We would like consistent behavior from our horses. It would be good if they took each cue with light and immediate response. But some days we climb on and don’t feel like doing much. We don’t really have a plan, not that we care. We lollygag around slouching in the saddle and banging our legs on their flanks. No place to go and no hurry to get there.
Naturally, we want the horse to focus on us with respect. To pay attention to us and nothing else. Except we stop and talk to someone for 20 minutes and then snap that rope to correct him for being bored, or we bang the bit in their mouth because we turned in the saddle for some lame reason, or we quietly recite the grocery list and all the other errands that need doing as we mount up.
We really don’t want our horses to spook. We say we don’t bounce like we used to. (As if that isn’t obvious.) But then we string together five expletives when we drop a bucket on our foot, we slam doors and we spook, reeling the reins in tight to our gut and our thighs snapped shut like a bear trap because the horse pricked up his ears.
Come to think of it, it would be good if horses were emotionally stable every day, especially the mares. We just want our horses to always be calm and sweet. But somedays we’re late and in a hurry or frustrated from work or traffic or the danged bridle being twisted again. There are days we’re flat out angry at something someone said or didn’t say or we’re just having one of those I-hate-everybody days. Other times we show up happy, just so happy, we bubble and giggle and tweak his nose. Somedays we are just so sad about the state of the world or being an age that is much older than we’ve ever been before, that we clutch them to our bosoms and declare that they are healing us, not seeing their eyes close to escape us. Most days, we push and pull and manhandle without being aware. Then we apologize, assuring them that we love them. Then in a while, we do it again, vowing to do a better job next time.
Do we recognize their calming signals as anxiety? How much have we gotten used to dogs air-licking or pacing or rolling belly-up, as if it were cute? Anxiety is easier to see in dogs but we’ve normalized it so much that their calls for help go unheard. With horses, the history of “showing them who’s boss” still binds us.
About now, some smarty-pants railbird says you get the ride you deserve, with a derogatory sneer, but that isn’t true. You’re getting a better ride than you deserve. Most of us get a decent try from confused horses and dogs every day and barely notice.
Can you tell it’s been a rough week? I’m teetering on a rant. Not because of overt cruelty, although there is no shortage of that. Blatant meanness has a blunt truth about it; it’s not a dressed-up special event. Just ugly and embarrassingly obvious and easy to be outraged by.
Probably the worst thing you can say about us is that we don’t recognize anxiety when we should. We minimize the importance of an animal’s stress in favor of us running the show. Some days we take our time and do it right, but we don’t trust that approach in other situations. It isn’t wicked or evil, just passively selfish. Some days we believe in choice and other days it’s inconvenient. We are never cruel, but we are consistently inconsistent.
Our love for horses never varies but our behavior does. Even that wouldn’t matter if we didn’t tell ourselves stories and have expectations. If we didn’t take our horse’s behavior more personally than we take our own. Best of all, if we didn’t want to do better for horses, hoping to repay the tolerance they’ve shown us on our worst days.
Your horse is not a therapist, his life isn’t a hobby. Your horse isn’t even yours, but you might be fortunate enough to share a parallel path for a while. You might be blessed with a few years of providing for this creature and having an amazing opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another species. Truthfully, horses have enough on their minds just existing in their environment, without the useless baggage of our emotions and disappointments. They have hardwired survival traits that might seem silly to us as we watch them standing in a paddock but being a flight animal is a life or death proposition, regardless of fences or our best intentions.
Who horses are is not open to debate. Their emotions are similar to ours, but rather than being flattered, shouldn’t we be more careful? We stumble along with unconscious habits and passive rudeness, all in the name of love, but some of us want to do better. Hooray for gratitude!
Your horse doesn’t care how you feel. He remembers how you act.
Do you create anxiety, or relieve it? Can you be trusted? The one goal of every horse is to feel safe, and consistency is fundamental to their daily wellbeing. Are you trying to create a response or support your horse’s confidence? Seen from the horse’s standpoint, is anything more valuable for a flight animal than confidence, that easing of fear? What would it mean for a horse (or dog) to be able to trust that we would be the same person every day? In a chaotic world, we would be the dependable thing, the place of understanding once we put their emotions above our own. Horses would be drawn to us but first, we must show some self-discipline. They don’t care about new saddle pads, but they do care about patience, personal space, and how we breathe. All the things that are free but require our focus.
Yes, we must change if we want a change in our horse. Our confidence in ourselves becomes more useful than a halter. Our affirmative responses are more valuable than any training technique. We can teach ourselves to laugh when we stub our toes, to say good boy when our horse’s anxiety makes us think he’s behaving badly. We value our horse’s curiosity more than his obedience because we know a horse with an engaged mind is biddable. A confident horse is a willing horse. From this standpoint, there are no training issues, no bad horses, no mistakes. Just a conversation about safety, which should be our mutual goal, regardless of bounce-ability.
Humans have the respect thing backward. We’re the ones who should stand out of their personal space. We’re the ones who should respect horses. True love puts the other’s welfare first.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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24 thoughts on “The Dynamic Power of Consistency”
Tough love, Anna and so well said, as always. The necessary reminder that it is about them, not what we need or want from them. May I always remember when in her presence. Thank you.
Tough love might be more valuable than horse-crazy love. Thanks Kathy, but don’t worry about remembering. Your mare will be glad to remind you. 🙂
Exactly! And yes, when she looks at me “like that” I know I’ve gone wrong somewhere! The best is when we are both at peace, which is getting more and more often… in the ring and out of it, thanks to you. What joy.
I wish I had read that 30 years ago – I needed it! My horse needed it more. Thinking back on mistakes I made-plain lack of thought – well, lack of knowledge, honestly. There is always so much more to learn – no matter how many horses you “meet”. And Kathy, you are right on – its about THEM – not us.
Oh Maggie. As long as dogs take us for walks, it’s not too late. Thank you, my friend I have not met.
“We’re the ones who should stand out of their personal space.”
It’s such a great place to start every conversation/interaction. Thanks Anna, spot-on as usual!
Thanks, Sueann. It’s the best place.
Amen! It takes a while before we get it. If ever. Leaving the ego at the arena door is tough. As Pema Chödrön says: “Ego could be defined as whatever covers up basic goodness. From an experiential point of view, what is ego covering up? It’s covering up our experience of just being here, just fully being where we are, so that we can relate with the immediacy of our experience. Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of a butterfly, we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego.”
If would listen carefully to the horse, we could have a complete ego-less conversation.
Susanne! Best comment ever. Maybe the opposite of ego is vulnerability… Give those lucky horses a scratch from me.
Yes, vulnerability. Once we get that we are free 🙂
Soft blows back from my equines to you..
Yes, the best line (and article) going forward.
So, Anna, since your last article, I have not even ‘touched’ my horse’s face, except to gentle halter. I no longer rub him lightly on the his face — just stroke his neck, gently. I am being more respectful of his space and I have noticed he is more respectful of mine.
I stay well away from his muzzle. I am also being much more gentle in putting his halter on and I speak in very quiet, low tones when I am doing anything.
One of the worst things many people do is shout and speak loudly around horses. Trainers could also consider using the microphone / ear pieces, so that they are not yelling at horses and riders.
I am a wildlife rehabber and I like to remind friends and acquaintances that loud voices, loud noises = DANGER among all animals. Gentle, SOFT voices usually indicate SAFETY. Children should be encouraged not to yell in barns, too, where possible.
We all forget that sometimes when we are with friends, laughing and raising our voices with too much chatter. I always try to correct this when I can (even with myself).
Humans are often inconsistent — we all need to do better. It’s one of the subjects horses teach well.
We are almost always THEIR students.
Thank you, Nuala. Thank you for trying a different approach. I will contradict one point. Not all trainers yell nasty things. Horses in lessons with me hear cheerful praise, a thing that is a great reminder for both horse and rider. I will use a mic when my rider is in a crowd, so I can whisper in their ear, but other times, having an arena party can build confidence for a horse. In my experience working alone with horses, breath is our mutual communication and for me, I don’t say much but rather speak in their language of calming signals. Thanks again.
Have to comment. True story, happened two weeks ago: Peaches (my mare) and I moved to new barn (long story, but we thought it a good idea at the time.) Barn “manager” blaring music so loud in small, center aisle barn, that we had to shout at each other to be heard. I yelled, “please, can we turn this down for a moment??” She did and we had a conversation. Next day, I was leading Peaches out of the barn down the center aisle and paused to have quick work with barn manager. Peaches, in less then 2 seconds, pulled the radio off the shelf and it smashed to the floor. The mare did not blink. I offered to pay for a new one, of course. However, we left that barn a few days later, thank goodness. This manager also didn’t think it was really necessary for horses to have access to water most of the time…. yikes. So glad to be gone. Feel sorry for the horses who are still there. Now, two weeks later, Peaches and I are happy as clams at the private home of a well schooled successful dressage (yes, Anna, me, dressage!) instructor, a Brit who thinks like us, who tells me to smile! breath! have fun up there! Also said to please circle her as she does not want to have to shout. So, Nuala, long story short, if you have a trainer that shouts or bullies, get another one. There are good ones are out there, like Anna and this lady. Cheers.
Word, not work…
Thank you, Anna. A great read today! I especially like: “Your horse isn’t even yours.” For me, this is the key. I absolutely can (and do) live with that. I’d also like to think that our horses can tolerate a bit of “normal” people noise, don’t you think?
Normal environmental noise… yes. Not rage or swearing at the top of our lungs, but if we get too quiet, we get coyote-like. One more time, we are looking for the middle path. 🙂
“Your horse doesn’t care how you feel. He remembers how you act.”
Human ↔︎ human corollary: don’t tell me with your words – show me with your actions.
I guess that human corollary matters a lot to me, too. Thanks, Christian
As in horse’s actions or reactions with each other, right?
The most recent blog about helmets on July 30th for some reason still has no comments on it. I know I wrote one & expected a lot of them but still nothing!
Thanks for letting me know. Working on it.
Oh Anna, so much to practice and learn! Thanks to you, I feel like I have made tiny strides in consistency with my Arab, Raz, and the older rescue, Noche. Though Ferdinand has presented more challenges that make my progress with consistency slower. I did manage a step towards consistency the other day when Ferd was too close and I couldn’t get out of his way fast enough. He caught me in the face with his big head. My knee jerk response would be to say sternly “Get Back”, and he would likely respond by racing away and coming unglued. This time I managed to cover my face and breathe slowly in silence until the pain subsided. I peaked through my fingers before returning to my chores, and Ferd was simply standing there watching me. Go figure, if I can be consistently calm……so can he! Thank you, as always.
Laurie, thanks for this comment. Ferd is complicated, and I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but I think you’re finding out that part of the time their fear of us makes things worse. If I read this right, I’ve known a few horses who get the “deer in headlights” moment, almost like a slow flinch, and if we can calm that instead of push it, they do better. I know he came to you this way, but I think you might be making more progress than you think. Well done, and keep us posted.