People tell me that when they’re with their horses, they aren’t always perfect. They sound apologetic, you’d think I wore a clergy collar. Whatever they say after that is drowned out by my ghost herd nickering and snorting, bucking and farting, and rolling around in the mud. The equine afterlife has perfectly placed mud baths between those meadows we hear about, and especially there, horses have a sense of humor. Okay, the ghost herd is all in my head, but the part about people feeling guilty when they miss the mark with their horses is true. We want to do our best for our horses. That’s an understatement.
On the other hand, we’re human. Compared to horses, we’re loud, awkward, easily distracted, and on a bad day, frustrated and prone to outbursts. We’d make lousy flight animals because we’re so busy in our own minds we miss most of what’s happening ten feet away. Thankfully, we only have two legs; we have such bad rhythm that we’d kill ourselves cantering. We give conflicting cues and then tense up when we have anxiety. We have totally perfected the Human in Headlights look. After that, we spook and because we have hands, we start to think controlling a horse, either with love or force, is a good idea. My imaginary ghost herd gets quiet right about now, waiting to see if I’ll get this part right… There is no chance of controlling a horse when we have so little control of our own selves. Now the herd stretch out their necks and blow, going back to grazing again. One chit paid on my account.
What is our crime? It’s bad timing usually. We’re distracted, don’t watch spacing, and let ourselves get into a bad spot. Then we see potential danger and react with a bit of panic. We are caught unprepared and then must make a harsher ask than we wish we had. Most of us were taught to threaten with ropes and pull on faces. It was easy to learn aggression because those responses dovetailed with our instincts and falling back on the old ways is easy. We are intimidated by the horse’s fear, so we get aggressive as a lion-tamer waving a chair. We have sports to prove our “manhood” dominating fearful horses. It’s a cultural holdover from a time it was crazy to think horses had feelings.
The worst horsemanship is the use of constant threats; looking for a fault to correct and then making a habit of correcting everything you don’t like, until your horse thinks everything he does is wrong. His confidence is destroyed. If we’re honest, a good number of humans were trained that way, too. Correction has been our go-to language with horses. Some of us think if we are loving while we micromanage corrections, it’s different for the horse. As if being constantly nagged by a passive-aggressive person is substantially better than being intimidated by an angry person.
Yet, here we are, trying to do the very best for our horses. It’s an understatement because what we are really doing is working to change our predator instincts and that is nothing short of trying to change the world.
We are retraining ourselves to get ahead of the cycle of correcting what the horse has already done. It does no good to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. We break the cycle of correction by changing the conversation. Laying that old worn rant down and not holding a grudge. We’re shifting to seeing good behavior and making a habit of praising what you like and ignoring the rest because the thing we pay attention to grows. Less correction, more direction.
But the process of change isn’t always pretty. We will stumble. Does the horse in front of you hold a grudge about a mistake? This horse who you claim knows when you’re sad with almost mystical insight? This horse who mirrors your emotions before you acknowledge them to yourself? Give him his hard-earned due. Horses have known we are imperfect for centuries. They should get more credit for tolerance and perseverance than they do. And we could do that by returning the favor and behaving that same way.
Think of the horse as being on a continuum between a restive state and a flight/fear state. Curiosity and learning happen when he feels safe. Living with constant anxiety negatively impacts his mental and physical health. Always know that a loud cue will shut them down or frighten your horse. There will be consequences, some horses will shake it off and some will be left with a bruise. But the problem isn’t the overt cue now and then, horses will forgive a mistake out of the context of your relationship. It’s the overall intention that matters, the wave of affirmative tendency. Does your horse expect you to be perfect or does he long for consistency?
Give yourself a break. These changes may seem small: Teaching ourselves to respond rather than react. To pause and breathe to give the horse time to think and then show yourself the same kindness. In truth, these changes are profound and will challenge us to our core. What sounds simple is rarely easy. Both partners, our horses and ourselves, are more prone to try too hard than to give in. Most of all, know that energy is a choice. Wasting it on guilt demeans the journey. It’s closing the gate too late again. Affirmative training starts inside the trainer.
The purpose of having an imaginary ghost herd is to remind you that you’ve lacked grace in the past and you will lack grace again. Horses know that; we’re the ones who seem surprised. They keep us honest and then kick us out of our pacing thoughts and into the real world where change is hard, and consequences happen. Ghost herd are just other words for having a conscience. A reminder of what has gone before, they intend to be an inspiration for a better future.
It takes courage to even think we could change the world, much less take the huge strides we are with horses. We are standing against our born instinct and making a choice to use our energy in a proactive way. We are no less than warriors of breath and grace, not complacent to do as we have been told. We are imperfect enough to be tolerant, courageous enough to be kind, and tough enough to see it through. With soft hands, we are predators who wage peace.
Next week: Deconstructing fear.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Visit annablake.com to see our class schedule, online courses available on a revolving basis on Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and More. You can book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.
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.