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.