Is your horse distracted? Is he always swinging his head at every noise? Does he knock you with his shoulder or just stop and freeze? Now people are coming. What will they think seeing you standing flat-footed with your horse looking like he might spontaneously combust? Maybe you jangle the rope; did you read that was the right thing to do? Run him back and try to be scarier than what he’s looking at? Or whack your whip on the ground. Maybe you whack him. Not to hurt him, just enough to get his attention. But the popper startles him, almost what you wanted, and then his hooves start hopping but you’re still standing like a deer in headlights watching him dance around, just knowing you’re gonna get stepped on. So, you see his hoof coming to land right on your foot. The Law of Attraction.
Maybe your horse is distracted but you are a positive thinker, so you stand there affirming your love for this horse who is acting like a headless chicken. You say, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” As you reach to pet him, he moves back, almost bumping some trash cans, but because you know your touch would soothe him, you keep reaching for him. Even if you’re nervous. Love is the answer. The closer you come to touch him, the farther he skitters away, still looking at the thing you can’t see. But as he retreats, his hind crashes into the trash cans, and bottles, cans, and plastic spray in all directions. He got the recycles! His hoof unintentionally crushes a can and he spins around, knocking you sideways just as you yell, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” You don’t fall, but you do take a few of those flailing-for-balance steps, leaning on the lead rope to stay up, but you still manage to sprain your ankle. In hindsight, you saw it coming, not that hindsight is helpful now.
Is your horse overreacting? Are you? And to tell the truth, your horse wasn’t distracted. His focus consistently stayed on his question about the environment. He’s hardwired to stay alive by using his senses to be aware of danger. That’s what it means to be a horse. Is it ever fair to ask a horse to ignore his surroundings? Or are we confusing horses for dogs? Are horses supposed to stare at us like a Labrador when we’re holding a ball? But wait, is the dog focused on you or the ball?
When did trying to frighten fear away ever work? It’s gas on the fire. Should a horse take our word for it, exhale and relax, because we love them? And who elected us the center of the universe, anyway? The more we try to distract him, the more focused/frantic he becomes. At the same time, the horse isn’t ignoring you. He can’t; remember he’s hardwired to the environment? The real question is have you switched sides and become part of the dangerous chaos?
How to fix this? By the time a horse is in his flight response, it’s too late. Give him some room; it’s why we use a long lead rope. Get out of his space and breathe. Notice what happens and believe it. Rather than giving corrections, give him peace and room to settle himself. Hold space for him to find the answer. Give him the time he needs to self-soothe. And in the meantime, stay safe yourself and chip away at the notion we deserve blind obedience.
To begin, do no harm. Stacking up challenges isn’t going to resolve anything, but we can make a decision to not be part of the problem. Look to yourself first. Is it fair to ask your horse to have a longer attention span than yours? When you are around your horse, do you feel scattered and doubtful? Do you forget most of what you need and have to retrace steps? Are you checking your to-do list for the day while haltering him? Do you stop to listen to friends rant about their problems while you’re grooming?
Horses notice everything. They will tell you that multi-tasking is the same thing as being an erratic thinker. It’s being inconsistent and unreliable. The busier we get, the more impatient we are, the less connected we are. If you find yourself hating a hoof pick, it’s time to sit down. Instead of doing a handful of things poorly, just do one thing thoughtfully. As you pause to think about what that might look like, notice that your horse seems almost introspective. The Law of Attraction again, but better results this time.
We often swing between being too complacent to micromanaging, not that we notice our own inconsistency. The place to start is to notice when you are present in the moment. Make that your new home base. Become equine-aware of the environment. Is there a breeze? What can you feel with your feet? Prioritize the reality of the now. Stand a few feet away. Be an autonomous thing and stop pushing. Trust your horse to be drawn to you for the right reasons, while he is standing in autonomy. Converse with him by acknowledging what he sees, responding to his calming signals. Separate beings in a shared world.
Training is a bit of a self-important term. It has the soul-killing stink of domination to it. We are amiable when we groom and tack up but get too serious when we begin working horses. We forget that what we are working on isn’t as important as understanding each other. We forget we’re on the same side. The problem with being defensive is we create distance when horses need our confidence the most.
Teach yourself to notice the smallest incident, when things just start to separate. Right then, pause mend it while the anxiety is small. Find a way to say yes, align yourself with your horse. Refuse to be defensive, instead find a forward affirmative approach. Celebrate curiosity. Smile and lead your horse to a safer place in his mind. If training feels complicated, you’re doing too much. Cut the moment into tiny pieces, one at a time, so nothing is too big. Know that well-formed small bricks are a firm foundation. No drama. Create a habit of confidence and wellbeing. Good training is done in small moments on good days. Hone your self-focus, learn to choose a better response within you. Trust your horse to sense that. Consistency is being dependable. Consistency is safety.
Comes the day that the two of you spot something in the distance. A bright shiny thing to appreciate and share.
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.