It was during a meeting in an online class called Back in the Saddle. We’d shared videos of the week’s work, each participant moving ahead at their own pace and level, and each person paired with a unique horse with a history of his own. Some were bringing horses back from time off, some of the people had taken time off. I’m an affirmative trainer and listening to me chirp on about the changes I see in the horses could get tiresome. The cheering and fist pumps during videos, my incessant big teeth. Does the positive talk wear thin?
The horse takes a few steps away, he needs to move, and that’s good. I talk about his calming signals, as they relate to brain function. More praise, it might not be the answer we hoped for, but the horse gets his say. How can I help but fall for these horses? Especially the stoic ones. Chirp, chirp. And the commitment I see in the participants, recognizing the effort it takes to stay the course and continue to listen and try when it seems nothing is happening. The courage to trust an answer that isn’t flattering, stay in the conversation with the horse, and ask again. Chirpy-chirp. I think the participants are nothing short of heroic for being so vulnerable. Naturally, I can’t help it when I see someone hurl a big exhale. CHIRP-chirp-chirp. CHIRP! Does the bliss-ninny chirping get on your nerves, just a bit?
Someone asked the best question ever. “How can we trust your praise when you don’t correct us?”
It was like asking if white existed without black. The question has nudged me all week. Are we waiting for the other shoe to fall? Holding our breath because we dread correction, but think we might deserve it? We know there’s constant stress on our systems when we habitually expect the worst but at the same time, can right exist if we are not affirming all the wrong we see. Are we ever right enough to feel safe? Is this how horses feel?
I took the question to Bhim. He weighs less than the goat and ranks in my lifetime top ten list of interesting horses. He came here from a local rescue for training after crossing a couple of state lines, roughing up a cowboy or two, and developing a grudge the size of Africa. I did not turn him around in thirty days. Or ninety. A mini who hates people doesn’t have a lot of options, but by then Edgar Rice Burro had taken to him, so he stayed.
Now that time was unlimited, my training plan was to accept him just the way he was. Yes, he had to tolerate a halter and stand for the farrier, holding his breath while she hummed to him and kept it quick. Hoof care isn’t negotiable but he didn’t have to like her. Or me. That was six years ago and we’ve both had time to think. Bhim continues to nurse his grudge. Seeing any human puts him on full alert. What if he isn’t wrong? His biggest problem is still me. I see him as perfect and he knows he’s damaged and somehow, it’s my fault. Twisted logic, but I accept that.
Maybe you think I should be grooming him. He hates it and I accept that. Maybe you think I should demand he let me do something with that crazy mane. Take a look at mine; who am I to judge? Everything feels like a correction to him and correction of any kind will affirm his worst fears. Can you relate?
There is absolutely nothing to gain if the only conversation he understands is being wrong. I accept that, too. If all the judging and correcting has made him deaf to humans, I understand. I refuse to create more anxiety, and feeling sorry for him doesn’t help him. Being a rescue might be a normal condition. We have all been failed by people, we are all recovering from loss. And human or horse, we have learned all we ever need to know about fear and punishment. It stops here.
Last month, Bhim got his head stuck between the shed and a gate. The more he pulled, the more he was stuck. By the time I found him, the ground was torn deep. He hates touch on a good day; coming up on his rear would be impossible. I could see blood. The quiet sound of my voice set off a bigger fight, bucking backward from the gate and at the same time, away from me. He was hysterical, he didn’t hear me praise him, and his flight response wasn’t working. He exploded, pulling back with all his might, as I pushed the gate forward, the only way to release the chain but in the process, squeezing his head tighter. Am I destroying years of work with him? We both bore down, in total opposition. Good boy, I grunted as he desperately fought me. That long moment of dread. Is he different than a wild animal caught in a trap? Finally, after a huge exhale, he paused an instant and I wedged the chain free. He stood back, his legs braced. I’m still chirping praise. His eyes are okay but both sides of his temple area are scraped and bloody. He isn’t moving his neck right. The last thing he needs is my anxiety, so I give him hay, but he spits it out. I haul water close but watch from a distance. After dark he takes a bite of mush. He’s breathing normally now. I can’t make any of this okay, so remind him he’s a good boy and go inside. In the morning he looked better.
This week, Bhim wandered up and extended his nose while I was spraying Edgar’s legs. It doesn’t take a genius to see how flyspray works. Since he asked, I sprayed Bhim’s front legs exactly twice. Then I chirped and left the pen. No need to get greedy.
Affirmative training isn’t ignoring bad things, especially as drama and angst are washing over us. There is no denying the darkness is there all the time, it continues whether we affirm it or not. Is the quality of our suffering dulled by insisting on seeing the light? Is it okay to feel good? A question: is optimism silly or an act of rebellion over our horse’s past and our own? It sounds inane, chirping into a headwind isn’t easy, but there is dynamic power when we truly accept ourselves and our horses, imperfect as we are. No excuses, no threats, just the safety of yes.
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.