Nube: How to Train a Horse to be Patient

I don’t like cameras. How you can tell is my neck swells up and my double chins flare out wider than my ears. I’m trying to suck my head down between my shoulder blades and inside my chest so I’m invisible. I always needed an animal in my business photos for my confidence. Otherwise, all you would see was my hairline. I had to get over it when I became a clinician. Now I dance at clinics and the participants are the ones who are embarrassed. Progress, isn’t it?

When Nube was young, I’d been asked to make a PowerPoint presentation about Calming Signals by a therapeutic riding center. I agreed, but having never seen a PowerPoint, I had no idea they were that dull. No pictures of horses at all. How is anyone supposed to stay awake? Thus, I produced my first series of videos. I enlisted a friend who worked at a local equine program and a photographer to video.

My plan was to ask all the horses the same question and then video their calming signal response. There is nothing more important than our first interchange with a horse, so the question that we asked all the horses was silent. We held a halter. The horses took it from there.

The wind was howling. A good day to cancel, but we plowed on. The horses were very communicative with lots of looking away, freezing, and grazing when not hungry. Some horses were new to the program and reluctant. All horses in programs tend to be stoic, so lots of signals were subtle. A few of the videos were five minutes long, the equivalent of a Fellini movie in a PowerPoint presentation. I’d get to talk about patience. I wanted to demonstrate haltering with a shared calming signals language, so at the end of the day, the photographer set up to videotape me and Nube (rhymes with ebay).

I had been using calming signals as a foundational part of my training for several years by then, but Nube was the first youngster I started this way. Calming signals had been our language since he was two months old. Years later, haltering him or any other conversing, happened at a similar speed to human conversation, so we would demonstrate that it wasn’t slow forever.

I could show you the video but it’s more fun if I do a verbal video. To halter, I always stand with my feet parallel to the horse’s hooves because I can’t reach the horse’s head from there. They have to arc their head around to the halter. That’s their volunteer. Nube was 17.2 hands and had a lovely, long neck. I stood at his shoulder and the photographer started filming. I asked for Nube’s eye, by quietly exhaling and glancing at his eye. He immediately arced his head slightly toward me. I opened the halter and exhaled again, and he dropped his head so I could pass the crown piece under his neck and hold it in my right hand on top of his neck. On the next exhale I offered the noseband of the halter. He had to arch his neck a good distance, bringing his muzzle around to slowly drop his nose into the halter. I moved the nose band up his muzzle and did the buckle. With each question asked and answered, I stepped back and exhaled. When the camera stopped, I had a goonie grin on my face because my lips were stuck up on my gums. It’s my competition smile. I didn’t notice what I’d done until then.

I have a dozen different PowerPoints now, but this first one is still the best. I’ve updated most of the videos as I got better ones, but this one of Nube and I stays in. Every time I show it there is a nodding acknowledgment from the group. We are the Fred and Ginger of haltering. People throat breath at our elocution, they think we’re geniuses. That’s when the fun begins. I point out that the nose band is so tight that hairs are bent back underneath it. Then I tell them I had no idea where this halter came from and it’s true. If there was an equivalency of geeky high-water pants in halters that’s certainly what’s going on here. Now my Iberian dream-horse looked as dorky as my competition smile. I made a mistake. I should have stopped the video and found his halter, but it had been a long day.  The photographer and I wanted to be done. I keep this video in because a sense of humor is required. Because it’s easy to get a little holy about horse training and good to remind people I’m no saint.

Sometimes your horse isn’t perfect. Sometimes your horse feels that way about you and that was Nube in the video. He showed me patience. Nube was a young horse then, but it wasn’t a big deal. He had better answers than I did lots of times. On this day, Nube made me look good when I didn’t deserve it. We were consistently partners, every day through to the last day. What is a relationship if not standing in for each other when needed?

The title of this essay mentions patience, but for horses who had a harsh start, it’s more like tolerance. Fear-based training is easy, but how do you train a horse to show you goodwill or even grace? It’s how you treat them every day from the first day. You never bully or threaten, with treats or whips. You build them up, teaching peace. You are generous with your breath. You show respect by learning their language and staying consistently on the horse’s side, trusting their intelligence. It’s a revolutionary idea for a predator.

Some think affirmative training is fine for a silly halter video, but when things get tricky, the use of force is necessary. Fighting their fear with a bigger fear is a doomsday plan. Horses are right to not trust humans who throw temper tantrums. If a horse has a constant fear of correction, it’s no different than us having a similar fear of getting hurt. Our real work with horses is to trust them, to listen for better ideas, and like Nube, give things a chance to work out before we jump to “fix” them.

Nube would be the first to say no thanks to kissy-face selfies. Cameras made him as uncomfortable as me. But even as a youngster, he had my back. Not that I was special, but because horses understand reciprocity, being a member of a herd, from the start. Calming Signals are the entry door, but it takes us a while to learn to leave the human drama in the house and become as reliable a partner as we want them to be.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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12 thoughts on “Nube: How to Train a Horse to be Patient”

  1. Thank you. A wonderful reminder for what we need to do everyday with our horses. Is that video of you and Nube available somewhere? I would love to watch it. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Virginia. Horses are so much more intelligent than we give them credit for. No, I use that video teaching calming signals, but it isn’t on the internet.

  2. Morning, Anna!
    Firstly, before I get to the matter at hand, I admit to struggling with how to pronounce Nube’s name. This is because I listen to a podcast where the author’s parakeet is named Newbie (pronounced New-Bee). So, I keep having to make that adjustment in my head before I can proceed to the lesson. Does it matter? Rightly or wrongly, I think it does.
    Secondly, I just spent the better part of today convinced it was Saturday, and wondered why you waited til now to post your essay. So, I have had to make another adjustment in my head. Does it matter? Rightly or wrongly, I think it does!
    Anyway, I pretty much was able to visualize your haltering demonstration. The way I have done it is after presenting the halter to Dover, he would lower his head and give me a slight arc. My right hand holds onto the strap piece; as I hover over his crown, my left hand guides his nose through the noseband. Then I can thread the strap piece through to fasten the buckle. Fred and Ginger, it ain’t but it works most of the time!
    I can just visualize Nube as he let you know how he feels about your “perfectness,” and can almost hear him say to you, “No worries, Anna; I got this!” Dover many times would say that to me, mostly when we were together by ourselves.

    • Sometimes I worry that a small group of people will get disoriented if I miss a friday morning. Folks like us use a calendar of habits. I think the big thing with haltering, I didn’t say it but, is to not be in front and it doesn’t sound like you were. We are lucky to have horses like Dover…

  3. Anna, working on my patience has been more challenging than observing the growing patience in my horses. Although, since starting my quest to understand equine calming signals, asking a silent question like holding a halter has been remarkably instructive. Being quiet and waiting for a signal has shown me repeatedly how present and responsive horses are. I bemoan my former misunderstanding of yawns, sleepy eyes, etc. Sometimes when holding a halter as I approach, I might get a clear refusal of their head turning away, but if there is a bucket of grooming tools in view I might get a softening eye and the offer of their muzzle. This season’s fly infestation has further reinforced the clarity of their thoughts and language as they come to me and assume the position if I’m carrying a fly mask. The journey of learning another language is long, but clearly worth the trip.

    • I agree… but looking away isn’t a hard no, more like I need a moment… and it isn’t like your horses were blank slates when they came. You are doing well, and yes, 10 years in with Bhim, I can say it takes the time it takes. Thankfully most horses are quicker to melt than him.

  4. Anna, I have read this three times now, and it improves with each reading. I love this essay/blog for numerous reasons– a glimpse into your relationship with Nube, and your wit and wry humor intertwined with horse training wisdom.

    • Thank you, Sarah. That horse was a privilege every day, even the bad ones. And I had fun writing this. People do get a little too holy…

    • This video, out of context of the Calming Signals powerpoint, is like reading the last page of a book. I know most trainers flood social media with selfies, and videos that look perfect. Not for me. And I thought mentioning the whole powerpoint thing would encourage people to want to take the course. It’s funny, Sarah. This is so much a part of how you relate to horses now… As much as I hope others will find their way to us, I am inspired by people like you!


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