How to Be a Safe Anchor for Your Horse

For us long-timers, if we’ve been lucky, it feels like we’re always standing in a ghost herd. They’re good company but they’re not looking over us so much as being ready if we forget and start to feel a little cocky about knowing much. Then one of the herd will push past and an airy flash of his tail leaves us scrambling to catch our balance. How many horse-lives does it take to train a human to stop letting our brains tell us stories and pay attention to them? Perhaps the thing I feel the most regret about is confusing my horse’s fear with disobedience. Could I be more tone-deaf?

The horse spooks. Maybe he freezes on the spot first, and you hold your breath until he explodes. Maybe there is less warning and he does a full-body flinch and launches into the air. He’s spinning, his feet don’t hold, and he flings his head to seek balance as his hind end engages the power to bolt. His eyes are rimmed in white terror, his nostrils tense from snort-breathing. He seems at least four hands taller.

Is this the horse to pick a fight with? Somehow, “they” decided that the horse was ignoring us. Like a prey animal can selectively ignore his environment. “They” said he had no respect for us, as if a horse understands the obscure human concept any better than we do. “They” said get his attention, and so we started yelling, snapping the lead line, getting in his face, making ourselves bigger by waving arms. Never mind that in front of him is his blind spot.

We make the horse’s fear became all about us. We steal his fire in favor of our need to be the center of the horse’s attention. Our need to control his every step. Our requirement that the horse be isolated from his flight instinct, while we go full-tilt predator. We bully him for being afraid. It’s enough to put you off humans entirely.

Even if we fail at intimidating the horse, but we’re as scared as them, soaring in our own panic mode. Now it doesn’t exactly matter why it all started, here we are. Nobody trusts anybody and if fear wasn’t enough, now it’s worse. The horse has panic about feeling fear. When you and the horse look at each other, you both see dread.

What should happen when we’re on the ground and our horse spooks?

Prepare ahead. Keep consistent daily habits that will help both of you. Throw out any of those silly lead ropes that are eight or nine feet long. If you listen, horses will tell you that you’re usually a bit too close, even on a good day. It’s contradictory to hug a horse part of the time and punish him for being in your space a moment later. Rather than bickering about who crowded who, be a leader and mentor space and peace. He doesn’t want you under his hooves any more than you want to be, so train yourself to be stay light on your feet. Begin the practice of standing a few feet apart. Teach your horse how good autonomy feels by using a lead rope that allows social distancing. Instead of trying to exert control by pulling his head when he looks away, get into a habit of giving enough space that the horse can survey his surroundings without thumping your head. Are long ropes inconvenient to handle? Fine, use them until you become comfortable.

Once you decrease the horse’s stress by standing away and not micromanaging his face, consider the idea that rather than one of you being in control, you are partners moving together through the environment. Adjust to each other. Make sure you hold the rope firmly in the grip of your hands, but let it slack to him. When he looks away, let your hand follow. He has a right to look.

Notice how often we correct things that aren’t wrong. Spooking is an instinctual response to anxiety about his surroundings, the moment that anything might happen. You’re the wild card.

When the horse does actually spook, it seems he can’t even see you. Understand it’s because he’s hardwired, legs to brain, to panic. It’s how his brain works to save his life. Once a horse is in his flight or sympathetic mode, he can’t reason. It’s why the old method doesn’t work any better than cooing and coddling. Horses need to move, not in disobedience, but as a way of soothing themselves. You have enough rope; you can mitigate his fear. Now is a good time to notice neither of you is breathing and it’s a cue you can give, as you keep yourself out of his way.

In this moment of tension and drama, being quiet will give you the loudest voice. You can embody a human calming signal, an affirmation that you are no threat. Breathe like a warrior, with depth and strength, feet fluid to earth. Find your self-control in an inhale, emphasize balance on the exhale. Horses do not seek conflict, and you can offer an alternative. Peace is no flimsy thing. It isn’t merely the absence of aggression, it is the bold action of acceptance. Say, “Yes!” Give him a chance to calm himself. Breath has the magic ability to slow time.

Now, an enthusiastic, “Good boy!” Stand wide to the side, repeat the praise with confidence. He’s smart. He knows you aren’t rewarding him for being bad, but rather you’re reminding him that he is good. Breathing is a cue to think. You’re building his confidence that you won’t throw a fit. Hold that space, let him learn it for himself, and witness a partner step up.

Horses expect us to act irrationally. We’ve done it in the past or others have. Humans are predictably prone to panic. We’re widely known to spook when scared and attack when threatened. Humans can behave like wolves. In the crucial second when fear arises, a horse checks to see if we’ll lose it like humans do.

We simply must stop taking that dare. We have to prove they’re wrong, that we aren’t that person. Instead, become a calm anchor in the storm, tether him safely. Make enough space for the horse to be safe from our misunderstanding and frustration. Safe from our fear and anger. When a horse is frightened, we must cherish the opportunity to slow the moment with an exhale and gift them time for a choice. The consistency that your horse needs most is your temperament.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

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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

26 thoughts on “How to Be a Safe Anchor for Your Horse”

    • Start at 15feet or so, but if your horse is large or reactive, you might need more. Mostly you’ll carry a coil but when space is needed, the rope has to be long enough for everyone to be safe.

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  1. The crazy thing is that what you’ve written here is brilliant and well-thought-out while at the very same time being the most obvious thing on the planet if any one of us being with a horse simply observes and listens. The horse will teach us. It’s such a human trait that we need to learn it by reading about it, and even then we don’t really get it until we feel it in process, in our bodies, in proximity to theirs.

    Having worked with humans in psychotherapy for 30 years it still baffles me why we want and need to be in such control that we will accept a practice that involves holding a huge prey animal on a lead line and not allowing him/her to look at something, or nudge a fly off his/her leg without thinking it disobedience. And your perfect example – that we will hug or kiss their faces in one moment and then punish/discourage them getting in OUR space a moment later. We have so much to learn. Thanks for being a translator. 🙂

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  2. Have you ever done, or will do, a video, that demonstrates what you’re talking about? I have a horse that blows up on the lead line when his buddy (loose and out of sight behind a solid fence) starts running around, bucking. They’re very herd bound. Seeing a visual of your technique would be very helpful. Thanks!

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    • Being “herd bound” is a different question entirely. There are affirmative approaches for dealing with it, but it isn’t a fault. It’s the nature of herd animals. The problem is we expect them to lay down their flight instinct. The first place to start is by seeing their side. They are both panicking, the one in the pen as well. They are already in their sympathetic system and can’t learn. If pushing this was going to work, it would have, but pushing through usually plants the fear deeper. The answer is to build trust that he will be safe, so we listen and respond before the full explosion happens, when he can still learn, working in small increments and being affirmative. The challenge with two horses is that both get isolated. So both need help as their connection to each other is greater than to humans. Like most horses. Sorry, the answer to your question is too long for this little box. The short answer is to set it up so we don’t teach them that separation means panic, but rather that separation means they always come back. Yes, we do share videos in the online group, I will think about a blog or we could talk about your situation.

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  3. Thank you again, Anna. I took my horse for a walk today on a lead rope, and it was the first time I would take her past the neighbour’s fence where I knew there are two loud dogs. She was already nervous as it was a new route, and I was expecting her to get a fright. She’s my first horse and she’s young and not started up (or ‘broken in’) yet and I know I should definitely not do anything stupid during lockdown, but I felt it was time to do this. And she did get a fright and she reared up just a little and bucked, and coiled around and I was scared, of course, my heart beating like a monster. But I knew she wasn’t misbehaving and for whatever reason I trusted that she’d trust me. I stood well clear and let her get it out, and then she looked at the dogs for a while and I soothed and affirmed that yes, these were big new dogs but they’re not a threat (and actually my one dog has a crush on that one over there, so he can’t be too bad), and I offered her a treat and she came to me. We resumed our walk. This happened one more time, we followed the same procedure, and that was it. No big deal. I’m sure a lot of horsey people would be completely upset at me. You gave me the confidence to trust her, thank you 🙂 Of course at the same time one learns when they are pushing it and taking chances, and then it becomes a game, rather than a discipline.

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    • Well done, Bernelle. If you want to use treats, do. But don’t let a sweet shortcut take the place of your response to her behavior. It’s how she’ll learn who to trust.

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  4. Thank you Anna for confirming something for me. I have a 21 year old stallion that I have had since he was 4. He was overfaced and treated/handled like a fire eating dragon by several “trainers” that feared the stigma that a stallion has. In reality he is kind and willing. At the end of the day I was left with a horse that reared and ran around me and towards me, and was considered “dangerous”. I had a gut feeling that I had to be the only one handling him any more and work with him, and in reality he is kind and willing. Your descriptions above is what I have been doing with him and it has worked tremendously. Bravo to you for another nail on the head observation.

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    • I have a trainer-friend who says stallions wear their hearts on their sleeve. I think you’d agree with her as I do. Thanks, Cynthia. From your kind stallion and me.

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  5. Thank you, Anna, for this confirming post. I do have a story that may or may not gel with what you have imparted here.
    This has been years ago. I was not comfortable taking my “flighty” TB Dover in hand with a 12 ft lead to “conquer” and then play with an oversized ball. So I decided to try at liberty to engage him in the field along with his buddies. At first he had a meltdown, kept running away when he saw the ball rolling on the ground. I didn’t care because we weren’t tethered together…nobody got hurt! Because his alpha buddy was around, Dover kept returning to his buddy, to me, and the ball. It took maybe an hour or so of me mostly playing with it while “ignoring” him, but he finally became friends with that ball. I then felt confident enough to place him in a halter, and with lead in hand we were able to push that ball beyond the field, exploring “unknown” worlds! Though it may not be what a trainer would advise, this method of liberty first has worked for me many times.

    Another thought triggered by Bernelle’s comment is loud dogs. When I would ride past neighbors’ houses, it struck me that the house that had the vicious-sounding barking dogs running back and forth along the fence line didn’t phase Dover at all. There was another house whose dog was quiet, just like I imagined a true predator would be before striking its prey. I never saw him first, but Dover sure did. The aha moment for me was no self-respecting predator would make as much noise as those barking dogs did before they would attack. But that quiet one, that’s another thing altogether!

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    • Liberty, if done correctly, is choice and in this case, the liberty to express without danger. Why not ask a friend to help. Why not cut it into small pieces that can become fun. The confidence comes from not fighting, not leading, but going there together. I love it.

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    • Thank you for showing the story behind the curtain. I have found freedom with your perspective and am getting a real trust from my horses since my adjustment started. It is unfortunate that relationships must be salvaged, but truly wonderful that horses are so forgiving.

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  6. “Gift them time to make a choice” “ consistency of temperament” those two ideas have made such a difference in the conversations I am having with Bautisto especially and if I am quiet enough I can hear Parker too.

    As I read this piece I was thinking about the recent adventure Elaine and Bruce had…are you to girls hardwired to each other?

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      • I have to thank you for this consistent voice that has helped me develop a way of loving my horses that is calm, fairly quiet (I do talk to them but differently than before), and does not take anything personally. The idea that they’re expressing their fear allows me to support them instead of having to control them. This has resulted in, among many other examples, two rescued mustangs who came with warning labels and who have been able to show their sweet, kind and curious nature once those labels were removed and space was given. And it’s so darn gratifying!

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  7. I tried the breathing in the saddle yesterday after a shy followed by an explosion, I even used good girl.
    I will admit to yelling stop it, but she calmed quickly and we continued on.
    Thank you for making a difference with us 💜💜💜

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  8. It is easier said than done though.
    About 3 years I enjoyed a calm quiet horse, one that yawned when other horses spooked. Then quite unexpectly, he got a bit spooky.. I blamed his recent move to another stable. But 2 months later he really spooked on everything. Finally I found his selenium and magnesium levels were really low. After 2 weeks of supplements he signifcantly improved. But when there was a lot of wind for example, he could still be scared easily. I tried to be brave for both of us, gave him space to move (be very jumpy) when he spooked. But I found that I have just a limited amount of “being brave’s”. At a certain point I don ‘t like it anymore, it’ s getting uncomfortable. In a last desperate attempt I give him a piece of carrot or so: “this will take your mind of the spooky things, please be good for me”. But obviously this only helped 2 seconds.
    I found it very hard to deal with this and sometimes I was looking for an excuse not to go to him.
    I started with riding lessons again, which helped not to make excuses for not going. I had a few scary moments when there was a lot of noise or wind.
    Luckily he is now close to his normal calm self, but I don’t know what I had done if he would stay spooky.

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    • Thanks for this comment, Janneke. There is always change, isn’t there. I think moving is really challenging, too. Then you found the deficiencies, well done… but by then, the behaviors had become habitual. Glad you got help with lessons and the road has been bumpy. I respect the courage to go on when it stops being fun. You’re my hero, thank you, your gelding is a lucky boy.

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  9. I recall from a long time ago. I had a mare who had done heaps she was stable and kind. although I recall her wrapping herself in driving lines when young and me teaching her the word whoa. Years later we while competing in combined driving we had a driving accident in a marathon obstacle, which tipped us out and broke her cart leaving her scared cantering away with all her gear. Luckily she turned and I ran up to get her attention and I hoped stop her . The Whoa her name and a calmness convinced her I was still the safe spot and she whinnied and trotted up. Thankfully no injured horse although her confidence took some time to recover. guess Im saying she obviously felt I was a sane spot at that moment.

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  10. Thank you, Anna! We’re you ever a classroom teacher?:) With most horses, as with most teenagers , if we make a big deal out of something, they can, and sometimes will, make it into an even bigger deal. Breathing, walking away, and revisiting works with both species; confrontations rarely help a situation when fear and anxiety are involved. Just my opinion

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