Something is off with your horse, but you can’t tell what. You might be leading him or you might be riding. It could be in a strange place or in your home arena. He isn’t being resistant, but it’s not right. Then he sees something and goes very still. You try to see what he’s looking at, but 20-20 vision isn’t good enough. His walk has less swing, just a little sticky. You write it off to sore muscles, not that you believe it. You just don’t know. There’s nothing to correct really. At best, he’s answering by rote.
But it nags at you. Your horse isn’t spooky or flighty. He feels lazy, so you kick and cluck. But nothing. It’s like you’re invisible. The kind of lost in the fog invisibility that leaves you feeling as lost as he seems. In the past, maybe you would have tried to scare him out of being afraid or punish him for ignoring you, only to find he got more distant. Maybe you sing and coo and scratch, trying to love him back to paying attention to you. But instead he looks past you.
Notice your thoughts. Are you scrolling through articles you’ve read or stories you’ve heard looking for a reason? Do you have a list of training techniques that you have tried or might try? Maybe you’ll try a bit of everything all at once, just hoping that something might work? Do you want to do a dissection of his emotions, seek a cause or someone to blame? Would that information help or are you looking more like your horse by the minute? Body quiet and mind racing? Notice your thoughts, so that you can untangle yourself from them.
How can you rebalance the conversation? You’ve both been shallow throat-breathing for a while. The tension is clear; your horse is fearful. You know if things keep heading in this direction, he’ll explode. Is it too late to deconstruct the fear? You can’t snap fingers and make him be calm, but could you give him a choice? Could he have time to process his environment without getting louder cues piled on top?
Look again. Your horse isn’t distracted, it’s the exact opposite. He’s hyper-focused, just not on you. How can you insert yourself in the conversation without becoming an adversary?
Start with what is within your control. Breathe in a full breath. It won’t be your best but then exhale through your mouth. Think of this breath as raising a white flag. Think of it as a sign the fighting is over, even if you don’t think you were fighting. Breathe again to let him know he’s perfect. Just exactly now.
Get to his side, look at him again but soften your eyes. Give him space to think. You have a long rope for a reason. If you are on his back, extend your arms in front, slack the reins by changing your arm length. Feel your little toes in the stirrups, brought back into the present moment, and a little bow-legged. Feel your knees and thighs soften lighter on his sides. Then, untangle your thoughts again. Give your frontal lobe a rest and tune in your senses.
Is he still frozen? Check your horse for calming signals. Exhale again. Did he blink? Did an ear almost flick? Can you see his lower lip vibrate even a tiny amount? Did he consider softening? Acknowledge that tiny sign; exhaling is your nervous system saying, “Good boy,” to his nervous system. If you see no calming signals, exhale anyway, to let him know you’re listening. Trust that he can hear you and now, untangle your expectations. Blow that exhale to soften your own shoulders. The deconstruction has begun. Smile with optimism.
Did his eyes furrow a bit? Did he tilt his head away a few degrees? It’s language but is it negative? Oops. Did you just judge his feelings? Again, exhale an affirmation. You’re listening and resetting your patience. One more step away from him, see that he softens with more space. In the saddle, empty your body of any small vestiges of tension. You do have control of your body, say, “Good girl.” to yourself and soften your sit bones. If you’re in the saddle, can you get more out of your horse’s space mentally? Retreat and give him a chance to notice.
Stay in your senses, did you see his poll lower a fraction of an inch? By breathing you’re saying yes. Inviting more, but in connection with his calming signal. Is the conversation working? Another horse might have given bigger signs by now. Untangle those thoughts before they trip you up. Stay focused on the subject at hand. Breathe again.
Listen to yourself. No thoughtless chatter, you want to connect your breath or words to his calming signals in a conversation that has give and take. Pause and give him a chance to answer. Recognize the thing that makes you nervous, the silence, as a welcoming space to a horse. Let the silence stand like a warm dry shelter out of the weather. Let him have that peace; it will draw your horse closer. Now you are beginning to look like the calm in the storm, even if you’re not in control of him. Hold steady. Let him do this himself.
Just when you think it isn’t working, half-heartedly breathing, quietly pondering your own doubt, your horse snorts loud enough to buckle your knees. Or he flings his head to the ground to rub his nose on his fetlock. That stretch looks like it would feel good, doesn’t it? “Very good boy.”
That idea of deconstructing your horse’s fear was attractive, wasn’t it? But let’s be honest. He was the one who did the work. You reminded him, with your own calming signals, that you were no threat. You did no more than practice the fine art of saying yes. Affirmative training is doing less. But the result is that your horse found his own way back and gained some confidence on the way. Your imperfect breath did more to help him than any training aid could by creating a safe place for him.
Stoic behavior is normal for a horse. That counterfeit feeling at the beginning isn’t a game of deception or your horse can playing tricks on you. It’s their common-sense effort to look normal in a stressful situation. He deserves acknowledgment from you. Does this all sound like hair-splitting minutiae? How’s your patience holding up?
If your horse goes too quiet and you’re at a loss, just say yes. Let it be that simple.
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.