Can Horses Forgive Us?

The reader said that an essay I’d written “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 horse’s capacity to forgive, and the time trajectory for establishing trust. …if a horse is capable of trusting humans in their present life, after negative human experiences in their past life.” 

That’s the downside of learning, isn’t it? The day comes when it dawns on us that we can’t keep scaring horses and calling it training. It’s a breath of clean possibility. Humans might be capable of evolving in our relationships with horses after all. Not that we have ever been intentionally brutal or even mean; just that we have fallen short of our best intention. Humans scrutinize the past and any misguided stumble is magnified and demonized, even though it’s how you were told to do it. If only you’d learned to read fear and anxiety sooner. It seems obvious now that adversity was never going to make a horse trust you.

The flood of emotions: guilt, shame, embarrassment, and just to round it out, why not add the failure of not being rich, young, and ever thin enough. Sorry for the attempt at levity. Aren’t we just a little too good at taking the blame, when we’d be the last one to take credit for our sacrifices and efforts to do better for our horses? We are the ones whose hearts catch in our throats when our sway-backed arthritic elders lift their heads and nicker to us, as we bring mush, warm from the house, for the fifth time that day. 

This question is so important. We tend to anthropomorphize horse emotions. We live in the real world when we must deal with metabolic disorders or chronic lameness, but when we get to the nebulous mental questions, we make up stories we want to be true, as if horses had human brains. Stories with no more reality than the ignorant lunacy that horses will be spoiled forever if we don’t command their respect immediately.

The short answer is yes. Except in extreme cases, horses are capable of trusting humans again. How horses answer us reflects how we interact with them. Kids are treated like treasure by mares who routinely buck adults off. Other kids are treated like poison by ponies who have been teased or mishandled. Horses stand for some farriers but not others. We call that their BS detector, proof that our intention matters more than our job title. And best of all, thousands of rescue horses find their way to new homes.

Yes, horses can trust again. But I wouldn’t use the word forgive. Words matter when it comes to understanding how horses think. They do have simple emotions like fear, rage, confusion, and loss. I’d add trust, defined as a feeling of safety. Humans have those primal emotions, but also complex ones like guilt, shame, embarrassment, and respect. We’re also capable of mixed emotions and ambivalence. We can have love/hate feelings, we can be sarcastic or duplicitous. Complex emotions scurry about in our frontal cortex and horses simply don’t have the anatomy. We should be envious.

Better than forgiveness, the question might be what kinds of activity create the positive brain response in our horses that might incline them toward trust? 

Horses live guilt-free lives but are motivated by fear. They have a strong memory but can’t hold a grudge or plan revenge. The biggest truth about how horses relate in the world is that while we’re lollygagging around in our frontal lobes, talking about brain function, reading blogs, posting to social media, and just generally loving them, horses are constantly involved in their environment, engaging each sense, scanning for predators, longing for safety. They are not waxing on about loving us. They think about themselves.

If you are looking to train a horse in an affirmative way, the first step is ensuring he lives in a way that supports his nature more than your convenience. He needs a near-constant food source, the company of others, and room to move. Rescue horses, or any horse experiencing change, will need time to adjust, but let good care be your training foundation. Is he safe? It’s a primal need and we must understand that pain or anxiety that wasn’t resolved by fear-based training won’t be fixed by kind words. Good intentions matter but only if they translate into the horse’s currency. Warm blankets mean nothing to a horse isolated from his herd.

Memory is strong for horses. They don’t forget bad experiences, but we don’t have to breathe new life into the past by constantly bring it up. We can be polite and ask rather than demand. We can wage peace by giving the horse time he needs to believe us. Rather than constant correction triggering his flight response, we can choose to stand out of his space, let him volunteer for the halter, and let him sniff his way down the barn aisle. Horses are motor-reflex animals; hard-wired to save themselves from danger. Giving him choice and time to answer literally changes his brain chemistry, building new dendrites that will release dopamine, the “antidepressant” neurochemical. They have another neurochemical, serotonin, to make peace with the past in time.

If brain science ruins the romance, just understand that curiosity is the external activity that means a horse is creating new neuropathways. Curiosity equals mental health. It’s science’s way of saying you can train an old dog new tricks. It’s never too late for new neuropathways. We can create new experiences for horses that dim the memory of bad history. To the degree that the horse is given time to decompress, trust can grow and flourish. We create new neuropathways in our brains the same way. We should praise our good efforts and let the criticism rot in the dark.

How do horses respond to our complex emotions like guilt, shame, embarrassment, or pity? What about the love bonfire burning in our frontal cortex? These complex emotions are strong, but horses have nothing comparative. I’d guess horses read those vague emotions as anxiety.

Horses never think about healing us. They are involuntarily concerned with their survival in our nerve-wracking, over-thinking world.

Horses don’t want to rescue us from the anxiety of our frontal lobes. But they do give us calming signals to let us know we don’t have to try so hard. Horses recognize a tense jaw and might suggest we stretch our necks because grazing is good. Horses are not capable of understanding our frontal cortex athletics around guilt or shame or low self-esteem. Horses are incapable of being our therapists. But horses do understand anxiety. They look away because it relieves some of the pressure. They pull inside where it’s safer. They snort, a reminder to breathe, and then lick and chew. They mean to affirm our peaceful side. Can we let it be simple?

 

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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…Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

33 thoughts on “Can Horses Forgive Us?”

  1. “If you are looking to train a horse in an affirmative way, the first step is ensuring he lives in a way that supports his nature more than your convenience..”

    This, this, a thousand times this. 🙂

    So many of the things we grew up thinking were “normal” – I’m talking what are sometimes called vices but are basically compensatory behaviors – completely disappear when a horse can live in safety, with room to move, with friends, and the ability to graze some kind of forage at will. Also what often disappears when this is provided: health and medical issues we spend thousands of dollars trying to treat. It is staggering when you get to a place where you have control of the care and management of your horses and see them transform as you start making the changes that give them these basic needs back.

    And I’m talking horses who have lived in gorgeous barns with generous turn-out but on a human’s schedule, to protect precious pastures and paddocks, and to limit liability if one horse kicks at another.

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  2. I especially like your words on providing an environment that supports the horse’s nature. There is so much else to think about here. Great blog. BTW, I so abhor the word blog, and always want to say great ESSAY… it’s a thoughtful, provoking essay !!!

    ” All we are saying , is give peace a chance.” – John Lennon

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      • Abby has written that she feels same way about the word “blog.” But it’s no criticism of YOU, and I think it conveys that a person has written an essay that appears online and there’s really no other word for that, is there ? But I may just start a new fashion of referring to amazing blogs such as yours as ESSAYS… I think it elevates the writing. or maybe that’s just me being an untrainable gray mare.

        Thanks again for showing us all the way to be more peaceful with our horses .. which is what we’ve wanted all along, right ?

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  3. You know I don’t see Rocky and Jace often right now, but thanks to you … and my reading and thinking and pondering the cause and effect changes over time … I have a 28 year old retired show horse who MUST be healthier than his equally “rode hard & put up wet” show peers (after years now of a better way of life), and a 9 year old going on 4 youngun (who has benefitted from the beginning from the same better way of life) that I look at with new eyes constantly. Your ability to get us two leggers to think and care and back off benefits our four leggers daily. Thanks.
    We always need to try harder by trying less … so Grasshopper-ish!

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    • I know you dearly miss spending time with them, for the sad reason, but at the same time, they are rich in the foundation of natural living. Rocky is thriving and the baby is getting time. Not forgetting training and living well. Yay, Sherry. Well done.

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  4. “Words matter when it comes to understanding how horses think”. Well said. Our common equine vocabulary does more to obfuscate than provide a clear picture. The catchy phrases from pop psychology and oft repeated and long standing traditional jargon creates a smoke cloud that blinds us to the true nature of the horse. Thanks for cutting through this with your words and letting us see them as they are.

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  5. Another mighty fine essay, discourse, treatise, tractate, disquisition, presentation, analysis, thesis, talk…thank you, thank you so much!

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  6. Another great post. We have a gelding we bought from a boarder when she decided to ‘get out of horses’. With his old owner he was anxious and stressed. My 10yo daughter started working with him and he was a different horse. He seems to know she has no agenda. She will ride to the corner of the arena and just sit and breathe it in. I have a bit to learn from her 🙂 (he still doesn’t trust me fully). Clearly he is assessing the current situation and acting accordingly rather than ‘blaming’ her for his past. But he can tell I’m not quite as enlightened as a ten year old!

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  7. “Wage peace” and “building new dendrites” in the same paragraph. One of the reasons I love you, and my horses thank you.

    Always.

    Bex has me hooked on the neuroscience of learning. Thanks again for the introduction.

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  8. Anna,
    Wonderful article for everyone to consider.
    A few summers ago, I witnessed a trainer (who competes) try to force a newly arrived Thoroughbred
    over a ‘skinny’ jump. This OTTB was worried about the narrow jump and didn’t want to go there.
    After two aggressvie attempts, both of which failed, the trainer dismounted, opened the arena gate, and
    took the horse out to a large field,, hit it and cantered until the horse was covered in sweat and
    exhausted.

    At other times I see dismounting and lunging aggressively, when a horse is not cooperating. I know there are some situations when a horse may just refuse to work or is soured for some reason, but why would a horse want to be near you at all, if he/she is treated in this way.

    Your methods are encouraging, ethical and create a partnership. If you don’t have an ethical partnership, what do you have?

    Angry riders can cause irreparable harm to a horse — and this trainer set a poor precedent for the several teenagers who were at the barn, all of whom stood watching in surprise at the trainer’s actions. — especially considering her own instruction: “Never ride when you are in a bad mood.”

    If the path to competition requires this treatment, and a trainer or rider is unwilling to learn more positive responses and encouragement of the horse, I think it is time for them to consider another profession.

    Last summer I saw a six year old at a local horse show, with a little grumpy face — her pony did not want to work (she was only doing the warm up) and her trainer shouted, “Hit him!.” which she did several times, but to no effect. It all starts there.

    Thank you for your endless wisdom, Anna.

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    • I confess, in my long life with horses, I have lost my temper, and horses have punished me for it. I’m not perfect but I’m trainable. I hate to hear this story, it fuels the fire that competition is bad, and I love competing. It’s where I’ve met some of the finest riders and trainers I know. Some of the best days shared with my horses were in front of judges. I’ve only competed jumping twice, but I’ve worked with jumpers over the years. Dressage is a boon to jumping. A friend who trains jumpers talks endlessly about the confidence these horses have to have, knowing the punishment destroys good work. Running to a jump requires careful building to that height or width. Horses/riders who win don’t do that sort of spanking. And I wish we were less polarized in our love for horses. We need rules, in dressage the rider would be disqualified. Rather than bringing this to mind, I’d rather go watch O’Connor and Teddy on YouTube one more time. They inspire. A partnership of kindness and confidence.

      As for the six-year-old, that is where it starts. What if she learned it doesn’t work? Sounds like a possibility.

      There will always be monsters. I refuse to hand the competition world over to them. There are so many affirmative riders winning, in all disciplines. My question is why we don’t hear more about them?

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    • I have to tell this (long, only read if you want to, of course!) story because I want to iterate the power of what role modeling can do for young riders. My daughter started riding at 4 and saved her $$ from age 3-7 when she bought a 4-year old Shetland-x pony. He’s 12.2 and painted, and super spunky still (he’s now 21!). She was and is a natural rider, quiet and so gentle, with a balanced seat and such a calm demeanor with all animals. However, she needed this spunky pony to help her access her own spunk, and the two of them worked together with several trainers, the Pony Club, and me for years, going to local shows, doing everything from dressage to eventing. The pony, who we call Little Man, was fairly solid when she bought him but he was soooo young, as was she, so almost everything they did was a ‘first’ for both of them. My daughter’s method was always to be firm but kind with him, and she had her own routine of riding him through some rough spots that worked really well.

      However, in a pony club group lesson with an unfamiliar trainer one day, the trainer tried to get her to “kick him hard” and “smack him” – and she refused. In her gentle, quiet way she didn’t argue with the trainer but simply rode off to the far end of a huge arena they were in and proceeded to do her work with him, which was almost instantly effective. I’m not sure why the trainer didn’t focus on this success, but she took great offense to the fact that my daughter didn’t kick or smack the pony, and was literally trying to demand that she do so. I walked out to the trainer, which apparently broke every pony club rule as I was chastised by the pony club “mom in charge” for doing it, but I explained to the trainer that my daughter was young but she had the right to make the choice NOT to kick or hit her pony, and that I was there to back her up. I asked the trainer if she was seeing what she wanted to see in terms of how the pony was going (by this time he and my daughter were doing the exercise he’d initially refused, and doing it perfectly), and if so, why was she harping on about kicking and hitting? I suggested she perhaps watch and learn. It was probably rude of me to say the last thing, but I said it in front of all the girls there because you know, they needed to hear this kind of message and they needed to know that they don’t have to listen to a trainer in an arena telling them to hit and kick their ponies. It’s a construct that we have to, but we do not. The trainer is the employee and hopefully in a perfect world the trainer does in fact know more than the rider, and can help bring about a good partnership between riders and ponies, but the idea that girls are taught in yet this one more way that they have no power just makes me mad.

      The mom in charge who walked around with her clipboard like a military general at these lessons was furious but the other moms were also empowered that they too had a choice and could exercise it. But because of the trainer’s behavior, my daughter was upset after the lesson because she felt like she had somehow failed. We had a long talk about what she had done, how she had done it, and we reviewed this with her private trainer, young herself but very familiar with pony club dynamics as she had gone through to the A level certification. It was a big learning moment – and her private trainer worked hard to teach my daughter how to analyze what was working and what was not with the pony, how to make her own decisions about that, with supportive feedback from the trainer, and how to say no thank you to suggestions from pony club instructors who might not share our approach.

      A few weeks later my daughter and her pony were at a local combined training show and the jumps in the covered arena (itself a new thing for him) were super “dressed up” and spooky. He refused the second jump and my daughter did her usual calming/working through routine and circled back to the jump, which he took. Everyone (maybe 100 people) watching started applauding, and I am sure Little Man had never heard that sound before – it terrified him and he bolted and refused the next jump, which dq’ed them. My daughter calmed the pony and rode to the judge to see if she could try the missed jump one more time, just for the practice, and the judge said of course, so she calmed him again and they took the jump beautifully.

      When she left the arena she was grinning from ear to ear – yes, they were out of the running, but she was so proud of him for pulling it together for her and ending on that great note. She was praising him to the high heavens, audibly. The next day a thread popped up on a local equestrian listserv about “a little girl on a painted pony who was so gentle and so kind to her pony even when he refused two jumps and bolted – it was so refreshing to see such a young rider being so understanding of her pony’s fears and working him through them effectively, then being proud of him and telling him what a good pony he was, even though they got no ribbon.”

      Later that day he jumped out of the dressage arena because the judge was in a gazebo and her voice calling out from that shadowy place scared him. The arena was also beside a duck pond and was quite the location to insure that any horse riding a test was focused on the rider – again, they were dq’ed but daughter asked if we could stay to the end of the day so she could ride the test with no distractions. She showed him the gazebo, let him actually walk up into it, and I got it in and called out to them so he could experience that in a familiar voice. They rode the test perfectly two times. I will never forget the drive home that day – she was absolutely giddy with pride at how well her painted pony had done. No ribbons. Some big dq’s. But he had worked through his fears with her and she was so proud of him for that. A local big-name dressage trainer witnessed us there late in the day and asked if that was my daughter riding the test alone, for no ribbon, and when I said yes, she said, you have a real rider there. What a great sight that is and her such a good sport.

      I think the moral of this story is we have to stand up for the young riders when we see trainers pushing them to do the kind of training we can clearly see does not work. When young and passionate they are so impressionable and that’s the perfect time to help them learn effective methods that not only work but are kind. And we have to frame what winning a ribbon means and what working through a rough spot that makes your partnership stronger means. And which is the bigger success. Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here!

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      • Billie, thank you for this. Can I add a training reality? There is no way to train a horse about competition at home. We have to train at the event, just as your daughter did. There is no National Velvet fantasy where we win it all the first time. My first dressage tests were rough, but but the ability to train and ride under pressure is a lesson trail riders need as well.. I salute your daughter for her long game and patience. Wonderful.

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  9. Yes, training reality brilliance from you! – about training at the event. Totally true – and thankfully her private trainer went with us numerous times to help us with that piece of things. The sad thing was that the pony club “lessons” were more like competition events themselves, and most of the instructors totally missed the opportunity to teach with that in mind. Every single thing we do with a horse is a training opportunity, but doing it in an unfamiliar setting with many strange distractions just makes it exponential.

    I really think women trainers teaching young girls should be incorporating into their work teaching these young girls how to advocate for their ponies/horses, how to say no thank you, how to courteously but firmly rebut intrusive inappropriate actions that I have seen perpetrated by countless trainers and instructors over the years. As an adult rider who came back to riding after many years out of the saddle, I had no problem saying NO if I felt something I was asked to do didn’t feel right for my horse, but it’s a skill most of us need to learn when we’re much younger. I would love to know your thoughts on how to incorporate this – mostly just my own interest, as I’m no trainer and will never be, but there is a grandson on the way now who may turn out to have the horse gene. :)))

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    • Pony Club is old school and pretty set in that tradition. A few of my clinic participants tried to have an influence with no luck. I know there is a new pony club manual is coming out (it might be out now??) written by Andrew McLean, from AU. I’ll bet you know of him. We’d consider him forward-thinking and hopefully a change will come. I really believe we are on a wave of change in how we work with horses. What you are suggesting would be so great; not just standing up for their horses, but planting seeds to say no in the hundreds of ways young women could use the skill. I don’t get the chance to teach kids much, but horses raise girls right, but then, I think you know that.You have one in the family.

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      • That’s wonderful that there’s a new manual coming out that will be/is more forward thinking. We did, in the end, find a Pony Club group whose motto was “happy child, happy horse” and they veered away from some of the old school stuff as well as putting the relationships and partnerships between members and mounts well above the ratings tests. It was difficult for my daughter to do some of the work required because the horsekeeping methods were so old school it was nothing we remotely do on our farm. But in its way, another lesson in how to deal with forms and structures that simply do not offer you the option to be who you are. I do remember some of her documents having lots of notes written in the margins explaining our horsekeeping – which didn’t fit into their constructs and check the boxes that apply at all. She stopped at the C rating when she realized some of the drama that ensued in the upper level testing. There were some tales of pure horror about that being shared and I was happy she decided that wasn’t something she wanted to get involved with. Dare I say this to you? (as I myself sit in the midst of a pile of writing projects with another set flying around my head like airplanes around the traffic control tower) – there is huge space in the book world for a book aimed at girls and their horses and all that has come into discussion in this thread and ballooning outward in your work! :))

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        • You do crack me up, Billie. Sometimes I think the horse establishment will never change and then I hear of girls like yours more and more. The thing about training this way is that it ends up empowering us in other ways, too. More mares, less sheep.

          And yes, like you, I have piles of writing but I’ve thought about your suggestion. I don’t get to work with kids often but when I do, I don’t really communicate differently. I don’t have kids and don’t know what teachers do about age/understanding. I know 8 yr olds and 14yr olds are different but how?? Do you think it would be possible to kind of write two books at once, at different levels. One planning but to two audiences?? Just thinking about the things I don’t know, but who doesn’t want to influence the future for horses?

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          • I would think of it as writing your own version of a pony club manual, maybe an intro for pony girls and then an intermediate for pre-teens, advanced for teens – so there would be a progression in complexity. I don’t think the content would be any different – it would just be presented in simpler language and with lots of photos. Though I think we know that pony girls often tend to be super precocious in general, and my daughter wanted all the pony club rating manuals when she first started, so she could “read ahead.” I also remember my own early girlhood and somehow (how did we ever find things back then with no internet and in small towns with small town libraries???) found numerous quite advanced books on training horses, most from British publishers. I remember one titled Schooling The Young Horse – with many photos and a very horse-focused approach that I loved. I have no idea where that book got to or how I got my hands on it. But during some years in early riding lessons, I “read ahead” of what was happening in the lessons and was so relieved that there were people “out there” who didn’t want to use punitive methods in working with horses. I could so see your books aimed at younger ages bringing that same kind of relief and messaging to young riders. Without really much need on your part to change what you’re saying – more to structure it such that younger readers could easily use it. I keep focusing on girls, but of course there are a few boys out there. My son rode from age 5 – about 14 years of age. The thing about boys though is they are so much more likely to just say no if they don’t want to do something. He hasn’t ridden in years but just last week he came over to farm sit for me for an afternoon and handled my horse for a vet/acupuncture appt. She texted me after, saying how great he was and how amazing he was with Keil Bay. He informed me that Keil had the vet and her assistant wrapped around his hoof and demanded peppermints the entire time. LOL.

          • I confess, it’s a readership I have never considered. I keep thinking of writing my “manifesto” and your thoughts will do into that soup. Enough preparation ahead, and it would be easier to consider including kids. Boys? Men? I have no idea. Thanks, Billie.

  10. Thank goodness mine live with me! Not saying I have the ideal arrangement for them – the burro lets me know very loudly if she wants/needs more hay… They get fed twice a day – have 8 acres of pasture to roam around on – and shelter when and if they need it or want it. I only lock them up in their stalls to feed and they are let out immediately after they’re done. The vet visits once a year for vaccinations and general check-ups to determine if teeth need floating or not. The pasture provides their hay for the year. Come April I have it fertilized and weed killer put down – horses are then up in the corral for the growing season until the haying is done. I generally get two cuttings. So far, so good.

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