A Short List of Unfair Things to Ask a Horse

Old mares have a constant dilemma. They get stiff and stove-up. They’re stoic so they don’t whine about it, but they have small feet in proportion to their large body. They lose muscle over the years, their necks are arthritic, their joint fluid turns to sandpaper. The human said she should go for a walk for her own good, but the first steps sting and burn. The human chatters that it’ll feel better soon but she doesn’t know “soon.” Just over the fence, the geldings in the north pen, are stretching down to smell their own manure, and then they explode into bucking circles as fresh and clever as frat boys. Kicking up dust as they charge on past the mare. “That old hen,” one mutters. “She’s tough as gristle.” The mare shifts her hind toward them, cocks a hip, and gives a flick of her middle ear. She isn’t dead yet and younger geldings should not be encouraged in their foolishness. A mare of a certain age knows what she knows and her desire to please is pretty stove-up, too.

There is a thing that longtime horse trainers eventually learn from horses, usually mares. Give me a minute, for all the times I’ve stood and quietly listened to complaints and horror stories about horse trainers being roasted and name-called for their shortcomings. Certainly, there are some trainers who don’t understand horses, some who become stove-up in the heart and behave like monsters, but most of us do the best we can for horses while trying to help riders balance their love and their frustration. This is a job that takes more passion than common sense. We got into this work because we love horses, and if we have any success at all, it’s because we love horses, and some of us leave this work broken for the same reason.

It goes like this: A rider brings their horse in for a tune-up because there’s a training issue. The trainer climbs on and scolds the horse, tries to curb the habits the owner doesn’t like, and the horse obliges. The rider takes the horse back home and he comes apart, sometimes slowly and sometimes not. The horse returns to the trainer, gets scolded again, and goes home again. It’s a cycle like washing clothes. Of course, they get dirty again; it’s the nature of clothing, the nature of change, and for horse owners, the nature of the unfathomable mind of a horse.

I was remembering trailer-training an elder mare years ago. I think of this horse often, though I’m sure she’s been dead a decade now. She didn’t want to go in and she was right. The trailer was too small. I told my clients, who had good excuses. The mare and I went to work, steady and kind. Lots of praise, no rope whacking. She gave me that knowing eye and I understood. I asked her anyway and eventually, she complied. I’m a good trainer, I’m patient and persistently affirmative. I’ve never met a horse I couldn’t get in a trailer. But she was right and I knew it.

Most trainers are miracle workers in small quiet ways. No one alerts the media. We “correct” a head toss at the canter by taking the horse off of sweet feed. We get the horse to soften his poll by changing to a gentle bit or a bitless bridle while insisting on a neckring. We get rid of those sour ears by finding a saddle that fits. Usually “training” is no more than finding the cause of pain.

The more I know horses, the less interested I am in party tricks, the silly things we train just to show off. I started asking myself, just because we can train them unnatural things, should we? Then the line gets blurred. Isn’t the person on the horse the trainer? Rather than continuing the cycle of break and repair, could we take on the scariest challenge of all? Could we attempt to train humans?

I’ll speak for myself, I’ve switched sides. I’ve listened to equine calming signals for so long, I don’t even pretend horses have problems. Instead, I translate for humans. First I ask, “Does this question pass the mare test?” Horses need to become solid citizens but only if we have resolved their pain issues. Only if we can build back the trust others have damaged.

As promised, the short list of unfair things to ask a horse:

  • To work when he is in pain.
  • To work on an empty stomach.
  • To work without a proper warm-up.
  • To tolerate punishment for separation anxiety, but rather than work to affirm their confidence.
  • To do obstacles that are unrealistically dangerous or scary, but rather support the horse’s common sense.
  • To hold the horse to a higher standard than the rider can maintain.

And if the horse says no thanks today, I cancel the lesson. For all the horses I’ve kindly trained to do things that were unfair to ask, I’ll smile and make the horse’s apologies to the rider, trusting that I’ve given a more important lesson.

With best wishes for young trainers, I hope your love will carry you to the day that your neck is sore and your feet sting. I hope you’ll learn the true skill of training horses won’t be found in a colt starting challenge. The real challenge is to convince the horse he’s safe enough with you to share his fear. Can you understand his side and then calmly negotiate for his well-being? The other words for that are replacing our ego with respect for the horse. And if training horses will be a career, I hope you’ll learn to train people, not that the horse’s issue is their fault, but rather affirmative training is the way to show love to horses. I hope you will persist until the day that you know with all confidence that our job is to train trainers.

Back to the mare with her hip cocked, waiting for the sun to warm her frozen stifles. The mare may come out “lazy” on cold mornings but the rider’s learned her lessons well. She reluctantly agreed to give up cantering, but only after the mare tripped and stumbled enough to make her rider nervous. Walking out now is for the mare’s good, but if there’s a fight, the mare won’t understand. So the rider, soon to be the ex-rider of this good horse, lets her exhale be louder than her request, knowing the old mare will shift her weight and take a step eventually, and then another. The going will get easier as the pair find a rhythm. Not the spring and hustle of their youth, but something better. It’s the authentic understanding that comes from years of listening. Trust is letting go of control, more by us than horses.

We know the sad day comes that old dogs growl at kids and we get it. When old horses quietly say no to our foolishness. We would do better to accept them for who they have always been, honor their wisdom and stop trying to change their nature. Eventually, lucky humans begin taking on the horse’s traits. We hold our ground, standing with the old mare, marveling at how much one of us has changed and how one of us is exactly who she always was. A perfect horse.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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40 thoughts on “A Short List of Unfair Things to Ask a Horse”

  1. YES! Those of us who have reached, a certain age with creaky bodies, understand this better than we once did. I will say, I have never sent a horse away for training. Not that I don’t believe in training, but even in my youth, I knew I was the one that needed to learn, more than my horse. So, when I was starting young horses, we both got trained and took three, four, or five lessons a week. We learned to do things the same way, and became partners. I may have more old injuries than I would have had otherwise, but I would never have traded a minute of it. Doing it that way taught me to listen in a way that many don’t learn in a lifetime of riding “Finished” horses.

  2. Oh, Lordee. Not sure what to do with this one except print it, frame it, and put it up on the wall. if I say anything more I will sound mushy and foolish, not like the stoic mare at all. If anything should happen to me, look for me in your next horse. xx

      • Ha! Will do. She often turns to me with ‘the look’ which I now know means, “What are you doing? Will you ask Anna, please?!” Have a good weekend.

  3. Anna,
    Now just short of my 69th year, what I have learned from you is to LISTEN, above all else you teach.
    I stopped asking for many things. My two horses (aged 16 and 25) are so much closer, in bond, than
    they used to be when I took endless lessons.

    One day, I realized I am not really a rider at all — about seven years ago.
    I had to reinvent life with my ex-racehorse (who has mild arthritis and Upward Fixation of the Patella).
    He needs daily exercise, but he told me he could tolerate riding. Watching his expression I realized he
    was so much happier and calmer when the two of us worked in-hand, and took farm walks. That is
    mostly what we do now.

    And I hope everyone will consider equine massage; it has been a great help for his stiff neck (old injury, possibly from the track).

    He runs into the barn, squealing when I arrive. The 25-year-old takes his in-hand work seriously, but they are both
    calm. The always walk out cheerfully with ears forward. We are a herd of four on all feet and we work together.
    No tricks, just fitness moves.

    This post brought tears to my eyes.
    RIP dearest mare…you earned your wings.


  4. This is such a beautifully written article, thank you Anna. I have, and I am an old mare now, and we both trundle along doing what we can and being satisfied with that. I will never ask more of my beautiful Cleo than she is happy and willing to give.

  5. I learned the power of “cocking my hip” from my beloved Mustang. When you start taking “cues” from your horses your truly starting to understand the dynamics in your relationship;)❤️

  6. Extraordinary insight. Mutual respect. Too many humans do not exercise this respect toward one another. Beginning with our equines, we may learn the value and rewards mutual respect reveals. I shall never adhere to the”trainers” who advocate for the doctrines you have cited as unfair. …because they are.
    Once again, thank you for eloquently advocated on their behalf. I have printed the article and posted the list on my arena wall.

  7. When I first started riding, I read a book called “There Are No Problem Horses” meaning the problem is generally with the rider or is a medical problem (like pain) the horse cannot help. Taking that to heart, I also have never sent my horse away to a trainer. What good would that do? They’d come home and I’d recreate the problem again. I have been amazed over and over when in my lesson, I finally ask correctly and my horse instantly does the action I wanted. Like Magic! I feel my horse’s smirk.

  8. Again, the blog is right with my life experiences. My family lost one of the greatest members – my mare (35 yo quarter horse) Lexie died last Thursday from colic. This mare was the matriarch of our band of 6 and has been the matriarch for 26 years at my place, no matter who the group was. The first trainer who rode her got a broken foot, the second trainer a broken saddle when she reared up and fell over. I was the third person to ride her – and we lived a long time of wonderful rides – due in part to the second trainer and a large part in the information I gleaned from this blog. Like the last person to comment, I took lessons to correct me – but I realize now that those lessons were to correct the communication. This mare taught me a treasure trove of things, and I will miss her forever. My barn is so quiet without her…..but it is also very interesting watching the 5 left figure out who they can trust enough to keep them safe!

  9. If only everyone everywhere agreed on the value of fairness. That was my “inspired” thought this morning as I did chores. The thought was based on how I feel about horses. This afternoon, I found this in my email. Must have rode in on those strong winds coming from the west.
    Thanks, Anna

  10. I love this so much! You are gifted with the ability to put into words, that which is in our hearts as lovers of the horse. Thank you Anna! My Mustang gelding has taught me so much about being “fair”. Life may not always be, but I agree with him, in that we should always strive for fairness.

  11. Another good one, Anna – will forward to my granddaughter – she at one time worked for a “trainer” who indeed did ask horses for unfair things. No more! Her two horses (rehabs) also came from that same world – No more!

  12. Everything you said is true. Many years ago, I inherited a 15 year old basically unbroken horse. After suffering multiple injuries from him I decided I needed a trainer. The cowboy who was recommended to me finally agreed to take me with the stipulation that he would train ME to train the horse because he was disgusted with fixing horses then getting them back 6 months later when the riders ruined them again. We worked 5 days a week for 4 months 6:30 -8:30 am in the dead of winter with no ring or indoor just out in a field. That cowboy taught me to listen and talk to the horse in his language, not mine. We restarted that horse literally from the ground up and it was the best time of my life! Probably would only have taken him 2 months ( or less) to train the horse without me. But that horse became the best trail horse you could ever want and I finally began to be a horsewoman and not just a rider.

  13. Really good thoughts here, Anna. You amaze me with your ability to keep on keeping on, to find new ways to talk about these critical horse matters.

  14. “We hold our ground, standing with the old mare, marveling at how much one of us has changed and how one of us is exactly who she always was.”

  15. Anna ,
    I don’t comment often but your words always find their way to my heart .
    I will become a better horseperson because of you and your thoughtful kindness.

    “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume someone downstream whose face we may never see will benefit from our action” Maya Angelou
    Thank you for casting your words into the waters.

  16. Wow… Felt this one deep… My “old gelding” is 29 and I am now the old mare 🙂 We’ve grown together and learned together over many years without any formal training. He showed me how to listen to him, read his expressions and know what he is thinking. It’s an incredible feeling!! He is still ready to go, but his days of getting to rest in the pastures are coming soon… Thank you for this Anna.


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