Old mares have a constant dilemma. They get stiff and stove-up. They’re stoic so they don’t whine about it, but they have small feet in proportion to their large body. They lose muscle over the years, their necks are arthritic, their joint fluid turns to sandpaper. The human said she should go for a walk for her own good, but the first steps sting and burn. The human chatters that it’ll feel better soon but she doesn’t know “soon.” Just over the fence, the geldings in the north pen, are stretching down to smell their own manure, and then they explode into bucking circles as fresh and clever as frat boys. Kicking up dust as they charge on past the mare. “That old hen,” one mutters. “She’s tough as gristle.” The mare shifts her hind toward them, cocks a hip, and gives a flick of her middle ear. She isn’t dead yet and younger geldings should not be encouraged in their foolishness. A mare of a certain age knows what she knows and her desire to please is pretty stove-up, too.
There is a thing that longtime horse trainers eventually learn from horses, usually mares. Give me a minute, for all the times I’ve stood and quietly listened to complaints and horror stories about horse trainers being roasted and name-called for their shortcomings. Certainly, there are some trainers who don’t understand horses, some who become stove-up in the heart and behave like monsters, but most of us do the best we can for horses while trying to help riders balance their love and their frustration. This is a job that takes more passion than common sense. We got into this work because we love horses, and if we have any success at all, it’s because we love horses, and some of us leave this work broken for the same reason.
It goes like this: A rider brings their horse in for a tune-up because there’s a training issue. The trainer climbs on and scolds the horse, tries to curb the habits the owner doesn’t like, and the horse obliges. The rider takes the horse back home and he comes apart, sometimes slowly and sometimes not. The horse returns to the trainer, gets scolded again, and goes home again. It’s a cycle like washing clothes. Of course, they get dirty again; it’s the nature of clothing, the nature of change, and for horse owners, the nature of the unfathomable mind of a horse.
I was remembering trailer-training an elder mare years ago. I think of this horse often, though I’m sure she’s been dead a decade now. She didn’t want to go in and she was right. The trailer was too small. I told my clients, who had good excuses. The mare and I went to work, steady and kind. Lots of praise, no rope whacking. She gave me that knowing eye and I understood. I asked her anyway and eventually, she complied. I’m a good trainer, I’m patient and persistently affirmative. I’ve never met a horse I couldn’t get in a trailer. But she was right and I knew it.
Most trainers are miracle workers in small quiet ways. No one alerts the media. We “correct” a head toss at the canter by taking the horse off of sweet feed. We get the horse to soften his poll by changing to a gentle bit or a bitless bridle while insisting on a neckring. We get rid of those sour ears by finding a saddle that fits. Usually “training” is no more than finding the cause of pain.
The more I know horses, the less interested I am in party tricks, the silly things we train just to show off. I started asking myself, just because we can train them unnatural things, should we? Then the line gets blurred. Isn’t the person on the horse the trainer? Rather than continuing the cycle of break and repair, could we take on the scariest challenge of all? Could we attempt to train humans?
I’ll speak for myself, I’ve switched sides. I’ve listened to equine calming signals for so long, I don’t even pretend horses have problems. Instead, I translate for humans. First I ask, “Does this question pass the mare test?” Horses need to become solid citizens but only if we have resolved their pain issues. Only if we can build back the trust others have damaged.
As promised, the short list of unfair things to ask a horse:
- To work when he is in pain.
- To work on an empty stomach.
- To work without a proper warm-up.
- To tolerate punishment for separation anxiety, but rather than work to affirm their confidence.
- To do obstacles that are unrealistically dangerous or scary, but rather support the horse’s common sense.
- To hold the horse to a higher standard than the rider can maintain.
And if the horse says no thanks today, I cancel the lesson. For all the horses I’ve kindly trained to do things that were unfair to ask, I’ll smile and make the horse’s apologies to the rider, trusting that I’ve given a more important lesson.
With best wishes for young trainers, I hope your love will carry you to the day that your neck is sore and your feet sting. I hope you’ll learn the true skill of training horses won’t be found in a colt starting challenge. The real challenge is to convince the horse he’s safe enough with you to share his fear. Can you understand his side and then calmly negotiate for his well-being? The other words for that are replacing our ego with respect for the horse. And if training horses will be a career, I hope you’ll learn to train people, not that the horse’s issue is their fault, but rather affirmative training is the way to show love to horses. I hope you will persist until the day that you know with all confidence that our job is to train trainers.
Back to the mare with her hip cocked, waiting for the sun to warm her frozen stifles. The mare may come out “lazy” on cold mornings but the rider’s learned her lessons well. She reluctantly agreed to give up cantering, but only after the mare tripped and stumbled enough to make her rider nervous. Walking out now is for the mare’s good, but if there’s a fight, the mare won’t understand. So the rider, soon to be the ex-rider of this good horse, lets her exhale be louder than her request, knowing the old mare will shift her weight and take a step eventually, and then another. The going will get easier as the pair find a rhythm. Not the spring and hustle of their youth, but something better. It’s the authentic understanding that comes from years of listening. Trust is letting go of control, more by us than horses.
We know the sad day comes that old dogs growl at kids and we get it. When old horses quietly say no to our foolishness. We would do better to accept them for who they have always been, honor their wisdom and stop trying to change their nature. Eventually, lucky humans begin taking on the horse’s traits. We hold our ground, standing with the old mare, marveling at how much one of us has changed and how one of us is exactly who she always was. A perfect horse.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.