Affirmative Training: Can You Take a Hint?

 

It’s a story that I’ve heard quite a few times. You’ve heard it too. The horse was getting a little worse all the time and the rider was trying to get him fixed. When the gelding got fussy in his face, the rider tried to hold his head steady by using pressure on the reins, a choice that means something else to horses. A horse might take it as a halt command, or just feel the metal-on-bone pain. Get the spurs, the horse isn’t forward. Now the rider is asking the horse to stop with her reins and go forward with her spurs, and simultaneously contradicting herself. And the conversation accelerates from there to a vicious cycle of fear on both sides. It doesn’t matter what you thought. Horses have a hardwired fear of being constrained or having their movement restricted.

Hardwire is another word for instinct, an inborn behavior that is a response to environmental stimuli. If you stumble, it’s an instinct to try to catch yourself. You don’t have a chat in the frontal lobe about it, your nervous system defends your life for you. Yay, nervous system. An innate instinct to survive is something to be grateful for. Except… when a horse has a hardwired response that the rider doesn’t like. Up until now, both horse and rider are reacting to stimuli. They are defending their lives against each other. That isn’t a problem, it’s a feature. All is right with the world, even if you don’t like it.

Should we be able to alter our instincts? Sure, here is an experiment to try. Put your hands in your pockets and do a face plant. If you are worried about your nose, then fall backward or sideways, but your goal is to land like a tomato. Tomatoes aren’t burdened with instinct.

About now, the rider looks for more leverage with her gelding, mental or physical, because she wants to ride. It might be a stronger bit, or a tie-down because the gelding is starting to rear. If he can’t go forward, he’ll go up. The gelding is also getting spooky and out in the pen, harder to catch. Things are headed the wrong way, the rider knows it isn’t working, so then she puts the horse in training with someone who can help the horse behave. Again, asking for help is a good idea, and rather than listening to more lousy railbird advice, this rider hires a pro.

She might pick a dominant trainer whose idea of training is to something near learned helplessness. This trainer can out-threaten the horse into shutting down, forcing the gelding to submit to pain. He looks like a pushbutton horse now. It’s the last stop before death, but he’s only playing dead. Yay. But haven’t we heard this one too often; isn’t it too easy to wring hands and shake heads? Let’s say this rider found a kind compassionate trainer. Someone who understands how horses think and works on trust with the gelding. In a short time, he’s soft and calm. His ears are curious, he transitions into gaits without tension. And his eyes, why didn’t you notice his eyes before? His eyes are soft, and they take your breath away. You remember why you fell in love with horses. Aren’t trainers wonderful?

In either case, the rider writes the trainer a check and the horse is back working with you. In either case, the gelding’s behavior changed and now it’s up to the rider to carry on. What that means is you must ride like your trainer did if you expect the gelding to give you the answer they got. Sure enough, the gelding starts to rebel within a week or two. Or maybe he’s just returning to normal. The rider most get more aggressive or more sensitive, like either of those options is easy. You blame the trainer. All that money and the horse isn’t any different at all. Aren’t trainers the worst?

As a trainer who’s heard plenty about what horrible or saintly people trainers are, can I ask a question? Are you a tomato? Is your horse? It’s a serious question. We get so focused on fixing horses, prioritizing training as the ultimate solution to solve problems. Training is the holy grail for tomatoes, that’s for sure. Nobody does a ground tie like a tomato.

It’s a bit more complicated for those of us with instinct and now the gelding is tossing his head again, as a horse must. And the rider is pulling on his face, as a primate will.

Stop. It was never meant to be a training problem. It was always a conversation. He said, with crystal clarity, that pulling on the reins hurt his mouth. Or if you ride bitless, he said the pressure on his nose was confining. Or he lost confidence, not feeling safe in the environment. It could be anything, but he is responding to stimuli and he hasn’t panicked yet. Good boy for speaking up and giving the rider a chance to help. Yes, I just praised the gelding for tossing his head. He’s asking for help, nothing more diabolical than that. Who was it that needed to work with a trainer?

The rider could take a hint, the rider could choose to hold neutral thoughts. No judgment, just ears. Here is the real question to ask: What if the gelding isn’t wrong? What if we trust his intelligence, even if he’s saying something we don’t want to hear? And then, what if we were a good sport about it? That would be a conversation with a resolution in sight, with both you and your horse’s instinct in a ready position. Right as they should be.

If we respond rather than react, the horse is affirmed by the rider listening and helping. The result is a more confident horse: less spooking and more willingness to give the rider the benefit of the doubt. Now the horse looks for understanding rather than punishment. His body is relaxed and more balanced, more likely to stay sound. A relaxed horse might spook at something, but his back is softer to start so instead of a full defensive panic, it feels like a bounce.

Then the rider has more confidence, her legs don’t do the thigh-master impression, she is slower to react. No panic. The gelding’s eye gets round and soft because he isn’t in pain and he feels safe. The rider has an unconscious smile because she is sitting in her favorite place in the world. Instinct still feeds a vicious circle, but this time a vicious circle of trust and affirmation. And the two of you have to get used to being beautiful together.

 

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.

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.

Anna Blake

36 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: Can You Take a Hint?”

  1. The only time I’ve ever considered letting someone come help me keep one of my horses in regular work (he has PSSM so he really does well with daily riding), I went through a long email chat back and forth and then an in-person discussion about his needs. I got on him and showed her how wonderful he can move, and bent over backwards explaining that he needs the lightest aids on the planet, basically like the antennae of a butterfly touch, and that anything more and he would begin to show the rider by putting his head in the air, going fast and out of balance in whatever gait, and getting increasingly anxious because he truly wants to do the right thing and like all of us, he too wants to feel relaxed. She, an accomplished rider – and I need to point out that she was much more accomplished than I was or am – got on, and immediately his head goes in the air and it’s clear she’s keeping her legs on, her hands are gripping the reins, and I tried to tell her again, totally relax every muscle in your own body, take your legs off, hold the reins like you’re holding tissue paper, but it just didn’t work. It was ingrained in her to push him harder even when doing that escalated everything. I asked her to get off, and said it didn’t feel like a good fit to me, and she said, and I quote, “If I bring my bridle next time it will be fine.” Oh dear. No thank you. After she left I had my daughter get on him and return him to the relaxed, quite lovely horse he can be if ridden in the way he needs, which is really almost like you don’t do anything at all except keep yourself relaxed and in a good position. He just can’t take loudness. I suspect the PSSM makes everything super loud for him, so he’s tense almost innately under saddle. But when he knows you’ll be very quiet, he relaxes, and it all works well. Needless to say that was the last time I ever tried to bring someone in. He’s better off out of work than being ridden into total stress. It blows my mind that humans will struggle with horses to the degree that one or both end up hurt or in pain or totally unhappy when it is so much simpler to just listen and let the horse show you what he/she needs. There are some very complex situations that take longer and need more expert work, but I think the average horse is pretty good at showing us where our weaknesses are and what we’re doing wrong. Thanks for this eloquent post. I really wish everyone who wants to ride horses could read your writing about them. 🙂

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    • And I wish everyone who owns(lives with) a horse could care enough to do what you did. I’ve seen the turmoil & confusion that occurs when a trainer (or any person) has the need to “be in charge”. Pretty sad to think how many horses have to go thru that & maybe just get “sent down the road” because of that! Your boy is so very fortunate to have someone who actually understands!

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    • Oh Billie. Isn’t this the thing? Experienced can be good or bad. At least you didn’t take her advice on the bridle. In the end, it seems we all think we listen, but horses week out the imposters. Thanks, great comment.

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    • Thank you Billie, you could have been describing my horse. To a tee. It was so good to hear that other people have this same problem; or should I say, opportunity? I’m still learning how to navigate in this new world of Affirmative Training, but I’ve seen miraculous results already! Again, thanks so much for sharing. I feel so encouraged. Rebecca Finney

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  2. Thank you for saying this – he came to us when he was 2 going on 3 (we thought he was 3 going on 4) and he is now 18, so we’ve lived with him for most of his life. He is a sweetheart and thanks to him I know more than I ever thought I might about PSSM/EPSM and living with a horse who truly is a “canary in a coal mine.” I would never use him as a school horse, not that I’m in the business anyway, but he’s amazingly good at teaching us with immediate visual and sensory feedback when our own bodies are not in balance. I worked with a good trainer in lessons here for awhile, on him, and it was magic to be able to relax and do the right thing with my body and see the instant relaxation in his. It was also quite beautiful seeing my daughter ride him for entire sessions with him in total relaxation. After a rough spell with the PSSM when it initially manifested, he’s doing beautifully and does a natural piaffe in the pasture that always makes me smile.

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      • Now that is an interesting question. I know he is super sensitive to pain (a yellow jacket sting, insect bites, a hoof abscess he had once, touching the hot fence tape one time) and to extreme heat, his own sweat, any insect bite, and intense changes in weather, so I have assumed this carried over to the riding aids. Maybe not!

        Another interesting thing about him is that he does not enjoy massage/other muscle-focused body work, will tolerate his chiro adjustments every three months, and LOVES craniosacral work. For years I felt like he really just wasn’t comfortable in his own body, and sometimes didn’t seem to know that his front was connected to his back. He was a horse who would lay down to roll and stand up without doing that characteristic whole body “shake” – and he held his tail tightly clamped down. I’m in a PSSM/EPSM email list group and a lot of us have noticed some of these traits in our horses affected.

        Over a couple of years of diagnosing and learning to manage his PSSM, these quirky things have changed. He seems much more connected in his own skin now, his tail is totally relaxed and free, and he shakes after rolling. I feel like it’s been my mission to help him get to this point more than it has been to ride him or force him into a “job.” He was initially my son’s horse, then went to my daughter when she outgrew her pony. Both are good/kind riders. But hauling to Pony Club events was not his thing, as trailering made him sore, and fox hunting was out of the question. He became a horse whose job was simply (but so importantly) to teach us how to get softer and quieter in the saddle, to listen, and to teach me how to manage a lot of health/care issues and get good at reading movement and red flags and all kinds of things my other horses haven’t taught me to do. 🙂 For all of this, I am eternally grateful to him. His name is Cody and he’s a prince!

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  3. I have a horse that sounds much like Billie’s. I just adopted Bella in February after many years of being away from riding. I was having huge problems with her since she is so sensitive to the smallest cues and I am so out of shape. I asked a local pro who is a wonderful rider to get on her and give me some ideas. In spite of the fact that he is a thousand times more skilled than I, she is not his kind of horse and he was not her kind of rider. I have gleaned more helpful insights into her from Ann’s blogs about listening. Once I started listening to her and getting more control over my body, our relationship is becoming stronger and stronger. Now, we are doing much better, except when the hormones kick in lol.

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  4. I am thinking that being able to listen is predicated on not being so scared ourselves as riders if the communication includes jumping around, spinning, bolting, etc. I think I have become a much better listener once my skills progressed to being able to stay on top when such things happened. Now that I can stay there, I am more relaxed and so is my horse. Maybe others have a better balance than me, but I gained that stay on top skill through multiple dumps in the dirt. My girlfriend had her first fall; the girth had not been tightened and the saddle slid sideways and dumped her out on the ground. She sustained 3 spine fractures. Bad luck. I have a feeling she’s going to be very tense when she heals up enough to get back on. So I can see how that bad spiral can happen. And even why a trainer might think they need to create a “packer” for such a rider. Thank goodness horses can be very forgiving.

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  5. I, after 30 years of being horse-less, just bought a horse, a pony actually, because, like the Queen (of England), I prefer in my older years, to fall closer to the ground. I will start on the ground (no pun intended), working with this new love-of-my-life to build relationship and trust. Isn’t that where we start in our human relationships? I figure this will take me about two weeks, maybe more. Only when she likes and trusts ME will I progress to tacking up and climbing aboard. We will then probably walk, on loose rein, collected, back to loose rein, halt, back, walk on, you get the picture, for another two weeks (trust me, I may not be able to keep at that pace but it’s the goal!) You see she has been rushed; harassed; held into such an artificial frame that she can hardly breath, fighting the bit with every forced step; eyes down only looking at the ground because she literally cannot look up. Some call it collection. I call it bad dressage. She wants to take off under saddle because, well, why wouldn’t she? She wants to get away. I have not even ridden her yet. Don’t need to. I’ve seen all I need to see. The will, the fight, the try is so there, if only one can see through the sadness and the fear. As Anna rightly points out: “It doesn’t matter what you thought. Horses have a hardwired fear of being constrained or having their movement restricted.” The very last thing I am going to do is restrict hers. Seems like a good place to start and only when she is calm and under her own control, will we trot — for two more weeks. Or longer, whatever it takes, because there is no doubt in my mind it will be a long process, but so rewarding, for us both. She deserves that. They all do.

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  6. I guess it’s all about our agenda, isn’t it? How fast can we get to where we think we should with a horse? All of those preconceived notions of the things we feel we want or should do. No matter if dressage, jumping barrel racing, or liberty work.
    It’s human-made, never the horse’s idea. Unless we have the patience to let them show us what they can physically or mentally handle, there will never be a partnership. How frustrating.. for both parties.
    Thank you Anna for the work you are doing!

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    • Boy, I thought about this one. Could it not be that they enjoy some work, some connection to and with us? I will now be watching for that indication from her or what she can and cannot handle and will leave my preconceived notions at the gate. Thanks for this comment.

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        • Yes, indeed! I get that now. They do speak to us so quietly, but how many of us listen? (That’s rhetorical, but still.) It is a bit sad to think about. How many horses suffer in their stoic silence? Why am I asking questions to which there are no answers? Only people like the ones here can hopefully help, as the knowledge keeps spreading. Ripple effect. Thanks, Anna, for throwing the stone into the ocean.

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  7. Hi Kathy,
    I firmly believe that horses enjoy the connection to humans. After all it has been bred into them for thousands of years in the goal of domestication and service to us. It is the human expectation and anthropomorphism which interrupts and possibly destroys that fragile connection. For a long time humans thought they had to “muscle” a horse in order for it to “obey” and function. Some still believe that it works that way(see those who are using gimmicks of all sorts- even the ones that are perceived as “kind”).
    We feel insulted when a horse does not do what we want it to do. Unless we understand their language and have the patience to wait it out we never get to the bottom of what that actually means . That’s the hardest part because it can take 5 minutes or five years. You never know. If one is eager to find out, it is a life long journey and a test in patience and understanding not only towards the horse but mostly into ourselves and our true wants and needs. Like raising children, this journey never ends as long as we live if we allow the continuous dialog. I think we really feel it when it happens.

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  8. I agree 110% and well said. It’s so often that the human ego gets in the way and muddles things up. Thankfully, what I have the most of is time and patience and no expectations other than connection and communication. Anything other than that is gravy.

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  9. I think if more people understood how important relationship is to a horse it would be easier for both species. Open horses, (or secure horses) tend to bond strongly with their person, be it a good trainer or their owner/rider and when the horse is in another environment where it doesn’t have any relationship to the person, no communication to that person, it starts to go downhill fast. I have tried many times to advise a person that it takes TIME to bond to a horse and just because it goes well for one person doesn’t mean it will do that for another. I have made videos of our horses before a sale to show what level they are at so people can see what they are used to doing. Since we have sold the majority of our horses before they were under saddle and we’ve worked with a lot of young horses these are not very advances things, but they were safe and soft horses without holes, and they liked people and trusted people not to hurt them. BUT time and time again we would get calls, this horse isn’t leading; he won’t pick up his feet, he’s biting etc. And time and time again it was the lack of communication, the lack of listening to the horse! It is one of the main reasons we are no longer breeding horses, it’s SOOO hard to find good homes for them with people willing to listen to a horse that has an opinion and will share it with you.
    As ever I so appreciate your voice and the voices of them many who listen to your wisdom.

    Reply

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