Free Advice: Everybody’s a Trainer

“What I see astounds me. It’s difficult to be around other riders who constantly give advice I didn’t ask for.”

“I have waited on my horse on the trail when things got scary only to have friends tell me I was causing more problems. I will continue doing what is best for my horse. Why is it so hard for humans to stop pushing and start listening?”

“The yard is really getting me down at present. All the drama, all the neediness. All I want is to be left alone do my own thing. They’re not my friends, they don’t know me, they don’t ‘get’ me. There must be a way of negotiating an acceptable path other than telling everyone to eff off? A good topic for a blog!”

Years ago, I had a client who boarded his horse tell me, in the most incredulous tone, that riders felt absolutely fine telling him everything he was doing wrong with his horse. I nodded. New to boarding, he was amazed that people were so comfortable correcting him; it didn’t happen in other areas of his life. With social media, now even people who keep their horses at home can be judged and criticized by strangers sitting on sofas around the world. Maybe you innocently post a photo and get naysayers critical of everything you’re doing. If you literally ask for an opinion, brace yourself.

The horse world is very opinionated. Some of it is tribalism; we are hooked on a method of training or a riding discipline that we think is the best. We have a hero who won at shows or dresses like a cowboy or speaks in a foreign accent and it means we belong or know more if we parrot that trainer. It would be great if there was some actual understanding behind the technique that made sense to horses, but usually, the railbird telling you how to ride just wants you to be harsher. A stronger cue, a louder training aid, or some way to gimmick the horse into different behavior. Sometimes they offer to climb on and make a few corrections, and the horse you get back is different all right. Frightening a horse isn’t the same as training.

What is our fascination with violence and domination? We act like we hate horses. Sure, we are born predators, but does that mean we have to be monsters? Oh, that’s right. Monstrous behavior has been normalized in every area of our culture. We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s been accepted in the weave of our daily experience, so we tell each other to be violent with animals as conversationally as we might remark on the weather.

Isn’t that what Darwin meant when he said only the fittest survive? We all seem to have a voice in the dark recesses of our brains that tells us to swagger with bravado, to be the wolf, stallion, dominator you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. You’d think we were still rubbing sticks together. Or in our case, hitting horses with sticks. At the same time, we all know a horse who’s been damaged by this martial approach to training. Most of us probably own one. We get defensive when we get lectured about what to do with our horses. No one likes to be corrected, but it’s more than that. Horse people all think they’re right. We are all overzealous about our training methods. I certainly am.

On top of that, we still want a simple answer and a quick resolution for a training issue as old as your horse. The problem is that what works on your older Quarter Horse gelding doesn’t necessarily work on a young Arabian mare. But then, what works on your older Quarter Horse gelding may not work on another one just like him, either. And by the way, that wasn’t exactly what Darwin said.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change.” Charles Darwin, 1809

The questions still hang in the air, even without being asked. “Why does my horse toss his head?” “Why won’t my horse go in the trailer?” “Why isn’t my new horse like my old horse?” 

Welcome to Riders Against Bullies; Darwin was on our side all along. It isn’t our first meeting but it’s time we spoke up in defense of horses. Instead of cringing at old school brutality, put a smile on your face. Show your teeth. Women who smile in adversarial situations make people uncomfortable and that’s a start. The first response should never be trying to control, but rather trying to understand by looking, listening, and really paying attention to the horse. Then, instead of railing against old, dark voices, find your own. If the horse is not acting normally, ask more relevant questions. 

Don’t talk training techniques unless you’re certain the horse isn’t in pain. Is the horse adjusting from a move? It would be shocking if he didn’t have gastric issues. In an hour-long ride, two liters of stomach acid formed in his stomach. Is the horse on free-choice hay now? If he has come from a dry area to moist ground, do his feet hurt? Does he need a farrier?  You say he’s fifteen years old?  Then, of course, he has arthritis and perhaps old pain from injuries in the past. Have you had a vet check him recently? What do you know about his living environment? Is he kept alone? These are all bigger questions that must come before training advice.

Does your saddle fit this horse? No guessing, have it checked by a professional. You’d need to know where it put your balance. Does your bit inflict pain? Don’t go along with the sales pitch on the bit, ask this horse. Then let your horse pick a more gentle bit. And finally, we have no idea what kind of rider you are. Have you had any riding instruction? Would you consider working with a trainer? And there are still more questions to ask before we can blame the horse. Encourage that.

Giving advice (or asking for it) when the full picture isn’t there, is not fair to the horse. Sure, affirmative training is good, but if the horse isn’t sound, no training technique will help. The priority must be the horse. Never substitute another’s eyes for your own and know that the full picture is impossible to know from an online question. It would be irresponsible to give training advice on a horse you’ve never seen. Let ethical behaviors begin with you.

At your barn, go for the scary smile and ignore the railbirds. The best thing that can happen to bad advice is that it becomes spoken-over, irrelevant, and forgotten. Negativity doesn’t deserve to be repeated in a louder voice. Instead, spend your time echoing something worth hearing. Be part of a move toward understanding rather than correcting. Advocate for horses.

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

27 thoughts on “Free Advice: Everybody’s a Trainer”

  1. “Monstrous behavior has been normalized in every area of our culture. ” This sentence explains so much, about every area of our culture. But the changeability of our cultures has been the human advantage in evolution, so perhaps there is hope that we can change the acceptance of monstrous behavior. Seeing it for what it is forms a good beginning. Thanks.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you ! Very relevant and timely blog. I especially like the tip on showing my teeth in a big smile to the critics.

    I simply must share a little story on Zen Bear, who was staying overnight at a friend’s barn/property so he could be seen by a vet there the next morning. The friend ( Parelli person) called me up that evening to say she couldn’t catch Bear and asked ” is it time for me to teach you some leadership skills ?” I declined and said I didn’t have any trouble catching him ( not 100% true at that time, but mostly true) . The next morning when I went over there to halter him out in the field and bring him in for the vet, I could feel her critical eyes on me.. I prayed it would go well, but in case it didn’t, I had pockets loaded with treats for backup, but I had no trouble at all haltering him and bringing him in, sans treats . THANK YOU , ZEN BEAR, for cooperating that morning. .

    But back to your blog, thank you for giving us some suggestions on how to handle these kind of situations. They are so hard for most of us I think. I had a landscape fella here and he commented that most people didn’t let their horses come up as close as mine . DID I ASK FOR HIS INPUT?

    love the quote about Darwin. It is said that George Washington was perhaps such a great leader because he was such an awesome horseman, who could go with his intuition and respond to changes in the horse and was fluid and in partnership with his horse vs domination.

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    • Using our teeth like a weapon!! I appreciate what you wrote about Washington, in the days of riding, I’m sure much was clear as the horses defined their riders for the world to see. Bear still does, bless him. Thanks, Sarah.

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  3. The seductive feeling of being certain I am right! So tempting to believe that my “right” is righter than yours! And, the embarrassing awareness that judging someone from the moral high ground of my rightness is still judgmental. Oops 😬. I love how you show us that we can be passionate without becoming the very problem we’re complaining about. Just practice what you preach…wow is that harder than I ever realized. Thanks for continuing to bring up this point, as it is so important and yet so easy to lose sight of.

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  4. Yes ! Horses be loved, respected, well fed, cared for, and cherished. That was our job the instant we took them on. And Patience, because patience are surely next to godliness ☮️💟

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  5. Very timely for me right now. I feel like the entire neighborhood and most of the (horse) people I know are judging me and my progress with Shawnee. I fall into the same ugly habit sometimes: surely my way is the best way. I even got into a back-and-forth with a good friend. We both felt the need to defend our positions. It was congenial, but now I wonder, why? We both love horses and want the best for them. Why wasn’t it enough to just be able to say, with that big smile, how interesting? For me, it’s easier to be a wimp but I can get mad- or scared – enough to be a bully. Finding that sweet spot in the middle – not so simple. Thank you for another thought-provoking essay.

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  6. Thank you so much for that Anna! Yes, I do believe we are still (at some level) trying to light the fire by rubbing two sticks together. I don’t know if we have got the potential – I hope we have – to ‘evolve’ into intelligent and compassionate beings. But in the mean time, I am going to learn how to do that smile. Become a woman who can smile in the adversarial situation. I want to be that woman. Yes, indeed, I can feel that smile developing even now! Even at 75, I can do THAT! Yeah!

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  7. PS I was worrying about how to make myself smile in the adversarial situation. Then I realized: All I have to do is think about this article and I can’t HELP but smile! Thanks again Anna1

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  8. Anna, I am all for understanding the horse first with observations. I believe trainers must always be learning and dynamic with their techniques. For example Neil Peart (Drummer of the band Rush) critics claim he is the best technical drummer in the world. Well a few years ago after coming off the road he decided to seek out an old time jazz drummer from the 30’s and learned a new technique to drumming. The point of this story is no matter how good or acclaimed you are there is always room for improvement. With that said it is always good to listen and be respectful; however, always do your homework for quality information from qualified individuals/groups. Also important is to honor the relationship between human and animal. Spend quality time with the horse and just “be” with one another as horses do have a story to tell. Through listening, observing and opening yourselves up mentally, emotionally and physically you will be surprised how accepting horses and their herds will be.

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