There was a time that I thought if I saw my horse curled to one side, itching his flank, I should run over and scratch the spot for him. That if I could acknowledge his itch and resolve it, in time I could teach him to show me where he had pain. My work with horses took a turn for the better when I got over that.
Let’s start at the beginning. You know us. We are adults who love horses and also have checking accounts. We have huge hearts that we open wide for animals. Our hands are strong for work but also soft for doctoring wounds. When we were little, our first sentence was, “I’ll do it myself.” And much to the chagrin of family members, we are very independent thinkers. You know us. More than likely, you are one of us.
We like it when things go well, and so, we are the best judges of how everyone should behave. We like our cats to curl up and sleep together. We like our dogs to hold their ears up and not bark or shed all over the bed. We like our horses to be calm with perfect manes and never ever spook. We despise dirt or mud. We know our animals love us and in return, we only mean to help. We are walking, talking orbs of good intention.
Old cowboys would call us “counterfeit.” Just a little too good to be true.
We only want to get it right. Then a horse has a spook. It’s a full-body mini-explosion, every muscle tenses and releases a second later. If we don’t pull the reins or lead rope, it’s over quickly but we all act like someone farted in church. Like it’s a crime to be a horse. We all nervously look for the scary thing. We debate that with each other. Then we relate every scary thing that has ever happened to us because we like to raise the dead. While we’re at it, we complain about bad horse professionals we know of, vets or farriers or trainers. We bore our horses beyond reason talking to other humans. Horses ponder spooking to get our attention but fear isn’t a game to them, so they don’t.
We fiddle with our legs in the saddle, threatening their sides when we aren’t asking anything. We start steering before they even take a step as if horses were going to run into the rail if we don’t pull a rein and soon our horses begin to toss their heads. We punish them for our fear of going too fast and ask them to go too slow to balance themselves. Now they don’t want to go forward at all because they’ve lost the desire to try. Does the horse have a bad attitude or do we telegraph our uncertainty, as well as every other irrelevant thought that crosses our minds? Wouldn’t a blue velvet pad be nice?
We try so hard to be kind and light and flawless, that we give confusing cues. Just as the horse is about to do what we ask, we switch to another cue. Then we contradict that one and go back to the first cue if the horse hesitates and thinks one second too long. Soon the horse pulls inside just for the quiet. Even a gelding will tell you that being too mushy and unfocused is as cruel as harsh methods and angry hands.
Can we at least tell the difference between what we do for them and what we do for ourselves? Any self-respecting mare would tell you it would be just fine with her if you never touched her forelock again.
When we micromanage we teach learned helplessness. It’s the message we send when we feel we have to be perfect. We hold a constant low-level anxiety that says no matter what we do, it isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if we feel that way about ourselves, our animals all take it to their hearts too. Because the harder we work to fix things the more we imply something is wrong. Learned helplessness, the idea that we will never succeed or be confident, is the foundation of depression. Are there horse so shut down that they seems to have lost the will to live?
Take a break. It isn’t our job to make things perfect. Cats will always hook a claw in something, dogs need to roll in stinky things, and horses will never be bombproof. And by the way, what if the release of a spook feels as good as a sneeze?
Remember who we are? We have the strength to be vulnerable but not fear being foolish. And courageous enough to hold to honorable standards that we have to strive to reach. And creative enough to feel the joy in having low expectations, knowing we get to praise ourselves and our horses more often.
For all the cheap talk about humans and horses bonding in some mystical way, could we just stay present, focus on one thing at a time, and have a civilized conversation? Yes, it takes confidence to go slow. It takes trust to give up the fantasy of control and let horses be horses. We are all working without a net and trying to like it.
Pause. Consider the moment we recognize our horse has a problem. Perhaps the horse is standing on a rope or we think he needs to rebalance at the mounting block. Knowing that our first instinct is to lean in to help, just don’t. Let the horse figure it out and win his own confidence.
The horse’s reaction time is seven times quicker than ours. That’s how we get in trouble but we are too fatalistic. The flip side is that things come back together seven times quicker. Be still and let the horse think without the interruption of another cue or an unintentional body movement.
Find the patience to let time tick away. The horse doesn’t need help, listen to his calming signals and settle. Let him be curious, and he’ll figure it out. If you were the first to say, “I’ll do it myself,” now let him. Take another breath and watch it happen.
Are we overthinking learned helplessness? Smile because that’s funny. Have I just killed a bit of our romance with fixing horses? I hope so because the thing that comes with letting go is a mature, full-blown relationship between partners with two distinct voices. It starts the day we stop talking down to animals.
I contiue listening and learning. What do I do NOW when my horse has an itchy flank? I trust him to take care of it. When he bends toward the itchy place, his opposite side gets a full body stretch, each rib and vertebrae. Sometimes he balances on three hooves; it’s almost as good as a roll. Why would I deny him that?
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.