What is it about the snout of an old horse? Especially a pink and black muzzle? How can it seem so wise to me? Or is it that over thirty years with this horse, I finally got wise to him? I confess that I disregarded his opinion in the early days. Disregarding the opinions of an Appaloosa is short-sighted, but other breeds agree.
Is there anything we romanticize more than what we think horses say? We think they are lazy. We think they only care about food and make a joke about it because grazing inconveniences us. We decide they are bored as if a prey animal has the luxury of zoning-out in this chaotic world. We can tell what they don’t like, hooves planted and ears flat, but we think there are things that they just love, although there isn’t a ready sign of that emotion that is near the clarity of a horse spooking.
Then the day comes that we see a perfect horse. He is standing quietly while other horses are being flighty or looks steady because his head is still, or the angle of his nose is at a magical angle we arbitrarily judge as perfect. He’s a push-button horse with church manners. Except when you get close and see his eyes are flat and dull. Is this what you love about horses?
Most of us started with horses but telling them they were wrong. We stood around mushy-eyed about loving horses and then wacked them for moving their feet or snapped their rope for coming too close, even if the other half the time we crowd in close to hug them. We created a language of fault and correction.
It isn’t that we don’t listen to horses. We listen to stories we make up about them. While we are asking them to do something, we listen for the right answer. We correct the first five answers the horse gives us because the answer isn’t the one we want. Or we disagree that the scary thing in the bushes is real. Sure, his senses are much more acute than ours, but we think we’re naturally superior and if we say it isn’t scary, the horse should agree.
Like simply telling a timid rider there is nothing to be afraid of would be a resolution to all her anxiety. So, you there, just stop being afraid. Poof. And you’re welcome. Glad we got over that.
But we didn’t. We felt unheard and lost trust. Did people tell you your behavior was more important than your thoughts? That you weren’t smart enough or that you should shut up and put a smile on your face when you were feeling the opposite? Anyone else being reminded of teen angst right now?
I’m lucky. When I left home, I was so untethered that even I could tell I needed help. I fell in love with therapy because a crazy thing happened there. The therapist took me at my word. Unprecedented, it gave me footing and the tiniest shred of confidence that I wasn’t as crazy as I felt. Therapy never starts with being told you’re wrong and your feelings always matter. For some of us, that affirmation is a lifeline.
One day another trainer asked if I was giving a riding lesson or doing therapy. I realized I can’t tell the difference and I’m proud of that. If your goal with your horse is trust and partnership, then we must take stock of how much of our conversation with them is even passively adversarial. It’s a radical thought, but what if we just believe horses? What if we accept them, even at their worst?
This is not a simple task. Our personal safety is crucial. We’re the ones who buy the hay. And our horses need to become solid citizens, for their own welfare. But once a horse is panicking, no amount of yelling RELAX! is going to work.
What does a horse want to talk about? Himself, of course. He might be telling you he’s in pain by resisting. His muzzle might tell you he has gastric distress, his ears might tell you there is danger, his breathing will follow his emotions without fail. But it’s all about him. Is he being evasive because he has a bad work ethic? No, a work ethic is a human construct, made up by employers, is my guess. If he’s evasive it’s an honest opinion, most likely about being micromanaged. But even that is all about him. He expects you to remember his nature because he can’t ignore or override it. He doesn’t care about your goals or your shortcomings. Bottom line: it’s all about him.
Even this: Your horse doesn’t care about arenas or trail riding. He cares about how he is made to feel. It’s on us is to offer better acceptance of our horses, when it’s our nature to think it’s all about us. The resolution is that we postpone the response we desire and accept the one we get from our horses. The rest is negotiation and the art of inspiring confidence. If I work affirmatively toward a trot that makes my horse feel relaxed, the arena becomes a massage parlor.
Let’s go back to the beginning before we made their normal behaviors right and wrong, good or bad. Start where your horse is at and say it’s perfect. If he has anxiety, it doesn’t teach him that anxiety is good. Horses are much smarter than that. It’s a way of letting him know that there is a calm and positive way to deal with anxiety. When we look at the anxiety with curiosity and release him from the need to defend himself from our training methods, he can take the time he needs to resolve his emotions. Confidence is nurtured by allowing the horse to find his balance mentally.
Can we be more selfless, receptive to his answer because it isn’t personal? Have the strength to not jump to conclusions, to not react with emotion, but rather respond with acceptance, keeping your body soft and your cues small. Patiently maintain a quiet anxiety-free bubble where your horse can come to trust you. Not because you are kind, but because he feels safe. It’s still all about him.
Start by breathing deep and letting him hear you exhale. He might not mimic you on the first try, so in a clear soft voice, say “Good boy.” Not because he is being good right now; throw it to him like a lifeline. Then ask for something simple, like a step forward, and reward him for that. Not because it’s a complicated task, but because you want to remind him that you are capable of not complaining about everything he does. Find common ground with your horse in acceptance that regardless of your plans, it’s always going to be about him.
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.
31 thoughts on “What Horses Want to “Talk” About.”
This could not have come on a better day. I have a lesson today at 5:30 and have been focusing on relaxing, accepting and the horse as a whole. Thank you so much!
A perfect start. Thanks Kim. Have a great lesson.
Thank you. I love this.
Thanks for reading, Perri.
If only we could do this with children as well as horses. I love your insightful reflections, they make me feel like I’m not alone in how I am with my horses. I care for one that is a twin (all three lived), but he did not get the mothering he needed or the care he needed from the owner due to finances. We rescued him at age 11. He was anxious and had extreme attachment issues and would even nurse in the air when feeling insecure (they had named him “trouble” and his sister “Love”, we renamed him, Merlin). When we brought him home we made sure he had food 24-7, and when he got anxious we stayed grounded (it was hard sometimes and we weren’t always perfect as he would get nippy and aggressive). Three years later he has developed new neuropathways and able to regulate his anxiety himself and can connect in healthy ways, he is truly a different horse. No training, all relationship-based but it took quite a long time. We didn’t think of riding him since his legs had issues from being a twin and not getting the proper braces (we have decided to stop riding all our horses, but that is a personal choice), but he is strong and healthy and an amazing teacher. Thank you again for these beautiful insights.
Thanks, Carrie. Yup, no training technique will replace what you did.
You make so many good points! Lucky horses to have found you. Spot on about children as well.
Thank you! I am lucky they found me too! Sometimes we have no idea how we will grow from being in relationship with them.
Thanks for this! Always a good reminder to accept them for who and what they are, to learn trust, understand the value of a true partnership. And to breathe…
Thank you Anna. Your post was exactly what I needed as I struggle with training my 17 year old Thoroughbred rescue who came to me GREEN, who I’ve had for 5 years and is only a little less green, but who is so much more comfortable in his skin, self-confident, and trusting of me and what i ask of him. Over the past 5 years we’ve worked with 5 trainers, but ultimately his training has always come back to me. And I’m merely a late-life horse owner who is in love with these incredible spirits.
I will reread this post again and again for help and inspiration to keep me on track to do right by him.
Well done, Christa. I’d call that a lot less green. Only vaguely greenish.
Christa, your story sounds remarkably similar to my experience with my rescued Mustang. 11 when I got him and GREEN. Today he remains green as far as training goes, but he is exactly how you describe your boy. If he’s happy, then I am happy. We will continue for the rest of our lives, together.
Such a wonderful way to be. Accept what is and give them quiet affirmations so they can build on that. 🙂 I so love how when you get something right, it always seems like it’s so simple, that it’s difficult. I try to remind myself of a simple one liner that I was once told when riding my horse…get with your horse, so he can get with you. Thanks again Anna, I always feel blessed after reading your words.
Thanks, Lori… and just so true. The day a human can do a simple thing easily…
Your insights are incredible, Anna. Horse owners are so lucky to have you advocating for their horses (by teaching their owners). Thank you! Someday I will make one of your clinics.
Thanks, Lorraine. I hope one day I’ll be out doing clinics again…
Grateful for your constant inspiration. Thank you.
Thanks Deb. Working hard on your new book, too. 🙂
So much for me in here: the timid rider, the scared horse, and why I like therapy – I never thought of it that way! Someone listens to me and does not make me wrong! And I try to do the same for my horse (and dog, kids, husband and friends). Sometimes I succeed, even. This article will help me succeed more often. Thank you!
Wow. I adopted a horse seven weeks ago. These just speaks to me about how I have felt and how I have tried to be with him. Maybe my instincts are right and we’ll be just fine.
It’ll take time, I suspect. Thanks Sarah
Yes, it will take time and we are improving each time. At first I was doubting my decision and my abilities, but with the progress we are making I am realizing that he is a fun ride.
I am so fortunate to have found your teachings. It is exactly where I want to go with my new 7 year old OTTB Sundance. He had 18 starts over 4 years and was kept at his owner/trainer’s farm for about 9 months post racing. An OTTB rescue organization was then able to purchase him and his brother. I adopted him 4 weeks later. As of 11 days ago he has been at our boarding farm in northern Michigan. I plan to go very slowly in bringing him along and letting him settle into his new environment until he feels secure. He runs to the gate when I whistle and he sees me, which is encouraging. We take long walks in hand around the farm, up and down the barn aisles, spend time in the round pen at liberty, and around the indoor arena. He started off getting big and snorty, but is already walking quieter. I will remember to always reward his every try and answer his questions. I’m not sure when will be the right time to ride him but just want to build a relationship first. Any comments or suggestions will be most appreciated.Thanks for all you do to help us do justice to these magnificent animals. Mary
Advice for all things… go slow and breathe. I teach classes but for now, give him time to settle. Congrats! Thanks, Mary
Wow. This is beautifully written. This is made me really think about how I approach my green 12 year old mare who has some temper tantrums about loping and will hop and throw her head. And rather than listening to her I have continued to push for her to do it how I want it done. But I have to accept where she’s at in her training and how she feels. I’m going to take this lesson from you to my horse. Accept her and where she is and how she does things rather than nitpicking.
Thanks, Mountainish. It might be the answer to that canter depart. An affirmative start to a better answer for both of you.
I honestly believe you are right! I was reading this from a place of frustration and was like I need to back off an accept where she is now. She’s an amazing and kind mare and she does everything else with kindness and perfection- I need to just let her be! I am seriously enjoying your articles!