Making Peace with Anxiety

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.

Anna Blake

33 thoughts on “Making Peace with Anxiety”

  1. YESSSSSS!!! Drag it out and show its warts!! We could all apply this advice to ourselves every single day while we navigate the murky waters of life in 2020. Give peace a chance should be our mantra!

    Reply
  2. After 12 years, my horse and I have a new home where we will be able to stay connected regardless pandemic restrictions that may come and go in the coming year or two. It has a race track on the property, now freshly mowed! We rode it for the first time last weekend, a chance to flex my own anxiety taming and be an authentic, honest leader for my astoundingly honest horse. Throughout, I recalled your Good Boy and Good Girl script. I breathed without denying my thrill (which has at times the same energy as anxiety and thus I must definitely beware to label neither as “good or bad.”) And our ride was so lovely. I’ll do it again this weekend and look forward to having this extension of an arena to practice our dressage! Thank you for another beautiful piece of writing and lessonry, and in particular this line, “The goal of affirmative training is to collect positive experiences for your horse.” My collection is growing.

    Reply
  3. Great thoughts for all humans, riders or not! Thanks, Anna. I am now going to embrace my anxiety and call it by its right name — living!!

    Reply
  4. I like the juxtaposition of the title- making peace with anxiety. Why is finding balance is everything so simple a concept and yet so hard to actually do? By the way, I enjoyed reading your article in the July 2020 issue of Northwest Horse Source. I enjoy reading that magazine and look forward to having another source to read your materials.

    Reply
  5. Anna, this is a blog to be shared widely. Every word was well chosen for each and every one of us.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Great post. But showing your age; and showing my age that I recognize it: I remember anti war demonstrations singing “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Makes me smile. I was so naive; it was all about politics and feeding our economy. Sigh.

    What is cool about horses is that they respond to something with anxiety, which makes me anxious too. Then I look and my horse looks at me. If it’s not a real danger, I can tell him and he will at least consider that I might be right. That is so amazing that they listen!

    Reply
  7. Love this essay/blog. … one of the best. Even Freud said some level of anxiety is in everyone and just a part of being alive. Who knew you and Freud were on the same page, at least in this !

    It’s interesting to me that one can know something, but yet not REALLY internalize the knowing……. like I know horses are flight creatures, vigilant, and anxious. Yet I sometimes forget that fact when they are manifesting lower forms of anxiety, e.g. like moving around , or striving to get closer to their herdmate and then I might get impatient or frustrated. This is something I’ve been chewing on since my lesson with you last week…..and it’s such a RELIEF when I can see more clearly what the horse is feeling , as you help us to see.

    Reply
    • Now I have anxiety about being anywhere with Freud. (I’m so funny!)
      Seriously, these days (not when I was younger) it is so odd to me that if we were watching wild horses in their habitat, we’d think it was communication, but not the horses on our farms. We have been so indoctrinated to think they have no minds… I’m so fascinated with trying to understand their side. Thanks, Sarah. Loved your lesson this week, too.

      Reply
  8. Your words are so carefully crafted, Anna. Trying to drag that warty beast into the light every day; funny thing, it isn’t Shawnee, but living in the US in 2020 that gives me my anxious moments these days. Loved your dental office reference: 20 years of nothing but positive experiences and I still have to remember to unclench my fists when sharp, pointy things are in my mouth – and the hands belong to my friends! All it takes is one bad poke and you never forget. Why should our horses be any different?

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.