How To Spoil Your Horse

Will we ever stop telling long-winded horse stories? No chance. We are besotted with horses; we need horse friends because who else could stand the ongoing chatter? We talk about how we found them, and how far they have come. We tell stories about epic trail rides and how they came apart at a clinic. We detail health issues and best practices for care. How beautiful they trot or how many miles they have carried us. How we came off and got hurt when our horse went nuts, or how they knew our hearts when we were lonely or feeling loss.

It’s a separate thing; the love of a narrative and the love of a horse. The narrative might sound like a hero’s story; a rider who overcame the odds. If you’re riding a horse, you’ve overcome odds. It might be the story of a horse making the journey from a bad start to a happy ending. Or the story could be about every complaint that person ever had, a rant belittling horses to make the human sound smarter, pushing false narratives like saying mares are crazy or Arabs are spooky. Then there are the discipline police who want you to know that if you are not constantly correcting your horse, you are weak and ruining him. That every time the horse looks away it is criminal disrespect and they know how to train that horse better than you. No shortage of advice and “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is the rule for horses, dogs, and kids.

We can’t control the false narratives told about horses any more than we can control horses, but we can choose our words carefully because it isn’t just how we train but who we become. Because horse people are hard-headed by nature, I’m not suggesting anyone should confront a rider pounding flanks and jerking reins, intent on teaching a horse a lesson. The times I’ve done it, I’ve been treated to the horse getting even more abuse. Besides, humans don’t give to pressure without a fight either. No one appreciates a public correction, even a naysayer who just gave you one.

Sure, revenge might sound good. Maybe banging some metal in that rider’s mouth, in the same way you’d like to starve humans who neglect horses. Our aggression comes out when we see horses mistreated but seething with anger only brings us down to their level. Besides, if we believe in Affirmative Training, isn’t that self- defeating? I’m tired of both sides thinking that fighting wins, but our side refusing to engage while we fill with passive-aggressive stomach acid.

One answer is to be proactive. We could take the narrative back and re-define some words. Just enough to throw the balance a bit. What if we started bragging about spoiling our horses? I don’t mean plying horses with treats or allowing them to be dangerous. Horses don’t enjoy feeling anxiety any more than we do, so we’ll hold a polite standard of ground manners but that can be taught with kindness and release, two things horses will tell you are the best rewards.

Top Ten Ways to Spoil Your Horse:

10. Halter your horse with slow mindful attention to his calming signals, instead of chasing him into a corner and grabbing him.

9. Let your horse eat while tacking up instead of the constant correction to stand still. (An extra advantage of food in his stomach to buffer stomach acid/gastric discomfort.)

8. Build confidence by small successes, helping instead of abandoning him, like tying him to the trailer to fight it out “with himself.”

7. Hold the rope slack, stand by his shoulder, demonstrate peace by standing out of his space, instead of micromanaging his head and fighting with him to “respect your space.”

6. Say “Good boy” as his anxiety grows with the vet or farrier. Not to reward the bad behavior, but to remind him who he is.

5. When you feel the pressure of eyes watching, say in a nice clear voice to your horse, “Take all the time you need, no reason to hurry.” This is more a cue you give yourself.

4. Breathe with every good behavior because nothing is more affirming to a horse and what we pay attention to grows. Ignore the rest.

3. If you aren’t working with your horse, put him up. Don’t make him stand around while you tell a friend a longwinded story about how much you love him.

2. If the ride is going well, get off too soon. Let bliss hang in the air.

1. Admit when it isn’t working. Admit you’re wrong and just stop whatever you’re doing. An apology to your horse wouldn’t hurt either.

Is this breaking all the rules? High time. What lunacy to think that fear-based training will create a reliable horse. It’s utterly crazy to think kindness would spoil a horse. So demeaning to think horses are so much less than human that they are incapable of recognizing when we show them grace, or that they would be incapable of returning it.

Your real problem with naysayers is that it takes a while to figure out that something you are doing is making them feel insecure. That people who manage to find good in any situation always make people nervous. It’s a threat against the status quo, against the way of the world. Nothing less.

But what if your greatest naysayer lives inside your own body? Why do we see our vulnerability as a weakness rather than recognizing it’s the same as being present in the moment? Responding alive with energy should be preferable over reciting stale rules. Are the restrictions we feel the need to put on horses the same restrictions we put on ourselves; are we our own captors? Do we mitigate our loss of freedom by taking control of our horses, or could we gain some dignity in our own lives by sticking up for horses?

Raise the act of spoiling your horse to an art form. Give it a try, just say yes without listening to the voices of naysayers. Notice how you feel about spoiling him. A small seed of glee that you broke a rule or maybe your shoulders go softer? Is there relief that you didn’t have to pick a fight? Feel the thrill of seeing your horse offer you something, followed by a little fist pump, when out of nowhere, with total improbability, you hear Frank Sinatra singing My Way. No wonder change is hard.

Maybe now is a good time to breathe and then leg yield a zigzag at the trot in a neckring. Or canter a figure-eight, just because you can. You might even laugh out loud at the joy of just being with a horse, proud you’ve created a place where the white-hot power of simply breathing rises above aggression and the dynamic strength of kindness and compassion are undeniable.

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

31 thoughts on “How To Spoil Your Horse”

  1. Singing, “I did it Al’s way~” as a reminder to myself. Perfect article for self-contained focus admist the storms. Thanks for layng this ready reference guide out there. I love it.

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  2. If I could say ten things to everyone who teaches children and adults to ride, to everyone who thinks they have a “problem” horse, to anyone just starting to handle equines whether horses, mules, donkeys, minis or ponies, this would be it. I’d love to have this painted on a huge sign in every barn. When I am empress of the world, this will happen.

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  3. Yesterday, Thanksgiving, I had a so-so morning with the horses. In a funk I contemplated the evening ahead with accomplished witty people, some of them horses people (albeit “old school”). What would I say if asked “What do I do?” The thought just depressed me. I am a failure, what have I accomplished in all this time, well, I could say my horses have had health problems (they have). BUT THEN, it popped into my head. I could just say “I am terrible with horses. I can ride OK. But I am trying to figure out how to be better with my horses.” And then, I smiled at the thought. Suddenly lighthearted and free of needing to explain myself too carefully or make myself out to be more profound than I am. Haha. Yes, I am terrible with horses but I am trying. And I will spoil my horses in the process!

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    • Kim, I’ve seen videos and I disagree with you being ‘terrible.’ But I will say from a social interchange standpoint, this cracks me up. I’m trying to hear it as a non-horse relative might. It really does kill judgement while being interesting and mysterious. You rock for family dinners!

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  4. Now I will forever hear Frank singing in my head when my neighbors – who are superb at putting up our hay and frustratingly as good at giving unsolicited horse advice which almost always begins with “You spoil your horses!”

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  5. Oh, I forgot to add… the riding program I belonged to growing up ALWAYS required we groom and tack up while the horses ate hay. This was in the early 1970’s. We were way ahead of our time.

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  6. I tried reading this if it applied to my school years, and you know, I believe I’d have been a better student if it had been the case.
    Even the bit about eating😁

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  7. I love this… so many positive ways to “spoil” our horses ! Since the naysayers already think mine are spoiled rotten, I look forward to continuing that trend. One friend recently said to me ” What do you mean your horses doesn’t want to stand still right now to have his tail trimmed” in incredulous dismay. I had said I thought his tail was too long and I would trim it later since it wasn’t working out to do it in current situation.

    “Take all the time you need” statement is so perfect for those times when anxiety could grow and others are watching and wishing you’d hurry along. I so appreciate how you capture the essence of such moments…as well as the essence of establishing a relationship that has true integrity with our horses. .

    Thank you, Anna. You keep hitting it out of the ballpark !

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  8. Spoil alert I am proud to say I am always happy to adopt these
    Most brilliant spoiling techniques and then some. I am gloriously happy about spoiling my horses absolute “rotten” with respect. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  9. The comment “you’re married to that horse” comes to mind! On the other hand, I know my relationship with my horse was oh so much better than my marriage was! Lasted longer too.

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  10. Two short stories that I had to share: My horse, Tully, is pastured next to the driveway where he is boarded. He knows my car. As I was pulling in yesterday, he was standing near the gate, and Tracey, the farm manager, was about 20 feet away from him, giving him some fresh water. When Tully spotted me, he went to the fencepost where we hang his halter and picked up the halter and waved it toward Tracey as if to say, “Servant, my mom is here. Put this halter on so I can go see her.” Made me chuckle. The farm’s very nice and large riding ring is surrounded by pine and deciduous woods on two sides. This time of year the farm staff has to blow and rake the fallen leaves and pine needles from the ring, and Tracey was doing just that as I was heading toward the ring on Tully. As we approached, Tracey was blowing leaves at the far end, noisy, dusty and leaves swirling. Tully stopped and I let him stand for at least three minutes as he calmly watched and satisfied himself that it was, in fact, Tracey blowing leaves and not some loud and scary Tazmanian devil (the horses are accustomed to leaf blowers as they are used to blow the barn aisle). We walked a little closer, and he stopped again and watched calmly. I reassured him it was Tracey, and then we walked into the ring and proceeded to work uneventfully in the front half of the ring while Tracey continued blowing and raking in the back. If you give them the time to figure it out and they trust you, horses can and will handle the “scary” things.

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  11. Seeing as how it’s just me and my herd on my property most of the time, I have no one around to “correct” me when I spoil them. Because I took lessons that taught to the contrary, I used to feel somewhat guilty about it, but now I can lose the guilt because “Anna says it’s ok!” Thank You, Anna😉

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  12. Anna I absolutely love this as with all of your body of work. 🙂 This list is a wonderful practical way to live out what so resonates with me in your approach & writings. It is a lot about the pause, isn’t it. Step back. Pause. Listen. Show up with kindness. Watch how both the pause and the kindness will blow their beautiful minds right before your very eyes….the head turning calming signal to the left and then to the right because they are so overcome with the fact that a human is stepping back and pausing and listening and honoring their right to be heard. Not ruining them. Finding the balance that keeps their dignity in tact. I will be printing this list out and posting it up at my barn. Gratitude. Thank you again.

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