You started with horses the same way most of us were taught. You tried to show them who’s boss, not that you ever felt good about it. Maybe you eventually got fed up with fighting. Maybe you saw one too many frightened horses in the hands of aggressive riders. Maybe your horse let you know something about yourself that you didn’t like, and it made you want to do better for him. For your horse, this magical creature who leaves piles of manure that you fork up while murmuring, “Good Boy.”
So, you’re changing yourself for your horse. Not that you would change to please your parents or a man, but now you want to change. What is it about horses that everything that sounds simple is not in the least bit easy? Why does it take every stray wit and all the strength you have to do less? It isn’t easy breaking habits, but if the old way with horses had worked, none of us would be trying so hard to listen, so hard to be the kind of person a horse could trust. You’re supposed to let the horse volunteer? How would you even give a horse a choice, and if you did, what if he didn’t choose you? Suddenly, you’re clumsy with ropes, hesitating at gates, and generally embarrassed because you’re uncertain of a million things that you thought you used to know.
Until the day something shifted. You almost missed it, your horse was so subtle, so intelligent. An answer to a question offered freely. You almost think it’s coincidental. Then, when he feels confident, his answers come quicker. Your horse starts conversations. Why was it so hard all those years to understand that a partnership had to have two voices, not just one? This is what you dreamed about horses when you were little but at the same time, it isn’t child’s play. You cannot bribe a horse into trust with apples. All the kissing and hugging in the world will not make a horse feel safe. You have to show up whole and dependable. You have to have the maturity to put the horse’s wellbeing above your feelings.
Once you have a toe hold, the what-if questions begin. What if my friends judge me? What if my farrier is old-school? One thing I know for a fact is that horse people do not like to be corrected, especially in public, especially professionals. At the same time, horse people all seem to love to give advice even if they have no actual experience or pertinent knowledge. Horse people are funny that way.
I have two suggestions if you’re accused of horse training heresy. First, are your goals realistic? If you can’t control your hair, then the chances of controlling the horse world are somewhat less. And when you start to feel your hackles rise, make eye contact with the naysayer and smile so big that your upper lip sticks to your gums. Thank them without blinking.
Okay, seriously, if your farrier is impatient or your vet uses a twitch, and especially, if your trainer has a temper, speak up. “I” statements are good. “I’m uncomfortable with what you’re doing.” If the warning doesn’t work, walk away. Perhaps the professional talks down to you or tries to shame you. Walk faster. Yes, we’re introverts who don’t like conflict. More reason to look for someone better.
But it isn’t always that simple. Spring a rough season for horses. The earth comes back to life and horses go a bit nuts. Horseplay injuries happen, along with the usual spring maladies like laminitis, allergies, and colic. Many times, the horse is already in pain and frightened, pushed to his flight response or sympathetic nervous system. He might endanger himself or someone trying to help, but at the same time, there’s a reason to go quickly. He may need to be trailered to a clinic for help. Sometimes the veterinary intervention or the drug protocol is traumatic. What if we need to cause the horse pain and discomfort in pursuit of best practices for his healing and wellbeing. Will that destroy your horse’s trust?
How are you holding up? Frightened? Emotionally exhausted? Anxious? All fair responses and common sense will tell you not to blindly trust your horse in this moment. What about the post-emergency duties like changing bandages or administering drugs? Daily paste syringes or required stall rest can become a challenge. The last thing you want to do is pick a fight, but uncomfortable things are necessary. When we’re anxious, we tend to tense up and go fast to get the uncomfortable moment over with. Meanwhile, your horse feels like he’s being attacked. This is when the connection you have been working toward really matters. It’s all fun hand grazing on sunny afternoons, but how does affirmative training impact each of you during an emergency?
The answer is simple, but not easy. Breathe, of course. But we hear that so often that we quickly dismiss it. Like being given a placebo, it just doesn’t feel like enough. Besides, we aren’t doing much better than our horses, trying to manage our own panic. We want to cry and scream. We’d carry him on our shoulders if it would help. Understand the primal power of breathing. It’s literally an affirmation of being alive, the lifesaving ring in a stormy sea. Cling to your breath for all you’re worth, and watch it calm your horse. A conscious slow inhale and exhale is a physical cue to your nervous system that you’re safe, you can return to a calm state. It is the same cue for your horse. Use the best tool. In that calm, you can move steady and sure to the desired effect. Do you trust your breath?
In the same way that we are always training for the next ride, we can train for the next injury or lay-up. Train ourselves to focus on a task with single calm confidence as a habit. Clean each hoof with awareness. Train horses leading games, long strides and short, for focus. Use polo wraps for practice bandaging. Ask him to lower his neck for slow calm touch in sensitive areas. Practice your own steadiness, as well as breathing to steady him. Start training the things you might both need in an emergency, physically and emotionally.
Does he trust you? Maybe a better question is do you trust your horse? Not simply the trust that he’ll carry you safely on his back. I mean the profound trust that a horse is truly intelligent. That he can tell the difference between aggression and the pressure of discomfort. That when the going is rough, you can affirmatively trust your horse’s ability to understand your best intention.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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