My friend was tracing her Arabian’s family tree. She’d driven north of Denver to see her horse’s sire and ran into a pathetic spotted colt that somehow reminded her of me. I was a self-employed artist barely making my bills, my relationship was failing, and I had a list of personal quirks that were entirely noticeable. What I didn’t have was a horse, not since leaving home a few years before. I compare not having a horse to living in a state of constant PMS. My friend probably had her reasons.
The colt was six months old, covered with manure, and scared enough that the whites of his eyes were all you could see. He was untouchable, I had no place to keep him, and no idea what it would cost, but I’d been stricken with a severe case of tunnel vision. Blind but for a broomtail colt. I came back a week later, determined to talk the rancher down in price. After two hours of active haggling, I paid full price. He could have doubled the price; he certainly read desperation in my bluff. At the last minute, he did offer to deliver the colt, a detail that hadn’t occurred to me. Not within my range of vision. The rancher was probably relieved to be rid of the two of us.
Science tells us that predators generally have front-facing eyes for depth perception to aid in hunting, but I think our eyes are close together to aid us with our tunnel vision. We are famous for missing the big picture.
The colt and I discovered boarding barns. I scrutinized his every movement, growth spurt, and health concern, managing to have tunnel vision about a million life-destroying possibilities. Once we started training in earnest when I could also focus just as fanatically on what “we” wanted to learn. Tunnel vision had served me well in my career. Adding a bit of perfectionism into the mix, I’d become a force to be reckoned with, meeting work and creative goals and moving forward with my life. You know what’s coming, don’t you?
In the first year of riding my colt, I came off five times. Once a concussion and another time, a broken elbow. Looking back on it, I think it was really a vision issue to blame for all the unplanned dismounts. My horse had an issue with how I saw things.
The high side of coming off a horse so consistently is that it expands your vision to include a wider spectrum, including fear and anxiety and dread. Goodbye, tunnel vision. Hello, rainbow anxiety. Things get real because now you’re on level footing with a thousand-pound flight animal. You see most everything as a life and death threat. It’s who horses are and how they survive. Now you have an intimate understanding of that; you’re becoming more like your horse. If you are in the game for the long run, you see anxiety as an advantage.
What I know now is that training is only as successful as we are able to understand the horse’s perspective.
An example: At some point, we were told that if a horse is afraid of something, we should march them up to the scary thing and make them look at it. It usually involved a tussle, and you know the rule, his nose must touch it, so you two just have to get through a sea of anxiety to get there. At least the two of you were working together on resisting the other. One other detail: Horses can’t see directly in front of their face. It’s a blind spot. Although horses have a 350° range of vision, most of it is side vision. That’s huge, humans only have about 120°, just in front. The thing we think of as being like peripheral vision is their strong suit. In other words, horses are designed to see the big picture but miss the tunnel vision view.
Are we getting a bit unstuck between literal vision and metaphor? Welcome to horse training. We have a difference in perspective from horses, but that word perspective has two meanings. It’s the literal way we see a thing in relation to other things, and it also means a point of view, meaning a way of thinking or understanding. That’s where the confusion lies for both horses and humans, each side being sometimes too literal and sometimes lost in confusion about what is real.
Think about that. The horse literally doesn’t see what we see, but also doesn’t live by the same rules we do. They resolve anxiety by moving away, while we stand and insist on having our way. So many things we want to train involve horses surrendering their flight instinct. Seeing cleaning hooves from that perspective might give us a better understanding of what we are asking, and more patience waiting for their answer. Once we understand it’s a question of trust, maybe we can balance that with our tunnel vision about the importance of a possible pebble. Maybe a day comes when your horse doesn’t want to give you his hoof, and rather than thinking you have a training problem, you understand that he is telling you something about how he feels. Trust is when we both learn something, after all.
What if we give up our high ground and dominant thinking and literally saw things their way? What would we gain? It means negotiating is possible, the heart of affirmative training beats with strength and compassion. But we are treated to a view that’s more interesting, as well. What happens when we soften our view, see with our own peripheral vision? Try it for a week. Hear the wind in the trees, see the weather come on the clouds overhead, smell the scent of season change in the air. Become alive in the moment through your senses and know that situational awareness is the part of your brain you can share with your horse. In this place, you truly learn from each other. Saying “Yes!” is all you need. In this place, you come closest to knowing each other.
Years pass in a heartbeat and one day out of the corner of your eye you don’t see a scared colt. Instead, you see the confident eye of the best friend you ever had.
Rest in Peace, Grandfather Horse. Gone four years. Never a moment out of view.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Visit annablake.com to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase books, schedule 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. The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere. Courses and virtual clinics are taught at The Barn School, where I host our infamous Happy Hour. Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.