Who’s Risk-Averse?

This week a stranger asked for my prayers. She posted a photo of an incredibly young girl with a crushed skull in the ICU. She was injured by a family horse. You’ve seen these heartbreaking posts, too. People say accidents happen. Did her mom take that photo? A prayer for her, too. I can’t imagine her pain and regret.

That same day, someone posted a photo of another young girl about the same age carrying a whip and running a massive draft horse on a lead, in front of a crowd. People loved the photo. Early horsemanship skills tell us to stay between the horse and the scary thing, so we are out of his flight pattern. If anything outside the arena spooked the draft horse, he’d run over this small girl, only a fluttering blur at the edge of his vision. His shod hooves are the size of her head. Did the person who took the photo see what I saw?

I’ll give a pass to people who only know horses from fairy tales, but the rest of us should understand there is no such thing as a bombproof horse. Do we consider children disposable? What is the attraction of tiny girls with huge horses? Is this someone’s twisted fantasy?

Accidents do happen with horses, but many times it’s because of a human’s poor judgment. When did safety become a flaw in horsemanship instead of a worthy goal?

Meanwhile, over at the Relaxed & Forward School, a new member introduced herself. In that photo, she’s sitting quietly in the saddle slacking her rein as her curious young horse sniffed something on the ground. She said she’s pretty sure he’s smarter than her at the moment, “but I will study up and work steadily to be his kind and affirming human mentor. My risk-averse disposition must not win out over learning and growing with this youngster.”

Risk-averse isn’t a term heard much in the horse world. Usually, it’s an economics term used to describe investors who lean toward the “bird in the hand” adage. They prefer less risk and more safety with their investments.

Did you hear that strange, muffled sound? That was an immense ghost herd of horses shaking their polls and yawning. Some are damaged rescues and some are well-bred competition horses but they’re all wishing they had been her horse.

I have a soft spot for humble riders. Is she a timid rider? Maybe so but I appreciate both kinds of riders for their thoughtfulness and good intention. It’s about the horse for them. This rider is looking to find a balance between challenging her horse onward with affirmative training, while not over-facing herself in the process. It’s a productive goal. Young horses are very impressionable. How they are started impacts them for life. This time is crucial to the future of the horse. This sweet photo is not likely to go viral, but I wish it would get the credit it deserves.

If our goal is a confident horse, then don’t want to throw him into a fear response. Rather than training him to think his rider is scarier than anything else, we want the horse to come to us for safety. We want to be the calm in the chaos of the world. If we push ourselves past our limit, we are not helping the horse. Better to invest conservatively, a little bit every ride until you both become the partners each other needs. Training is an art, not a reality show.

Yes, it’s dull to watch slow and steady work, done in short sessions with time spent letting the horse process and learn. It lacks the drama of cracking whips at frightened horses in round pens or having a rodeo ride on a youngster, but risking a horse’s physical welfare isn’t something to cheer. Even more so, we need to acknowledge and support the mental stability of horses during training.

A question: Are we truly timid or have we been gaslighted by other timid people hiding behind threadbare bravado? Are we comparing ourselves to riders who show off as a way of appearing tough? Is it possible that peer pressure is the same as gaslighting? According to Healthline, signs of gaslighting include:

  • no longer feeling like the person you used to be.
  • being more anxious and less confident than you used to be.
  • often wondering if you’re being too sensitive.
  • feeling like everything you do is wrong.
  • always thinking it’s your fault when things go wrong.

Please consider the concept that you are doing better than you think. That your conservative rides will add up in a way that builds trust, a commodity that must be earned, not stolen. Please give your horse credit for his intelligence and don’t let the external noise of expectations distract you from what you know deep down.

Horses deserve our respect. Statistics confirm that it isn’t new horse owners who get hurt most often; injuries to lifelong horse owners are more common. We get complacent, make assumptions, lose focus. It takes energy to stay present and not take horses for granted.

Do you consider yourself to be timid? Maybe it’s time for a reset. Invite a non-horsey friend to your barn and let your horse out to run. Admire his speed and athleticism. Let him gallop and snort. Then ask your friend to clean a hind hoof. She’ll proceed with feigned confidence or look incredulous, but the horse is going to read her anxiety either way because, for humans and horses, anxiety is the natural response. What matters most is finding a method to deal with that anxiety in a positive way.

It takes courage to be aware and cautious. It goes against a perceived and dysfunctional social norm about training horses. Thousand-pound flight animals who hear our every emotion in our body language are an honest challenge. Do we train them that humans are deceptive or that we’re honest? Is it possible to model managing stress in ourselves in an affirmative way that horses can learn from? If we approach challenges by breathing and going slow, can horses become a little less reactive and a bit more thoughtful?

One last question about the ones we haven’t included in the conversation: Who is the most risk-averse? Not humans at all. Donkeys are proudly in first place, never blindly trusting another’s opinion above their own. Ask a donkey to leave a shelter in a lightning storm and see for yourself. We call it stubborn, but it’s common sense.

Horses have a firm hold on second place. Domestication doesn’t change their risk-averse nature. Being cautious keeps them alive in a world of predators. Their prudence is a virtue when you see it from their side. Drama and fear are our mutual enemy. Being risk-averse, taking it slow and thinking twice, can be our kindest gift while training. If horses are forever seeking safety, why wouldn’t horses see caution as a virtue in humans as well?

Let safety be the new cool.

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

38 thoughts on “Who’s Risk-Averse?”

  1. Great writing as always and great insight, great advice! Always love your writing and your new book. Horse. Woman is another true example of your artistry and the drawings are just wonderful! Thank you!

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  2. Hi Anne, lovely post. I have recently turned my horse and I around by simply concentrating on him, and on being present, and it has done both of us the world of good, as well as gradually making him less ‘nervy’ and me more calm. Sue and Earl

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  3. I guess my experiences when I came back to horses – late 40s – showed exactly the risky part of being around horses. Not so much myself, but the people around me. The barn where I bought Chico was also a hack stable. Chico had been bought as a Western lesson horse by the trainer (who was really good). The horses “on the line” were mostly bought at the Unadilla auction – usually thin & scared (like a lot of horses at an auction). The owner would feed them up & if they were “usable” put them on the hack line. I saw so much, not just inexperience but ignorance, displayed there. Back then, there were no hard hats used (that changed over time) – people came up from NYC in the WINTER, to either go skiing or ride horseback! No hats, gloves & mostly sneakers! The owner would lease horses out for the winter – to people who had NO _ NONE knowledge of horses. Far too many came back in the spring – thin to say the least. I boarded there for 4 years, believe it or not. But I do have to say, the boarders – friends – stuck together – and watched over each others horse when we couldnt be there. I moved to another barn where the care was excellent AND people very horse-educated, and was there for 12 years – Chico is buried there.
    Risk averse was NOT the watchword at the first barn, believe me. Sorry it took me so long to get to that!!

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  4. “why wouldn’t horses see caution as a virtue in humans as well?” In my 45th year, horses came into my life. A quiet little mare was my first. A beautiful soul whose eyes reflected her wariness of humans. A rescue whose life had likely been cursed by her lovely painted coat. I know without a doubt that she greatly appreciated the caution that dictated my slow deliberate actions. I was a novice, we were both unsure and from there we grew confident & comfortable together. Being older & wise to my fragility definitely worked in our favor.

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  5. Love love love this post! I love especially the line about us becoming/being the calm spot in a world of chaos for our horses, and you know, also, for own selves. Practicing breathing through moments of chaos for our horses teaches us to do it even when they aren’t around. 🙂

    My 31-year old heart horse has come down, seemingly overnight, with EPM. He’s getting treatment, including acupuncture, and the day after his second acupuncture treatment (after the big die-off and worsening of symptoms) he cantered up the back pasture hill to me and then led his herd into the arena for a galloping, bucking bronco rodeo session. Many years ago I might have tried to run in and stop him, might being the operative word there, but now I went into a slow-motion almost tai chi like walking back and forth chanting slo-oooo-oooo-www over and over again. It took 15 minutes for them to pay attention to me and some would say that’s a long time, but once he noticed me, he too slowed down and then the herd did, and all was well again. They love their bronco sessions but it was terrifying for me to see him going airborne in the midst of his illness. I walked my own galloping mind down and I do believe it settled them all. Either way, I didn’t have a heart attack, so there’s that! :)) You will love knowing that the two mini donkeys went and watched this fiasco from the barn shelter. In therapist language they were holding the space for the wild horses they live with, and I’m sure for me as well!

    And finally, I have to share – our QH’s registered name is Riskless Asset. :0

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  6. ***** That’s my review; 5 stars !!

    Being a somewhat timid, risk averse horse woman this essay resonates so loudly with me. I have somehow managed to not be seriously hurt or break a bone around horses (yet) , and I think that is partly due to knowing my limitations and backing off or getting off when that seems the most prudent course. But I think my great good luck is also due to the lovely, forgiving horses who have been in my life.

    I think it may be a fine balancing act between being TOO timid and TOO complacent. ..

    Anyhow, thank you for this essay and for helping my horses and myself along this path these past few years.

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  7. Thanks, Anna – I needed that! I have been working with horses for 45 years, and have always felt I am too timid. Yet, when I try the bravado is always when I get into trouble. Even as I have learned that, and largely decided that my ‘timid’ approach has worked best, I still have those moments of deep doubt. Now is one of those times, so your reminder was timely!

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  8. Again from your loving non-horsewoman: this speaks to me on so many levels. “Risk-aversion” is not the same as “fear”. Living in fear limits us and keeps us stuck. “Risk-aversion” keeps us present, awake, making conscious choices.
    Thank you again, Anna, for your wisdom! Love you!

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  9. Thank you for your wisdom and message today. It’s very helpful to me. A lifelong horse lover and rider, I am and a farm economist by trade. 🙂 As I age I realize how my old thoughts and ways may no longer serve me or my horses. Thank you for helping all of us see things in a new light.

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  10. Couldn’t agree more…hoping safety and good old common sense become the new “cool”! I hope I live to see the day when cracking whips are a thing of the past, and slow and respectful horsemanship is the only way it’s done. I like that terminology – “risk aversion”. Me too, and here I’ve been calling myself less confident and more timid. Maybe there’s a good reason for that? I’m definitely older and hoping a bit wiser, at least where my horses are concerned.

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  11. Anna, I am a life long veterinarian that has worked with many species, although right now I raise Arabian horses and tend only to the feline at work. I have always worked hard at teaching people some of these same skills with my patients. Amusingly enough, scared dogs almost always take a breath when I verbally reassure them to do so, the cats don’t, naturally! Anyway, I just found your blogs last night and have enjoyed them very much. Your wisdom is a breath of fresh air and so true. I also found a pearl to use with my challenging teenager 🙂 You just saved me a few hours at the therapist! about her 🙂 I hope the injured child survived.
    Thank you, a new friend (I hope), Keena Van Horn

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  12. Love this post! Reason sounding out calmly in a world gone mad is always appreciated. My horse experience started in my mid-20’s and I now have reached my mid-60’s. Older always brings more timid, so risk averse is a much more palatable term to use when trying to rehab a horse that “has a reining foundation” . I realized he needed more than I had when we purchased him at age 3. He is now 6, coming 7 and he really has responded to my efforts at being ‘present’ and slowing all my processes to an enjoyable, calm pace. Thank you for the encouragement about helmets, I have not ridden him in 2 yrs, all my interaction with him is in the ground. He had to learn how to lead, be turned out with other horses, have his feet handled, overcome head shyness, be groomed, have a bath, and the list goes on. Sadly, I subjected him to two trainers after buying him, and it just worked to make his early training experience more packed in.

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