How to See It Like a Horse

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.

Anna Blake

39 thoughts on “How to See It Like a Horse”

  1. I wanted to reply, express some gratitude for your oh-so-very-wise insights. I had several thoughts in my head until those last 3 sentences. Now the words are gone.
    So I’ll just say “thank you Anna”.

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  2. I have recently finished reading 3 of your books (memoir plus relationship advice). I love your journey and your writing is a blessing. I can relate quite a bit to a lot of your journey, with me being in early part of it and therefore greatly encouraged. But…my comment is regarding something that happened in my barn last night. In May 2019 I cluelessly acquired a very shut down and also anxious unknowingly crippled 6 yr old cutting horse that bolted thru a closed barn gate just when someone rounded corner of barn. I’ve dedicated myself since to applying your principles, Warwick Schiller, and lots of quality lessons etc. Last night a huge mare that was very anxious and upset suddenly in a split second got loose in paddock and came galloping down narrow barn aisle. My boy stood his ground and gave double barreled warning and stopped mare in her tracks. Whole thing was over in a split second and his reflexes were much faster than mine. He was elevated for a moment (as were we all) but then just relaxed like no big deal. Neither of us panicked. I know he knew I was in front of him and between him and the gate. I wouldn’t have blamed him at all if he had gone right through me and the gate. We looked at each other and I swear there was this flash of mutual trust and respect. I love my horse. I owe him my very best self.

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    • Thanks for reading the books… and most of all, for sharing this incident. What can we know beyond doubt… not much that is provable. Science would suggest that he switched from flight to fight (the trio is flight, fight, or freeze) but it wouldn’t say why. I think you’re right, Dori.

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    • Great story, Dori! And I love, and try to mimic, how swiftly a horse moves from one mode to back to eating hay as usual!

      Anna, this one is as beautiful as many, and again I teared up at one moment of recognition. The awareness that a phase of anxiety I experienced, initiated by what was frankly an worst-in-50+years-of-life abusive experience at the barn where I boarded, also could have been an exchange ricocheting between my horse and I as I increasingly experienced the world through his perspective – and perhaps he of mine. Interestingly, now in a literally a new place, all the old anxiety is completely gone. We are enjoying a new layer of trust that I’m not sure could have been possible where we were. But the part I want to ruminate about is this idea of how my increased understanding and empathy at times puts me in a prey-erful mindset.

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  3. When you start thinking about how much variety of perception there is out there in the world, it’s mind boggling!! Thanks, Grandfather Horse and Anna.

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  4. It hardly seems real that it’s been four years since Grandfather Horse passed. It was the same year my Cappy passed. We always keep him in our conversations at our barn as something will inevitably happen to remind us of him. I’m sure the same holds for you, too, not only for Grandfather but the many others who have left their mark on your soul.

    I had always thought of myself as seeing the BIG PICTURE, but then my tunnel vision would get in the way! Fortunately, these days, I catch myself before it gets too out of hand. Thanks, Anna; this was another good one.

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  5. My dear first Arab dumped me at least a dozen times, and I’d come off only twice in a good 30 year career before him, largely starting colts. Arabs, well my Maynard anyway, could disappear sideways in a blink. He taught me that when we come upon some scary bit on the trail we should go slow to go fast. Wait and think and check and breath and be curious. There is, I think, truth in keeping your horse facing the scary thing. But it’s up to them how quickly you approach and go by it. And don’t be afraid to get off and walk your horse past
    Be a leader, it’s a good thing! 🙂

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  6. Must touch the scary thing with his nose?! Who made that dumb rule? Not one I’m gonna abide by. Weird stuff on the trail is good cause for concern in my eye. We’ll take our time, get by it if horse’s better senses say it’s ok, and turn around if not. Sheesh, even if we were going cross country, probably especially if we were, there is all kinds of stuff out there to be wary of. Best to be cautious and listen to your horse.

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    • Reading again with fresh eyes and and annoyed perspective lol. Good to delete my annoyed second post. I need to learn to check my bad self lol…

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  7. Anna, that first para is so rich that I read it 5 times over just to savour it! And the I did the same for the last para 🙂

    One thing that strikes me, if it’s not too personal a question, is how does “a self-employed artist barely making my bills, my relationship was failing, and I had a list of personal quirks that were entirely noticeable” manage to afford to buy and maintain a colt? The reason I ask is that I, too, am horseless … and consequently living in a state of constant PMS-like syndrome, and likewise self-employed and barely covering the bills, with relationships getting bruised all around me, and a list of personality quirks the length of the Hume Highway. Yet I’m sure that having another equine companion would clear away those storm clouds and bring the warmth and sunshine back into my life. Siiiiigh ….

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    • Cos, look up rescues in your area. Most need foster homes and many help with the financial responsibility of fostering a horse. I’m betting you would be a fantastic foster home! I’m in Texas and a member of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. I foster for them and they do offer a monthly stipend, in addition to covering all medical costs. No trailer? They will get the horse to you.
      I cannot explain the joyous feeling of being part of a horse’s journey to a better life. It just doesn’t get any better than watching a horse learn to relax and enjoy life as a horse should. Seeing them find their forever home is the icing on the cake!

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      • Thanks for your thoughts SA, and for your generous vote of confidence in me as a foster carer. For once, I wish I lived in Texas instead of the eastern side of Australia 😂

        There are dog and cat rescues in my area (plus a few other animal species, besides) who do exactly as you describe – they place their rescue animals in foster care and cover all medical costs plus provide some ongoing resources and support for maintenance. The horse rescues here are an entirely different matter, however! They’re forever on the brink of financial ruin, and constantly call for donations of equipment, services, and – mostly – financial aid, so they can maintain their rescues themselves until they’re able to be rehomed. I’ve approached a few local ones to offer my help but it’s been declined each time. They prefer to run their own show and ask others to support them, rather than supporting foster carers. Pity, because it would be something I would totally love to do and I know, from past experience, would be good at.

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  8. Cos, that is unfortunate and very sad to hear. Especially because it’s the animals that consequently suffer. I wish you well and hope that someday, somehow, you find a horse in your life again. Until then, maybe consider fostering a dog….the need is there and the personal reward is just as high.

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  9. Great advice, horses always have a Keene sense of the obvious and it’s up to us how we will present the situation. When someone says that my horse spooks over nothing, maybe something for them to consider would be “am I making the best of the situation or allowing my horse to insult me” I enjoyed reading your article. Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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