The Problem with Pre-Corrections on Horses.

She enters the barn, looking left to right. What does she think her horse might be afraid of? First, let’s adjust everything that is out of place, just tidy the barn aisle up. No pesky plastic is visible. Start with his saddle pad. She’d better let him smell it. Sure, she’d been riding him in it for years, but still. It doesn’t matter if she’s a trail rider or working in the arena, she’s scanning for things bound to scare her horse. Is she looking for trouble?

She walks him up to a horse trailer. Knowing horse trailers are about the scariest thing ever, she creeps her hand slowly up the lead rope toward the clip. As she walks, she pushes her arm forward, pulling his face just in case he begins to resist, without noticing that her breathing has changed. So, the horse begins to resist. He’d like to look back at the herd or grab a mouthful of grass as a calming signal, but now the lead rope is tight, and his poll is tense. See? She was right that he’d be nervous about horse trailers.

Maybe she’s riding and doesn’t want her horse to counter bend so she has her inside hand just lightly holding one side of his head, but he starts to pull away from the tension of a dead pull on the inside rein, like every horse ever born. She worries that he might take off because he’s resisting her, and now he pricked up his ears. Her thighs tighten, and she tucks her reins in her crotch. Maybe not her crotch exactly, but it doesn’t matter because it feels that bad to her horse, and now her body is curling toward a riding-fetal position. Frozen in the saddle, trying to hold him still, but her horse gets frantic, his bit tight in his mouth, metal on bone, and he can’t breathe. 

The good horse takes stock of the situation. He can’t see a problem, but she acts like there is one. If the herd was there, he’d check with them, but he’s only got her, and she seems afraid. Some horses feel a certain particular weight of dread and shut down for their troubled rider. Some flip into survival mode because it feels like there might be a mountain lion on their back.

At the exact same time, the woman loves her horse. So, it can’t be a  lack of trust. There is profound trust… that things won’t go well. She has mentally filed every horror story she’s heard to prepare herself.  She thinks if she can see it before the horse does, despite his acute senses and her limited ones, she could control the horse into avoiding all the deadly traps. It’s all about manipulation. She just won’t let him see or do or feel. She wants to be the answer to all her horse’s questions. She wants her horse to trust her blindly.

Are you reading this remembering doing something similar and feeling a bit embarrassed about it? Welcome! This awkward fantasy of control is a prerequisite to learning to help your horse. You have arrived. Well done.

We cause our horses so much more anxiety trying to avoid something that might cause anxiety, than the real-life anxiety they would have felt in the first place. Instead of confidence, we sow doubt and distrust. In the name of love, we belittle our horse’s intelligence and coping skills until the horses doubt themselves. Somehow in the process, we start introducing our horses by a list of his problems. Seeing our horses struggle, we belittle ourselves as well. Take a breath. This is not who either of you was meant to be.

The bad news is that your brain is taking some unsupervised travel. On the high side, most of us are only conflict-avoidant, which means we’ve escaped the seriously dangerous and violent mental disorders. Our crime is we are addicted to horses and like to pretend we’re in control when it’s impossible. It’s exhausting trying to outguess the universe and then change course before a horse has time to react, this flight animal who has a reaction time 7x quicker than us. But this is a good day because your leadership skills are down around your ankles, the only idea that comes to you is including your horse in the ride. Partnership dawns. Since your expectations are humble, the possibility of improvement is inevitable.

But if corrections didn’t work, what will? She pauses to settle. Let the silence soothe them both. Soon the horse shakes his neck out and blows, and somehow that releases her jaw. Had she noticed her teeth clenched? Did her horse just give her a cue? Good boy. It’s strange how horses get smarter when we are quiet. Her sit bones soften, her legs grow longer, and the horse walks on, rocking her spine and massaging her lungs into breathing.

Don’t stop him, don’t try to hold him to the right answer. Let him give you his answer. The negotiation with a horse begins within his movement. Why wasn’t that obvious before?

Rhythm is solace for you both. Breaking his rhythm with the reins or lead rope made things worse, but surely this is only a coincidence. It couldn’t be a message but as she’s pondering the possibility of listening -no really listening- to her horse, his ears prick up and he stretches his neck with curiosity. She’d like to try to see what he’s looking at, but she felt something change in his back. Did it lift a bit? The horse’s stride gets longer, more balanced. She wonders if she should steer him but before she can, he seems to read her mind and begins to arc in the right direction. 

Her hips rolling along with his stride, and she notices a crumpled tarp, partly filled with water making a slight glinting rustle in the breeze. Shouldn’t the horse have spooked at that? But the rhythm pulls her back as if to be reminded to keep her mind in the game. It’s just the two of them in the big world. He knows what he’s doing. It might even be his world more than hers.

Working with horses on the ground, she learned to leave an escape route. A horse will panic if he feels trapped. Letting her horse have an opinion looks like a different kind of escape route; a way for the horse to work out an answer and resolve his own anxiety. Let him carry you someplace beyond a flimsy need to control. Let the conversation have give and take; sometimes he leads and sometimes she does. Learn to negotiate because domination, even done with love, is crippling. 

Then she notices that her horse seems steadier. It’s the confidence that comes from not being corrected for things he hasn’t done. She will learn to trust that as surely as he listened to her anxiety, he’ll listen to her rhythm, moving forward with their eyes to the horizon, and sharing the Earth’s breath.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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26 thoughts on “The Problem with Pre-Corrections on Horses.”

  1. I believe we’ve all done this, trying to anticipate everything that may come along. Our horses are quite smart & certainly they see, hear & smell much more than us. Went for a trail ride yesterday, first time in over 6 weeks, & my horse was wonderful, did everything I asked of him. I feel very lucky to have & ride such a well-trained horse!

  2. Great post, Anna! Excellent reminder to us all to get out of our heads. Think it explains why children and horses go together so well sometimes – the kids haven’t learned to overthink yet, they just are and don’t worry about what might spook a horse, they just act naturally calm and inquisitive and interested and awed. And the horse is naturally at ease and not worried. Both are just being with each other unencumbered by any pre-conceived notions of anything. I didn’t articulate my comment very well but I think you understand what I’m trying to say.

    • I so agree, Lorraine. Not just how light kids can be mentally, but also how beat down kids get by constant nagging and correction. So many similarities, except few of us are as careful with horses as we are children… Thanks for your comment, you did articulate it well.

  3. Thank you for this. In my few years of working with my horses, I have learned so many lessons about fear. A former trainer I had, when a horse was spooking at something, would instruct not to let the horse look at it and to ride them forward past the thing until they stopped spooking (which might take several passes). I wonder where that common but misguided instruction came from among some trainers? Since educating myself about there being another way to train my horses (and which allows them to learn to be independent, calm, self-regulating citizens), I love that now if I feel my horse pick up his head, tense (which happens a lot less than it used to), I look where he is looking with curiosity, breathing deeply, and thank him for letting me know about whatever is there (Lord knows he noticed it first — we humans have a lot less awareness of our environment), allow him to look, and move on with what we were doing after he lets out a deep exhale. No drama.

  4. “Learn to negotiate because domination, even done with love, is crippling.”
    As pertinent to human-human relationships as to equine-human. Beautifully written Anna – thank you!

  5. Love this notion of Pre Correction! Reminds me of when a child, while taking my own enthusiastic initiative do the family dishes, my Pop would say, go help your mother with the dishes and completely kill my joy with an unnecessary correction.

  6. I was guilty! Anticipating what might happen when it was about me, not him – until I passed it on to him. When I relaxed and listened to him, it made a big difference. I was a slow learner in that respect. I’m not sure I ever really stopped doing that. He was very patient with me. What a love of a horse!

    • This is a tough one, it goes against our instinct… but are you talking about the beautiful gelding I met at Mel’s? Gosh, what a boy. Thanks, Jean. Hope you are staying cool.

  7. I really relate to this. I think those of us who have a tendency toward anxiety in general, can get really revved up on a horse, anticipating all that could spook him, all that could go wrong in a nanosecond. The horse I had in 2012-2013 and now in painting behind my head in zoom meetings, was very jumpy and flighty. A trainer I was working with at the time said he’s just looking around for something to spook at and you’re just waiting for him to spook. That was so true !!! Wish I had known then what I know now, and I could have helped him and myself much better. BTW, this cowboy trainer couldn’t help him either.

    Alas, I didn’t get to have him in my life but 18 months before he perished in a flash flood. But I had at least fired the cowboy, and we were beginning to make a little progress in trusting one another. Sure wish we could have had more time together…..that was the last horse I was actually able to ride, despite the issues.

    Thank you for writing about these things, Anna. Your words are so helpful.

    • Somehow I miss that horse, too. and you know, “looking for something to spook at” is kind of what it means to be a horse. It seems bittersweet that by the time we understand them, they are gone. My Grandfather Horse would like me better now… Thanks, Sarah.

  8. This is stellar, Anna, and a reminder that we all need from time to time at one level or another. The most incredible act of horsemanship I’ve ever witnessed wasn’t a perfect canter pirouette: an angry man driving a backhoe was *trying* to intimidate a friend of mine by drive right at her (halted) horse while she was mounted, bucket in the air, dirt blowing off the top. He was coming straight at them at a good clip. Her horse is a normal horse…his ears were signaling the danger. She relaxed into the saddle, asked him to stick with her emotionally. She didn’t get even remotely tense. Her horse swiveled his ears to recheck, heard “nah were fine”, and stuck with her. She had a relaxed (on her end) conversation with the guy working the arena, and her horse blew out his breath and cocked a hoof. Since I was standing right next to her, and I WAS intimidated, and had to work to relax and not create a problem for them. Very sensitive, in tune, responsive and athletic horse. But she said it’s fine, and he said “ok”. Never saw anything more impressive. I was floored. And reminded (again) how much our responses to our surroundings influence our horses. The next day I was riding a horse in rehab past a trampoline with not just 7-8 screaming bouncing kids…but brightly colored beach balls bouncing with them. I remembered to yawn, asked my horse if he wanted to watch (he hates noise), stopped, relaxed my hands on neck, reins on the buckle. He finally lowered his alert level, mentally shrugged and we walked on. Passed it at least 12 more times. No problem. And god knows I’ve been guilty of over alerting horses to non issues, lol. Still trying to fix my propensity to create problems!

    • Hi Jane. I always love your comments. That trampoline was chaos in a nutshell. But the world is chaos, and when we deescalate our own emotions, it all settles. It was the thing my mentor did so well and I fell in love with that stillness. But like every other horse skill, simple doesn’t mean easy. Hope you and yours are well.


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