“Why is Everything With Horses So Hard?”

“Can Competition Horses be Trained Affirmatively?” she asked. I know why she asks. This rider has been trained to think that it’s hard to be good enough, that the work is hard so you have to ask your horse in ways that are hard. She has seen trainers claim that force is justifiable to win, implying that those who don’t win are losers who lollygag around doing nothing. Gasp. We’re back in middle school and a bully has just threatened you. You pretend to ignore the bully, but if that ever worked, you wouldn’t remember their name decades later.

Or maybe you say you hate competition and only want to learn more. So, you go to clinics with the fantasy (thanks, Virginia) that you arrive and the clinician congratulates you on perfection and has no advice for you. Not only do they refund your money but they give you all the money because you are so good. But in the gap between fantasy and reality, you still have to load your horse and on any given day, depending on your schedule as much as your horse, that can be hard. Landing in an unfamiliar environment, with horses and people you don’t know is hard and you don’t even know what kind of weird the clinician is yet. Maybe the clinic is at the barn where your horse lives, but there are strange trailers and new horses and a different energy today. There is no judge in the arena, but you have to groom and be ready at a specific time, knowing that the clinician will watch you closely. Wait! Isn’t that what judges do at competitions?

How is a clinic easier than a horse show exactly? I have done both, competed at shows and attended clinics, and I can’t tell the difference. Riders in either place have passion and are trying to learn and do their best. One place gives out ribbons.

Okay, you say, no competitions and no clinics. They are just too hard. But there is a new vet coming out. Or you trail ride with a friend. Or right on schedule, spring arrives and all horses go a little nuts but you take it personally. You care how your horse does. It isn’t a competition but you care about the outcome. Then add in the things out of your control. Maybe you still feel guilty about the previous horse you were impatient with. Guilt about the horse you have now who still carries anxiety about the fear they felt in training as a young horse, before you owned him.

When we are finally ready to train, we must start by asking if this horse sound? Usually followed by the awareness that we can’t really know, but if the calming signals (that feel like resistance) are because of pain, we need to take care of that. Anxiety in a rabbit hole, anyone? Even your bank account nods. On a difficult day, the entire horse world leaves you feeling like you’re dog-paddling in a cesspool. What was the question again?

“Why is everything with horses so hard?” 

Give yourself a human calming signal. Breathe. Laugh in mock desperation. Or soften your eyes and look away in genuine desperation. Understand profoundly what it means to work with a flight animal who weighs more than you but has emotions similar to yours. There is nothing ordinary about what we do. There are no pushbutton horses or perfect humans. Dog-paddling is how we travel. It was never about competition. There is only one problem. We love horses and that makes everything a little hard.

Take another breath and think about the horses you’ve watched. Some skip and dance while others are tense. Some share seamless movement with their rider and others seem fearful. Some horses look like partners and some wring their tails in anger. Because every time a horse gets into trouble, fears his environment, or loses confidence, it’s a call for help. Our response isn’t by random accident; it’s a choice and that’s true in world competition or while picking out hooves in your own barn.

How did we even get to a point of honoring fear-based training? Who handed these haters the microphone and why are you listening?  Punishment is never the answer to a lack of confidence; it only adds doubt and anxiety. How can it be good training to act like we hate our horse? Isn’t your horse smart enough to be confused by that?

It will always be easier to name-call and bully rather than stand tall and claim this less-than-perfect moment. Not to mention that was how most of us started with horses. We were taught to punish. Taught to not show weakness. How is denial partnership?

Peer pressure hasn’t changed since middle school, but hopefully, we have. It’s our job to find peace in the chaos of our horse’s life. In a whirlwind of anxiety, we have to be that peace, and that is hard. Love always requires more courage so we train ourselves, against instinct, to call out the good in our horses even when the situation is hard

As you progress as an affirmative rider, take pride in your stand, because it shows in your horse’s eye and the softness between you. You’ll be pushing the edge of your skill constantly. It might be harder to stay affirmative in challenging moments, so pause and breathe. Now is just when your horse needs it the most. Breathing is winning.

In the end, we have to make peace with competition because it was never about anyone else being good or bad. It’s always been us fighting against the part of ourselves that says we aren’t good enough. 

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.

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27 thoughts on ““Why is Everything With Horses So Hard?””

  1. Great post. The title got me. We have a horse ranch in Northern Illinois with 18ish horses and right now it’s been raining for what feels like months and the mud is shin deep – every step sucks you down – and it’s Spring and as you say, the horses are a little crazy, with a mare here or there in heat and a few geldings losing it because of that. Then someone comes up to you and says, horse are so magical, I just love them. And you look out into the herd and you know somewhere down deep you think that, and you love them – but right now – they are just so hard. So your advice is best – just pause and breathe. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Thank you for this today. Took my 4 month Golden to puppy class last night. He was awful. I thought we were making great headway then I see he’s the worst in the class, whining, barking, biting and tangled up in leash. I was in tears.
    My horses are mud covered and ignored. We have a competitive ride coming up fast and I thought we’d have a month to put miles on but the snow, rain and mud won’t end!
    All animals seem hard right now.

  3. Your timing is perfect, as always. Now that my new horse, Hershel is confident enough to use his voice, I asked about a fly mask yesterday and wow, he was pretty clear so I waited and waited and breathed and then left and repeated 3 different times over the day with a softer response each time (never actually getting the mask on). For the first time that I can recall, for me it was just about letting him speak each time.

    After all that when I left, my brain ran away with me, what if he never says yes again to all the other things I ask? Then I remember to suspend my disbelief and smile because the hard is worth the relationship.

  4. Anna, I don’t know if you saw my “late” comment from last week’s blog, but pausing and breathing is hard enough when a horse’s response to your ask is challenging; reproducing affirmative training behavior when an audience (of any size) is present makes it all the more challenging. It’s hard to appear inept in pursuits with creatures that we value so much. I think that I finally figured out that affirmative training is about training the human, not the horse. The horse will figure out what to do if we will just settle down, breathe, and let them think.

  5. With this as with many of your essays, Anna, I often think of Rose and Charlie Allnut lying on the deck of the African Queen as they drift down the dangerous and unforgiving “Ulanga” River in their quest to find Lake Victoria and freedom. As they lay in despair, the camera pans upward to reveal that they are just a few hundred feet away from reaching the lake. Soon they will be rewarded for all that they endured during their travels.
    The moral of the story being? I don’t really know but reflecting on that overhead view of the lake so close to that boat makes me feel I’m on the right track.

  6. Sometimes the “call for help” is stretching r-e-a-l-l-y hard towards your privates – hoping to draw attention to the dried blood and obvious injuries – reminding the human (once again) this is the time of year when the dreaded sheath-flies arrive. Thank goodness for Swat. Apparently, I am mostly “good enough” to serve lol. 😀

  7. Wow, this popped up suggested for me on Facebook. I really needed this today. Such beautiful words and they really hit home for me after a very difficult day with my OTTB at a clinic.
    Thank you❤️

  8. You may find this comment odd (as I am sure you have others of mine in the past!) but I passed this on to parent friends of mine raising three young girls. “Punishment is never the answer to a lack of confidence; it only adds doubt and anxiety. How can it be good training to act like we hate our horse? Isn’t your horse smart enough to be confused by that?” Sigh. Remember being 8? I do, hiding my face in my horse’s mane as I wept over the confusion. I find that your thoughts so often are able to reach far and wide, encompassing even more than the horse world.

  9. A friend has a competition hunting dog that is great, talented, eager to please, and athletic. To the great frustration of the very competitive owner, she runs off course, out of sight at competitions and gets disqualified. Over and over she does this and it’s hard. But, she never runs off or makes a wrong move when she is just out for a casual hunting trip with only her owner. She’s certainly smart enough to know the difference between hunting and competing. The trainer is out of ideas to “fix” her except one, a whopping big physical punishment. I think she is telling these people the only way she knows how, “I don’t want to compete.” So sorry Greta, sweet dog, you’re bred to be a champion.

    • Hi Carla. That is so sad, in so many ways. Maybe because I think dogs give us more than horses in some ways, or maybe because so many ‘failed’ dogs have come this way over the years. It’s a shame to be punished for being who you are. Thanks for this bittersweet comment.

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