Take a Cue from Your Horse

He was a bright young gelding. Alert, athletic, and so willing. One day he would become the kind of breathtaking dressage horse that his sire was, I hoped. It would be years before he’d be started under saddle, but it was the perfect time to start arena work. Did you just seize up a bit? Does taking a young horse to the arena sound like punishment? Do you shake your head, knowing dressage is all micromanagement and dull repetition? Don’t feel sorry for him yet.

We’d enter the arena and pause. He knew what came next and his eyes got brighter, but he stood still as I undid the buckle and paused with the halter dropped off his muzzle but still around his neck. Another moment of wonderful anticipation. Then I’d drop the halter and pause again… his head was up and ready. Then one cluck. He’d bolt away, gallop the long side, and stop at the far end of the arena to snort. By then, I had walked to the middle of the arena and he’d turn to gallop the long side again with loud cheers from me. If it was a good day, he’d buck a few strides to get the kinks out of his back and the crowd (me) went wild. And he’d slow to a trot that had more the feel of a prance with his back lifted and his neck relaxed but high enough that he could push his chest out, good boy! Some days he’d drop and roll, and then leap to his feet, a gallop in the first stride. Now that’s a transition, whoop! 

He’d canter to me and halt. This game had two players. I’d go as still as he was, and cluck. Game on again, he’d run, and I’d clap. What if the arena was the place where no one ever got punished but all the best games happened? Once he’d sprayed the entire arena with exuberance, and I had warmed up my lungs sufficiently, things slowed down. Our groundwork included taking turns mimicking each other, reversing in a spontaneous dance of movement and halt at liberty. Pauses, leaps, and spins that one of us did more beautifully than the other, but that was the goal. I wanted him to feel beautiful in his body. No whips, no ropes, no treats. Just a shared conversation, the only word was yes.

One morning, after running through everything I could think of, I needed to catch my breath. My eyes dropped to his left knee, just for a pause, and that knee rose from the ground and slowly extended, holding in midair. Two things happened then. I cheered his brilliance and I realized I needed to up my game. The line between horse and trainer got blurred in a way that I wanted to continue. 

How many times do we approach a horse with the goal of manipulating his behavior? Some of us flat-out want total control. We bark orders and destroy the brilliance of a young horse when we could get a dirt bike and be happier. But not you. You want a partnership (as long as you lead.)

The horse must behave so we begin making small adjustments. We don’t pick a fight, we just correct him for not standing still, we back him up, we jiggle a rope. Now we’ve trained him to jig. You can tell because it’s what he’s doing. We crowd into his space and then demand he get out of our space. He tries to figure out what we want. Stand still, we say, as we cue him to move. He pauses and we watch closely so we can pounce when he moves again. As if training was a process of elimination, we tell him he’s wrong until he quits trying. Nothing harsh has happened but there’s no opportunity for brilliance because we’ve dumbed him down, his eyes in soul-killing, unreliable surrender.

Why do we do it this way? It’s simply easier to say no. We feel more secure when we’re correcting the horse. It allows us the illusion of control. We fault what’s been done instead of inspire the next great thing.

Training a horse begins with a choice for the human. Who do you want to be to this horse? What do you bring in your body language? Can you offer him something that feels good? Because I want the day to come that we move together in brilliant, relaxed unison, I won’t fight now. I’ll stay on his side. Horses understand the value of getting along. We can trust his intelligence enough to not talk down to him, but rather let him feel the confidence of getting it all right. Most importantly, we can prioritize his willing attitude by not adding to his anxiety. Instead, ask a question and listen patiently, holding for the possibility that he might offer a better answer than expected.

Flash forward a few years. Our rides still start by him galloping at liberty, with his saddle on now. He shakes it all out before the fun at the mounting block. He’s young and struggles with balance in his canter depart. It’s natural, the canter isn’t the solid, two-feet-on-the-ground gait that a trot is. The canter is naturally unbalanced, without a rider. We don’t drill it; it would be a truly stupid mistake to rush a canter.

Instead, I was suggesting that a longer trot stride might feel more relaxed than a shorter one. And by that, I mean I was focused on myself, staying in rhythm with him, balanced in my stirrups, carrying my body lightly so he might lift his back. I’m focused on riding the up-stride of the trot rather than the down-sit, thinking up, up, up. Then I listen to him. He answers with the sweetest canter depart ever, but because I was aware of my body at the time, I noticed a small movement in my inside hip bone. It was as if he said, “Feel that place right there? Just lift that a quarter-inch and leave your legs out of it. Less is more, Anna.” That was it.  No stress, no friction. He taught me how to lift to a canter as he does in the pasture. It felt absolutely euphoric. And go figure, it’s worked on every horse since.

I like to think this particular horse was special. He wasn’t, it was just his luck to show up when I was able to listen better. No pretend connections or claims of artificial partnership. I was receptive to his intelligence. Instead of a trainer and a horse, we became explorers.

It’s his birthday this week, this beautiful horse who is long retired. It’s all play now that I understand the game. He still pulls to the arena. I cluck once, the invitation to say yes. I wouldn’t think to correct him. I’m too busy listening so I can ask better questions. We’re all about what’s up ahead.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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42 thoughts on “Take a Cue from Your Horse”

  1. Just beautiful! I will read your narrative of the games over and over again so that I can call that image up in my mind as my mental warm-up to working with my horse.

  2. I love this – the notion of making the arena a place where brilliance happens and it’s FUN is ingenious. We sort of stumbled onto this when we bought our farm and learned that they love to perform and play in the exact way you’ve described. At this point it’s inevitable that if I go in the arena with any one equine, the rest of them line up at the two gates and rattle the chains to come in. We have video of what happens when you let them all in at once, which we also do fairly regularly. Daughter had a jump course set up and every single equine, including the two miniature donkeys, trotted, cantered, and galloped it in single line formation, all totally at liberty and all having a blast. The little donkey kick-up of heels after the last jump was the perfect end to the video. I will never understand the notion in the mainstream horse world that riding = work and being strict and controlling. Horses are so beautiful when moving naturally and freely. Who wouldn’t take any opportunity to let them show us what they can do when we aren’t weighing them down?

    • Like it’s a challenge to shut up and watch, right? As a dressage rider, I need to create a white canvas for art, as your donkey confirms. And the lovliest rides are when the horse is allowed to move “at liberty” in partnership. Thanks, Billie. It’s a shame WordPress doesn’t allow videos.

  3. I absolutely agree with your perceptions and partnership with your animals especially horses! I learn from you and enjoy the blogs immensely! Thank you for celebrating the relationship with horses that you have as it’s the best way to teach❤️

  4. Anna,
    This is perfectly timed and exemplary. Our horses lead us to the arena, as they know it’s time for games.
    Learning various moves quickly (in addition to their own fun), my Thoroughbred will say, “I’ve done this and that…
    what’s next? He lowers his head and waits…and now I must think of new games. If he doesn’t like something (he’s not very excited about the ball) I stop and think of something else. I am on a mission to find all the things he loves to do and they are mounting (no pun intended) on my list of his likes. He seems to like it when I sing — ah, now there’s a revelation: What happens when you sing?
    You breathe properly and it relaxes you — so the horse enjoys it too.

    I only have a large arena to work in (no smaller space) and there are horses at all sides (and a mare) so total liberty is not always possible, but I just halter, work slowly, listen, let him decide what he wants to do, stop if he doesn’t seem interested.
    He’s beginning to enjoy trotting cavalletti with me, that’s such fun. I only have to ‘say’ “Half Halt/trot!” That’s his cue.

    After baths this week, we sat in the pasture, had afternoon tea with the horses, and just spent quiet time with them. They grazed nearby. Just being…together.

    And learning, always learning, to listen.

    Thank you Anna, for all you give us. This is an absolutely gorgeous roan. May he have a long life yet.


    • Thanks, Nuala. (This youngster is Iberian, graying in that year. He’s on the cover of a couple of my books…)

  5. « She walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that’s best of dark and bright
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes;…»

  6. LOVE-ly! Thank you Anna; sharing with my tribe of dressage riders with horses of all ages. We are lucky to have a trainer who works with your prescribed kindness and awareness. We all aspire to listen more than command, to engage in conversations like this one. It’s perfect for today’s ride and time together.

  7. Love this! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if ALL horses were handled this way! Simple, fun for the handler and horse, both getting warmed up in an exuberant way! Then both are relaxed, connected and ready for a great work session. How fun!

  8. Paints a beautiful picture with that sweet looking colt above? I was not a dressage “fan” until I came here. I saw the opposite of this years ago. On the other hand, knew someone who was and is, I presume, a really lovely rider & my granddaughter learned from her – rides the same way she did.

    • We are so impacted by what we’ve seen. I saw so much more harsh training in other disciplines, but then, it takes all kinds apparently. Hi Maggie! Hope you’re having a good spring.

  9. So great, Anna, and so good to see that I am not being crazy by doing this while others at the barn glance over at us in the arena with that skeptical look in the eye as my mare canters around, tail up, in all her lovely, untacked glory. But sometimes I can’t keep up when she trots over and says, “Come on! What now?”, “I’m not sure”, I reply, “Give me a second!” I’ll have to work on that! I think part of the problem is that she’s smarter than me, and I am thrilled by it. My favorite line of yours yet, “I was receptive to his intelligence. Instead of a trainer and a horse, we became explorers.” That will get blown up and tacked up on her stall for all to read. I am becoming convinced that you were once a horse. 😉 xxx

  10. So I am thinking that I would have loved to read and understand this writing 20 to 40 years ago. Better yet I have some understanding of this writing today. Great anticipation of reading this piece and many others in the near and distant future. Thank you so much for writing in a way that I can understand how important breath is.

  11. I doubt I will ever be smart enough to train the way you do, but you have taught me to try to listen to and understand what my horses are saying. I’m not sure I do the breathing thing right, but I’m trying to use it in my working with my horses. Yesterday was one of the best farrier days we’ve had.’

    • Hooray for a good farrier day, Beth. And even trying to listen is a big thing to horses. I bet your horses think you are getting smarter all the time. 🙂

  12. Anna, this piece is brilliant! I will archive this one to refer to when my inspiration is waning. It conjured up experiences with my first horse, when “play” was a regular part of our time together. I don’t know how it started, but I’m guessing that he thought it up and I just went along for the fun of it. I recently broke down my round pen and used the panels along a fence line to create a small arena. I fear my horse, Ferd, may have been chased hard in a round pen, because his anxiety escalates as soon as we step inside. He doesn’t have the same response to the small arena, so I’m hopeful that some play will build confidence and help him further his trust in humans. THANK YOU!

    • Good idea. I’ve known so many horses who have round pen anxiety… great job of creative rearranging. Thanks Laurie

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