Being the “Good” Horse Isn’t Easy.

People want to tell me about their challenging horse, the quirky one, the scary one, the kill pen (scam) horse. I’m not complaining; it’s my job. The reactive horse that speaks their truth loud and clear is the one we pay attention to, and for good reason. When a horse’s anxiety is visible and perhaps edging toward dangerous, it’s good to bring in a trainer for ideas to help.

It seems a natural human trait to compare and judge. If there is a “bad” horse, the other is the “good” horse. If there is a very “good” dog, the other dog is a “bad” dog. (Remember, some of us prefer “bad” dogs!) I usually try to leave people out, but in my experience, there is usually the “good” sister, by family judgment, and the “bad” sister. We like to compare and contrast; we like it black and white, good and bad, easy and hard.

(Quotation marks here are intentional. The first thing we need to give up to progress with animals is any kind of judgment, and it is our nature to quantify. I am not saying there are good or bad animals; it’s only our perception that calls them that.)

The problem with superficial judgment is obvious. If we’re honest, we can’t remember a time anything was as simple as black and white. We live in the gray area with animals, always trying to understand more. Two of my rescue dogs are reactive. One has been barking nonstop since 2014 and one lays on his bed submissively wagging his tail while lifting his lip in a smiling sneer, which means neither of those things. Both struggle with anxiety. My third dog manages well, but I protect his mental health. I know the challenges he faces living with reactive dogs or traveling with me on the road. Most of all, I know that all three dogs started out in much the same way; it’s interacting with humans that formed their lives before they came to me.

Back to horses, who may be more challenging to understand than dogs. Sometimes the “good” horse is standing nearby and as we talk about the challenging horse, I keep one eye on each. The “good” horse is quieter but no less sensitive. They stand with half-closed eyes, they appear more lazy or calm as the troubled horse flags their tail, moves restlessly, and tosses their head. Their emotions are the same.

It’s easy to make an unfair judgment in cases like this, even if you live with them. We might make the mistake of thinking that the horse with the most anxiety is the alpha horse, but that isn’t true. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, we say. But what we might miss those quieter calming signals from the “good” horse in the noise of the situation.

In a herd environment emotions and feelings are fluid and everyone feels them, although they may be expressed differently. Bravado and shyness are both insecure expressions, but for humans, one is easier to be around. We want horses to be calm but isn’t the truth a better answer?

All horses are stoic, it’s always smarter for a prey animal to hide weakness. Beyond that, there are breed differences. A Thoroughbred or Arabian is likely to be more overt than a Quarter Horse or a Draft breed. There is much to consider but my concern is that we dismiss the anxiety when we could help. All horses are stoic as long as they can be. They tolerate what they can but when they get too emotionally out of balance, cracks begin to form in their false exterior. Eventually the most stoic and calm horse can break and become erratic and broken.

The line between a “good” horse and a “bad” one is always in flux. We impact it more than we know. The simple and exhausting truth is that we can never take anything for granted with horses.

“Never mind her, she’s fine,” the owners say. Are we judging which horse has the best way to hide anxiety? It isn’t sustainable. Horses are stoic as long as they can be. They do not seek confrontation but they are as impacted by their surroundings, their culture, as humans are. It’s as if the herd has one overall emotion, dressed in different coat colors.

Humans say if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it but that belies the fact that there is a space in between where we can affirm and strengthen a horse’s confidence. We need to work in the gray area before horses come apart.

One horse might call uncle first and give in to the pressure in ways that are painful for them and inconvenient for us, but the other horse is impacted as well, holding their breath as long as they can. Shutting down is a reaction as important and potentially dangerous as bucking or bolting. We must help the horse visibly struggling but at the same time, never take the “good” horse for granted.

I’m not looking to make trouble where, as far as you know, none exists. But in this horse/human conversation, none of us is static. We are each on a tendency of habit, arcing in the direction of better or worse. It is remarkable how much horses relax when acknowledged. Sometimes we exhale with that stoically calm horse with eyes that are just a bit too quiet, and they will give a tiny lick and release their poll an inch. It’s a tiny but crucial conversation. Just a nod that we know they have feelings.

Reactive horses need us to quiet our voices, to give a sense of peace. They need us to not overtly react to their reactiveness but rather give them a safe place to breathe. But also keep an eye on the stoic but not less emotional horse. Turn up the volume on their calming signals, listen to their still, small voice. Give it equal importance, being the “good” horse is a stressful job.

This is just a well-intentioned reminder that all horses were born “good”. Horses need more protection and acknowledgment, and less discipline and correction, to stay that way.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

31 thoughts on “Being the “Good” Horse Isn’t Easy.”

  1. Oh my gosh, Anna, this was amazing. You were talking about horses and it’s the same for humans. We are born “good” and it’s human interaction they makes us turn “bad”. It’s perceptions and judgment that impacts us so powerfully! Ignoring the “quiet one” in the family is dangerous for that kid. The “bad” one is acting out the “herd” (family) dysfunction. You could have been a family therapist, my friend! We can understand our own behaviors and our own struggles just by reading this blog, most days.

    Ok, quit judging people as “good” or “bad”, pay attention to the quiet one, let go if my (limited!) perceptions of people – I don’t really know what’s going on for anyone until I ask them. Got today’s lesson, Anna. Thank you!💗

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  2. My grandaughter (and her horse) came up from PA for a few days. On the way up, she realized he was laying down in the trailer & stopped (worried of course) to see that he was laying there eating his hay. she said the ride was bumpy & he doesnt like bumpy rides – couldnt convince him to stand up so she started to leave the truckstop where she had pulled in. Much thumping & bumping so she stopped – tractor trailer behind stopped also! Apparently he decided time to get up – truck driver said he thought the trailer was empty & all of a sudden this horse pops up! He was fine. He’s a warmblood – cant remember what breed. But boy is he a character! She got him as a rehab horse! And he has – rehabbed just fine!
    This isnt as good a story as your turkey one – but thought you might get a chuckle out of it.

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    • Should have added – I agree – good lesson here. “Good” kids quite often get ignored as to good dogs-horses etc. This is a very good lesson to learn!

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      • Thanks Lynell – very short visit – she had to get back quicker than she intended. But did “meet” Clark (horse) He is a character – and a very good boy.

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          • Not sure where he stands between the two of them. Thats his barn name – his reg. name is something else!
            Hes a really really good boy – traveled about 31/2 = 4 hours to get here – turned out in a pipe corral next to some goats – as far as I know he never “knew” any but one of the kids came in & helped him eat his dinner. Beck said he was pushed into training for eventing(too young) – took a couple falls – misdiagnosed as to what ailed him – thats how she got him to rehab him. I think he may be 10 now – and prefers retirement!!!!
            He is a character – as all of Beck’s various animals have been.

        • (No reply button next to your latest so I’m putting it here instead.”

          “…as far as I know he never “knew” any but one of the kids came in & helped him eat his dinner.” Nearly fell out of my chair when I read that!

          Me thinks Clark “fell” into the perfect family…
          All the best for him, Beck, and you!

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          • Thanks, Lynell
            Beck has another younger rehab – he stayed in FL. while she & Clark came up to PA to the trainer’s barn for the summer. Her goal is to have her own rehab facility – a small one. Maybe someday. She likes living in Florida!

    • Thanks, Crissi. I have to think this is huge for the horses that travel with you. Good horses that you invest in at every opportunity.

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  3. Yes! Great points, Anna, as always. And I will add, “can I get a little attention over here too, please?” When I work with Peaches (the more demonstrative one), quietly grooming in her stall, for example, Poppy, the “quieter” one in the adjacent stall, always has soft eyes on us, as if to say (either), “Thank goodness that’s not me!”, or, “Looks nice. Can I get some?” I make sure that the “good love” that is, the calming signals sent and received and acknowledged, the quiet moments of tenderness, both given and received, are equally shared among the two. Although different, a find at the core they are very much the same. Thanks for sharing this. I will look at Poppy to make sure she is getting what she needs, how she needs it.

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  4. You wrote this with my little herd of two horses in mind, didnt you ? Just kidding, but as you know I do have a ” good” horse and a ” bad” one from the human perspective & judgment . Zen Bear has taught me sooooo much about what lies beneath a deceptively calm exterior. …and he is so responsive to a breath, a step away when too close, a softening of my gaze, and so forth.

    Gosh, Anna, I have learned so much from you over the last few years; Cash & Bear are grateful, too.

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    • Yes, your geldings fit, my siblings fit. And I’ve been meeting so many in my travels. They have taught me a to over the last few years, too! Thanks, Sarah

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  5. Hi Sarah. I, too, have a 2-horse herd. Isn’t the dynamic interesting? And I also have learned how to better communicate with them because of Anna. Enjoy your two!

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    • Yes, the 2 horse herd dynamic is very interesting ! My two geldings get along so well, complementing one another’s personality. One is stoic and solid, the other more reactive and energized. They are in such harmony and attunement with one another I am perpetually amazed… because prior to living with one another, each of these horses did not seem to bond with other horses in a herd. Guess they were just waiting for the right one to show up for a good bromance.

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  6. Anna,
    A perfect ‘letter’ to us, for a perfect time.
    We have just adopted an Off-Track Thoroughbred that has been through some poor times, and through
    Mid Atlantic Horse Rescue and their wonderful staff and volunteers, has not lost hope in Humans.
    Only eight, Ecliptical Jack can no longer be ridden and will be a companion horse to Captain Jack (now 16).

    What you write is so appropriate. This OTTB, now named ‘TICO’ is quiet and calm, and has been rehabilitated
    since December last year. He is now in good health. As he settles into his new home, love, affection, attention
    and gentleness will be given in daily quantities. He may indeed (and it’s likely) hide fear of more neglect and cruelty.
    We must work, diligently, to regain his trust, and build upon the work that MAHR has done to bring him back
    to health.

    Thank you for this letter. You are always ‘on target’ at all times with your subject matter.

    Reply
  7. Anna,
    A perfect ‘letter’ to us, for a perfect time.

    We have just adopted an Off-Track Thoroughbred that has been through some poor times, and through
    Mid Atlantic Horse Rescue and their wonderful staff and volunteers, has not lost hope in Humans.
    Only eight, Ecliptical Jack can no longer be ridden and will be a companion horse to Captain Jack (now 16).

    What you write is so appropriate. This OTTB, now named ‘TICO’ is quiet and calm, and has been rehabilitated
    since December last year. He is now in good health. As he settles into his new home, love, affection, attention
    and gentleness will be given in daily quantities. He may indeed (and it’s likely) hide fear of more neglect and cruelty.
    We must work, diligently, to regain his trust, and build upon the work that MAHR has done to bring him back
    to health.

    You are always ‘on target’ at all times with your subject matter.

    Reply
  8. Reactive horses need us to quiet our voices, to give a sense of peace. They need us to not overtly react to their reactiveness but rather give them a safe place to breathe. But also keep an eye on the stoic but not less emotional horse. Turn up the volume on their calming signals, listen to their still, small voice. Give it equal importance, being the “good” horse is a stressful job.

    This is just a well-intentioned reminder that all horses were born “good”. Horses need more protection and acknowledgment, and less discipline and correction, to stay that way.
    SO WELL SAID!!

    I’ve got two and the others in the barn want to say the “good horse” and “the crazy horse” but I’m with you, they are already good horses, just maybe not good at always figuring out and doing what we humans want.

    Reply
  9. Cappy, the good son. Stoic. Took me there and brought me back without incident 99% of the time.
    Dover, the reactive one. Spooked at anything that moved that shouldn’t’ve and anything that didn’t move that should’ve. Taught me that Cappy, the good son, wasn’t teaching me anything I needed to know about horsewomanship.
    The Fix. Weekly therapy sessions at Anna Blake’s Relaxed and Foward Blogs. Learned about calming signals – theirs not mine; What it means to be part of the herd – enter their field without causing a reaction; Herd dynamics; The art of saying “Good job!” when your horse spooks; Get out of your horse’s way…he’s got this; Less is definitely more; Unfair things we ask of our horses. Wait, There’s More! in the Archives section. Think I’ll go have a look-see🌞

    Reply

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