Let Perfection Go. Try Consistency.

Here is a shortlist of the things horses don’t understand: Sarcasm. Exploitation. Shaming. Guilt. Drama.

These are human behaviors that come to life in the frontal cortex of our brains. It’s the place we make up stories about ourselves and others. Does some part of us relish drama? Does the idea of a scarlet letter still appeal if you are the one who gives them out? Is it possible to take advantage of our own weaknesses and then heap some guilt on top for good measure? Humans are complicated. We have minds able to create ideas out of thin air, too. Art, music, and science all exist because we have advanced self-aware thoughts. Along with depression, self-loathing, and chronic insecurity. Creative thoughts, in simple terms, are our gift and curse.

Here is a shortlist of what horses think: Am I safe?

Is it possible for us to narrow our thought this much? Could we focus on one question for long, without writing Black Beauty or devising a plan to be safe from the weather or compile a list of good “should” behaviors to follow: Work hard, go to church, save money, keep your expectations low. We learn the difference between right and wrong as babies, but it comes with judgment about who deserves the best toy and who gets cookies. We learn right and wrong without the maturity to perceive the difference between an action and the actor, what we do versus who we are. The result: guilty babies.

Meanwhile, horses have not evolved to have a human brain. They are not on a mission to dominate us or heal us, and no matter how much we love them, they have one abiding concern. Am I safe?

In the name of love, we have been taught to find fault, have been punished for our faults. Judged for behaviors that are beyond our understanding. A moment later, rewarded for parroting good behaviors. Babies are in full-time training. We let foals grow up some, but our babies must learn from the start to read our faces and know that they have pleased or disappointed their caretakers. Soon enough, babies gain “goodness” by putting dolls to bed without dinner or punishing the family dog.

Even now, horses are still horses. Wild by nature, domesticated by our will. But never able to give up their flight response.  Am I safe?

We are never capable of answering a horse’s primal need, not because of any shortcomings of our own. But we try to reason with horses. Explain to them that they are home forever; that we will never let them go hungry. Still, no matter how much we try to control their environment, they spook. They look away, incapable of taking our word for their safety. Horses will never substitute our placating chatter for their constant instinct to listen to the wind, to look to the distance for predators.

Naturally, we want to control horses. We set a plan for daily work, consistent hours of work. Some part of us wants to believe that we can make a horse focus on us. It would mean surrendering instinct, but we have techniques for that. We put horses into a version of boot camp, where habit and discipline are meant to reform their spirits to our will. Every day we demand correct answers.

Are we successful trainers or have we managed to push horses past their flight response, to shut them into a freeze response? Do we train our horses to play dead, calling it good behavior? How many of us have been trained to doubt our best instincts, too? To remember the worst about ourselves and diminish the best. How many of us still only speak our first language of judgment?

It’s the easiest thing in the world to find fault in our horses. Even easier to find fault in ourselves. We’re convinced that if we can beat others to it, we will manage to cling to some grain of rightness. As if self-betrayal was self-love. Does your mind circle in a rut of overthinking, self-doubt and confusion? Does thinking ever solve anything or does this chatter work like a low-grade infection, just making you weaker? It’s enough to make you think horses have it right all along. There is an argument that horses are too paranoid about their safety to worry about perfectionism, but that’s looking better by the minute.

Here is a shortlist of things beyond human control: What others think. The weather. How jeans fit. Horses.

Throw your arms in the air and yell in relief. You are powerless over lint. Over-ripe vegetables mock you. Your cat understands physics better than you.

Translate that to living with horses and it means your judgment and ego are on stall rest while you ask, “Are they safe?” Still, know that because the vet can’t find anything wrong with your horse, that doesn’t mean the horse is sound. Give up the idea that there is a technique out there that will make your horse behave. That a training aid will teach him anything. That there is a way to manipulate the environment for an outcome. With horses, the last thing you ever expect always happens. Most of all, horses will always be horses.

The sooner we understand, the better because it lands us right back where we started, in our overthinking brain where we can actually train something. We can train ourselves. Begin by telling all the voices to shut up. Great start.

It’s true that horses benefit from consistency, but it isn’t that we ride them in a pattern seven days a week. They are smart enough to get bored quicker than we do. Repetition of dull chatter is never the right answer, any more than learning to memorize passages at school taught us to reason or understand. An answer by rote is little help if the world explodes into chaos.

But we have an antidote to chaos. Better put, we ARE the antidote to chaos. The one thing utterly controllable is our choice of response. We can use our frontal cortex for good. Literally, we can affirm our horse. We can short circuit the doubt by choice. Did we forget the free choice part? Just because we see chaos doesn’t mean we have to clutch it to our bosoms. Our horse may be escalating into his flight response, for some reason real or not. We don’t have to go along. We don’t need to punish or ridicule him by rote. We can hold our ground and say something true. As he rears, we can slack the rope and say, “Good boy!” That should get everyone’s attention.

While onlookers are busy judging you, your horse can’t believe what he heard. Don’t we usually get punished for being afraid? Is she going to jerk the lead now? “Good boy, well done!” He’s frozen on the spot, he might explode but his eyes are on you now. Throw him a life-saving rope, a big ear-to-ear grin. Remind him who you are. Call out your best self and welcome him back, even before he can come. Be dependable. Act as if love is unconditional.

The consistency we hope for in our horses must begin with us. We set the tone. If we behave conditionally, thinking that teaching right from wrong will turn out a push-button horse, we need to take a peek from the horse’s point of view. If we act like a baby-talking, shoulder-leaning, smooching mush-ball one moment and a bi-polar ax-wielding mass murderer the next, well, that’s training. But if your horse can find you calm and steady in every moment, good. Let your answer to every disturbance remind him who he is… a good boy. Let the air be filled with affirmation, say yes.

Be the answer to his question: Am I safe?

It’s our blogaversary. Ten years of posting twice a week, imperfectly but consistently. Thanks to you for reading along and commenting.

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

39 thoughts on “Let Perfection Go. Try Consistency.”

  1. good one! the rearing horse part made me cry and the ax wielding part made me laugh. Many insights here. thank you…… oh and the putting the dolls to bed and punishing the dog… vivid ouch

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  2. Your words captured this so well. I hope your readers can see this in themselves and realize that they can connect with their horses in a way that allows both horse and owner to find a place of emotional self regulation. I am going to keep this to reread, it helps me in converting the neurological underpinnings of the variables of horse human interaction and being able to explain it to others.
    Much appreciated,
    Dr. Steve Peters

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    • Thanks, coming from you, dear Doctor, especially. I flatter myself that we are both sharing a path of going beyond answers by rote to real understanding and communication with horses. Taking different paths to a similar place, I hope. I so appreciate your work. Thanks, Steve, and best wishes.

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  3. Again Anne, more invaluable insight. You are like a freshwater spring, bubbling over with the equine point of view, that refreshes me when I lower myself to drink from it. Humbling, rejuvenating & strengthening those who let it flow throughout us. I can’t wait to get to the barn and share it with those to whom it matters most!

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  4. Another wonderful message. Thank you for your “consistency” and Congratulations on 10 years of helping people help horses.

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  5. Brilliant. And yeow! In every situation except those involving horses, I am busy throwing myself away before someone else can. Somehow, with horses, (maybe a deep gut understanding and respect for a good flight response?) we can stand together, separately, and it usually works. No one gets thrown under the bus. I laughed out loud at imagining you saying “good boy” to a rear. And I thought about it with wonder. Recently, I rode a good boy up a hill past a gas powered weed whacker, to which “serial killer” is a reasonable response, imo. Nothing. Ambled by on the buckle. Once in arena, he had a ginormous spook, scattering all the rail birds outside the arena, clutching their hearts. (I do respect a good flight response, no judgement!). Everyone wanted to know what in the world this good boy reacted to so violently. Once our heartbeats all calmed down, I laughed. I patted him. I thanked him for saving us. It was a ax-wielding, serial killer chicken, hiding in the brush, suddenly and loudly announcing to the universe it had just laid an egg. There was a lot of tsk tsk head shaking. My response was wrong. Obviously. I THANKED him. Reinforcing chickens are scary. The horror. (Nope.) I believe I reinforced I trusted his instinct to keep us safe (it could have been a serial killer with machete crouching in brush!) and when he asked me what i was feeling, I could say, “I think we’re ok now? And thank you”. He returned the respect by saying, “ok. I’m ok now if you’re ok, but I need to move my feet, k?” Off we went, right past the still proclaiming chicken. And…Anna you have worked so hard these past ten years, mad respect and kudos to you for persistence, consistency, and the ability to listen and translate. Thank you. 💖

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  6. Although I can’t do much about a spook away from the killer chicken, I try to reassure my horse after the spook and lead him over to get a look at the scary thing. I keep myself between the scary thing and my horse and if possible, I touch it and breathe. Usually I can get my horse to approach it and take a good look/smell. Over time, my boys have come to trust me, the old gray mare, at least enough that if the spooky thing is a distance away, they’ll look at me to see if they should be worried. I take that as a supreme compliment. It’s made me more “paranoid” like a horse; things I never noticed or heard before, I really notice now. I guess I’ve become way more horse than they can be human.

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  7. I’ve only recently discovered you (a year ago while snowed in – your archives made for a great diversion) but I hope we can all look foward to another 10 years. Your writing and perspective have been exactly what my ‘classicly trained’ self needed.

    By the by, I’ve noticed when my daughters (10 and 6) play horses they never punish the wild rearing neighing one, they just gallop off together ❤ something to aspire to I guess.

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  8. Such simplicity and such sound advice. It really is this simple for our horses. Thank you for reminding us all to think and over-react a little less. Look forward to your every post.

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  9. It never ceases to amaze me how much I learn reading these posts. Happy Blogaversary. Looking forward to the next ten years!

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  10. Read your post this morning, been thinking of it all day, off and on. I don’t have the words handy to say how much I appreciate your affirmative philosophy, and also the ability to write so well about it.

    How is it that folks went off sideways with the idea that being forceful and dominant would make the horse feel safe ? So wonderful to me to know there is a kinder, better way to earn his trust, his willingness , altho’ I’m learning it’s easier said than done !!!

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    • It is curious when you just write it plainly… but we are predators who spank babies, just as they are flight animals. We are writing a new narrative. It should be easier said than done. Thanks Sarah.

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    • I think the “being forceful & dominant” was NEVER about making the HORSE feel safe! I really doubt that came into it. Mainly seemed to be making sure the horse knew who was boss! Isnt it great that we all are aware that there really IS a better way and a much kinder way – as you said. For horses and us.

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      • Never been accused of being smart in or out of the saddle, but back in my early days with horses I do remember being on a ride with a friend who I thought was someone I should emulate. I was inartfully trying to have a conversation with my horse who was not being a happy camper about something (I don’t remember what it was!) My friend said something to the effect that “Lynell believes in having a 2-way relationship with her horse. I, however, believe in a 1-way relationship…my way.” Fortunately, for my horse, I never changed my mind about the 2-way. I love seeing all my horses bright-eyed, not dulled by the “I’m in charge” syndrome.

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        • I know I didnt do everything I could have FOR my horse – but conversations? Had many of those! Hopefully they were 2-way. Sad that I remember far too many people who only knew the their own way with no thought of anything else.

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  11. I was enjoying the post, as usual, until I got to the phrase “Good boy, well done” and all of a sudden my eyes got wide and the light went on in my head. When we are the most scared we want to be hugged not hit (i.e. reassured, not have our anxiety exacerbated) – – and same is true for horses. We reassure them and their positive response is evident. Thanks for all the understanding-your-horse hints your blog has helped me with during the past years.

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  12. I can not tell you how much I loved this post. I have been criticized for years because I am “too soft” with my horses, told I would never be able to ride past anything scary for getting off my horse when he was afraid, and for letting our foals live as close to how nature intended them to live when they should be learning “respect”. Your writing reinforces what my gut has told me was the right thing to do to support my horses. To be an honest partner with mutual respect, traveling both ways. My breed of choice is a Spanish Mustang and over the 25 years we’ve had them one of the major things I’ve tried to tell people is they do not automatically “respect” you and if your training method is one of force you are going to be very unhappy (and perhaps injured!) as they are also very honest and will let you know where they are at with something. I think all horses have this basic honesty but in a lot of modern breeds it’s been deadened or tried to have been bred out. I cringe every time I hear “make him respect you” at a clinic or in a lesson. Another one is “don’t let him get away with that”, so many, many words to make a person question what they feel is the right thing to do to keep their horse feeling safe.
    (By the way, that horse I got off of ALWAYS went by the scary things, while my “friends” horses spooked and spun hehehe)
    Thanks again (and again and again) for your words of wisdom, they mean so much to me.

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