A caption for this photo? “Dressage rider doesn’t grasp the fundamentals of team penning.” How about “Dressage rider brings a breath of fresh air to The Cowboy Way.” Words matter.
The goal of affirmative training is to collect positive experiences for your horse. We never want to dominate or push too hard. Once the horse is in his flight mode, his sympathetic nervous system, then he can’t learn. A horse trained with fear and intimidation isn’t reliable. He maintains a level of constant anxiety around his rider, on his alert for sticks, flags, and things that hurt him. We want to think the horse is focused on us. Well, dread is a kind of focus.
On the other hand, if all we ever do is walk on eggshells around horses, we get a similar response. Horses get nervous when humans listen like wolves. Some of us are so cloying with our love-stare that horses play dead, fearing we might eat them. Some of us furrow our brows and gaze without blinking. It’s unnatural; kind of like being a mouth-breather only with our eyes. A stare down with a horse isn’t the same thing as a connection.
When you think about it, you know what it feels like, dominating or cloying, to be watched like prey, don’t you?
One standard for understanding domestic horse behavior is how feral horses behave. Are they sedate deadbeats living a life in paradise? There are still predators, still droughts, and floods, and fires. It’s certainly true if you listen to calming signals, the horse’s body voice, that horses in the wild have less anxiety generally than track horses or horses in therapeutic programs or maybe the worst, horses who live alone. But if wild horses didn’t share the same nervous system, if they didn’t feel anxiety, they would be extinct, wouldn’t they?
Luckily, we humans don’t have anxiety except for when people watch us, or when we make a life-change. It’s only common sense to feel anxiety sitting astride a thousand-pound flight animal. Humans are the true masters of anxiety because we have frontal lobes. We can stay awake all night spinning our minds about work or getting old or the price of hay. We have anxiety about what might happen, what has happened, and that we might mess up right now. You’d think we’d understand horses better.
And then one more thing about anxiety. We have it before weddings and vacations and the Christmas holidays. We have it when we’re young and healthy. Anticipation is a kind of anxiety. Some of us just love family meals and getting to see friends at parties and putting on new clothes for the first day of school. We have anxiety about positive things as often as negative things.
So much of life is a combination of conflicting emotions, one of the definitions of a calming signal. Take going to the dentist, for instance. We know it’s for our welfare and we want a nice smile, but we hate needles around our gums. We’re put in a vulnerable position with our feet level with our heads and there are strange, bad-tasting things in our mouths that poke and scrape. The people seem kind but we’re deer-in-the-headlights blind and not breathing well with rubber dams, mouth vacuums, and one or two stranger’s hands in our mouths. And something hurts every time, or there’s the anxiety that something might hurt like the last time. Do you still think bits are only as harsh as the hands that use them?
Anxiety is a promise or a threat, it’s happy or sad, good or bad, and even those extremes can turn on a dime. It’s enough to give you anxiety. Humans and horses share an involuntary instinct to stay alive and anxiety powers our very survival, which is good. Maybe we can agree on a simpler definition: Anxiety is being alive.
Accepting anxiety as a normal part of life means that life is happening, and we want to survive it. That’s an affirmation; that is the great adventure of risking one thing to get a better thing. Being alive is hanging in midair between today and tomorrow, knowing that change is inevitable. We might as well act as if it was our idea in the first place. Anxiety is our life’s passion coming into view.
What if fighting anxiety is the real problem? We can’t ignore anxiety by denying when horses freeze or by acting like we don’t care. If anxiety exists, it must be expressed. But could we stop fighting something so common? Could some of the extremes of bliss and terror be softened by noticing that anxiety works on all of us, just like gravity? Would the stress lighten if we accepted it and didn’t label it good or bad, but instead, ordinary and routine.
Redefining anxiety begins with being aware of the judgment behind the words we choose. How often do we give our power away by letting our anxiety have free rein? We have a choice about which narrative we use. If we want our horses to stay with us and make good choices in difficult times, we must start that habit in ourselves. Sounds simple, which should cause normal anxiety. If you have horses, you know that the Grand Canyon exists between the two words simple and easy.
Start by noticing the varmint. Dark anxiety could be dragged out from dank cellars and cobwebbed corners. Nothing embarrasses anxiety like broad daylight, where it looks puny and its warts show. But there it is, and it scares you or your horse. Or if you’re stoic, you say it doesn’t scare either of you. Your body language will tell the truth, so lie if you want to. But we take a breath and say hello. Acknowledging it is the powerful part. Take a good long moment, you and your horse, to suss out the situation. That’s the exact moment when we stop being adversarial; we become partners with our horses. Working together anxiety can be changed. This is when challenges turn into confidence, by the power of an affirmative word.
“Good boy,” and your horse starts to remember who he is. Now take a breath for yourself. “Good girl.” Clouds clear both from your mental skies. “Should we go play with the scary thing?” “You’re right, let’s wait a minute, good suggestion.” “I’m listening, can we think about trying again?” He shifts his weight, not taking a forward step. But he’s thinking about it. “Bravely done.” Now let that rub off on you, too.
All we are saying is give please a chance.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Visit The Relaxed & Forward Barn School to see our class schedule, online courses and virtual clinics available on a revolving basis on Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and More. Join our community there. Or go to AnnaBlake.com to find out more, 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.