Warning: Loudmouth Party Pooper Rant.
I think we all know whose side I’m on in this horse training reality show. As an early holiday gift to my favorite four-legged friends, I thought I’d lob a few ideas to folks who actually like their horses. In a world where we normalize fear-based training, I hope to inspire a few rants in others.
A disclaimer: On the off chance you think I am the spawn of some sort of virgin birth, I can assure you I know frustration. When I started training in my local community, business was not great. I had only worked with good trainers myself, and only knew kind methods, but no one starts at the top of their game. There was lots of room for improvement; I could have done better for horses. I owe the biggest debt to good client horses who set me on a huge learning curve by giving me a kind of on-the-job training you just can’t buy. It makes perfect sense; I was the one who needed it. Years have passed, and I came by these rants honestly. Either that or there’s a mare working me like a hand puppet. Probably the latter.
Early in my career, I would often climb on a client’s horse and “tune him up” a bit. I was light and happy with them, and since I’d had enough riding lessons to pay for a Harvard law degree, I knew how to ride. A trainer should be able to reassemble a horse, but what trainers also know is that if we tune the horse up and send him home to the same situation that he was rebelling from, nothing is fixed. It’s a steady income for a trainer to keep fixing the horse rather than offending the rider, but isn’t fair to the horse. Horses work to the rider’s level. People need to learn to ride because riding isn’t intuitive. So the first gift to horses is I refuse to fix them. (I do work hard to fix riders.) You’re welcome, good horses.
I was so good at trailer training, so slow and so affirmative, that I could even show off a bit. But then some clients I really liked asked me to help with their gelding. They were good people who had a horse trailer that fit their horse like a string bikini fits Edgar Rice Burro. I told them the trailer was too small, and my clients said they were sorry. They didn’t have the money for a new trailer and in case of an emergency, would I train their gelding to get into this death trap? I am ashamed to say I did. The partition didn’t come out so his ribs pressed metal on both sides and his ears brushed the roof. He calmly loaded and unloaded, and my clients were happy with me. The gelding showed us grace that we didn’t deserve, I’ve felt bad about it for decades and I’ve never done it again. Buy a trailer that fits your horse, I’m proud to blurt out. Too late for you, kind Sir, but you became my gift to the others. I refuse in your name. You’re welcome, good boy.
For the startlingly beautiful black and white paint who returned from training as a two-year-old in a spade bit. Naturally, things came apart, and she spent the next few years in a pasture before I met her. At our first lesson, she stood quietly at the mounting block but then refused to walk forward. I refused to fight with her. It was a hard sell to her owner but the methods that broke her wouldn’t be what fixed her. After weeks of shallow breathing and yawning, she could walk out on a neckring. I’ve watched the tense horses compete in spade bits with riders, one hand on the reins, manipulating obstacles at speed. Do people know what is holding the horse’s head on the vertical, or see they cannot move freely or breathe deeply? I’ve been lectured about the “beauty” of training up to spade bits, maturing a horse gradually until they are “finished”, a literal term. How is this horsemanship? It’s more comparable to the slow-motion grooming of a young girl for sexual assault. Not destroying them all at once, but slowly enough that the worst soul-killing control is called an art, ignoring the horse’s eyes going black with dread. Yes, I went there.
The crazy part is that everyone agrees spades are the harshest bit, even those who use them. But too often untrained riders use a stronger bit when the opposite is needed. We’ll change a bit before we think to change our hands. So I
ranted wrote, “Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.” We use snaffles or the equivalent. Never a shank of any kind and most of my riders use bitless bridles. Our gift to our horses is a neckring on every horse. You’re welcome, good horses.
A whip by any other name… We explain they are just communication, just an extension of our hands when a half-blind horse can clearly see the truth. A rider might say, “Oh, no. I never use the whip. I just carry it and he listens.” That’s because it’s a threat! Say what you want, give it a pretty name, pet the horse with it. I have carried them and I have tapped with them, but that was before horses taught me that breathing is quicker, they are smarter, and the smallest cue gets a better result. Maybe people who use them haven’t given breathing a real chance because if they had, they’d toss their whips away, too. If you must use a whip, please don’t pretend you and your horse are partners. Whips or whatever saccharine term this week, allow us to dominate with no authentic energy of our own. My clients breathe and communicate with calming signals. We refuse to threaten our horse’s safety. You’re welcome, good horses.
Oh, look at the clock; time flies while ranting, so this last one is a catch-all, junk drawer of demeaning behaviors. Ours, not the horses. We train tricks that are dangerous for the sake of showing off. We “desensitize” horses to tolerate manhandling. We tease animals with treats. We humanize horses with made-up stories and pity instead of letting them feel their strength and confidence. At our worst, we use horses as emotional dartboards. We are trying to do better and for their equine perseverance with us, our gift is a horse-crazy girl love, as unreasonable and unmanageable as a wayward donkey. We swear to the god of green grass that we’re trying our best to get it right and we’ll never stop. You’re welcome, good horses.
Finally, how many of us are cleaning up messes made by people who couldn’t see the sentient life behind these intelligent eyes? I live with forever-frightened horses and dogs, as do my clients. I’ll work to rebuild their broken trust but I won’t hold my tongue while I do it. For the horses, dogs, and also, for my clients who are bucking the traditions that cause damage to horses, may we refuse to “go along to get along.” Our gift to horses is to work for change and sometimes toss a rant. You’re welcome, good horses.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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73 thoughts on “Things We Should Refuse to Train Horses To Do”
Bless you Anna – cant think of anything other than that to say – and for sure, horses appreciate what you have done to make a change in their lives and their riders!
As I’ve said many times – I sure wish I had “found” you all those many years ago – Chico would have appreciated it too!
You are relentless about mustangs, well done, you!
I do love a rant and frequently channel Julia Sugarbaker myself. Well done Anna, for all the good horses.
As unpopular as they make you in certain circles, it did feel good. Thanks Peggy.
That was a fabulously poignant RANT!
Rant On Grasshopper.
Standing tall with you.
Well, it is the season. Thanks, Kim
Bravo for the wonderful rant! It is amazing what we can learn from such experiences – if we are really listening. Sadly, humans are good at justifying just about anything … but hopefully with time a rant such as this will generate a “I was once there” response across the horseworld, rather than the defensiveness it would spark in too many today.
Lia, thank you. Such a good point. That defensiveness doesn’t lend to good conversations.
Thank you, Anna, for this post and saying what we all need to hear. I’m one of those amateur owners who, while always keeping my horses’ well-being in mind, have had to unlearn some things I did with my horses and relearn better things — mostly things I no longer do. Everything from not trimming their whiskers to not using a flash nose band. And I still take lessons from a wonderful trainer whose philosophy is like yours so I can continue to ride better.
In dressage, we think we learn forever. I surely am, and these last years especially. So I think you are on the right track, no apologies. Relearning is breathing.
YES! That is so on target. Aids by feel, not force, clarity, calmness, consistency, common sense. Breathe, listen, feel. We are bitless too BTW. Thank you for putting it out there! G.
It’s that they are more successful, once the horse stops expecting worse. Thanks Gina
Hi Anna Thank you, thank you for writing this! I hope everyone who has a horse, wants to get a horse, thinking about getting a horse, reads this and acts on it. I’m keeping it at the front of my “horse section” to re-read again and again!
Thanks, Susan. I think this is a time of change, defensiveness, and great possibilities.
Amen! As always, well said!
Rant on, Anna! And many thanks!
Thanks, Mary Lou. Join in!
Again and again I’m grateful for your words, even/especially when they’re hard to hear. (This time it’s the paragraph about the whip!) And I think Loki would say “Best holiday gift ever!”
Sorry/not sorry. We’ve normalized them, but most horses worry about them. Thanks Adelheid.
“Working me like a mare with a hand puppet” made me laugh! I don’t have the courage yet to give up my mechanical hackamore with it’s padded nose band (and curb chain) on my guy that is slowly slowly slowly learning to trust me in the saddle and forget about the race horse pony days. I had a bad bolting accident on another horse in a crossunder bitless which will be my next step, and the neck rope is my DREAM. My hands are feather light and I barely have to touch it, my fear is all that is holding me back. You inspire me.
We use a neckring in conjunction with a bridle, it might be a great transitional tool. I’m teaching a class tomorrow about using neckring. Take a look at https://relaxedandforward.mn.co/spaces/9131602/feed
But either way, best on the path to trust. Thanks Jennifer.
Thank you, Erik. I chose to edit your comment. Not willing to give spade bits the air. I appreciate your comment, but rather not go deeper into that pit. Thank you.
Nothing like a good lesson on what to say in a rant. Works well, too, when on the receiving end!
Hurray for me for finding you before it was too, too late.
Hehehehe. I’d love to hear more good rants. Bring it, Lynell!
RANT ON — ALL OF US! I am proud to say that twice this past week, with two different people, I “voiced my opinion” in the kindest, gentlest way I could… I think they actually may have gotten it. Although I was ranting inside, I was composed, and, although my tongue was bleeding from biting it, did deliver the message. One of them actually said, “Oh, good idea. Thanks.” One horse at a time, Anna! (Or is that one human at a time?) Don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I am trying to spread the word, for the horses. Is that arrogance, or humanity, or just equine love? Doesn’t matter to me. I’m speaking up from now on, for the horses. Why shouldn’t we? You gave me the education, and the courage. RANT ON! Thank you. Peaches says ‘hi’ and thanks for training her owner… xx
Please unsubscribe me .
Hi Linda. I’m sorry; I don’t have the ability to change the mailing list, adding or deleting. If you get an email, I think there is an unsubscribe link at the bottom. Sorry I can’t do it for you.
Wow. Spot on ranting. I have been quietly following you for years and this post really spoke to me. My mare works me like a hand puppet and we both decided that a whip is not a good idea. She could not relax and I had a hard time resisting the urge to get picky and bug her with that whip. So I dropped it.
Enjoy your thoughts and your writing.
Thanks Cathy, and thanks for reading along. I kinda love your mare… so smart.
You know, I have done stupid things in the past, but I have never been so horribly insensitive as to compare a form of riding different than my own to grooming a child.
I have watched hundreds of riders riding in the highly praised snaffle bit lean on their horse’s mouth, yank, pull, kick, and jerk to get what they wanted. Yet I would not dare be so arrogant as to say the snaffle is the source of that problem, and not the rider. Likewise I have seen both good and bad come out of those who ride in a spade bit, seen highly artistic horsemanship and morons running 2yros in spades for show. Yet again I am not going to call the spade bit the source of the problem.
There is good and bad on both sides and to praise one while ignoring the bad, yet tear down another and use a gross comparison such as you did while ignoring the good is not only completely insensitive to anyone who has gone through such a thing, but also incredible close-minded. I am tired of bad horsemanship, but what I will never do is compare humans to child molesters simply because I do not like a piece of gear they use, or generalize an incredibly rich and skilled discipline off of only my own limited experience with it. I’d hoped we could be better than those who actually are only there to use the horse for their own benefit, but this attitude is not showing that.
Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your viewpoint. I apologize if I triggered painful memories for you. As a sexual abuse survivor, I do feel I have the right to make that comparison, but your thoughts are heard. When do we listen to the horse? Are their feelings considered? I was very aware in making the comparison that it would be a hot point.
I know the “it isn’t the bit it’s the hands using it” argument, and there are certainly monsters exist in all disciplines, that is clear. I take the horse’s side. I will own these comments, I am no newcomer and in my 68 years, I have studied extensively. My question is this: is it about the art of what humans say or is it about the horse’s experience? How do we normalize abuse, in horses and each other? Again, thanks for your comment.
PS I want to add one more comment. It’s from a beautiful bay gelding who had won a national championship in a spade bit, then sold for a fortune, and also refused to take one step forward. I worked to rehab him for his new owners. He says spade bits aren’t like snaffles, even if there are no reins attached. He said a halter was too much. I think of this broken horse often.
I’d say HIS thoughts & feelings are of so much more value -I’m sure both he & the paint mare benefited from YOU!!!
I think regardless of the horse it is a very nasty and unthoughtful comparison. One can discuss horses without comparing them to humans or comparing training techniques one dislikes to sexual assault. It’s not something to be taken lightly and I get sick of seeing it used to “prove your point”. Survivors of SA are not your bargaining chip. Not here, not elsewhere.
I don’t see you “refusing to normalize abuse” here, I see you comparing SA survivors to animals and horse training you have had a negative experience with to sexual predators. Adversely I know many men and women who have wonderful partnerships with their animals using such tools, without abuse, and yet here you are, comparing them to sexual predators simply because you had a poor experience. Your experience is not universal, nor will I accept my dear friends, who have a great amount of respect for any horse, to be treated so poorly just because you wish to express a “hot point”. It is disgusting behavior, and exactly the type that makes people not even wish to listen to anything else you have to say.
How much of a difference can you actually make for any horse when you treat the people who care for them (who in the majority do not wish harm to come to him) so poorly? If your argument requires “hot points” such as that to seem effective, it is a poor argument.
Thank you for your comment. Survivors of SA are NOT a bargaining chip. I am a SA survivor, I own that experience. I am a professional trainer, that experience is valid, too. We can agree to disagree. Again, I appreciate your comment. Best wishes.
I love you!
For some, sometimes the truth is inconvenient to hear, but please keep advocating for our horses. They need your voice.
So inconvenient. And we do love the stories we tell at their expense. Thank you, Lynell. This was a hard one and I knew it.
I have been a fan for a long time – thank you Anna . Am about to order a Breathe hat as that says it all . I have amazing horses – they do amazing work – we breathe together – thank you xo
Thanks, Rekha. It still surprises me how dynamic breathing is. I recently did a demo with a horse I didn’t know and he was frantic. Breathing is life.
Blessed to have you🙏
Just breath she said….
that is hard when a gun is held to your head….
It won’t kill you , I am just holding it- you know that right?
So well said, in my opinion. So many horses no doubt feel that way.
And doesnt that say it all????
What neckring do you recommend?
There are many available to buy and they are used in different ways… but I usually go to the hardware store and buy some half-inch rope. I cut it in lengths about 7 feet long and tie a square knot, for most horses. Longer or shorter to suit. I want it long enough that if there was an imaginary oblong box of tissues on his withers, my hands could be on either side, my hands in front of the saddle, a gentle bend to my elbows. I have photos in classes; there is a neckring class today at the Barn School. https://relaxedandforward.mn.co/ Thanks, Jeanette
Anna, I love this essay, and I’m so proud to know such an adamant horse advocate. I appreciate every word of this. I didn’t fully understand how hard-hitting it was until I ran across it on facebook, posted by a horsewoman with a significant following. Some of the folks seemed highly triggered by this, whereas others were totally in agreement.
I am happy to say that horsewoman says it hit her hard in some areas, that your essay is worthy of thought, and she plans to do a video on the points you brought up. I guess that’s how change happens, right ? You have a dropped a pebble ( or maybe a boulder is better metaphor) into the water, and the ripples go out to many.
Thank you, Sarah. I knew this essay would hit louder and there might be blowback. I hope people ponder it and if it’s a bit uncomfortable, well, I hope that is what change means. I notice I didn’t come to these thoughts quickly or easily. What folks say about Calming Signals is that they can’t unsee them and it’s true for me. Now all I ever see is the horse. I appreciate your longterm support…couldn’t do this without it.
that is great news I think, spread the word and look at ourselves clearly!
A rant with a benevolent purpose. Priceless, my friend.
Thank you, my friend. Sigh.
Learned helplessness is learned helplessness, no matter how you slice it. Thanks for the rant!
Why do we love it so… thanks, Linda
a friend used to tell me, Rant on Sweet Bird of Youth! I love the line that includes a wayward donkey… well done, Anna.
Does this mean that Gray Mares like us can stay young this way? Best beauty tip ever! Thanks Kate
Anna, for the most part, I would agree with you
1. Training a 2 yr old to do anything other than manners is criminal. A spade in the wrong hands is like a razor blade in the hands of a monkey. I do not ride in a spade. I think they are way too severe for even the most educated of human hands, but that said, lets not lead people to believe that a snaffle is completely humane. Depending on the type (and there are several), the bars , the roof of the mouth and the tongue can suffer when used wrong…a snaffle is meant to be used one hand at a time. Both sides at once is like a nut cracker in the mouth. And people should also be aware that one bit does not suit all. I have one horse that I ride in a curb and it is so comfortable for him. He will NOT tolerate a snaffle. But the same bit would be torturous on my mare. People need to be educated about how bits work and how the equine mouth is formed. Just like human bodies (mouths) differ….so do horses. I went to the dentist last week for a root canal. He tried to use a wedge to keep my mouth open. It cut off my breathing and I could not swallow. I tore it from my mouth. And when I said, “I can’t breathe”…he said, “yes you can”. And this was a dr. speaking to me. If I would not have been already half way through the process I would’ve walked out. But horses can’t just walk out. People are not as a general rule educated about bits. A snaffle is not necessarily the “go to”.
2. Trick training is “very tricky”. You can force a horse to do most anything, but can you challenge his mind to do something without force? That is the reason for specialty training. And yes, I help a horse open up the possibilities …….
There are a few more things I might challenge you on, but in the Amin, I think we might be friends. We agree that people do stupid things in the name of horsemanship that are no more than ego gratification for the insecure. With that ….I toast the article. Well done.
Thanks for your comment, Katelyn. I’ve written a few blogs about bits, which are my most-read essays. I thought this blog is about much more than bits. Here is my problem with the idea “it is the hands, not the bit” argument. If we put a snaffle (or a dressage legal bit) on a horse at liberty and a spade on a horse at liberty, with no rider or reins on either, it would be evident that there is more going on than hands. One of my horses didn’t tolerate snaffle bits either, so he was ridden in a mullen mouth. No shanks and a good fit for a low palate. So often the anxiety we feel in the horse that makes us think we need more control is alleviated when we change to a gentle bit. Or better yet, try a kind bitless bridle. (Yes, I know there are cruel bitless bridles.)
I remember our time together years ago and yes, you and I have things we disagree on. This one wasn’t meant to be about us. I hoped my point was evolving to improve the horse’s experience. Thanks again, Katelyn, for your concerned input.
I went on a spring ranch gathering of cattle, DQ wannabe that I am, and did not know what to expect. Moms and calves needed to be brought in for vaccines, worming and health check. It was not “Rawhide “. Everything was done at the walk. Mindful of space, and using space bubbles to quietly push and walk in 300+ head. I was riding my friends highly tuned, I-love-my-job, team roping head horse. I had accidentally pointed him at a steer in an arena once, and it was lock and load, with no off switch in sight. How was THAT going to work? (It did because horses are smart.) She told me to just bring my Sprenger English 3 piece loose ring snaffle with the nice comfy lozenge in the middle, because she needed an extra snaffle. This bit happened to fit the horses she was bringing. As we were tacking up at the trailer, I noticed plenty of curbs being hauled out. Some full on spades. She noticed me noticing. I knew in competition she used a western 3 piece snaffle with short shanks, leather curb strap, and a small bump on middle link. (Forgive me, idk what western bits are called). To comply with competition rules for a curb.
She told me quietly, at trailer, “sometimes when you’re dealing with a new mama cow and her baby, you see a situation develop so fast you have no choice but to get on your horses face in order to get out of there and save them.” I looked blank. She said, “horns. Not going to let my horse get gored, not going to hurt his mouth either.” She was also the only one who didn’t use a tie down, as she wanted her horse to be fully able to get up and out of the way if she had to ask for that. Really stuck with me. Her horses all rode off the seat like great dressage horses with cow horse stops depending on how intensely you asked with your seat. Reins were always the last ask. Don’t think I touched mine the entire day? Her horses are still my favorites. And yep, it took her a lot of time, work, and patience on her part to get them so light.
Sometime can we talk about cavessons? Makes me a bit nuts to see tight cavessons, sometimes just because the bridle came with one, and a flash…..(
Another great comment, Jane. She sounds like a great horsewoman. It’s a pleasure to see. My mentor was that way, riding Arabian stallions at a canter the speed of a walk on a slack rein. Good skills can’t be overrated. I think the better a rider you are, the less you need. I understand the “art” but it’s time to update those that we know damage horses. Yup, I’ll put cavessons on my list, a very touchy subject.
It is my belief than humankind owes a debt to horses we can never repay – but we can try. We have a long way to go, and I’m sure few of us can achieve their awareness, their wisdom, their kindness, or their forgiveness; but we can try. It took almost my whole life before I could have a horse. I want to spend the rest of it…trying.
I think that’s about right, pretty much what I do. Dorky, but I think it’s about as noble as a human can aspire to. Thanks Stephanie.
Obviously, I came back to this post & re-read it and the comments – hadnt seen a couple of them.
I think this one is every bit as good as the several you have written on helmets! Those were doozies – always your posts AND the comments by so many others who CARE!!!
Love this blog more every time I read it.
Thank YOU, Maggie. This one got me some hate mail.
What a disgusting and inappropriate comparison. I’m also a SA survivor. I feel it’s very disrespectful to compare mine and others experiences with the horrible training that 2yr old received. Also a bad comparison as a 2yr has not been under saddle slowly conditioned for years. It was just plain abused. You went for the shock factor to get more attention, make a splash. Enjoy your pats on the back by a few. For others of us, your callous attitude just made us want to throw up.
Thank you for your thoughts. We share the experience of being an SA survivor, and I am sorry for your experience. I am also a professional horse trainer. I have worked with more spade bit survivors than this one horse. No one disagrees that this bit is harsh, not even those who believe it needs that slow conditioning that you mention. In this blog, I wrote about several things I believe shouldn’t be done with horses, more than this one issue, but I stand by my words, as a survivor and as a horse advocate. I’m glad that we both have voices. Again, thanks for your comment. Best wishes.
Sorry. Am I missing something here? Shouldn’t we all be united against any form of hurt or abuse administered to any living being? Why the lashing out? Aren’t we women who would rally against pain inflicted on a horse or a child or an adult? We may disagree as to what is causing the pain, or the level of it, but surely we should agree that any form it takes is abhorrent if it makes the animal or human frightened or scared or in pain. I am shocked that such anger is being directed against the author as opposed to those who indeed administer the abuse. Haven’t we all seen the tell-tale signs of abuse and neglect? I think this is what this article is addressing. THAT is what should be considered and discussed. How to stop the abuse. Let’s focus on that.
Kudos to you for your response. It’s exactly what I would have liked to have written if I had collected my thoughts sufficiently. Let’s focus on stopping abuse wherever it exists, and direct our righteous anger to the abusers.
Sarah, absolutely right. I was told as a young girl that just because someone disagrees with you, doesn’t mean they are wrong. The objective is to look at the arguments and concerns of people of good conscience and help bring about what we all really want — a better, safer, more loving life. That should be the ultimate goal. And discussion that is sometimes painful helps. ‘Rants’ from us all should be respected if presented in a respectful way.
I’ll add another thought. We have some harsh traditions in riding disciplines, and if we don’t police ourselves, the general public will. The racing industry is feeling it. I do think the world is improving for horses, and some are cheering and others are defensive. Change is hard, it makes us look at ourselves closely, but we can’t lose sight that it’s about the horse. It makes me sad to see abusers supported at the cost of horses, but I am just one of a majority of trainers who feel this way. These bits are illegal in most events.
I also think the world is improving for horses thanks to people who speak out, like you. For me, I don’t think two-year old’s (or three-year old’s) should be raced, often broken down, and then turned out or worse, for the sake of those in society that put money and excitement ahead of the health and well-being of the animal. I don’t support horse racing as it exists today. One of the only things about former QE2 I didn’t understand! So that is my thing. Could I be wrong? Sure. I would love to hear the arguments for it. But isn’t that the point? Some will say things are hurtful and other will say not. I also don’t think drop nose bands should be used because they may interfere with the normal breathing of the horse. I think ALL of us should rant on about what we believe. That will help to inform us and make the world better for the horses (and people) we love.