When Horses Can’t “Do” The Clinic…

Lena was elegant in that special way that Thoroughbred mares can be. Her face had long planes and gentle curves with a classically simple beauty. She made her bay color look like burnt honey. There was no question about her intelligence. But her flank was tight, and she was in a bit of trouble.

Sometimes, getting a horse to a clinic (or a show or a friend’s house) is about all a horse can manage. If the horse is a youngster, under eight years old, travel and being away is exhausting enough, not to mention now they’re in new surroundings with no idea if they’ll see home again. Youngsters are there for the experience and it’s my hope it’s a light happy work session lasting hardly any time at all, and then an easy trip home. It’s the best way for babies to get out and stretch their skills. If it goes well, I hope the owner is happily repacking everything she just unpacked, and the horse thinks things could have gone a whole lot worse. For a prey animal, survival is a win.

Lower your expectations. National Velvet was fiction.

And I wish the same experience for every horse, at every age, and every breed. Clinics are not for overworking horses, hours in the saddle until both of you hurt. Clinics are for the experience of being out together and each of you getting your brains exercised. Whatever that means on any particular day.

You can’t train horses to travel by staying home. How horses get used to going to do things is by doing them, and if it goes well once, that doesn’t mean it’s settled, just like one bad day doesn’t ruin everything. Consistency matters, habits are formed, but even then, there is no guarantee. Every day is brand new. We’re supposed to learn to like that part.

Lena’s owner did everything right. The horse had a health issue earlier in the year, but her owner worked with a vet and the condition had improved and was under basic management. Lena had been trailered short distances several times and even stayed at friend’s farms nearby. To tell the truth, Lena was better prepared for this clinic than many of the horses are.

Then Lena’s owner planned for a double trailer-date with Kiefer, an older Quarter horse gelding, and his owner. The two horses traveled well together and the owners got along, too . Once they all arrived at the clinic location, Lena and Kiefer were given grass pens next to each other with room to trot. Everything was just the way you’d like it to be. Except it wasn’t.

As Lena’s lesson time came, her owner and I stood just inside her pen, and she froze a moment, a calming signal to let us know she was no threat to us, as all horses do. Her owner said Lena hadn’t eaten her dinner or her breakfast. The mare was visibly dull, a bit too still, and throat breathing… all signs of stress. Originally, she’d planned to tack Lena up and ride, but now she knew she couldn’t. It was disappointing but she put her Lena first. I respect that. And I don’t like it when a participant doesn’t get their ride, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get her time.

I was breathing deep and regular, calm in my emotions and I believe Lena’s owner did the same because the mare dropped her head to graze. She released when she felt safe. The gelding on the other side of the fence was eating from a pile of hay. You could say he was keeping her company, but it was more than that. He was giving her calming signals, too, as horses do. Lena was settling back into her Parasympathetic system and feeling safer.

Sometimes one horse will eat if a horse is eating close by, so I suggested that we toss some hay into the mare’s pen next to the fence line where the gelding was eating. Both owners scurried to give her hay but before they could, Kiefer used his nose to shove a bunch of his hay under the fence to Lena, who tucked right in.

An auditor said it seemed to every time I said something the horse did it, not just then but throughout the day. It’s enough to make me look like a horse whisperer but it’s just not true. If we breathe and clear our minds of human agenda and related trash, our bodies say everything, just like a horse’s. Horses aren’t psychic and they don’t speak English. Humans are transparently easy to read, and horses are more aware and intelligent than they get credit for. Nothing mystical about it. It’s communication as literal as reading these words.

Soon Lena walked to the water and took a deep drink. A half-hour later she stepped away and urinated, of a sort. The trailer ride with this old gentleman brought on a heat cycle. With mares, hormones are always part of the puzzle. She proceeded to eat her two missed meals and a while after that, I saw her roll, stand up, and shake, a reset of her nervous system. I knew she was fine and if it had been a two-day clinic, they could have ridden the next day.

The owner asked me if it was unethical bringing her but truly, I don’t think so. The mare never gave us a hard no and breathing in her pen may have helped. The art is in accepting their answer and negotiating another question, one at a time. No harm, no foul.

We take baby steps, asking for just a little. The horse may give us a different but better answer. We grow patient by letting the horse make a choice and we reward the result. Finally, instead of a quick release, we ask for a little more to find their edge of confidence. Boring repetition is poison. She needs self-assurance to progress, and because change is inevitable, it’s best to steer that in a good direction. It’s just a simple ask without pressure or expectation. It isn’t our job to demand obedience or answer for them. Just listen as the horse tells us something about themselves on the way to the task.

The secret is not caring about the answer before we ask the question. “Can you take one more step (or eat, or breathe and self-soothe), not that I care?” Then we wait. We give horses space to answer when we stop telling our own story. When we lay down the defense of our shortcomings.

Profound listening means we must be quiet long enough for the horses to feel safe enough to answer without us interrupting or repeating the request as if they are deaf.

Earlier in the day Kiefer’s owner had her lesson. She wanted to tack up but get my input on what he was feeling during the whole process, rather than ride. He is mainly retired and had been a lesson horse previously. Now she wanted to understand him better. We shared a great conversation with the halter, and he told us about himself. The horse is always the expert, regardless of what we think we know about them. Kiefer is stoic, his answers plain but quiet, so we had to lean in to hear.

Every horse there did the same, offering more than we asked, . It was that kind of humbling day where you understand the debt we owe to all horses.

Lena and Kiefer. When horses can’t “do” the clinic, they teach it instead.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

36 thoughts on “When Horses Can’t “Do” The Clinic…”

  1. I love this story. Just when we think it was a failure – hopefully we figure out it is just a different path – and a wonderful lesson in listening and learning more about our horse

  2. Ahhhh yes!! This applies to all of our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom! Every single day I am surrounded by more teachers than I can ever hope to comprehend, but it is so satisfying when you try your hardest to listen and you finally hear what they are trying to tell you 🥰. Thank you Anna for helping us learn to r e a l l y listen!

  3. The very last sentence of your essay is killer….and so very insightful. I have come to accept that there is no shame in serving at the pleasure of my two senior horses, nor in continuing to be their “student”.

  4. This is lovely. I can think of a couple of clinics I have attended where this approach would have been so helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Top Notch lesson today, Anna. Admittedly, I was more concerned about being criticized for letting my horse “get away with it.” But I do recall a time or two of having been in a crowded setting, and using that for cover to let my horse “get away with it.”

  6. I was there. I saw it all. Felt it all. Anna’s clinic — her way with ALL the horses and ALL the owners — was lovely. She gets us to really experience the horse. This was my first time meeting her, seeing her in action after following her for quite a while. She’s the real deal. So rare.

  7. This is so good.! I wish all trainers/ clinicians would talk about the difficulties we horse people encounter when taking a horse to a clinic !! This perspective is so refreshing..thanks, Anna.

    • Teehee. Like I can’t remember my horses coming apart?? I think there is so much pressure to show up ready, at shows, clinics, or trail rides, and it takes experience to make it work. Some clinicians are only doing longer clinics and in some ways that’s easier because horses can settle some. I keep looking for ways for clinics to be less stressful on horses and humans. Thanks Sarah.

  8. Profound listening! I love that, and was exactly what I needed to hear. Listen without interruption, without a story, without nagging, just listen with patience while giving my horse enough time to settle in and answer the question. Will I listen and understand his answer? This is my journey and all I can do is, wait and see! Thanks Anna, it’s resonating!

  9. What a beautiful article. Boy can I relate.

    At the last minute I received a call that we were no longer on the wait list. We got into the trail riding clinic in Wisconsin. I had 2 days to prepare. I had not driven a horse in a trailer longer than 30 mins. This was a 4 hour drive and the 3 rd time I’d driven a trailer since I was a teenager. I’m 61. I didn’t breathe until we arrived at the clinic. I drove so slow that we arrived late, when we arrived everyone was sitting in a circle with the clinician discussing horsemanship. I was intimidated!

    The clinic turned out wonderful and we learned a lot. Met some awesome people. We were surrounded by fancy people, horse trailers and campers. I was in a tiny pop up tent for the first time. When I learned people didn’t stay in hotels at night I scrambled to find a tent.

    As wonderful as people were and as informative as the clinic was I broke through threshold‘s hourly. The experience was too much. I started breathing again when we got home 3 days later. It was a big deal for both of us! I look forward for both of us to be comfortable to do this again.

    After reading your article I realized my horse and I were not alone in the anxiety we felt at the clinic.

    It’s not a good thing but I am very stoic. Calypso is too. Probably not a good combo 🙂

    You are a beautiful writer with a knack for getting the message across gently.

    Thank you

    • Great comment, Rochel. It sounds almost like boot camp. You survived, yay. And the stress! I see it from the clinician side and it is ‘not a good thing’ as you say.

  10. I board my mule in a barn where listening and patience aren’t really the norm. So I love this story very much. I train my mule with listening, kindness, leadership. We have unified in a true partnership, and it’s a dream come true. She’s taught me so much! To hear of you all not seeing the time with Lena as a “fail”, but as a listening experience, and allowing a kind of magic to happen and learn from it is fabulous. I used to have “agendas”, and thought I had failed if we didn’t accomplish what was in my busy mind. But I don’t do that anymore. And now we have fun, and her confidence is up! She has quit spooking, too. She loves working on her running walk, and I hope we will be able to trail ride soon. I practice breathing with her, and creating a safe space, a welcoming space. Equines read us like a book, it so true! I love this story – thank you for posting ❤️

  11. I appreciate this so much. It’s frequently my job to handle other people horses in difficult situations. It so agree it has to be in the horses time frame unless it’s life or death for the horse. That said, I had my *ss handed to me yesterday when I went to get a tricky warmblood. He didn’t care I got a bad haircut, or got yelled at and was in a situation that pushed me out of waaaay out of my comfort zone. This horse always takes 3 steps toward me and waits. Not yesterday. He immediately said, “whatever that cloud is? Pick. Me or your crap.” I sighed. He ate imaginary grass with his butt pointed at me. I sat on a feeder and breathed. He was right. I had talked myself into believing I could separate my feelings from my feelings around horses. Tell that to the horse. 😆. 15 minutes of self management felt like 3 hours! When I finally laughed at myself because hair grows and I deserved to be corrected as much as I hated it and big deal I was going out of my comfort zone….he was standing 5 feet away, reaching for the halter in my hand. Most people are afraid of him because he doesn’t believe people are trust worthy. He’s just honest. “Be someone I can trust, and I will trust you”. I appreciate you.

    • Yes, Jane. Thanks for sharing this story. Honesty, authenticity… that’s it. And from my experience, a bad haircut has never once been noticed and I’ve been around!


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