Deconstructing Fear with Affirmative Training


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

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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.

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Anna Blake

20 thoughts on “Deconstructing Fear with Affirmative Training”

  1. You make it sound so simple and organic. Two things not in the design of humans. That said, since following you, I’ve been constantly working on that to the point that deep breaths and blowing exhales have become second nature to me. I find myself doing it at work when I feel overwhelmed, “attacked” or just needing a moment to pause & process before proceeding. I have found though that the human reaction to that is to perceive it as exacerbation to be taken personally. Not the reassuring calming signal my horse takes it as and follows suit. So now, I check myself and only do it when alone in the safety of my own office. Dealing with humans from a horse level has made me appreciate horses so much more!
    Thanks Ann!

    • Love this comment, SueAnn. I have to laugh. When I take that breath around people, I make myself smile, too. Humans are more confusing, aren’t they?

  2. Anna, you are a gift to horses and their humans everywhere. You put into words the things that make the most sense, which we do often forget, if we knew at all. It is the most beautiful conversation when we listen. Thanks for reminding us, and teaching us, how to be better communicators.

  3. A quiet mind has been, will always be, hard for me. But as I practice having conversations with the horses it’s getting easier. The silent spaces don’t make me so nervous. It’s pretty obvious that when I have a quieter mind, the horses are a lot calmer around me. Is quieter even a word? It is my forward! Thank you, Anna, for another gem.

    • Thanks, Abby I think lots of us see silence as waiting for the other shoe to drop… at least I did. Waiting for the worst to happen… Why didn’t I expect peace??

  4. Thank you, Anna, for reminding us that the best answer is always yes. I wish I had known more about these ways when I had my horse who died in the flood. here He had a tendency to bolt forward, and was just easily spooked. One trainer I had helping me for awhile said your horse is just looking for something to be scared of, and you’re just waiting for him to bolt And that was true. I didn’t know how to “comfort” or reassure him, and had the instinct to get very tight and tense in the saddle since it seemed I never knew when he might jump forward ! Now I believe he would have been reassured by breathing and relaxation in my body because I could do that on the ground, and he was less jumpy in the in hand work .

    Now I think the calming signals early on were probably detectable in him had I know to look for the smaller signs and changed things up for us earlier when he got tense. He wasn’t with me very long. Maybe 18 months.

    I guess we all say this… wish I had known back then, for the sake of that good horse…… my best move on his behalf was firing the trainer !

    • Learning calming signals always shines a light on dark places and it’s uncomfortable… but good for you for firing the trainer! Thanks, Sarah.

  5. Speaking for myself – have only regrets that I didnt have access to this blog and Anna when I still had my horse and was around other horses. Chico and every horse I spent time with sure could have benefited from it. And I had 16 years that I could have put it to such good use. If only……

  6. I got a lot of “aha” moments out of this one. Thanks, Anna! So where do you “put” your eyes (no matter how soft you think they are) while all this is going on?

    • I keep them soft and use a bit of peripheral vision when I can… I like to sense weight change, that’s always a time to say yes. I find a place for my vision where I am still in the conversations but not staring rudely…:) Thanks, Lynell

  7. Thank you Anna, always a phenomenal – amazing – Whaaaat was I thinking? – moment. My sweet steed is soooooooooo tolerant and patient with me – even after 11 yrs together. With your help, ok – its the ‘slap upside the head for me’ my sweet steed and I have amazing conversations – THan you!

  8. Yeah, so much simpler in thought, than when you need it in practice. I’ve always been taught to get them busy, get their feet moving and give them something else to think about. Or in other words, prevent a spook by diverting their attention from whatever their focus is so tuned into. Maybe that’s more helpful to the rider than to the horse. ?? Probably. However, even though that was what was taught to me in that situation; I was also instructed to do less. In general situations (schooling), try to do as little as is possible to bring about an answer/response from my horse. I’ve always been told that people/riders get in their horses’ way. That we generally impede our horses learning by muddying their thought processes, not giving them the time that they need to think the process through. To do the right thing seems to be the most difficult thing for my human mind. I know that I overthink most things in life, why would this be any different? *sigh* It’s so simple that it’s difficult. Horses must be the most patient beings on the planet, considering what they put up with from us. When I get home after work, I’m going to try and spend some quality time with my magnificent horse. I’ll try hard not to get in his way and give him his space and maybe take him for a little walk. And I will try to remember to breathe deeply…thanks again Anna. Lovely thoughts here.

    • Lori, what I love about this comment is that it describes what is so contradictory about all we hear… but I like this thought process you went through to understand the incredibly complexity of “less”. Thanks for commenting.


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