My client and I were having an online meeting. We’d been working on a systematic process of getting her and Bradley, her gelding, back to riding. It’s a process that I’ve developed that has space for horses and riders to be individuals, and more than traditional training, we focus on listening to calming signals and building new habits. Things were going well. She had hit a bump and I was congratulating her. Hitting a bump means moving toward success.
A few short rides in, Bradley had tossed his head during mounting. My client videos her rides, so rather than this being a live lesson, we watched a video of a previous ride, a great resource because the camera has a habit of recording the big picture, the horse’s whole body, while my client only saw his head and neck from the mounting block. There was tension in his poll but no other calming signals, then he lowered his head and his neck stretched long. His halt was immobile and his tail quiet. I thought he had adjusted himself and she was right to climb on a few moments later.
My client wondered about the head toss. My first thought is always pain. Did her saddle fit? Was his back sore? The mounting process is very revealing if we listen. My client had her horse checked out at the beginning of the process of getting back in the saddle and resolved some questions. Or were they? We talked about possible supplements appropriate for the horse’s age and condition. If the horse is uncomfortable, riding won’t go well.
Then my client mentioned another habit during dismounting. It always takes a while, in live lessons or online meetings, for related information to be shared. With horses, as much as we want one simple answer, a question usually leads us to a tangled ball of twine that is tied to other behaviors. My client said her gelding tended to brace his neck at the end of the ride, the second her feet came out of the stirrups. She isn’t sure what he’ll do next, so she quickly jumps off. I wondered if she might negotiate that instant to less anxiety for both.
My client wants to be safe which some might call being timid, but I call having common sense. We all know when things come apart with a horse, it happens quickly. Scientists have measured response time in different species and horses are 7x quicker than humans. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? It’s how horses survive as flight animals; it’s why it can feel like horses are hardwired to spook. It should make us a bit wary.
But humans tend to focus on that bad side. We trust that horses will come apart quickly, but we fail to recognize it also means that horses can come back together 7x quicker than us, as well. This is why the power of breath or a kind word is a fundamental part of Affirmative Training. If we don’t have a mental runaway when our horses are being challenged, then we can help them. Given a pause, the horse will calm 7x quicker. If we can take a breath, the chances of the horse righting himself are very good.
It’s a bit like playing chicken. The first one to flinch “loses.” If we panic and grab the reins, it’s a cue that the horse is right to be afraid. But if the rider can stay the course just an instant longer and take a conscious breath, it slows time and the horse doesn’t need much. It gives the horse support to take a breath himself, engage his mind and make a choice. Horses don’t like to be scared; he wants to come back.
Could my client drop her stirrups and as he braces, could she stay on just a breath longer and give him a scratch?
It’s a small thing and it doesn’t address possible pain, but it is the kind of fundamental change that begins a huge shift in trust in a partnership. Rather than correcting what some might see as bad behavior, she is listening to his anxiety. She’s supporting her horse in feeling safe by giving him a moment to consider his response, to consider coming back (again, 7x quicker.) Don’t ever underestimate what giving the horse the benefit of the doubt means. It’s a way to offer trust a few seconds at a time. It’s a place for confidence to take root.
When we are with a horse, we are “training” every moment. We should focus more on what the horse is actually learning because this wasn’t about mounting or dismounting at all. Since 35% of head injuries happen at the mounting block, we need to have that helmet on, but we also need to listen to the small messages before they become big problems. I’m happy my client is seeing the best in Bradley and is supporting him in his efforts by listening to his calming signals. Breathing equals confidence.
But this wasn’t the best part. Just like my client only saw his head and neck in the beginning, I saw nothing beyond the ride. And my client buried the lead. Or more likely, it was Bradley who taught the lesson more than I did.
She told me about another incident that week. The weather had changed from warm to wet to cold. Blankets were drenched, so my client brought her horse into her barn, along with his pasture mate, to warm up overnight. She expected they would want out the next morning, and there might be some post-storm bucking and frolic. Instead, her normally kind gelding cornered his pasture mate and prepared to double-barrel him. It started as just horseplay, but in the limited space, anxiety escalated quickly. Things went sour in a blink.
My client saw the possible negative outcomes in her mind, wanted to help, and absolutely knew stepping in the middle would not be safe for her and only raise the anxiety more. She is right. Too often when we think we’re helping, we make things worse.
She mouthed some words that start with no and don’t but stumbled over what to say. She thought for an instant before reacting, an improvement right there. Then she called out, “Good Boy”, not because she liked what was happening, but to remind him who he was. She threw it high into the air like a Hail Mary pass, helpless to do more.
Her words interrupted the flow of the moment; it gave both horses a pause, a reminder that they had a choice, and it gave Bradley the confidence to rebalance himself. And he did that 7x quicker, too.
Probably best I don’t ask who’s training who in our threesome.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.