How Horses Train Us

You are a horse trainer. It does not always give me joy to say so, but it’s true and other professional trainers agree. If you are holding the rope, you qualify whether you watch videos or not, take lessons or not, have already paid a trainer four times what you paid for the horse or not, read this essay or not. Most of us have a persona for mucking and grooming, and a whole other persona for training. Your horse wishes you didn’t but if the halter and rope are on (or saddle and bridle) and it all changes. We have leverage and the horse knows it. 

But we have a frontal lobe pontificating in a longwinded board meeting offering suggestions. Do this, do that, we think. Is someone watching? I want to be good at this. My horse has issues that must be fought corrected retrained. Our horses must not embarrass us behave. 

Maybe he wants to graze, which is horse calming signal language to tell us to soften our hold. To us, it’s rude and we have all been told if we don’t correct that, we will spoil our horses. Meanwhile, our horse thinks we didn’t hear him or we’re mad. He feels the session starting to spoil, but not the way we have been warned about.

We correct. We aren’t nasty, but short and sharp, we correct. Then we half-bait to see if he’s learned. The horse should know better than to do that, even if he’s nervous in a new place, even if it’s spring, even if he doesn’t want to leave the herd. Now we’re guarding the rope, ready for him to falter. We don’ want to get hurt, after all, not noticing that’s his primary concern, too. He continues to try to graze; it’s a calming signal. He is saying as clearly as he can that he is no threat. He knows he’s still in trouble and he doesn’t feel safe. 

We don’t praise him of course. The horse isn’t being good enough for praise. We think if we praise a bad horse we’ll train him to be bad. So the horse lingers in purgatory, uncertain in a cycle of punishment. Horses don’t praise us either, but we’re the bossy and impatient ones more evolved species with the frontal lobe. It’s our job but you have to wonder why we think praising bad behavior will profoundly train a horse when all the rope pulling doesn’t.

Finally, time for groundwork or the ride. It doesn’t matter to the horse whether we ride or do groundwork but we have all kinds of emotion opinion on which we do. Either way, we want control. We are still guarding the rope or reins, still thinking we can control him by acting like a coyote (?) dominator trainer who can hold a rope. We’ve corrected him a dozen times not that we notice. Our horse lightly suggests he needs more room by looking just an inch away, and after all, a counter bend is a calming signal. We know this one. Horses look away to tell us they are no threat and we don’t need to be so loud. The more we pull for bend the more he looks away. It isn’t about training, it’s about the horse’s anxiety.

Horse: I’m no threat to you.    Human: You know how to do this. 

Let’s flip the story. Let’s say it’s a different day and we’re exhausted, distracted horse trainers. We’ve worked a long day and didn’t sleep well last night. We decide on a trail ride because we don’t feel up to forcing behavior training. That should be the first clue, not that we notice. When horses tell us they don’t like arena work, what they mean is they don’t like who we are in the arena. We become repetitive, slow-thinking, micromanaging asshats riders with tight hands and no ears. Truly, horses think we’re a bit slow. Eventually, they become reluctant, shut down. Why would any horse go willingly to the principal’s office arena. It’s no fun there.

But okay, trail ride it is and both of you are glad there won’t be a fight. The horse’s poll relaxes and his neck is stretched out. Our bodies are soft, the reins long. He moves at a normal walk gait because his mouth doesn’t hurt, his sharp rope halter hasn’t been jerked. If we are in the saddle we might let him pick the way. If we read this blog and know the joy of leading from behind, we might let the horse take us for a walk. The horse daydreams about what would happen if humans rode on the trail like we were in the arena and rode in the arena like we were on the trail. Could humans confuse themselves enough to give up and just act like they do when mucking?

But the human is tired, the horse relaxes, the day is lovely, and we fall in love all over again because we’re too tired to pick a fight train.

Horse: See? You know how to do this.   Human: I’m no threat to you. 

Notice what happened there? It isn’t a coincidence. When we’re in that mucking persona, we negotiate. We breathe, our shoulders release, we just say yes. We can train affirmatively. Our horses would like to train us to be this way full time. They only have body language and we have the frontal lobe. We make a choice about who we are every moment but too often unconsciously.

Then the next time in the arena, the horse (huge amygdala, wonderful memory) knows that we can do better. We’ve shown them. They know that we are capable of being soft and pleasant and they know the ogre trainer lives in the arena. Some horses will shut down and quit trying, and some horses, the very best horses, will hold us to that elite mucker/trainer standard forevermore. 

Expecting us to communicate with lightness and perception, as horses do, is the finest gift horses give us. They think we can learn; that we’re trainable.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

41 thoughts on “How Horses Train Us”

  1. Loved this, Anna. Especially, ‘the ogre (trainer) lives in the arena’. It really comes down to what the horse believes, doesn’t it? When I look at my own 2 (mini & MFT), I really hope they don’t think of me as the ‘ogre in the arena’!

  2. Oh, how the horse world needs to learn this. Our horses would be so much more confident and relaxed, we would enjoy time with them so much more and we could take the asshat off and wear a helmet proudly. Yay. Keep shouting it, Anna! ♥️

  3. Micromanaging (asshats) trainers – hahaha! I hate to confess this, Anna, but poor Dasani did hours of circles before your first clinic here because I didn’t know anything about dressage and thought if I could (make) ask him to bend nicely in a circle (the tighter the better) then we’d at least kinda look decent? Imagine asking an Arab to bend? The circle was so tight we nearly fell over since I insisted on doing this at various speeds. So glad you rescued the poor horse from further asshattery. He’s such a good boy.

    • Oh, Kaylene… I’ve had my asshat days too. Good to be trained by an Arabian, isn’t it? Thank you for commenting, it is getting dark early here, it must be very early there.

  4. Hi Anna,
    Although I don’t have a horse any more, I still read your wonderful posts, wishing I had been learning with you while I was still a well-intentioned trainer/ogre/confused/a little bit scared/loving/trying hard/human. I might have been less irritated when a ten-year-old child had the nerve to scold me for letting my horse graze before a ride because I knew he clearly needed something and I wanted to give it to him so our ride would be better.
    You make our horses’ view of us very amusing. Who knew my horse thought I was Shrek? A good laugh erases that ogre-focused face.

  5. As someone commented, I look forward to Friday mornings and reading your essays. I used to read them during a stop at a coffee house on my commute into work, and I’d often end up crying in Starbucks ! Now I read them at home and can cry in peace if necessary.

    I love how you can get your points across with a good dose of humor. This essay is brilliant with the crossed over words, and “conversation” between horse and human. We can never get too much of this since it seems our instincts are to drift into ogre negativity.

    In my perfect world, everyone who interacts with a horse should have to read and study your affirmative philosophy before they have a “license” to work with their horses.

  6. Yes to the last line of Sarah’s comment! All who interact with horses should be required to study affirmative philosophy before working with horses. I would add calming signals, Dressage principals, and management. And a few more things! First up Anna’s Essays.

  7. Hi Anna,
    I look forward to Fridays and your posts so much! Oh boy, the cross out words, the visuals you impart as we’ve all been there one way or another as I try to be a better partner with my horses. I enjoyed your perspectives today as you gave us both sides of the coin. Well, you usually do but I did enjoy how you presented it today as it brought home the horses perspective excellently! Makes me realize that letting my horses graze a good thing and I try and reward often but will do that even more! Thank you for being here spreading affirmative training, I’m always learning so, so MUCH!! ❤️❤️❤️

  8. I felt the need to write something today. Don’t know why – so here goes. I have 6 horses, from 35 yo to 12 yo – all in retirement with me, 73 yo. Brought my “training horse” home last year and have spent this year watching my 6 horses and finally – at last – getting to know them since they are all individuals with distinctive personalities. Thanks to your blog, I am noticing more messages from them and realizing how amazingly well they speak to me!!! Sometimes I worry that my background of training (don’t let them get the upper hand) has ruined them, but you know – they are all special and wise beyond “my” years!!! I still want to ride again – but am a bit timid due to age…… I actually think I wanted to thank you – because I got really good with my “training” horse and I think she actually thanks me back every day. OK – I’ll stop – too sappy! But I actually really mean it! And my horses REALLY are extremely bright!

    • It’s a wild thing how much we can learn and progress when either us or the horse is “retired”, it’s never too late. Thanks Suzanne

  9. What you said really made me realize that I do that too. And I now want to be the best I can to my horses because it is so true the if you are relaxed they are too. Thanks so much!

  10. This really hit home today. My horse moved to a new herd yesterday with his “ brother “. It has been a bit stressful for him. This evening, when bringing him in for the night he just wanted to graze ( even though ther were two round bales and grass in his large pasture). I started to just head for the barn, but then decided to let him graze and be the leader. He grazed frantically and I just matched steps. Eventually he decided to lead us in. Reading your post made me realize just how stressed he was!

  11. Thank you, Anna. I always thought when a horse would graze (or attempt to) in our presence, it was more an act of defiance, a sort of “I’m ignoring you” comment. Reading today’s essay, I see it’s rather the “I’m no threat” communication. The journey continues!

    • I think grazing is the most misunderstood calming signal, and also the behavior we have been taught to harshly correct. But now I’m thinking about the idea of an act of defiance…. Lynell, thanks for the comment and the idea~

  12. It’s our job but you have to wonder why we think praising bad behavior will profoundly train a horse when all the rope pulling doesn’t.

    Okay, this is the best line ever. ?

  13. Just went back & read this one! As always, Anna, you “take the cake” (really old saying-but then, I’m getting (or am) really old at this point. As always wish I “knew” you back when. By the way – I think I posted something a month or so ago about a baby Cedar Waxwing? Well, I missed the window of time when her family/flock was still here so Pookie is spending fall & winter at least with me. She now has a flight cage with room to lift off. Loves blueberries, raisons & a little piece of banana in the am. I feel very guilty that she isnt with her folks, but oddly enough she seems content. She & Axel(dog) & Juliette(cat) are co-existing as if this is how things should be. No horses to love on, but we make do.

  14. Anna, another very timely essay, thank you! I have been acutely aware lately of how persistently a lovely little mare has been training me during our time together. Coming to horses in midlife (about 20 years ago) has left me with the curse of being a less than accomplished rider. I have been working with the above mentioned little mare since July and started riding her about 6 weeks ago. She was unfamiliar with the concept of following a feel or so I thought. When she feels the need to put on her training hat (quite often I’m afraid), she repeatedly appeals to my dull senses by bracing and not turning when I use only my hands to guide her. Then, when I remember to ask with my head, shoulders, waist, seat, and legs, along with my hands; she follows up the first lesson by patiently reinforcing my good behavior by turning with a suppleness not expected of a 14 hand, sturdy, little Paso Fino mare. This human can be trained, albeit slowly.

  15. So well-said Anna! My dogs have always been very good at training humans so it comes as no surprise that horses are also good at training humans.


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