Affirmative Training: A Cowboy Walks Into a Bar…

A cowboy walks into a bar. He’s dusty, fresh from the barn. Shuffling his feet, keeping his eyes low, he crosses the floor. Voices stop as the cowboy collapses on a stool by the bar, pulling his hat off with one hand and burying his head in the crook of his other arm. The bartender smiles and sets a whiskey down in front of his friend. As the cowboy slowly exhales and lifts his head, his eyebrows in a tight line.

The bartender asks in a soft voice, “How is that new colt doing?”

The cowboy’s eyes fill at the kind words and he can’t the emotion hold back, “So good. He tries really hard. I’m going slow and listening to his calming signals,” the cowboy says, tears spilling down his cheeks leaving muddy tracks. “I just don’t want to mess him up.”

Wait, maybe it wasn’t a cowboy. Not a sober one, anyway.

Now that I think on it, it wasn’t a cowboy after all. It was a woman. A friend who has a passion for horses. And no, it wasn’t a bar, it was your kitchen, and you made her tea.

Or it was you, alone with your passion, and you made yourself tea while you worried about ways you might fail your young horse. Or fail the rescue-rehab in your pasture with frightened eyes and a stiff shoulder. Or fail that old campaigner, long retired now, but you wonder again if he has another cold winter in him. The bottom line is you care too much and you know it. Can worry be affirmatively focused? We do our best thinking in a pinch. It would be a shame if self-criticism blinded us to worry-fueled solutions.

Maybe you think the railbirds are judging every move you make. They can be real folks wearing celebrity-trainer hats, trying to pass by parroting things that sound tough, saying you’ll spoil that horse. They can be imaginary railbirds, who live in your head and are even worse. They sing-song in your ear, “You pansy, are you afraid? Can’t you make him do it? Show him who’s boss.” The imaginary railbirds say the meanest things.

So, you put the cup down, grab your gloves. No, you won’t start that colt at two. No, you don’t start working with that rehab horse right away, you give him time have time to settle in. And because it’s always better a day too soon, than a week too late, you won’t let that old gelding suffer. You do the right thing, staying true to the horse.

You will be the first to take the blame for your horse and the last to want to draw any attention to yourself. You patiently work through problems with your horse, not that you’d ever brag about it. And then, as if it was nothing, you practically forget because you are working on the next good thing, worrying that you will fall short again. If we take care of a horse’s primary needs, are patient and go slow, is it even possible to fail a horse?

In our world, it’s considered good manners to praise the horse on a good day, and for the rider to take the blame if things go sideways. There is nothing worse than watching a horse get punished for a rider’s frustration. So yes, take the blame, but if in this process, as we slouch and mumble about our shortcomings, what does the horse see? We act humble for the humans nearby, as if horses don’t keep us humble without us acting it out.

You’d think that confidence was the exact same thing as arrogance, some sort of poison to be avoided. Or like there is some reward for seeing ourselves in a lesser light. Does it tear us down a little bit, contributing to a self-fulfilling prophesy? Do we become a club of false humility? Some of us will only say a nice thing about ourselves, if we disclaim it three times first by listing other faults. I swear, the way we talk about ourselves, it’s amazing our dogs like us.

Is it that we think we’re the only ones who falls short? Is it a poorly kept secret that mistakes happen? We’ve got this backwards. We’re human, we screw up. It’s our nature. Normal. Ordinary. No reason to constantly point out the obvious. It’s dull conversation.

Being an affirmative trainer, it’s our job to praise horses. Obviously, that extends to the human with the horse. Praise builds confidence and isn’t that the thing we most want to give horses? And secretly crave ourselves? What would it mean to say it out loud? “I’m getting good with horses.” Would a moment of pride in a job of training well done spoil us? Could we show the horse who’s boss by standing tall with squinty eyes from a big-toothed smile? Can we let confidence fit like breeches, like our favorite jeans?

It’s time to turn “good manners” humility into self-confidence we can honestly depend on. A confidence that can lift our horses in a way humility leaves them hanging. Here are three tips for those who fear they will collapse into false pride:

  • Stay grateful for your wild luck of being with horses, thankful for the help you’ve had along the way. Let every “Yes!” affirm your gratitude for standing next to a horse.
  • Having a good day is worth celebrating. Let a good day lift you, knowing there will be enough challenging days ahead. Horses are never a static quantity. To be with horses is to ride a wave of constant change. Congratulations. Nice job of staying on!
  • Accept praise graciously and authentically. Remind yourself to simply say “Thanks, it felt good to get that right.” Being humble doesn’t mean under-valuing yourself.

For all the cowboys in western movies who flap their arms like chickens and jerk that horse’s head sideways with a shank-bit, while stabbing spur rowels into tense flanks, egads, would you give yourself some credit? I’m not saying they’ll start making movies of women standing next to horses and breathing. Affirmative training, working peacefully with horses, will never be as flashy as whip-cracking domination, but the world for horses will only change when we stand and bear witness to our skill and value.

We can trust horses to let us know if we manage to become arrogant asshats, have no fear. And we will always be learning, but in gratitude to all the horses that came before, let’s brag about ourselves, too. Be proud, we are their legacy. Let’s claim the credit we deserve and see what happens next.

 

We’ve initiated a Brag Club over at The Barn School. Who knew it would be so fun?

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

53 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: A Cowboy Walks Into a Bar…”

  1. It is nothing short of amazing how you reach into our collective guts and extract the words as if they came out of our own mouths. From near tears to LOL with that line about making movies, you never fail to touch me. Thanks Ann!

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  2. Great post, Anna! Love the line “I swear, the way we talk about ourselves, it’s amazing our dogs like us.” So true. I have to tell you a story. I’ve been teaching my granddaughter and her friend how to ride. They are ten and eleven years old. I have been teaching them all about calming signals and breathing. They think it’s like magic to take a deep breath and watch their horses do the same thing. What is especially gratifying is seeing these girls connect with their horses from the beginning in ways that are affirming to both horse AND rider. One of the girls is in that pre-teen awkward, self-conscious stage, and I am watching her grow tall and confident as she and her horse make huge strides week after week. This horse, Jake, has come out of retirement to have a job again and that seems to make him happy. I love every part of this SO much. Thank you.

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    • Oh, Kaylene, this is the thing!! This is how the world changes, in the sweet way an old gelding and a horsewoman conquer things. It’s made my week, thinking of these girls blossoming. You are the best, and thank you for “bragging” about it.

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  3. Because I don’t have a less violent descriptive, I have to say I loved that punch-line. Let’s just call it interesting. More interesting than…well, you know.

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  4. Very timely for me as I was practically walking on eggshells around my two yearlings yesterday teaching them to yield all four quarters (gentlyyyyyy). My heart was pounding as I was trying not to go too fast or too slow and stop in the exact moment when I felt they had enough. (God forbid I would have asked too much at this early stage :)They had some grain after and a good long brush which they just stood for untied. Lifting a couple of feet and we were done. Lots of exhaling and breathing with each other made it nice, calm and uneventful for all three of us.
    Thank you for the reminder that it is ok to be proud and acknowledge one’s accomplishments!

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  5. You nailed it again! Until we start suggesting to others, teaching others that “There is a better way…” change will not happen. Let’s speak up for the benefit of the horses present, and future, if nothing else. I find it hard to voice my opinion in this regard to others, the “who am I to suggest…” voice in the head starts to happen. But now, I will venture forth (a bit) more confidentially! I do send your words of wisdom to other horse people. That is a good place to start, but perhaps you can offer us a way to approach people. For example, there was a young girl at our barn trying to teach an old horse a few new tricks on the ground, complete with lunge whip, etc. The poor horse ears pinned back, not a happy camper. I was there and said nothing while the mother smiled on. I think what I will do next time I see the girl is tell her about you and this website and blog. There is a better way…. Thank you for this article. I will not be completely silent any longer. For the horses.

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    • Be sure you keep all of us (!) up to date on how that goes. Sounds like this girl really NEEDS an Anna to show her the way.

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      • Will do, Maggie! We all need to spread ‘Anna thought’ around.
        We just don’t know until we are enlightened, and then, well… it’s our duty to share! I celebrate the confidence to go forth and spread the word (nicely and gently, of course….) 😉

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    • Kathy,
      That’s a great idea — perhaps Anna can help. Here, in Virginia, it’s mostly ‘the old ways’ and I find few who practice this type of wisdom.
      Thank you!

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      • I am in Virginia, also. Good old “horse country”! I was so fortunate to have trainers as a child who taught that “the horse comes first, all the time, every time”, but that was regarding their physical well-being, mostly. What I didn’t learn then is what I am learning now, the mental and spiritual well-being of the horse, and the horse/human relationship. It’s a great trip! But yes, there should be more enlightenment. I’ll do what I can to spread the word in Virginia!

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  6. Gee, I love this kind of talk, Anna! And many thanks to all of you for your stories. They are so informative.

    You know that saying, “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted?” My holistic vet had a good laugh when two of my horses bust into the barn while she was tending to another horse. I was so busy being embarrassed by their “unruly” behavior, I totally missed having a proud moment that they chose to be with us rather than a pasture full of grass!!

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  7. Thanks Anna…:-) We go at so much of this alone. The good and the bad. Thanks for reminding us that we are actually not alone, even when we don’t have witnesses to our personal stories.

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  8. Excellent essay as always. I recognize a great many of us gals, especially those of us of a certain age have a mighty fight to think positively about ourselves and give ourselves credit. Brava to all who a TRYING

    So then I got to the second from last paragraph and my chin about hit the keyboard:
    “For all the cowboys in western movies who flap their arms like chickens and jerk that horse’s head sideways with a shank-bit, while stabbing spur rowels into tense flanks, egads, would you give yourself some credit? ”

    You see, I belong to a group of horsewomen dear friends. A few days ago, we had a conversation about our reactions to horses in movies and TV shows. How we become intent on the horses, which actors are decent riders, those who are not. How we noticed the same horse in several different productions. And in response, I wrote:

    “But the WORST, IMHO, was that *way* too common use of the reins with harsh bit to YANK the horse’s head around in Westerns.
    That thing where they untie the horse from in front of the saloon, jump aboard, then yank their head around whip with the reins and spur to gallop off. It makes me crazy.”

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    • Shelley,
      As one who has met many old western actors (mostly from ‘B’ films) as part of the PR contingent, I can tell you that my conversations (and questions) have been an interesting experience.

      Recently, I met Burt Gilliam (Blazing Saddles), who is now in his 80s, and Robert Fuller is a frequent visitor to our festival.
      Are you young enough to remember Laramie? Anyway, at a dinner one evening, I asked Burt if he still rode horses.
      “Hell, no!” He answered — he still has that great, wide smile. “I wouldn’t get on a horse for a million dollars these days.”

      I then asked him about the treatment the horses received in those ‘old’ westerns and why they were treated so roughly (IMHO).
      He looked at me and said, “Nuala, eat your greens!” Enough said.

      Nuala

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      • I’ve known movie folks, too. Know stuntmen and wranglers in the biz. Wrote a screenplay, worked production. I know that culture, but still don’t take well to being told to eat my greens. Just sayin’…

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        • Ha, ha!! Maybe we should write a new documentary/screenplay, “The TRUTH About Horses”, or, “Horses and Humans: Comparison and Contrast”, or “Horses: Forget Everything You Thought You Knew”. I’ve written a screenplay, as well. I’ll get to work on it!

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      • Yes, I’m definitely old enough, but have no CLUE what “eat your greens” means. My first thought was it might be a reference to spinach supposedly making you strong- like Popeye. LOL

        And my husband was an extra in several westerns back in the day. It was before we met, but there are a few where we can freeze the screen and pick him out. Most notable, longest scene he’s in is in “MeetJoe Kidd.” The funny thing is, Dan is blond with blue eyes so doesn’t fit the stereotypical look of the Mexican he’s supposed to be playing.

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  9. Yes, Shelley!! The yanking head deal, neck reining the horse into the wrong flection/ direction. Even as a child I never understood that. Maybe the movie directors thought it makes the cowboy look more manly..? 😉 Humans can be so weird!

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    • Exactly!

      When I used to teach lessons, we played a game an instructor played in early lessons I took, before anyone even got on the horse, to help kids understand how horses move.

      First thing first I told them a horses choice is always to go forward. They don’t like backing up.

      I would put them in pairs, or if private lessons I’d be one partner. Put one person in front of the other both facing the same direction, about 18” apart. Take 2 broom handles, or lunge whips, with or even dressage whips, and tuck those under their arm pits. That represented the horse’s rib cage. This works best in larger lessons where pairs and watch the other pairs then have their turn.

      Now start directing their movement, starting by physically moving them sideways or into a turn on the forehand or haunches and have them study how having 4 feet and long side impacts how they move.

      I always told the kids horses would never make good basketball players because until they’ve had some dressage training, they don’t pivot well.

      It was a great illustration of horses doing better at turning with forward movement.

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  10. Thank You. Sometimes it is hard to be grateful when you get bucked off and hurt and you have no idea why!!! My pony has stinky ears most all the time. Maybe he is finally letting go and showing me more of something. He has never offered to buck before. Have been working slowly, as he was started very rapidly and was asked to do lots of things with no problems.
    So thank you for your positive thoughts and to keep carrying on with positive thoughts.

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    • You’re right, hard to be grateful. On the other hand, pinned ears are a strong message. Are you certain something isn’t causing him pain? If not, then yes; a fast start always comes apart. Best wishes for both of you, Virginia.

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      • Have been working on the pain issue. When I tried him out I just figured the saddle didn’t fit. I have saddles that are checked and fitted to my horses twice a year. Time for that again. Have had vet out several times. He didn’t want to do anything but walk. Tried OsPhos, no change, got rid of ulcers, but I know they can come back, blood test, low on iron and some others, so red cell. Horses, wish they could talk, at least a little better, sooner, than bucking me off. Never felt it coming. I think I was just enjoying the moment as we were trotting for the first time in a long time. Oh well. Missed that one.

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  11. Thank you again Anna!!! I am often amazed that my dogs like me! I just met many of the boarders at my new barn over the last couple of days. I think I landed in fertile ground for your message. There are a number of us “Of a certain age”. Also both the barn manger and the other newest boarder have worked in our HSNT horse rescue. I have already told everyone how you have helped me . Let our numbers grow and the message spread!

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  12. I’ve put this in my ‘horse file’ and plan to re-read whenever it feels necessary (read: often). Thanks for writing & sending!

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  13. Anna, this was a great reminder to try and learn how NOT to be self deprecating in order to build confidence in ourselves and our horses. I’m hoping you have some suggestions about how to respond to a horse’s “seemingly random act of irritation/annoyance” in spite of our implementation of calm, quiet, patient, observational horse interactions. I didn’t feel much like bragging when one of my horses pushed me with his head as I was passing by to get his hay (he was the last to get his hay). I landed about 8ft away, and my knee jerk response was to yell “Hey, don’t push me!”, and then pushed his rump away from me as I passed behind him to get his hay. I felt ashamed for my short temper, and disappointed that this episode didn’t further trust between us in either direction. I would love some insight on how to respond when things go haywire.

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    • Well, he sounds like he was hungry, and thought you were slow. And if you flew, it isn’t ever okay to hurt the bringer of hay. Shortsighted on his part and dangerous for you. I’ll try to find more room to bring hay in… If I think I might be invisible, I’ve been known to bark at a horse. I’ll use voice before a hand. And maybe rethink feeding routine (says the 66-year-old who is forever redesigning for safety) . Hope you’re on the mend, Laurie.

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      • Thanks so much Anna. It’s good to know that the Master of Affirmative Training has let out an occasional bark as well. As I think back on the episode, the “pusher” was in a new position because I rearranged feeding locations due to rain and mud considerations. That, and perpetual hunger must have been just enough to piss him off. This 66year old body can still roll (stiffly) with the punches; so affirmatively onward we go.
        Thanks again Anna.

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