Affirmative Training: Misunderstandings About Control

You have made some changes in how you work with your horse and you’re both much more relaxed. You’ve evolved beyond the old voices that demand you show your horse who’s boss. Those debunked methods threatened and shamed you as well as your horse. Now, you believe in building the horse’s confidence and training affirmatively. It seems obvious in hindsight that fear and intimidation would never get the best answer from either of you.

You’ve learned the value of going slow to understand your horse’s particular calming signals, and you’ve learned to exchange human calming signals back. You keep your lead rope slack and stand at your horse’s shoulder, leaving clear space for the horse’s head. You take the time to acknowledge your horse’s emotions. Things that were problems have been mutually resolved. Both of you are quieter, you listen to each other. When the initial change happened, it took a while for residual resistance to soften. First, the threats had to be eliminated, whether it was a harsh bit or other kinds of chronic corrections, but then the changes started to happen. You taught yourself to breathe, or your horse has taught you patience, but either way, it means less anxiety for both of you and more of a conversation. Rides are peaceful, progress comes easily, and crank up the music, this is fun. 

Meanwhile, for those who believe in dominating horses, everything else looks like weakness. 

Then comes a day when you call a new vet or equine dentist or farrier. To keep it simple, we’ll call that person a specialist. You liked your old specialist, and it can take time to break a new one in, but change is inevitable. The specialist arrives in a bit of a hurry. You are a woman of a certain age, not new to horses, and your herd has experience as well. You can see a question wash over your horses but has there ever been a time when you’ve seen a horse or dog behave “normally” around a specialist?

The work with the stoic geldings goes quickly and it’s time for your young mare. You ask the specialist a question in hopes of slowing things down a bit. But before the specialist can answer, the assistant takes the lead rope from your hand and pulls. Your mare tries to look away, a calming signal to let the assistant know she’s no threat, that the assistant doesn’t need to pull. But humans get defensive so quickly. Now the assistant has a death grip on the mare’s halter and the specialist has joined in, pushing her into a fence panel, and pinning her for a shot. Your young mare looks to you in full panic. 

Talking will do no good; it’s too late to slow down and they’re too far in to stop. Your mare is looking to you for an answer and telling the specialist what you think isn’t going to help. Breathing is the only rational response. You hold her eye and exhale slowly. Then a rhythmic inhale and as you exhale for the second time, your mare’s eyes soften. She stops trying to toss her head; a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours, not that the specialist notices. For humans, it’s hard to quit fighting once we start, so they push on, gripping and hurrying, the work done quickly, as if it’s a race to win.

Are you meant to be impressed? How have we come to a place of normalized aggression? How does a peaceful herd animal learn to fight in the first place?

A flight response is normal for a horse, as we all know. We talk less about the human response to fear, which is frequently transitioning into fight mode. Humans usually get defensive, if not physically then verbally. Ever noticed how ineffective it is to tell a professional how to do their job? It isn’t just traditional vets who keep a twitch handy or farriers who hogtie horses. No one likes to be criticized. You won’t get a palmed forehead and an embarrassed apology.

The woman understands how things work A friend had recently complained that her trainer wouldn’t agree to work her horse the affirmative way she wanted. She thought the trainer was wrong, but it wasn’t a fair request. You can’t order specialists up like an ala cart dinner. Each specialist works their way intentionally. You can’t insist a dominating specialist be gentle any more than you can insist an affirmative specialist use a whip or see-saw a harsh bit. Right or wrong, your only control is to take your business to another if that’s possible in your area.

But there you are, a woman of a certain age, why bite your tongue? It isn’t the first time something like this has happened and you can’t change even the recent past, but maybe you can learn something to use in the future. You decide to ask for the specialist’s opinion. You say you’ve never seen your mare react so strongly. Does the specialist know why? Well, she was resisting, the specialist explains. You ask was the mare being aggressive? No, she wouldn’t stand, the specialist responds. Was she afraid? Now the specialist gives you the withering look. That’s when it dawns on you. You ask if it could be something in her environment that sent her to a flight response. No, the specialist says, it was just her.

The specialist doesn’t see himself as part of the horse’s environment. You let this sink in. 

The specialist might notice the change in your tone but if so, won’t imagine their behavior made you change. It’s just how women of a certain age are.

You wonder how many less experienced horse owners look to specialists for training advice, assuming if they know about teeth or hooves or colic, then they must know about problem-solving. You wonder if while attempting to heal one part, the specialist does more damage to other parts of the horse.

But now you have your mare back, standing at your hip with her neck long and her eyes half-closed. Unconsciously, you match your breath with hers or she matches hers with you, it no longer matters who cues who because that’s what partnership means. You know she’s processing what just happened. The mare has only had her face manhandled a scant number of times in her life, and always by a specialist. She’s is smart enough to recognize a predator when she sees one.

Rolling down the driveway, the specialist looks in the rearview mirror and sees an older woman and a badly behaved horse.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

57 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: Misunderstandings About Control”

  1. Well, now you’ve gone and done it! You have seen into our personal lives yet again!! Thankfully we are not living in earlier times or I fear the fires at the stake for you! Or perhaps it would be for all of us as we are surely possessed having the relationships with large animals that we do. I am so blessed to have slow and steady vet and farrier in my life. Both laugh a lot, both approach slowly and rub often. However, as if you knew it, I am moving barn next week (new farrier but I am keeping my vet) and I will be there, prepared to strike should the need arise. We guard them like beloved friends and family members, as we should. Thank you for another timely, totally insightful, and helpful article.

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  2. Thank you. Really. It is so affirming and calming to see this knot in the stomach I feel whenever a new specialist loves into view articulated so clearly. It somehow draws that sting out and it’s really empowering. I am so so happy to be a woman of a certain age with a bunch of badly behaved horses.

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  3. I had to contact a new chiro. After some chit chat and explanation of my need for my mares adjustment. I warned her on the phone that I have had bad experiences and will not tolerate any force/impatience used…the reaction of the specialist to this “crazy lady of a certain age” usually gives me enough information to keep or break the appointment. Never again is my mantra. Thank you for your writing and happy hours.

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    • Great comment and ‘fair warning’, Carol. I hate thinking a chiro would think it was possible to be forceful, but smart of you.

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  4. Definitely one to ponder, think about and then decide the next step. I know what my next step would be which is the reason I don’t let anyone be around or working with my horses without me being present!

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  5. My horse was bitten by a rattlesnake last weekend. On the muzzle. As he moved into me, struggling to breathe, I took the deepest breath ever, held his head, closed my eyes, slowly exhaled and didn’t move for the next 30 minutes. I calmly & quietly gave my panicked husband instructions, finally sending him to the front gate to “watch for the vet” because my normally rock solid guy was coming unglued. I admit now the bloody mess draining from the horse’s nostrils, the size of his swelled muzzle & head, hearing him struggle for air and seeing the terrified look in his eyes was very scary. Thanks 100% to the “horse time zen” that I’ve been learning from you Anna, I became & conveyed the calm confidence my horse needed. Vet got there and did what he could with the most amazing “bedside manner” I’ve ever seen from a large animal vet. Horse never got nervous and he even put the husband at ease. 3 days later horse was chasing the tractor again and while it hasn’t been spoken of since, my light got a little brighter. Thanks for everything Anna – your way works and the proof is in the barn. And in me!

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  6. Oh, Anna. Is this not an almost daily truth? You are in the stall with your playful gelding and a specialist shouts,
    “Lock him in.! Tie him up. Don’t let him do this, do that.”
    Your gelding lets out a sigh, and his body language says, “It’s OK — I know it’s not you.”
    You bring him into the aisle and let him stand, looking around, with the lead rope over his back, while you
    pick up a few things, before heading out with him. That’s not permitted, either.

    Later, he picks up the halter and plays with it, then drops it…”I might like another walk….”
    The specialist says…”He’s badly behaved,” or worse, “He’s a jerk.”

    The horse can’t look sideways without complaint.

    And yet, he walks quietly beside you — you, a sixty-something. You are an old woman with a middle-aged horse.
    You have been together almost 12 years now and you know each other. When you do ‘arena games’, in hand,
    there are frowns. He follows you around, he plays, he waits patiently for a mint, after doing all his exercises.
    He exhales, he ‘hangs out’ in relaxed fashion. The two of you go for a longer walk around the farm and he
    grazes contentedly, always close, feeling your presence. You chat to him and he knows all is calm and well.

    When you ask him to return to the barn, he follows — maybe one more mouthful of mixed grasses.
    Your lead is always slack.

    When you reach the barn, and the specialist, you can feel him tense a little.

    Another specialist knees his ribs to keep him still, or yells at him. Your horse prefers soft, gentle voices.

    But with you, his true personality shines.

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  7. Thank you for another excellent essay, speaking truth.

    I have been the “crazy A-rab lady” in a “dominate that lazy QH” world for most of my life. My vet & farrier are as good & kind as they know how to be, but sometimes their helpers are more aggressive than I’d like … that never ends well. I actually once cursed a young man & demanded that he LET GO of my mare’s ear … I don’t think of myself as a violent person, but I REALLY wanted to hit him, or perhaps grab HIS ear and twist it as hard as I could. My beautiful, sweet mare was head shy for a while, after that … and this was a mare who would let her ears be clipped for showing, without even a halter. She had turned her head to look for her baby, who was only two weeks old, but that was unacceptable behavior in the eyes of this particular specialist’s assistant.

    I’m sure every specialist leaves my farm with a sigh, thankful to be away from those undisciplined, bad-behaving horses, glad most of his customers are not like me.

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    • I hope the horse world will keep changing. I’ve never known an Arabian mare that wasn’t smarter than three humans. Thanks AJ

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  8. I knew things were going to be fine the first time my new farrier “yelled” at one of my horses so quietly I could barely hear him! 16 years have passed since then with no complaints from me or them.
    Then there is my vet, one of the good ones. My goodness, I had to count that he has been coming to our barn for almost 25 years now. In all this time, he has always treated each one of his patients with respect. I have been very lucky.

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  9. I’m working with a face-sensitive young mare, and my vet’s tech can occasionally get a little strong handed on the lead rope. I very specifically told her NO nose chains on this horse, and any tension on the rope will cause tension in the mare. You can have a short lead just in case things go sideways, but a death grip on the rope makes nothing but tension in this horse.

    She let up on the rope, and my mare sighed. Good girl, training the techs.

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  10. As a “specialist” (a saddle fitter), I see my first task when arriving at the yard (after saying hello to the human) is to introduce myself to the horse – let him/her know why I’m there and what I’m doing – and to take time to deal with any concerns he/she may have. Sometimes, when the horse shows concern, or communicates in a way that the owner feels is inappropriate (nipping etc) during the saddle fitting process, I have to ask the owner to step away to allow the horse the space to say what he/she needs to. It’s a honour and a privilege to be able to work with so many different horses, and to open up the eyes of some owners who don’t appreciate that some “naughty” behaviour is actually communication!!! It’s wonderful to work with enlightened people who get what I’m doing.

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    • As a “specialist” myself, that’s the fun part, isn’t it? Listening. And yes, clients want so much for their horse to behave… but you say it well. It’s all communication. Thanks, Sue.

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  11. I have gotten rid of “specialists” for less. And if it offends them for me to say “holding her like that is not necessary” as I retrieve the lead rope, they can carry their butt-hurt selves off my property. No one manhandles my horse.

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  12. I’ve been faithfully “re-training” our farrier for 10 years. (Hu(men) can be slow learners)

    W’s predecessor used to show up drunk, would smack the horses with tools and eared them. Since we currently have zero replacement options here in the hinterlands, leading by example seems safer than debating horsemanship styles. In addition I keep track of the cycles, and organize the visits for W on this end to minimize headaches. When possible I snag the first appointment so W is fresh and less cranky. I always remind him to start off on the bad hip side and get it out of the way so Val doesn’t have to anticipate the discomfort, and insist that the hoof stand is kept on the lowest setting. In the winter I’ll bute Val the morning of the appointment. I was recently referred to as the W-whisperer, but it’s more likely I’m just overwhelming him with patient persistence.

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    • Christian, yay, you. I’m so aware we don’t all have choices, but you have worked the miracle of erosion. Preparation makes such a difference, you are smart to remind the farrier; they can’t remember everything. Bottom line, Valentino wins.

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  13. A long time ago someone (I’ve long since forgotten who) recommended a certain old Irishman to do our horse’s teeth. He pulled in driving a big old beat-up car, then ever so S L O W L Y got out and gathered the tools of his trade from the trunk. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but as a young whipper-snapper myself, that wasn’t it. (He looked like Mickey Rooney) I think I was thinking along the lines of someone much younger, driving a newfangled pick-up with a snazzy vet box on the back? I dunno. Anyhow, we moseyed out to the barn where he proceeded to set a short, old three-legged stool in the corner of a stall. I led the first horse in. And then? We talked. And talked. And talked. The horse got curious and walked over to him, sniffed, checked him out good. Almost absentmindedly (though I’m certain it was 100% intentional) he reached out a big old calloused hand and continued to talk. I heard so many interesting stories that day. You see, he’d been the equine dentist for the Budweiser Clydesdales for decades. Had flown all over the world to tend to those horses. And others. The stories he told! At some point he eased himself off the stool, started to do a little work. Gently. Slowly. Kindly. Infinite patience, even when I knew none had ever been required to get the job done before. By the third horse it dawned on me that I was witnessing greatness. I was seeing something that I’d never seen in my entire life with horses. This “method” he was using or whatever you’d call it, left a deep impression on me.

    Bob came every spring for the next three years. I always felt so humbled that someone who certainly didn’t NEED my business and worked on far more impressive clients than my backyard collection of misfits, would drive nearly an hour to come take care of them. But Bob made it pretty clear that every horse was special to him. He died somewhere between the third and forth spring. I mean, he was old, but I still get teary thinking about his passing. I loved his stories, his adoration for his equine clients and his commitment to his craft. And I can still picture him in the dim light of my pole barn, sitting on his stool, crooning to my mare. Greatness sometimes comes in unexpected packages.

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  14. This is yet another essay that speaks to me ! I have ALMOST come to accept that specialists will always find me sadly lacking in how I have “trained” my horses. They don’t generally find my two horses to be good citizens… though occasionally someone appears, like our favorite equine dentist who gets along with them just fine.

    One wonders how it became that the specialist judges us, and our horses, by their criteria. Shouldn’t they be more concerned with proving their ability to have a good bedside manner with our horses ??? I have politely sent away at least 2 farriers and one body worker and one trainer within the first 15 min of their arrival.

    I am really hoping the more affirmative approach spreads even further and deeper and eventually, Affirmative Training will be taught and embraced by all specialists. . If they just knew how far they could go with breathing and patience. It would make such a difference to us all.

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    • Bear and Cash say thanks. The good ones get it and the others, well, I wish I got to work with more specialists. But a change is on the horizon, and you are part of it. Thanks Sarah

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  15. It’s uncanny how I read your posts and they always, always make sense. I have a 1600 pound, 16H Gypsy Vanner gelding. He is a laid back boy and does fine with the farrier, except he gets a bit figgety (sp?). The farrier and his wife are lovely people. She travels with him and holds the horses while he works. The last time he came, she was at her sister’s house, so the horse holding fell to me. Now before you ask why don’t I hold him all the time, this woman is an animal lover, a Magna-wave practitioner and very kind. I have no problem letting her hold him. BUT the experience of me holding him was an eye opener. I talked very, very softly to him(really a whisper), stroked him very lightly, scratched his itchy spots and shared breath. Aside from needing to put his leg down occasionally for a rest, he was as still as could be, not even fidgety at all. We were done in record time (he is barefoot). I mean, it was a big difference to me, even though to someone else it might not have been noticeable. I will be holding him from now on when the farrier comes.

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  16. This post squeezes my heart… I had to move to a new barn last year, Covid oblige, and everything changed. Vets who wouldn’t travel out of their comfort zones, neither would the dentist nor the chiropractor… thank heavens my trimmer did. I cringed at the prospect of finding new people I could trust, people who listen. At each new visit, guts in a twist I stood my ground beside him, holding his lead rope, hand on his shoulder, the determined glint in my eye keeping hyperactive vet and dental assistants at bay, daring em to hurry or hustle or patronize us. We took our time. After all we. pay. them. for that time. And we did find all the right people… right for us.

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    • That sort of unexpected change. For me it is a balance of behaving in a way that doesn’t alert the horse or specialist. Thanks Prita

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  17. There was only one time I doubted a vet that was treating Chico. It was the last time I used her. I was really lucky to find the one that I used for the last several years – he and his partners were wonderful.
    Also switched veterinarians with my Suzy girl – had been going there for years – the topper was when she lost the use of her hindquarters & they couldnt get me in for 3 days! Come to find out – after a quick bloodtest – she had Lyme Disease. Put her on an antibiotic & within 24 hours she was better. Did not go back there – changed to the small practice I now use. (the one who did the bloodwork).
    To be honest its as difficult to find good medical help for our animals as it sometimes is for ourselves! And one is just as important as the other.

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    • You’re right, it isn’t any easier for ourselves, and having a translator along is a good idea. Scheesh. You’re right. Thanks Maggie

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  18. Thank you for this Anna. I have been there many times in the past, with many bitten lips. Until I could no longer tolerate the bitten lips or the massive heat roaming through my body in lieu of biting the “specialist’s” head off.
    No farrier will ever fling their rasp into my horse’s belly because he/she didn’t move fast enough.
    I am now standing up for my horses- with respect mind you- but I am no longer afraid to tell the “specialists” how my horses will be handled. I wouldn’t let anyone abuse my children either.

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    • You’ve stated this well. My concern that our anxiety makes it worse for the horse, I had to find a falsely neutral voice. Hope you are well, Thanks, Susanne

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      • Yes, Anna, breathing deeply and making fists in pockets (invisible for the horse) helps 😉 They do look to us and we need to keep our cool to comfort the horse. Even when it feels wrong.
        I hope all is well with you. We are experiencing a crazy heatwave with 45b Celsius!! Hotter than Vegas!! In Canada!!!

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  19. Standing your ground with specialists can be challenging and a bit intimidating for women our age. But I am the voice of my horses that the specialists have not yet learned to hear. I will keep helping them to get there. Great blog post, as always.

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  20. Thank you once again for putting into words what seems to be ” am I the only one who is crazy” experience in the horse world. You are so right – the older I get (a woman of a certain age) the worse it gets. Recently a “specialist” (in this case one that works on horses feet) fired us because I asked some questions. He was convinced the horse was just “behaving like a brat” when instead further diagnosis found significant pain due to Lyme and EPM. I am quite sure his view in the rearview mirror was an older woman and a badly behaved horse rather than a horse in significant pain and an older woman smart enough to know the difference.

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