There Will Be No Faith Healings Today

 

We’ve all seen it. Someone holding a lead rope and hyper-stimulating a young horse with a stick until he shuts down, et voila, a tame horse. Or someone in spurs climbs on a young horse in a round pen, runs him through the gaits, pulls back to get a stop, and hallelujah, a trained horse. Or someone who lunges a horse at the back of a trailer until the horse, exhausted and in pain, goes into the trailer, because we make the hard thing easy. Easy for who? Well, horses have learned something, but it’s about humans. As if frightening a horse takes a measure of skill. As if punishment created willing partners.

One more thing we’ve all seen. Someone else who pays the full price on a horse, just to “rescue” it from a life of brutality. Only to bring it home, a few thousand dollars later, to find out that rehabbing isn’t as romantic in real life. Only to find that the base of those behaviors is more than bad training and there are pain issues underneath that may or may not be easy to diagnose. Yay, those are my well-intentioned clients. Raise your hand if your ears are burning.

We either overestimate the brutality and the horse comes around quickly, and we get to think we’re geniuses. Or we underestimate the damage done, and things go the speed of dog hair on a fleece jacket and we feel like we’ve failed the horse. The same hands go up.

It isn’t just new horses. Just to make things more nebulous, I’ve known well-trained horses who trailer loaded perfectly until the day they didn’t. Calm horses who stood still for the farrier until they stopped. Good horses who seemed perfect under saddle until they weren’t. A training issue appears where there wasn’t one before, apparently without reason.

We certainly do have a training issue. It’s ours, though. We think training is a logical, quantifiable, and finite experience, as stable as a can of beans in the pantry. This horse was trained to cross water, we reason, so we get the can of Water Crossing down from the shelf and open it up, suitable for any water, any time of day, any season. Then we’re surprised when the horse who will cross a stream on a trail ride, won’t put a hoof in a mudpuddle that has a rainbow of oil slime on the surface after a thunderstorm.

Maybe the horse is head shy. We know better than to flood the horse with torment, so instead, we try the opposite. We relentlessly fuss with the horse’s head passively. Not that this approach has ever worked for flies either, but still we fuss, in hopes of making the horse less fussy. Sometimes we lose patience and push, we reason that we have a reason for our inconsistency, but then we’re practically back to square one. We’re frustrated as if losing the progress we’d made was something we owned on a shelf.

We cart out all of our human logic and sort through it to understand the horse’s problem. But that’s the problem; horses don’t live and act with human logic. We know this because we have all tried training approaches that make profound sense to humans but totally fail horses. That is the other half of the equation. We are trying to re-train ourselves as we are re-training horses and in the process getting an up-close understanding of what didn’t work, and even with all your love, it’s still not working.

A horse’s fear won’t be healed by repeating the activity to “desensitize” the horse, even if our intention is good. More of the same intimidation isn’t the cure, it’s how they got that way. Understand that the behavior is there for a reason that helps the horse. It might be a wrong reason for us, but the horse believes survival depends on it. Nothing less than survival.

Ouch, the horse sees us as one of the monsters. It isn’t about us or our inability to control what others think. We reason the unreasonable, but it still hurts.

They say you have to hit rock bottom to change. And yes, we might hit a few false bottoms before we really hit hard enough to understand the difference between our idea of training and the arduous task of changing an ingrained habit. Habits are like icebergs, the largest part below the surface. It’s a relief when we finally accept there will be no faith healings today. Inconceivably, it’s even a bit liberating.

Let it go. As much as it’s our heart’s desire to heal the horse, we have to let our importance go. We can’t make a horse trust us any more than that dominating trainer could before us. There is no can of Peace or Confidence on the pantry shelf. The memory of their first trainer never leaves, any more than we can forget being bullied as kids. If we remember those dark emotions, expect no less from a horse.

Instead, get comfortable. Both partners need seasons ahead to build new habits. Eventually, the old memory finally fades, replaced by consistency and kindness recognized in horse time. In hindsight, we smile at our naive notion that a location change would be enough to change the nature of a horse. We aren’t less enthusiastic. It’s more about making friends with the passing of time. The other word for that is finding patience.

First, the horse needs to feel safe. Not frightened and not shut down. We can’t train this part; the horse has to get there in his own time. Our skill is less important to the horse than his own resilience. Can we trust the horse to do this? We still ask questions about mud puddles and halters over sensitive ears, but rather than forcing an answer, can we stand back and allow the horse time enough to build the inner confidence to answer? Can we let him heal himself? Even when change comes so gradually that it’s hard to quantify and put on that damned shelf?

Eventually, we get patient or the horse gets to a mature age or both, and the problems slowly resolve. We don’t remember a particular day of enlightenment. It was more of a long slow sunrise, with pink and yellow against a blue sky. We forget those long dark nights of resistance. We’re part of a community that cares less about what a horse offers us and more about the welfare of horses. We will always ride in the light.

With respect for my clients, especially those in our online group who started in the online school two long years ago, and who are reaping the benefits of patience and acceptance, please stand tall and raise that hand again. Take pride in your progress as well as theirs. Horses also let us know when we’re getting it right. We can trust that, too.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward. Scheduling clinics for the fall in the Midwest and Eastern states now.

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Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

42 thoughts on “There Will Be No Faith Healings Today”

  1. “We’re part of a community that cares less about what a horse offers us and more about the welfare of horses.” That cut like a knife and I’ll be chewing on it for along time.

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  2. So absolutely spot on. My horses and I say “thank you” for this Anna, your words of wisdom once again. This piece has me wanting to read it aloud to them. I’m certain they would nod their head in agreement.

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  3. Absolutely spot on. My horses and I say “thank you” once again for your words of wisdom Anna. This piece makes me want to read it aloud to them. I’m certain they would nod their head in agreement.

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  4. This is such a great read-thanks for sharing. My wonderful, older now, MFT, has been having an issue standing still for my farrier. He would fly around, crashing into the walls or even into me, totally unlike in past appointments. Finally, it was my vet who diagnosed that my horse was in pain, not in his hooves but higher up in his hips or back. Poor pony!

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    • I have an older mustang who gets very nervous/tense and slams his front hoof down when you pick it up. Farrier said he was just being obstinate. But, since he’s normally a happy go lucky kind of guy, I finally had him checked out by another vet/chiro and he has a pinched nerve in his spine/shoulder area that is very painful when he puts full weight on a front leg. They always try to tell you, we just have to wake up and listen.

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  5. Each horse also has their own time frame. Some are quick to trust and feel safe. Some take years. You do not get to dictate how,log that process takes.

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    • And some never, and more held hostage by undiagnosable pain than we realize. But giving in to their process is step one. Thanks Mary.

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  6. Fabulous essay today, Anna. Thank you. I find this post explains comprehensively & yet succinctly the illogical basis of much of the training that we see out there plus what is needed on our part to do better. You have given us the philosophy & the tools to go forward in a positive way with our horses.

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    • And look at the success you have had. Okay, you wish some of it was in the saddle and I’m sorry for that part. But this last month of vet issues is a testament to how much progress you’ve made. Thanks, Sarah

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  7. Wisdom that I will take with me as I begin my day of advocating for the horses and helping people see the patterns created by thier habits.
    Love the iceberg analogy.

    Thank you Anna

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    • I feel like I should announce the title at every clinic first thing… Keep up the good work, Coral. I’m your biggest fan.

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  8. I love this because it is a reminder that it’s not about “taking my time” it’s about taking HIS. Thank you.

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  9. “Like a long slow sunrise”…I love that. And that’s for sure how it’s been for me. The saying that kept coming to me as I read your piece is “If we knew better, we’d do better”. I trained horses for decades with the only tools I knew-simply the ones that were taught to me. I thought I was successful and I was successful. It wasn’t until I happened across folks like you that I even CONSIDERED another way. Why would I have? For me it was just the long slow sunrise of my life…the developing of a deeper introspection and a dissatisfaction with the folks I was hanging around. I couldn’t have forced myself to “get it” any earlier than I did. I remember watching ladies sit in pastures and thinking “Good grief, what they hell do they think they’re accomplishing? What a waste of time”. When the student is ready the teachers will appear. As I evolved as a human I evolved as a horseperson. I no longer throw myself on the cross and flog myself for all the mistakes I made or the horses I probably hurt. I just accept it as the truth of my process and today I use it help myself have compassion for the folks I come across who are right where I was just a few years ago. Thank you!!

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    • What a humble and wise comment. Yes, forgiving ourselves is something horses wish we would do. I’m interested in how professionals deal with this question. I surely don’t train the way I did when I was younger. Amateurs are expected to always learn, I wish it was easier for us pros. I congratulate you for what you’ve given up and what you’ve taken on. Thanks Vicki Rose

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  10. Why didja have to go and mention pink and yellow? It made me think of my Rocky girl who tolerated me dressing her in those colors. She agrees. I need to go wash my face.

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  11. Super! There are so many many people who are under the impression they “understand” horses (and other beings), and know ALL there is to know about them -who sure would benefit from this blog. And everyone here HAS benefited even if they no longer are around horses.
    Keep on trucking & spreading the good word, Anna

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  12. From the comments so far (love them all!), I get the sense that much progress is being made by many who are on their journey with you, Anna. Hurray! For my part, there are days I reach for that “can of beans” that isn’t there, and they still need to show me the way. But then there are those other happier days that come more frequently…packed full of cans of beans!

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  13. I, too, love the “can of beans in the pantry” metaphor.
    Also, my arm is tired from raising my hand so many times.
    And, my ears? Charred. 🙂

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  14. I’m late reading this but just want to add my thanks. I love all of your posts but this one especially hits home. And Willy says thank you for asking mom to re-start riding in a neck rope! We think we are ready to move to a bit without a shank – at least in our practice sessions in the yard. Yay!

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  15. It’s been a few weeks now that I brought an older, rescue mare into my barn. Seeing her improve and (what seems to me) trust again, ever so slightly, baby steps still, has been so joyful. I say ‘again’ as I think she may have trusted once long ago. Every time I see her my heart swells. For me, it comes down to respect. Perhaps an overly-simple concept, Anna, but if you truly do respect your horse, it seems that they respect you back. At least that’s how it works for me. You have taught me that when one is quiet, and peaceful, and listening, it is amazing what one hears. Peaches, and now Poppy, send a big “thank you” from across the miles.

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  16. Good for you for calling out so many poor handling practices! I have seen too many shut down horses, terrified horses, and untrusting horses, all from bad handling practices and so-called training. Especially with mustangs and other unhandled horses. Just look at the expressions on some of the horses in colt-starting competitions…as the trainer stands on their backs twirling their rope on an exhausted mount who has basically given up. Thank you on behalf of all of us and our horses.

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    • Agreed, and you’re welcome, Jinx. Once we start questioning what we do, it looks different. I hope we all question ourselves and listen to our horses.

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  17. Thanks Anna., I do love and appreciate your perspective. Change definitely takes time and I am slowly getting there… my mare thanks you❣️

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