A Short List of Things Horses Do Need Us to Teach Them.

For all our love for horses, humans are still predators. We don’t like to hear that. We’re defensive; we’ve seen abused horses. Our minds go to the most extreme images; bloody flanks and torturous bits and that isn’t who we are. Nope. Not what we do. At the same time, we struggle with what others think of our horsemanship. We hear voices whispering that we’re spoiling our horses, or we so desperately want a certain thing from our horses that our eyebrows are set in a permanent furrow. Maybe we just want to love them into behaving for the farrier. Then our gut tenses at the thought that our horse might die in twenty years.

Last week, I wrote about the things horses don’t need us to teach them; this week is about what they do need us to teach them. Horses communicate in calming signals, the body language of animals. For horses, most of the signals are expressions of anxiety. A calming signal is a message that they are no threat to us; that we don’t need to be so aggressive or loud. They are asking us to calm ourselves. It’s the opposite of the roaring threat of a lion, it’s a nervous plea for peace. If we love horses, why do they feel so threatened by us?

A life-long horsewoman sent me a quote from a book about interpreting human body language that was an eye-opener to her. In the book, Truth and Lies, Mark Bowden and Tracey Thomson state, “Therefore, our physical behavior displays the constant interplay of power, between us and everything around and within us.” (p.24)

She asked my opinion on this different set of words and relating them to how our horses perceive us. I think it’s a great definition of being a predator, but I have to be honest. This definition reminded me first of how powerful teenage girls can be. It’s easy to picture an alpha male with privilege strutting about mansplaining, but what about the passive-aggressive power of women who insinuate or nag. I think about peer-pressure a lot for a woman my age because feeling the judgment of railbirds is a constant question my clients ask. How should we deal with naysayers? How do I tell others that I don’t want to dominate my horse? I wonder about another question: What do horses hear as we struggle with our own anxiety around inadequacy, fear, and intimidation?

Humans are filled with contradictions, but being a predator isn’t up for debate. It’s an involuntary instinct but if you ask us, our love for horses is involuntary too. We have schoolgirl passion and grown-up fear and insecurity. We’ve been taught that horses must respect us, but we aren’t willing to fight them about it. We know that fear makes both horses and humans unreliable.

Horses don’t dally with this intellectual jabber. Partly because they don’t have that dallying part of their brain and partly because being a prey animal is a full-time job.

Reminder: Many calming signals are an expression of stress about a mental conflict. Perhaps two intersecting thoughts that are in conflict, and confusion about how to proceed. Horses show calming signals, not as a refusal, but a request that they need more time to think, which is an evolved moment for a flight animal. They might look away or pretend-graze when standing in a dry lot. Do they sense our impatience and worry that we will be more aggressive? Is that what our bodies tell them, in contradiction to the fairy tales we tell ourselves?

What if having conflicted thoughts is the biggest thing we share with horses? It would explain so much. Consistency is important in our work with horses, not that we halter the exact same way at the exact same time every day. Consistency in our own emotions and response is the foundation of trust we offer horses. Perhaps it means we redefine ourselves by who we are, not what we want. 

A Short List of Things Horses Do Need Us to Teach Them:

1. Teach the horse that we will be emotionally reliable. Knowing horses have emotions of their own, we spare them suffering our human ones. We choose to control our predator natures and not throw temper tantrums at horses, or kick buckets in the barn aisle, or swear at gates that stick. We can cry about it at home, rant to our friends later, rail against the dark forces in favor of love, but we heal ourselves, so we can hold consistent good humor around horses, and use affirmative training methods, engaging curiosity rather than intimidation. Teach the horse that his feeling of well-being is the only priority. In a chaotic world, we must be peacefully dependable so the horse feels safe with us.

2.Teach the horse that humans can listen. That we’re not to be feared. Knowing that we can watch too intensely, that we’re noisy with our hustle, that we can stand too close, and that we love too hard, we can teach them that we’re not that person who thinks they know better than the horse. Not the person who makes stories up, but instead listen to each unique horse with compassion. We teach a partnership where both sides take care of themselves, with the support of the other. Rather than leaping in to fix the horse’s “problems,” we’ll work on our own issues while giving the horse the space to figure out his questions in his own time. We’ll teach him self-reliance rather than insecurity. We teach him autonomy, the peace that comes with confidence.

3.Teach the horse that humans can respect their nature and instinct. We acknowledge perhaps we’re born with a certain passive inbred superiority but we will work each day to see the world through our horse’s eyes. Rather than telling romantic stories, we commit to creating a world for our horses that support their need for constant forage, the company of other horses, and enough room to run. We hold that responsibility sacred, even if it’s inconvenient and costly. Rather than restricting what we love about horses, we make peace with it. We refuse to fight but rather give the horse the benefit of the doubt, knowing their answer is honest and without guile. We give up control because when nothing is a fight; when nothing is wanted or demanded, we create a peaceful space that horses will choose to share. Most of all, we need to teach horses that humans are capable of trusting a horse’s instinct and intelligence.

 

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward r

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…Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

 

Anna Blake

38 thoughts on “A Short List of Things Horses Do Need Us to Teach Them.”

  1. This week I’ve been wondering about training a horse and teaching him to thrive within the constraints of living with humans. As usual, you turn these thoughts, which do have that ring of “passive inbred superiority” on their head. Shushing those thoughts just a little so I can hear better. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Linda, I think about ways of keeping horses with the most “attitude” of freedom, in the constraint of ownership all the time. I think we can create spacious acres in how we allow their nature to roam. Great comment, thank you.

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  2. This article settles on a very warm part of my heart and an understanding of horses. I am blessed to be an imperfect shepherd of my herd of five and I strive to work towards these principles that you have set out. Thank you for stating them so clearly. I am a work in progress!

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  3. Anna, (imo) this essay is superlative and extremely important. It deserves a whole clinic of its own (perhaps as an adjunct for those who have some feel for calming signals) and most definitely an expanded series of writing of its own.

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  4. I’m not sure you have me convinced about all this. I think I am a kind horse person, and my horses seem happy and they are well cared for. But I don’t think I want a partnership. Doesn’t a partner have equal say? I feel more like a mother. Like when a teenager doesn’t want to do something they must, and I tell them, “Well, do it anyway, and act like you want to.” If my horse tells me she’s hurting, or afraid, I’m going to listen and try to understand. If it’s pain, I want to fix it. Fear, I’m going to try to reassure her and get her to not be afraid in the least confrontational, kindest way. But I do expect them to do what I ask, when I ask, and not argue with me about it. I want to learn all I can about what they are trying to tell me. But in the end, I’m the mother, and they need to behave themselves. I’m interested in what your thoughts are about this.

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    • Beth, I guess we’d have to start by agreeing on what being a mother looks like. Some want their children to learn for themselves and some nag and micromanage their kids endlessly. Some mothers are balanced and consistent and some have problems of their own. The ‘do it and don’t argue’ approach assumes that horses have the thought process to argue. They don’t, so now I wonder what calming signals might be missed. And since I can’t see you or your horse, I’ll just say this. There are dominant mothers who are kind. Mothers who have mood swings and we walk on eggshells until we know if she’s mad that day. Do humans mother in a way horses understand? I doubt it. They don’t look to humans for mothering. No, humans are predators, even if you call yourself a mother. If half the time I’m quiet and kind… and half the time kicking buckets and slamming gates, he’s right to be nervous around me. A partnership to me means negotiation; that we work together. If my horse trusts that he is safe with me, then there is no resistance. My clients in Affirmative training courses get good results, as have the horses I’ve trained this way. And the science of how equine brains work back this approach to training. Finally, how do we learn all they are communicating if we shut them up for not “behaving?” Thanks for thinking about it, Beth.

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      • Maybe we are really agreeing, but words are getting in the way. Ok. Maybe I should use the word leader? I want them to want to please me without being afraid. I want them to trust me, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that in order to get this from them, I must be calm and consistent. And kind. And patient. All the best horse trainers have this demeanor about them. I’m thinking about situations where they are a little afraid but they do it anyway. I think it hurts my feelings when I want them to do something they are afraid of and I know it won’t hurt them. I want them to do it anyway. That’s why I wish I could communicate with them better.

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        • Thank you, Beth! Says this horse trainer who writes (or am I a writer who trains horses?) Words can confuse us but communication clarifies things. How do we proceed with horses? Just as you said, we try to communicate more consistently. Then our feelings get hurt or theirs do, and it takes a leader to be the better. How do we SHOW them it won’t hurt is the question. So glad you wrote back, thanks, again. I think we do agree.

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  5. Perfection, Anna. And the more in-hand work I do, the more I learn. The more I laugh, the faster my Thoroughbred learns.
    The more I deep breathe and stretch, myself, the more he exhales and relaxes. Gentle requests and patience are much more
    beneficial to both. And, on some days, when he just does not seem to be amenable to new exercises or play, I just let him be.

    I think we all catch ourselves looking into their eyes — mostly because they are so stunning, so mystical.
    I am trying to do that very little, just a passing soft glance. I am trying to soften my gaze (you have taught me that)
    and soften all my movements around him.

    Last week, I was walking out with him (my husband and his almost-perfectly calm TWH were also with us).
    The barn owner’s dog suddenly saw us at the end of their garden (which is fenced), but he charged toward us.
    My Thoroughbred swung around and bucked — hind legs toward the dog. He actually placed himself between
    the dog and me, as though protecting me. I loosened the lead rope to allow for movement, the dog quietened down,
    and my Thoroughbred immediately calmed and continued grazing as though nothing had occurred. I was a safe distance
    from my horse (as I always try to maintain). I also relaxed and laughed, and told him, “Jack, it’s only Archie!”
    A combination of relaxed frame and voice, I believe, did the trick. The dog is normally quiet, but is part Pitbull,
    and is an adopted dog, so we are careful around him. The barn owner was temporarily out, and her dogs were,
    understandably, guarding her home and garden. It was the fast ‘charge’ that upset him. I understood that.

    Thank you for all your incredible wisdom. I now tell myself, daily, no matter what happens, stay calm and positive.

    Nuala

    Reply
    • Asking a horse to ignore his environment isn’t realistic, but we do have a choice to not make it worse. It isn’t about not spooking, it’s about settling back again. Thanks, Nuala.

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  6. Anna and Beth:
    Beth, yes I understand. The older style is to always be boss. I still see much of that.
    There are situations, I believe, when you do have to play mother and I think my note, above,
    was one of them.

    However, some Danish friends who practice ethical works with horses, although they do not
    ride much, suggested: Why would a horse not comply with reasonable requests or even try
    to hurt you (barring some mental/health issue) if you always practice consistency and kindness
    in your handling or riding?

    They are fortunate to have their horses on an island off the coast of Denmark, so they don’t
    even need fencing, in most cases. Their horses run free and all their work with them is at
    liberty. That’s fine for citizens who have such advantages. Liberty work can be difficult
    when you are at a larger farm, for example, with many horses, or even if you have mares
    in adjoining pastures, as we do at our small farm now.

    It is for us to learn their language, and gain a deeper understanding, not for us to force
    them. If we can work with them peacefully, and they are unwilling to work with us, then
    I believe something is wrong. We need to discover what it is.

    Encouragement, gentle actions and praise go a long, happy way when training. I have no doubt about that.

    Nuala

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  7. « Teach the horse we will be emotionally reliable…
    Teach the horse that humans can listen,
    Teach the horse that we can respect their nature and instinct »

    That’s the Only mantra if your horse happens to go blind… when not if…no options here… your voice becomes his homing signal, like the hormones that scent your body, your space his haven and yes when some scary or another from the world outside happens to explode… you Breeeathe together and it buffers. We may not ride one the other anymore but all you blind horse carers out there… do not despair… this ride is oh so indescribably magical and mysterious 😊.

    Reply
      • You have no idea… This last (yes not ashamed to admit my gut tension’s permanent now my twenty are up), bit of our journey began six years ago… most of which solitary groping around in the dark, pardon the pun. Not much help going around…(not many blind horses around either…hmm 🤔 why…), until the clicker whizzes and this simply astounding blog… every single time, I think you can’t get better than this… when the next one comes along and… stupefies.

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  8. Anna, there was so much in this piece that I will have to reread it several times. Unfortunately it brought to mind how many times my involuntary predatory instincts have surfaced and expressed themselves over the years with my horses. It made me wonder about the horses capacity to forgive, and the time trajectory for establishing trust. Maybe a blog in the future could address if a horse is capable of trusting humans in their present life,after negative human experiences in their past life. After all, you said it yourself “…being a prey animal is a full time job”. Do they have the time to change their minds?

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  9. Although these points are not new to me since I have been reading your blogs and taking your classes for some time, I find this one especially well-articulated, and I have read it 3 times. I think learning to respect my horses’ instincts and work WITH those rather than attempting to over-ride them in some way has made such a huge difference here with my horses.

    Also, being mindful of CONSISTENCY is very much on my mind these days. The emotional consistency is so important I think, especially for these boys. To Laurie’s comment above, I , too, wonder occasionally if it’s possible for horses who have had seriously negative experiences with humans to get past that with a human who is more positive. I guess they never forget, but do allow us to build up a bit of a “trust fund” with them.

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    • Great comment, Sarah. I think how longtime horseowners improve is by diving deeper into the understanding of things we know. That is the infinite peel-away-another-layer-of-the-onion journey I want to take.

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      • Just for the record: Even though I wrote I am familiar with these ideas, I certainly have not mastered them !!! At any given moment in time I probably have amnesia for much of what I have learned and revert back to my predatory instincts !!Yes to the infinite journey…

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  10. It’s my routine to lean on the stall door looking out as Dover stands next to me to eat his morning meal. Sometimes he lifts his head after a bite to nudge me (a hello?) sometimes not. This morning my husband was breaking up ice with a hammer from the trough. Before I had time to respond to his startle and move away, he had already assessed he was in no danger and returned to his bowl, unconcerned. There was a time when it would have gone the other way. I smiled at the change.

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  11. Anna, I have a four year old mule who was born on my place. I seem to recall you also have one. I would love to hear about how things are going for you, if you need writing ideas. Mine went to the trainer when she was 3, for a month and got as far as being ponied with a rider on her back once. I plan to pony her a lot this summer, and she will go to the trainer for another month as well. The trainer said I could ride her in the round pen, but she’s not ready for trails yet. Too icy to ride here anyway. I hope that by the time I actually ride her, she will have seen it all and be calm about things. I am in no hurry to get her trained. We will take our time and I will ride her when I think we are both ready.

    Reply
    • I have donkeys but have worked with mules. Three is very young, and not all trainers work the same way. Mules are easy to misunderstand. So sorry, I can’t give an opinion when I know so little. Too many animals are harmed by opinions being thrown about without information. I will say mules are very smart and very wonderful.

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      • Yes. You would approve of my trainer. You have the same belief systems. And it’s pretty awesome to see what she can do with a horse or mule. When I sent her to her, I wanted her to train her to pony, and eventually I will ride her. But no hurry. I’ve been told that 5 years old is when they are mature enough to ride. I had 3 mules born here, all from the same jack and the mares were mother and daughter, so pretty close genes. You wouldn’t believe how different they were in temperament. If the John hadn’t been born here, I would have thought he had been abused in his past, but I know how he was treated. It took 3 days to get a halter on the molly. Three months to get one on him. Same thing with getting in a trailer. I never had such a fearful equine. He made me understand why mules have the reputation they do. His half sister is very different.

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        • It could be pain that we’re unable to diagnose… I would totally believe how different they are. I notice our human full siblings are as different as night and day as well. 🙂

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          • I don’t think so. He was like that from birth. And once I convinced him he was safe, he would do whatever I asked willingly and easily. I think it was fear/self preservation. It’s what they are famous for, and where they get their reputation for stubbornness.

  12. Hi, Anna –
    Somewhere I think you’ve made the point that it isn’t the horse that needs training, it’s the human. And you are so right about that the conflicts can be from manipulation as much as from aggression or domination. Makes me humble each time I think how much they forgive us….

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  13. I was going to write about my reaction to yet another amazing post but then in reading your replies to comments I hit on this jewel; “It isn’t about not spooking, it’s about settling back again.’ Yesterday I saw my “practically bombproof” gelding spook at the rattle of the barn roof – the same rattle he’s lived with for several years and barely raised an ear to. He was in his stall eating one second and was outside his stall the next. As his herd mate looked up & over at him briefly before resuming his munching, the big gelding glanced at me (and my non-reaction), then looked around almost “sheepishly” before sauntering nonchalantly back to his bucket to resume his meal. A reminder to me that for him, moving his feet is imperative when he’s alarmed. My other gelding startles occasionally but it seems he almost takes pride in NOT moving his feet as he looks to me for reassurance. I’ve got you to thank for the consistently nonreactive me and my horses thank you too!

    Reply

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