Spring and Horses That Fly Like Kites.

Left: A breathtaking view of Pikes Peak from my pasture. Right: An aerial view (from the height of the berm) of the pond and our pens. Miraculously, there are [the same] trees in both views.
When people hear I live in Colorado they often get a romantic look on their faces. I shake my head, “It’s not that Colorado.”

It’s February on the High Plains of Colorado. Due to low precipitation and an elevation of almost 7000 feet, the High Plains experience gusty winds and extremes in temperature. But at least the soil is poor and only grows sparse prairie grasses that maintain a dead tan color for what feels like eleven months of the year. It was below freezing every day this week, except for the day it was sixty degrees. Winds gusting to forty miles per hour brought both the warmth, and the following ground blizzard.

I could tell you that I know it’s spring because there was a slight moisture in the last snow or that the light pretends to linger a moment longer at night. The real first sign of spring comes from my elder Llama, whose age in equivalent human years is three hundred seventy-five. (375!) She initiates a moany-growling sort of lap dance with another female Llama. Soon after, the horses all seem to contract an equine version of Seasonal Tourette’s, erratic spurts of lousy behavior. Our most stoic gelding and our spayed mare began a romantic interlude. Meaning they are backing up and double barreling each other through fence panels. Then, walking the sting off and coming back for more. Meanwhile, I loosen my muffler and take off one of my hats so I can do my impression of a chaperone at a high school prom. Ah, Spring. I’m not in the mood but their deep instinct to procreate must be acknowledged, even respected.

This time of year, leading horses can seem more like flying kites. Most of us have been taught to pick a fight with frantic horses; facing them, jerking ropes and yelling, “Whoa!” followed by a few expletives. Maybe chase them blindly backward. The horse might freeze for a moment, but then you ask for a step and he explodes again. It might make for a good show for ranch tourists but it’s high time we recognize that punishing a horse who is already in their sympathetic/flight response is a foolhardy from a human, also in their sympathetic/fight system. If you believe in domination training, you’ll need to say no in a hundred ways as you demand behavior that’s the opposite of his flight instinct. 

Do we let them harm themselves or us because we are affirmative trainers? Does it mean we are sacrificial lambs to their worst instincts? Are you kidding? It’s our job to buy hay and that means self-care comes first but we don’t have to alter training methods to stay safe and help our horses. Common sense and a bit of discipline (of ourselves) would be a big help. 

It’s all about space. We don’t want the horse on top of us. When they come into our space, we were taught to make THEM move. Often when we’re nose to muzzle with a horse they seem to freeze with that deer-in-headlights look. Pause and take a moment to see it from the horse’s side: A human might do anything. You might poke him with your pointy finger or you might straighten his forelock. You might flail your arms desperately and shout, “BACK!” or you might tickle his muzzle. And just below the surface, we usually give another level of mixed messages with our emotions. No wonder he looks at us that way. If I play kissy-face half the time and then flap my arms, yelling at him. Conflicting cues! My consistency isn’t better than his.

It’s a revolutionary thought, but how about we get out of their space? We seem to have the wits to not step in front of a speeding car, why would we block the escape possibility of a flight animal? Besides, we have more leverage from the side. Instead of an aggressive face-off, we could step out of their space, releasing them. A release is a reward and we haven’t betrayed their trust with punishment for the crime of being a flight animal.

Effective training is done on quiet days. We teach the sweetness of peace rather than the anxiety of war. We show them how good space feels by example. We stand at his shoulder because standing in front of them puts us in their blind spot and is more aggressive. Shoulder to shoulder, always at least three feet away from his head. If you are dying for a cuddle, you can rest your head on his butt. We need to show consistency in our own spacing all the time in preparation for “spring-like” events. We need to claim this space when breathing in the pasture, when grooming, or holding for the farrier. We must consistently stand with our own autonomy and ask that they do the same. Confidence is the finest gift we can give horses.

If things do come apart, we can’t tell them everything they do is wrong. Saying “no” gives no information about what they could do. If you believe leadership means safety, we must find a way to stay on their side. We have to be drawn to their fear rather than repelled by it. 

First, give up the notion that horses have human logic. Reasoning with a hysterical toddler doesn’t work either. It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what the horse feels, sees, hears, smells. 

Complacency is a luxury we may not have with horses; their response time is seven times quicker than ours. So, we train ourselves to listen and stay focused in-the-moment, just like a horse. It isn’t that you anticipate, so much as notice the first calming signals, a bit of ear or eye tension, while responding with an exhale. When his energy jumps, I can let him move and release it. I can use a rope long enough that I can keep out of his space, leading at his shoulder but still wide away from him, watching with my peripheral vision as I hold a good forward pace. I can’t calm him immediately, but I can lift my energy to match and participate by moving on with him. If his energy is fearful, I’ll make mine courageous. I’ll be red-hot in oneness, each sense plugged in and firing. I might even say, “Good boy” to remind him who he is. Soon, I can take long steps and short steps, evolving the conversation and he will begin to respond. Then we can talk about coming back to his parasympathetic/restorative system.

It can’t be wrong for a flight animal to move. We forever tell horses to calm down and we aren’t being fair. We need to use positive ways of releasing energy, instead of asking horses to be lapdogs. Horses gotta move and our job is to find a way to facilitate that safely in our domestic world. When the horse feels safe, of course, he’ll stand quietly. That’s his nature, too.

Do we look silly standing around breathing with horses, a few feet away, on a cocked hip? Some think it’s bliss-ninny laziness. The truth is, if we do it right, we’re having a conversation about confidence; that’s serious training for Spring.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

32 thoughts on “Spring and Horses That Fly Like Kites.”

  1. I’m curious about where you live. I was just in Peyton, Colorado working with National Mill Dog Rescue. I had a stunning view of Pike’s Peak.

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    • Not far from me at all. There is an overland waterway that feeds my pond, (just a bit of a drop in altitude) so I have a lesser view of Pikes Peak. Except in weather like this month, when it’s still there but the view of it isn’t. Hope you enjoyed your visit.

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  2. This very same topic came up with my husband and me this morning as we let 9 horses and mules out to 2 separate pastures where hay had been laid out. I cautioned him to step WAY back as they came out the gate because several years ago a new mare spun in the gate, kicked, and got me in the forehead. A trip to get 13 stitches, and a lesson learned about just how far to step back in the frigid air!

    Have been reading yours and Mark Rashid’s books–am so ready for rideable weather and to put into practice what I’ve read. Looking forward to your clinic in Cheyenne this summer!

    Carol in Ft. Collins

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    • Wow, I realize 13 stitches wouldn’t sound lucky out in the real world, but it is in our world. Yikes. And I’m looking forward to coming back to Cheyenne. What a great group. Thanks, Carol

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  3. This is so meaningful for me. I lost my 31 year old mare recently and it makes me sad to think of our early years and all the mixed signals I gave her (on the advice of a Natural Horsemanship trainer!). Thankfully, I think I figured it out and our trust in each other grew over the years. I will always miss her. Thank you for your beautiful posts and inspiring words.❤️

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  4. A timely reminder. (It’s blowing 50mph today, with temps going from 75 – 40)

    I have been (successfully) utilizing conscious breathing when leading my horse – especially when he blows. I’ll answer back, and we’ll have a snorty convo for a few minutes, which probably sounds funny to the folks next door. The people folks – I’m sure the horses understand.

    There are still the occasional blowups. The ones with hi-ho-silvering rears and four-off-the-floor do rattle me though. Will start using a longer lead, and see if I can re-direct the anxiety when he gets airborne. Generally these days I do stand and wait until he feels better, but must admit struggling with reacting out of fear initially. I was taught to jerk on his face and make him back up – not a new story to you I’m sure. Thanks Anna 🙂

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  5. Oh my goodness yes. I was always taught to lead from the shoulder for everyone’s safety. Many thoroughbred yearlings reinforced that message until it sunk in. I forgot, once, a few years ago. Too many years of handling polite horses inflated my ego I guess. I parked myself in front of a 17hh horse who was in a slight panic to ‘hold him still’ for the farrier. He lunged forward, knocking me flat, and was kind enough to place his front feet on either side of my head rather than right on it. I think it was the first time I’ve ever found myself lying full length under a horse. It was a good reminder that they are indeed flight animals!

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  6. “If you are dying for a cuddle, you can rest your head on his butt.” This is one of my favorite spots for hugs with my Paso Fino mare, who is very wary about space. I am learning so much more about her from you. And Pasos have the most lovely butts, so round and just the right height!

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  7. Spring? Hahahaha from Northern Michigan. Typically we have a February thaw, but this year it’s looming very unlikely. The weather forecast is in single digits most of next week.

    I love this post for the visuals, though we don’t experience kite horses here much these days. Due to my health and balance issues, my hubby does 90% of the day to day horse care, and we’ve got things set up so that most of our work with our three is done at liberty. They have a very large paddock/pasture where their 12×40 run-in is located, to which we’ve added gates to define stalls when (rarely) needed. We feed small grain treats in buckets hung inside the run-in, and the two boys stick their heads into an offered halter enthusiastically when we offer them. Raziel is a tad more aloof being a mare, and we are required to take the last two steps toward her majesty to halter her. But most of the time they are nekkid.

    We feed lovely home-grown mixed hay round bales, so lots of grooming and farrier work is done “tied” to the feeder. We have gates on three sides of the paddock leading to pastures, and the horses follow Dan typically in a single file line as he walks to open a gate to allow grazing. They “ho” while he opens the gate, then “ok” releases them to go through the gate. Given that they are 13, 15, and 22, they tend to mosey more than kite these days. ;o)

    No, they are not perfect, and they certainly have their moments of silliness, but I’ve been doing clicker-based training for years with my all critters, and before I had my health issues my horses – 2 of whom were born on my farm and imprint trained – were introduced to moving around at liberty with voice commands. They are all pretty clear what Ho, Back, Here, Step (meaning move 1 foot forward 1 step) Walk-on, Trot, Can-ter, EEEeeasy, and Go Play! mean. OK is the verbal click I use, and I release them often. They seem aware of my balance challenges, and as I’ve transitioned from walking with a cane to more often using a walker when out with them, footing dependent, I am constantly amazed at their perception. But then, I watch them closely and when I see the pressure building, I give them releases and requests to move away, perform their airs above the ground a safe distance away,, then come back. My husband doesn’t have peripheral vision, the years I’ve studied these amazing creatures, nor the timing that I do, but even so, they tend to cut him more slack than they do strangers.

    Wonderous creatures, aren’t they?

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  8. LOVE this!! This should be required reading for anyone who spends time around horses. Thank you so much for what you give voice to. This approach heals, honors, and uplifts them and us. I so appreciate you!

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  9. Excellent post, Anna. I love walking with my Arabian mare, at her shoulder on a 12 foot lead, leaving her plenty of space to move should she get flighty. Sometimes I just slow or stop and let her move around me until she settles (we walk on a wide dirt road). I like the shoulder position because we can both see each other and I have a better chance of staying out of her space when she needs to move. She has been educating me for almost 17 years now, and I finally feel like we are enjoying a good partnership.

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  10. My new mare (we’ve been together 7 years now) is a very sensitive, level headed girl. My first job with her was to try and install confidence. And to try not and make some of the mistakes I’ve made with other horses. Of course, this takes a lot longer than domination training. Several years ago, while longeing her in a board sided ring, something set her off. She flew back to the end of the line, and then was free. I’m in my 70s so I though it would safer to let go, and not be dragged around the ring. With the line trailing behind her, she galloped towards the end of the ring, and slid into the fence, shattering a board. I saw a disaster about to happen. She stopped moving forward, took a step back and started forward again. I called her name, and said “stand”. And she did! Eyes wide, whistling, vibrating …. but she stood there. Once I got to her, and touched her, she relaxed. She listened to me. Since then, things still set her off, (especially things in the woods) but her usually response is to stand tall in high alert, and remain with me. We trust each other.

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  11. This is timely for me. Our paint, at times, will loose it on the lead line when I’m ground working him. He’ll stop and face me with head and neck elevated, when I haven’t asked him to, then, with neck arched and a tense expression, he’ll come toward me (with attitidue) rather than move off to the left or right like I’ve asked him. It’s scary when he does that even though his movements are not threatening (pinned ears, striking, etc.). If I step back then he’s controlling my feet. I have gotten big back at him until he moves off in either direction. Then he displays high anxiety energy, out of control loping, etc.. I’ve hung in there with him until he calms down, then it’s over. But I don’t feel safe when he gets big like that and don’t understand where it’s coming from. Sometimes I know the triggers (heavy rain on a metal roof) and sometimes I don’t. I’m going to do what you suggest, use a longer lead line but that won’t help the facing me and coming toward me behavior. What do I do? Move away or hang in there?

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    • Melinda, without actually seeing it, I am just guessing. I really need to see him. Are you sure he is sound? Pain coming from the work might be the cause. So it’s always stupid to GUESS, but it sounds like you are doing some form of Natural Horsemanship (you use the phrase he’s controlling my feet) and much of that is quite aggressive to horses. If he is acting angry it might be a fair opinion of he has been asked or how he feels about it. Too much repetition or over-cueing?? Again, without seeing I can’t say. I know you say he faces you, but do you stand facing him at other times? That facing is a concern. I’ll help if I can. Good luck, Melinda.

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  12. Kite in the wind! I was riding one QH and ponying another young, gigantic, super athletic QH who is recovering from severe PTSD and (healed) profound injury after a tree fell into his paddock. He’s a very good boy, with quite reasonable and specific fear. We’d patiently waited 20′ away while a double big rig delivering hay was unloaded with a hay squeezer fork lift. Impressive. He’s ok w belching diesel, and roaring motors. And loud swearing. The hay truck left, chains bouncing. We look mildly as it retreats. A couple more rounds of the access road coming up. All good. Then…a tree branch creaked. Terror ensued for the poor PTSD gelding. Suddenly high risk situation. Beginner in arena taking lesson. How the heck am I going to not loose control of the lead? I use our friend, the fabulous pony horse, to push him side ways, and we circle Mr. Melt Down, letting us all go forward, spiraling away from the danger, containing him without making him feel trapped. I think we spiraled 200 feet in under 30 seconds, but at least we had some influence of safety over the situation. And, after 200 feet? Quiet stop, no panic, all good. Being allowed to move and getting the message from another horse and me that we’re fine, but will protect him, totally reassured him. We kept him safe in the middle of the herd. Not that I got that at the time, lol! So grateful for the incredible pony horse, and both horses being willing to listen. (FYI life has been messed up, but I never miss a blog post)

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  13. Anna, your profound message that trying to control a horse in his sympathetic flight state while being in the sympathetic state as well, is simply genius. I began to learn this lesson about 12 years ago when I started working with a newly gelded 8 year old Arabian that was unsocialized to both people and other horses (he’d been isolated in a pen). A lovely horse who was interested in learning, but sometimes would get triggered and race towards me appearing to have the intent of running me down. Honestly, I don’t think he really saw me, his eyes were distant (as I saw him run by too close for comfort). Terrified for both of us, I tried to stop him, but it just escalated his hysteria. He was at liberty in an arena, and after realizing I couldn’t stop him, I looked for an escape route and ran to safety on the other side of the rails. I helplessly watched as he galloped full speed around and around. Finally I turned my back to him……..and he slowed to a walk, crossed the arena and stood behind me quietly. These episodes continued, but less and less over time; and each time they happened I immediately turned my back (from a safe distance) and witnessed his rapid return to calm. I still catch myself trying to micromanage these magnificent creatures, but less and less over time.

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  14. Dear Anna,
    Thank-you for your last post about horses that fly like kites – it was very timely for me as ‘seasonal Tourettes’ seemed to be the behaviour of the moment the day before your post arrived. I found your writing very helpful and am wondering if you could comment about the difference/intersection between a flight response and ‘springtime forwardness’. And of course how that is reflected in our response. I’m assuming that they are different places on the same spectrum, but it got me thinking about how some people love the roller coaster and others of us can’t understand why we would put ourselves into what feels like panic mode. Or how I have found my excitement about engaging with a horse can escalate and sort of tumble physiologically into a non-specific fear response.
    We talk about springtime freshness, or accuse our horses of looking for something to shy at, or of being playful – they seem to be having fun, but it is difficult sometimes to align our responses appropriately if we’re not sure what they are experiencing inside.
    Many thanks for reading this and for your instructive and compassionate writing.
    Sincerely, Jinnie Draper

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    • Jinnie, what a great question… and maybe a good blog topic. The short answer is I don’t know that I can always tell what my human friends think truly. I think I just try to listen and ask questions and maybe that’s it for horses. It’s less important that I immediately know why, it’s important that I acknowledge him, even if it’s by letting him wrestle with his friends. I don’t hesitate to say so if it’s not a great day to ride, from the horse’s standpoint. Horses are never truly domesticated so if they hear the call of the wild, I let them. I do know that my personal consistency matters, so I stay calm and quiet. I want to be that person for him. The difference between springtime forwardness and a flight response?? Not sure there is one, so much as one is a type of the other.? I will have fun thinking about this, Jinnie. Thank you.

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