Patience in Real Time

A clinic organizer was telling me about a trainer she brought in, someone whose approach was significantly more aggressive than mine. I asked how it worked to have such different approaches for the same riders and she said, “Oh no, he has the same training theory as you do. He told me that for a clinic he has to get results quickly so people don’t get bored.” My next question was going to be about integrity, but I bit my tongue. Is this who we are? Don’t even start with me about mustang challenges, colt-starting challenges, or the dreaded comeback challenges. We’re impatient enough without baiting each other on.

What is it about ponies and minis? We use horrible training methods and then call them stubborn. We tease them with sweets or dominate and manhandle them in ways we wouldn’t dream of with a seventeen-hand horse. Over the years, I’ve retrained quite a few. It’s slow work but it’s a debt we collectively owe to these intelligent, athletic, and sensitive horses. 

Meet Bhim, who came to my barn for a month of training in 2013. Yes, he’s still here, and don’t you dare call him cute. Look at his face, really see him. He is not a horse to underestimate. Let the insulting diminutive words rest. Hold your “what a sweet baby” comments. This horse has forced me to redefine my approach with training again and again. And if there was a patience challenge, we would be front runners. 

I put Bhim in a pen when he first arrived, with Edgar Rice Burro keeping company in the next run over, like usual for visiting horses. Bhim hated both of us.  At the end of the first month, I hadn’t made much progress, but I’d spent hours listening as he had told me his history. I was intrigued by his strength of will against giants. He wore his fear as bravado. And maybe he reminded me of someone.

He stayed in his sympathetic system; never frozen, but always in flight mode, and ready to fight. He didn’t let down. I never saw him blink or eat, and mucking his pen frightened him. I spent time like it was free, I moved slowly as he insistently bolted. I refused to corner him. I stayed quiet, breathing slowly, reading barely-visible hints at calming signals. Bhim only knew one volume, a primal scream, and he was stuck. By the second month, I was able to halter him in forty minutes or so. I didn’t train him, mind you. He taught me a position where he allowed me to approach, but it was easy kicking range and we both knew it. He demanded my trust first.

Instead of Edgar simply calming Bhim as he had every horse before, Edgar became his protector. Donkeys can be territorial, but this was different. Edgar was still my training partner, but with his head through the fence panel, he breathed calming signals for Bhim. Edgar Rice Burro, who has never liked horses much but is never wrong, let me know that it was time he had a horse of his own. I’ve never been able to say no to that donkey. We adopted Bhim, partly because Edgar wanted him safe and partly because I knew it was going to take more time than was reasonable. Don’t get all weepy on me. Trainers can’t save horses in need; there are too many. I say “no” hundreds of times for each “yes.” My last “yes” had been Edgar, years before. 

Bhim and Edgar soon shared a pen. Edgar used his body like a reverse round pen, standing still as Bhim and I slowly circled. If I took Bhim out on a line, he usually got away from me. We spent a few months finding a way to make trimming easy for him. I didn’t train him, mind you. He told me what he could tolerate and that’s what my sainted farrier and I did. It wasn’t perfect, but it got easier each time we didn’t fight about it.

Affirmative training is collecting good experiences with the horse. It isn’t that we train canters or picking up hooves, horses know how to do that. We work calmly, not allowing the horse’s anxiety to overtake them. We train that predators can be trusted, building their confidence so horses can volunteer to work with us. We always remember that intimidation and punishment destroy trust. Humans and horses learn to be reliable over time.

Every few months Bhim would have a reluctant breakthrough because I have glacial persistence. One year I was able to give him a brief massage. He never relaxed, but his eye flickered for a moment, then went hard again. I couldn’t catch him for a few weeks after. Each time he softened a little, he’d act like he’d had an embarrassing one-night-stand and pretend he didn’t know me for a while. 

Training should never be a competition. It takes the time it takes, no matter who you are. When clients get impatient, I’m stumped at why anyone would think working with horses wouldn’t take serious effort and a strong heart. I blame these stupid challenges. Don’t take my word for it, read the horse’s calming signals. Hurry the day when outdated fear-based training is gone; when we stop equating intimidation with respect and mistaking shut-down fear for trust. 

How much of the present with horses do we hurry through for the future? Horses need time. Rarely as much as Bhim, but all horses are hardwired for flight. It means they’re easy to intimidate. Children can do it. Getting along with horses is the real skill.

I had to look at the calendar to find the year Bhim came. Seeing the names of several other horses who arrived that year with one problem or another brought back memories, each horse an individual, but I always asked the same question. “Can you trust me?” They moved through my barn to new homes and others arrived. I love the slow-dance rhythm of training.

Bhim walks now. Not a ground-covering gait, he’s relaxed, almost slow. Sometimes when I’m hanging hay nets, he presents his ears for a scratch, but just one. I’m still the only one he allows but I can halter him in a relatively normal way. He gets a bit of bodywork. Sometimes I think I see a spark of a volunteer from him. He’s always tried his best. One afternoon last summer, I sat down on a bucket (he doesn’t like people lurking above him), to take his halter off. Bhim lingered for a few moments. He yawned for the first time. I gave an exhale and he yawned a few more times. Then he ignored me for two weeks.

It was never personal. None of it was bad behavior. It’s who he became to protect himself. Bhim’s more horse, inch for inch, than a warmblood. These days, his resistance is less fear and more habit. Edgar is getting older, so Bhim stays close. I’ve changed more than they have. I’ve learned how to listen smaller, to trade time for their anxiety. We don’t walk on eggshells but we don’t pick fights. I thought I owed Bhim a debt for what other humans had done to him, but really, I owe him a debt for what he has done for the other horses I train. If you’ve read along or worked with me, you owe him as well. 

Bhim would be the first to say it isn’t easy being a trainer’s horse. This woman never gives up. But we live in horse time, where progress is measured in inches and years.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

46 thoughts on “Patience in Real Time”

  1. They are horses not little stuffed toys and they and ponies get a bad reputation when they act like horses. I’ve seen so many messed up ponies and miniatures.

  2. Fabulous post on every level!!
    EXACTLY where you said ‘don’t get weepy on me’ … I was welled up.
    Thank you Bhim for the lessons you have taught Anna, and for being there for Edgar
    And for Anna, willing to share with us.

  3. ” Each time he softened a little, he’d act like he’d had an embarrassing one-night-stand and pretend he didn’t know me for a while. ” (and my mouthful of coffee went everywhere ?)

    Small but mighty ❤️❤️❤️

  4. “It was never personal. None of it was bad behavior. It’s who he became to protect himself.” Profound and profoundly sad.
    I pray I live to see retirement so I too can “spend time like it was free” with horses.
    Thank you for another great read!

    • That sentence “its who he became to protect himself” didnt hit me when I first read it. But remembering my first few years with my horse – the barn where we boarded had a hack line (rental by the hour horses) & many, well, most, came from the auction at Unadilla. And most of those horses truly became what they were to do just that – protect themselves. Very standoffish at the least, very confused at where they ended up. One of the rescues I now donate to goes to auctions & buys horses – so many in such dire straits, so many that deserved to be “released” from life long before. But it appears getting the last dollar out of a living breathing animal was more important than doing the right, moral thing. And I say that, knowing the expense involved in putting a horse down – still, there are now quite a few organizations that will help with expense or completely take it on. Sadly, the same story applies to our dogs & our cats – most “companion” animals and others.

  5. I loved this article! It is so easy to break a horse’s spirit. A broken horse has a completely different look to me then a content horse. Others I know don’t see it that way…but it is so true for me. The hardest thing for me is to watch someone so called “training” by tying the horse up and waving paper bags at it till it “stops being scared,” however long that may take. Then they say see the horse has been desensitized. Ugh
    Thank you for this article that says so much to that technique.

  6. Excellent training of me relative to creativity and patience being equally required with different animals and different situations. Beautiful thoughts.

  7. Oh Anna, this description of seeing and building connection is priceless. So respectful (of course), and further, so inspiring – that it is truly possible to watch, to see, to listen and respond in a horse-meaningful way… catches my breath. Guess I better breathe for a moment here.

  8. Wow. Every time I read one of your blogs, I feel like I have a “mind blowing” moment. The one here was when you wrote: “Each time he softened a little, he’d act like he’d had an embarrassing one-night-stand and pretend he didn’t know me for a while.”

    I bought a horse in June who promptly bucked me off and told me in a lot of ways that he does not trust me. I’ve had to learn from the horse what it means to be a horsewoman and it’s beating up my ego a bit. I think “oh we’ve had a breakthrough!” and then go out the next day and he’d turn away the moment he watched my car drive in. It’s been feeling like one step forward, 15 steps back, and I’ve been wondering what the heck I did wrong. Maybe I haven’t done anything wrong. Thank you for normalizing this process. I’ve made the decision that he will always have a home with me, so I might as well act like I have all the time in the world, because I do.

    • My ego, bruised and battered by a 34″ horse, can confirm that the process is that step dance. Good luck, keep a sense of humor. Thanks, Liz

  9. As usual, something relevant to my life. Sometimes when I am asking for a turn on the forehand, my horse, who knows turn on the haunches, side pass, and backing up REALLY well, offers a mishmash of them. I have to take a breath, ask for a simple halt and just sit there quietly for a moment. It’s usually me who isn’t clear on the request, but sometimes he just likes to show me all the cool things he can do. I have to be patient and say ‘you are such a talented and good boy, I just want this one thing now, thank you”, and then he does it.

  10. “He wore his fear as bravado. And maybe he reminded me of someone.”

    He reminds me of a few “someone’s” too, sadly, including myself at times.

    Thank you Anna.

  11. Anna, I suspect that my TINY new mare wears her fear as bravado, as well. I was shocked to see her neutralize aggressive approaches from Noche and Ferd with machine gun kicks, squeals, and strikes. She also demonstrates some pretty aggressive behavior towards me at feeding times. Since I don’t relish being run down while providing essential nutrition for my horses, I’ve always asked my horses to give me a safety bubble. Each horse has shown me their unique way of meeting this request, over time. I am currently doing the Two Step with Chica (1 step forward and 2 steps back). We have reached a point where she is on one side of the feeder and I’m on the other holding her hay. Her ears are down and glued to her head and she paws at the ground. I stand quietly and wait. Eventually she must wonder what the hold up is and she pops her head up for a look. In the split second that I see an inquisitive eye and upright ear, I drop the hay, give her a “good girl” and walk away. You can’t rush trust.

    • Are you certain she doesn’t have a gastric issue? Food aggression is sometimes a pain response. I think you’re doing well, and mares and geldings don’t always get along. Keep breathing, Laurie. This will take some time, you’re right!

      • I actually put her on a gastric supplement prophylactically when she arrived to help with a smoother transition. I initially had her only with my Arab, Raz, and they got along without a hitch (Raz is Not a dominant horse). They all seem fine together at pasture, but there continues to be a little territorial discussion in the paddock. They seem to be working it out, and each day Chica gives me a fraction more tolerance. I always think how hard it must be to be the new horse; my dad got transferred often when I was a child and I never enjoyed being the “new kid in class”.
        Hope you have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday ,Anna.

  12. Yay!! Thank you from the smaller horses among us. My girl is small but mighty — because, as you pointed out, she had to be. Hopefully building the trust, and listening, will help her realize that she doesn’t have to be the one to kick butt and take charge all the time, that there is a place in the human world where peace, stability and consistency can not just be found, but flourish. I will try with all my over-thinking human mind to provide that by being quiet, and letting her tell me her story, and then remembering it. Small horses (ponies and minis) are not respected for being what they are — smart, resilient, and sensitive. Thank you, Anna.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I always remember this one other thing about mares. They are intact. Opinions and hormones will always be taller than actual height.

  13. Anna,

    My dear friend just sent to me your post “A Love Letter to Dirt”. And as I clicked to your site, this is the first post read – about Bhim, now. I hear you. Blessed is Bhim that you hear him.

    My heart is with the soil, the microbes and the wondrous mycelium that are the communication pathways to the beloved trees. And I honor your loss of trees. I observe you to hold a listening heart. My horse, Halimaar, is the first horse for me in this lifetime – found him at age 41 me and age 4 him – he’s now 19. Each moment with him has taught me more about life than anything – as have my now adult sons. Listening. Hearing. Holding. Non-judgement. Crashing. Burning. Reimagining ourselves, moment by moment.

    I so welcome your imagery of grounding ourselves into the soil as we listen to our horses. Indeed, their hooves are wondrous ears – I trim Halimaar’s hooves myself and have learned so much through the journey. Balance, angles, forward motion, soft edges.

    I am a Tree in my nature – wanting to nourish soils and allow space for tribe to roost and nourish themselves, as they journey to Authentic. I am only just realizing this after 56 years around the Sun. I am delighted to see you and your work here and look forward to learning with you.

    May we expand in light and deep listening every moment. And have fierce healthy and impermeable boundaries. The horses have the best boundaries of anyone I’ve met.

    In light and respect.



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