Imagine that each time you climbed on your horse, he began to move in a slow canter, so rhythmic and balanced that you can just close your eyes. Never a wrong step, never a moment of confusion. Your horse knows the routine so well, you don’t need to cue him. You let yourself be lulled, a sweet softness to your hips as he rocks in the one-two-three beat. This is the kind of horse you can get along with. But then he slows to a stop and your open your eyes.
You should get down from that mechanical horse now. There’s a little girl waiting.
Besides, you didn’t get into horses because they were dimwitted subservient machines. You aren’t wild about being subservient yourself. You live in the real world, where twelve-hundred-pound flight animals are just a bit more interesting. Who else gets to do what we do? Horses are still magical and it’s no dream. Square those shoulders and let’s go get our hands dirty.
How the conversation begins: You go to get your horse. It might be a stall or a pasture. There is never a problem catching him, but today he walks away. You could push it, but you don’t. There is no hurry. You could take it personally, but again, you don’t.
Is it a refusal? That’s a harsh word. Maybe he just wants a minute. We humans always want immediate perfection in our horses, but that’s not happening. Can we manage to say good boy, just because he’s thinking? Listening without fixing is the big thing right now. Acknowledge his choice and let that stand. Assume he is right. It takes courage to let a horse have autonomy. Besides the conversation doesn’t end when one of you wanders off. It isn’t a problem, it’s an invitation.
Now is a good time to play the “I’m a Horse” game. Soften your vision, look beyond the obvious. What would you see if you were a horse? Peripheral vision is sharp, but the close vision in front is blurry. Is something moving just at the corner of your eye? There is a breeze carrying a world of information to your nose, not that you can do much more than imagine scents on the wind. What small sounds can you make out in the ordinary din of life happening? Is there birdsong? You have whiskers that are so sensitive that they are almost visual in their perception. What can you feel? A horse’s experience of the environment is keen and sharp. Everything depends on the attention to his safety. How long are you able to concentrate on the environment? Say good boy under your breath because he isn’t ignoring you. He can’t ignore anything, and the truth is that his focus is so much better than yours.
Egads, has an hour passed? Only three minutes? Feels so much longer. We need to get more interested in our senses. They get so dulled by intellectual debates about horse behavior and training methods.
By now the horse has probably stretched his neck a bit, walked an arc or two. Quiet calming signals without hurry. He might be getting a bit curious about you continuing to listening and still not fixing. You’ve got him right where you want him now. Horses need some space and quiet before they speak up. Consider this time investing in your horse’s trust. Besides, only listening for the answer we want is the best way to miss another message.
Passively watch your horse. Maybe take a small arc, but indirect. You hear him shake out his neck. This is the conversation; not one of you holding pressure until the other releases. You don’t want it to get that demanding. Subservience isn’t the goal. Besides, you can ask again. He is certainly smart enough to know that you being there with a halter means something. Ask in a smaller way and give him time to find a clever answer.
Humans are just like horses, some of us nervously blurt out an answer without thinking and some of us freeze up trying to reason it carefully. We doubt ourselves. It isn’t a question of giving the right answer for either of you. It’s about listening to calming signals and staying in the conversation. Stand and wait. Any horse will tell you that humans are too result oriented. The problem with tunnel vision on a task is that we are focusing only on the one response we want. It’s like putting blinders on our ears. We’re not just limiting the conversation; we’re diminishing his confidence.
Are people watching you stand around with a halter? Good. Cock a hip and puff your belly out. Have the courage to be patient right out in plain view. It’ll drive them nuts.
It’s easy to get a conditioned response from an animal. All it takes is a treat or some light intimidation. Like we haven’t all teased an animal with food. Like all of us haven’t gone along with a bully just to keep the peace. You want something different. You know that it takes more than a shared breath to make a connection. You know that creating anxiety, positive or negative, may get a quicker answer but that isn’t the same thing as trust.
So, you take a deep breath, turn your shoulders, and shift your position a few steps, your body posing the question, “What if?” Yes, your boot just landed in horse manure. Shrug, you like manure, it’s a sure sign that horses are close by. It’s all you really want. Horses never become less than a miracle, do they? It’s impossible to look away from the arc of their neck, the breeze combing through their tail. You believe the intelligence in their eye.
You don’t want an answer by rote, you don’t want the rat to ring the bell. You’re certain there is something beyond that, even if you’re not sure what. If you just continue the conversation, gain some finesse with their language, and settle into the gray area of possibility, there is a deeper place you could find with a horse. It’s a place beyond mere obedience that’s so intimate and sweet that it’s a bit scary. Entry by invitation only; you must let your horse lead you there. You wait to be surprised. Can you value your horse’s autonomy as much as your value your own? Because as cautious as the first volunteer might be, it will open the door to a level of responsiveness that makes it seem like the two of you share one mind. Just then, an image of a horse galloping at liberty crosses your mind with thundering hooves and a proud profile. The mere idea will always take your breath away. Horses are not like any other animal.
But there you are daydreaming, meandering through thoughts in that fabled prefrontal cortex of yours. You’re not sure how long your horse has been standing next to you, breathing with you, patiently waiting for his halter like it was his idea in the first place.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Join us in The Barn. Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Ongoing courses in Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, Fundamentals of Authentic Dressage, and Back in the Saddle: a Comeback Conversation, as well as virtual clinics, are taught at The Barn School, where I also host our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase signed 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.
Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.