Want to do a kindness for your horse? Perhaps show your affection in a “love language” that suits horses? Did I just do that? Refer to a nineties self-help book for couples? Yes, let me give you the gist: maybe you want flowers but your partner changes the oil in your truck. Expressing love is complicated between humans but even more so for humans and horses. Sure, horses like to eat, but sugary treats are a mistake for horses with gastric or metabolic issues. Not all horses enjoy a bath or even just getting groomed. And I’ve known lots of horses who hate trail rides. What would a meaningful gift be?
Providing the Three Fs are a start: Freedom, (room to roam); Friends, (the companionship of other horses); Forage, (access to food and water). Beyond those survival necessities, confidence is the one princely gift that benefits horses the most. A confident horse is healthier, sounder, and more settled in challenging situations. Horses will always be hardwired flight animals, we can’t control or micromanage them, but a confident horse handles bumps and change better. A confident horse has more autonomy in his environment.
But confidence isn’t sold in a bag. It’s a nebulous quality. It comes and goes in different scenarios. Some rides are calm and forward while on other days a horse might be resistant. Soreness happens when we don’t see the cause, transitions in the herd make a dramatic difference, and fluctuations in the weather impact them. Mares have hormonal changes. Rehab can sour a horse. One day the trailer is easy and another day, not so much. We are wrong to think that once something is “trained” it can’t come undone.
There is nothing a horse can take for granted; the world always has the potential for chaos. That puts us in the same boat but are there things we might do daily to help our horses? Can we invest in their fundamental behaviors in ways that might pay off on challenging days? Can we model confidence for horses in peaceful, kind ways?
It’s easy to say horses can get their confidence from us, but how do we actually do that? Acting tough is no fun and what if we aren’t the most confident in the first place? Maybe we try to hide our uneasiness with bravado but our horse sees through it. For horses who have experienced fear-based training, it’s hard to trust in general and it takes the time it takes. Or maybe we have a good horse. We’re grateful and what to add to his well-being. The training fundamentals become even more important over time for horses as the challenges grow, and for us, as we tend to get complacent just about the time horses need our help.
To progress, we must grow our own skills and build on good habits that support our horses. Who doesn’t want to improve for their horse, but how to do it? It might take some soul-searching, some letting go of old approaches, and a bit of focus. As much as we like to hang out with horses, adding a little focus on our own behaviors is the place to start.
How aware are we of our own bodies? Do we furrow our brows, or are our lips tight? Relax that face and breathe. Are we tentative when distracted? Of course. Focus doesn’t mean micromanaging, it just means holding awareness of the environment in the moment, somewhat like what horses do. We don’t control things; we just notice them.
Perhaps it’s time to tidy up your process. Here are some ideas:
-It’s not about being perfect but could you be less forgetful? Organize yourself in the tack room, take an extra minute to look around and quietly see you have what you need and don’t need to take more trips for things you’ve forgotten. Horses read that as anxiety. Instead, take that quiet moment to settle yourself before you greet your horse and consciously present yourself in a quiet way. Confidence is peaceful.
-It’s about thinking about the route to take and planning for it. It could be about understanding the direction the gate opens and positioning the horse before getting there so we’re not forever turning our horse around because we have made a mistake. It means having a purposeful march to your walk that’s ground-covering. Confidence moves forward.
-It’s about planning ahead, turning the horse when there is enough room, rather than waiting too long so we end up having to pull the rope or reins. It’s asking for a bit more energy instead. The softness in our hands on the ground or in the saddle must be a top priority. Confidence is preparing ahead for transitions.
-It’s keeping an awareness of our hands every moment. Are we pulling, mauling, teasing, or just generally being loud when we should be watching calming signals? Are we crowding our horse’s space or do we step back and give the horse room to volunteer. Confidence is listening and letting the air rest.
-It’s consciously bringing energy to your horse. Be the same dependable human every day, and then change up your working patterns in small ways so you remain interesting. Lower your expectations so you have more to be grateful for. Confidence is saying yes.
-It’s about spatial awareness at the mounting block so we approach it slowly and don’t jig the horse back and forth. It’s a quiet plan to ride a simple pattern like a figure eight or a serpentine. Or to ride forward, looking at a landmark. Have a destination in mind because horses sense that. Let the horse balance himself by moving at a rhythmic speed he can relax at, not too fast or slow. Less correction, let him pick his way without over-steering. Confidence is letting the horse manage himself.
-It’s about flexibility, we aren’t overcontrolling perfectionists and don’t force the horse to stick to the failed plan. We’re forgiving of our horses or ourselves, so change is not a threat. So that our own attitude has an affirmative purpose and the horse finds peace in us when the world turns chaotic. Confidence is breathing.
-It’s about daily practice. Can we show our love in ways that benefit them? If we want to be there for our horses on the hard days, we have to start in small ways and on ordinary days. In order to be dependable, and mentor that quality in our horse when the challenge is great, we have to build it into their foundation by consciously focusing on our language and actions. Confidence is a habit.
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.