Training Tip: Improving Your Eye

Sometimes we look back at how we kept horses as kids, and it seemed so simple then. None of them had any of the complex problems that we deal with today. But it isn’t possible that all of these issues materialized after I got my first horse after leaving home. Horses didn’t wait to invent ulcers and bowed tendons until I had a checkbook. I think I was incapable of seeing anything other than beauty. It was enough to say I know what I like, and I like the spotted one. That’s how most of us started with horses but it only worked for a while.

Then we started having problems. Head tossing, spooking, and bucking. It took some evolution to get past thinking when horses don’t do what we want, it wasn’t personal. In those days, it was always a training problem we could fix. Except that some things got worse with more training. Some behaviors were pain related. We had to give up what we wanted for what our horses needed and a little bit of the romance of horses died. Not that we noticed. Part of developing a good eye involved looking at things we don’t want to see. We will never see horses as a liability.

Maybe we began working with a good trainer, and lesson one was when we realized how much we had to learn. Really? More to horses than bareback rides in cutoffs? That was fine, learning about horses was all we wanted to do. But it wasn’t just that we didn’t understand what the trainer knew. We didn’t even see what they saw. And it made us feel stupid. It’s probably the real start to being a better horse owner. So, we began to train our eyes. Whether it’s standing next to the vet and watching our horse trot out or watching a trainer work with a frightened horse. If we want to learn, then we must see beyond the surface in most situations. We want to find the cause and not be distracted by the symptoms. Or the spots.

Finally, I get to my point. Training our eyes isn’t about our vision at all.

Our first eye problem is that it’s our nature to look for things that are wrong. It’s human instinct. It’s important to understand the distinction because it isn’t personal. Maybe it started when we were babies and our parents wanted us to understand right from wrong at birth. It doesn’t matter, it’s why railbirds exist. And the biggest screeching railbird is in our own heads. But no need for shame and guilt, it is instinct. Looking for things that are wrong is an ingrained habit, but we have a choice. When we can change how we see and that will make it easier to resolve what we see.

The challenge in trying to train your eye is understanding the difference between perception and judgment. Perception is free of emotion and judgment is bound and gagged by it.

Experts say judgment is a defense mechanism we use to try to boost our own self-worth. We lift ourselves up by putting others down. I repeat, this is our natural instinct. Blaming ourselves for being human is not helpful.

The judgments we make about others are small compared to the ones we make about ourselves, followed by explanations and apologies, and once we start that process, we have stopped seeing and perceiving. Now we are taking mental laps of CSI work. We investigate the scene of the crime and begin weaving a story, assigning blame, and making excuses. This emotional process gets in the way of having a good eye. It puts us floating above like a know-it-all angel and we never get our boots dirty. Aren’t we the ones who like dirty boots?

Perception is our ability to become aware of our surroundings by using our senses. It’s being present in the moment. It’s noticing the colors of that sunset without having to explain how the earth rotates. Perception is freedom and possibility. It opens the door to a better response than we imagined. And isn’t the world of senses where horses live?

Step one in improving your eye is understanding the difference between these two processes. Perception is the act of noticing things unfold in front of your eyes. Judgment is calling it right or wrong. Perception is a moving thing you can learn from and participate in, and judgment is something usually sealed and finished. Our minds slam shut right after.

When working with horses, start by training your eye to keep an open mind. Focus on what you see with acceptance. Let it feel like a stream-of-consciousness observation because that is what a conversation with a horse is. It’s one thing after another. Don’t let yourself be distracting by making up stories. Then we are talking about it rather than being in it. When we assert our voice over the horse’s, it’s a kind of dominance.

How much do we just listen without interruption? Without trying to fix their problem, but rather letting the horse finish expressing all the calming signals. Letting a horse resolve their own questions and anxieties is the bedrock of confidence.

But listening without responding isn’t our default nature. Start small. For now, let it be a one-way conversation. Let the horse have his say. Only after listening and understanding, do we have the right to voice our thoughts back.

It takes absolutely no skill to find fault. Why do we think having a critical eye is a gift to anyone? It only diminishes our horses and us. As if that is hard to do, and then sets us on a path of always looking for something to fix, rather than affirming what is good and focusing on developing that. When we change this about ourselves, our horses are immediately different, too.

Finally, I think I understood what I envied in that first brilliant trainer. She studied and learned everything she could. Then she laid it all aside, and let her curiosity run wild. Horses did anything for her. Being unstuck in her mind made her seem nearly mystical. That’s the secret; a human who truly listens is irresistible to a horse.

Making judgments is all about blame and excuses. Eventually, we wear ourselves out playing Whack-a-Mole. Our horses lose confidence, but the biggest loss is ours. We never get the real relationship we want with horses. Oh, we think we know our horses because we can tell our stories about them so well.

But when we take a breath, isn’t their mystery one of the things we love most about horses?

I was able to regain my identity on my Facebook business pages, but I’m not willing to give them that kind of power again. If you appreciate what I do, please Subscribe to the blog or come join us at The Barn School.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

14 thoughts on “Training Tip: Improving Your Eye”

  1. Good for you – taking a stand regarding Facebook. Honestly, I doubt you are in need of it anymore!
    I realize its important to many people for one reason or another – but honestly, the whole drama cloud (like Pigpen’s dirty cloud on Peanut) kind of hangs all over it.
    That said – I remember when I got my first horse at 15 – the old man living at the barn used tobacco to worm the horses there! There was no one who rated the title “trainer”. And the horses that went thru that barn? So so many of them just never had a chance for good lives – coming from the auction nearby. I imagine lots of kids got their horse start a little like that.
    Very good post, Anna

    • Back then, we only knew what we knew. We loved horses, and what you describe was the norm out in the country…

      As for FB, I lost quite a bit of income. I am not retired. I depend on new people taking courses and scheduling clinics… that was the part that mattered. FB threatened my horses.

  2. Yes. Being positive. Plus … I am a veterinarian. When a horse is not doing what you expect … look for for the CAUSE before you blame the horse. For instance, if my horse gets a bit bouncy, I check the saddle. If the horse “yaws” when you touch the reins or when you try to put on a bridle – check if the bridle still fits ( people sometimes “borrow” a bridle for their own horse and readjust it) and whether the horse has a tooth or neck problem… etc.
    In my language as a researcher as well as a vet, this is called a “Causal inference”. Investigating the cause BEFORE making a judgment and assigning blame!!!
    Kindest regards

    • amenamenamen. AMEN! I always hope that vets and trainers are friendly helpers for horses. Thank you, Cheryl

  3. Anna, I’m grateful that I think I have a well developed sense of perception. What bothers me is that I also have a pushy, judgmental alter ego in my head that likes to control outcomes. The other day I did perceive a heightened wariness in the horses with the changing weather. Unfortunately that control freak in my head said “These horses need to be able to be haltered in all circumstance in order to be safe”. This thought led to my mangled foot. I’m pretty certain that my perceptive self needs to tell my analytical self to “Put a sock in it!”.

    • Laurie – I’m laughing at your ability to have a sense of humor and humility towards yourself. When I read your sentence “These horses need to be able to be haltered in all circumstance in order to be safe” my brain instantly re-wrote it as “I want these horses to be able to be haltered in all circumstances so that I feel safe”…. I could see myself thinking that even if I didn’t say it out loud. Of course we want our horses to be safe and free of harm… and sometimes we get reminded (harshly?) that we are not in control of every situation/outcome. If we are doing our very best, then we have done all we can. We are all in this together!

      • Indeed we are all in this together! And I thank Anna for drawing all of us like minded horse lovers together. Without humor, I would have quit a long time ago, or that other pushy control freak in my head would have gotten me killed by now. Let’s keep on keeping on and hopefully cut our imperfect selves a little slack.
        Take care Carrie.

  4. My favorite paragraph–“She studied and learned everything she could. Then she laid it all aside, and let her curiosity run wild. Horses did anything for her. Being unstuck in her mind made her seem nearly mystical. That’s the secret; a human who truly listens is irresistible to a horse.”

    How great. Of course I love the whole post. Be curious always.

  5. I got such a giggle out of your post today, and also found myself shaking my head in an affirmative nod so much of the time. Your posts are always great food for thought and something to ponder too. I definitely get a few seeds every time I read one. Thank you for what you do – so very appreciated!

  6. “…always looking for something to fix” is what I thought for years made a good horse person. Thanks for this very perceptive post, Anna!


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