. Most of all, say YES because it strikes down fear.
- Stop scaring them. A horse trained with fear will never be reliable. Be aware of the tone of your energy. You know they can read anger and fear. Let them read your soft eye as good intention instead.
- Commit to listening to calming signals. Not interrupting them, but encouraging them by going slow and letting the air rest. When they give a calming signal, we acknowledge it.
- Practice conscious haltering. It’s our greeting and their choice; if they walk away, consider that. If they look away, go slower. Breathe. Horses certainly understand please and thank you.
- Lead from behind. Let your horse go first and investigate. If he grazes, recognize it as a calming signal and let it be okay. Cheer his curiosity and autonomy.
- Under saddle, encourage relaxed and forward gaits. Let him carry his own head, let him stride out, let him breathe. A relaxed horse is a safer horse, and soon his confidence is contagious.
Mostly, I’m worried. What if we are the ones becoming desensitized? Can we intimidate horses and still maintain that childhood love that called us to them long ago? Will the dark energy of flooding and harsh discipline overtake us? Are we so intimidated by horses that we must make them slow and dull to match us?
We must never become immune to the beauty, spirit, and freedom of horses. Instead, let your horse sensitize you. Become aware of the small details of your environment; use your peripheral vision and see things more like your horse. Stand at his flank, be comforted by the warmth of the hair on his withers. Smell the air. Go silent and listen. Become alive fresh in the moment, let their language become yours.
When we stand in a horse’s light, let it be because we have been invited.
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.