Affirmative Training is Fine, But What-if…


A few years back, a pretty well-known trainer made a statement about using force with horses. Flat out, the craziest thing I’d ever heard. The short version was if you wanted to lollygag around your pasture, and ride like a girl, fine… but if you competed, you had to win and that meant dominating your horse into submission. The first thing I thought was cheap talk from a full-grown man on a 14.3HH Quarter Horse. Let’s pop you up on an 18HH Warmblood and see how that works. But that’s just my testosterone shooting back. And it’s silly because I’m a dressage trainer and in my discipline, women dominate the competitions, not their horses. Dang, there I went again.

It’s also a serious question that comes up from thoughtful horse people trying to get their heads around a different way of training. At the wrap-up session at the end of a great day of affirmative training, the what-if questions come. What-if it’s Sunday night at a clinic and your horse won’t load, what-if there’s a fire, what-if I’m up in the woods and the sun is setting, what-if it’s an emergency? Notice a pattern here? They are trailering what-ifs, so my answers will be about trailering, but it translates to everything we do with horses.

I think the real devil’s advocate question is, “When is it okay to hit my horse?” What do I do when it all comes apart? Is there a situation where I get a special dispensation for cruelty? (Ouchy the way those words came out of the end of my fingers.)

Let me be clear: If it is truly life and death, not just inconvenient but a serious emergency, then you pick the least of all evils, and if that has to be unkind, you will do it against your better judgment. In this horrible moment, I will startle my horse rather than touch him. But if you do, in the split second after whacking them, have something really positive on the tip of your tongue because he will need it. And then you may not do it twice. Understand if you have no alternative but force, you are not where you hoped and you have work to do to make it up to your horse. He may be in the trailer, but it isn’t a success.

The problem with these what-ifs is some are not within our control, like fires, but most of them result from mistakes or poor planning. Our responsibility.

Now let’s go on to the what-ifs. First, if the questions that come to your mind are about trailering, you have trailer anxiety. You’re not even in the situation, but it’s on your mind. Your horse will always have anxiety, he’s a flight animal, but he shouldn’t have to carry your anxiety, too. You must resolve yours because you’re asking a lot of your horse and it’s not fair. Horses shouldn’t get in trouble for what we do wrong.

Never, under any circumstances, work with a horse when you’re angry or frustrated. That rule isn’t about our manners; it’s about equine temperament. Fear-based training isn’t wrong because it’s cruel; it’s wrong because it’s incongruent with how horses think. Learn self-control. Is the horse resisting the trailer or resisting the fight he knows is coming?

What-if it’s Sunday night at a clinic? Clinics are all about things being different; that’s stressful. Your horse is exhausted. What-if you’re up on the side of a mountain and the sun’s setting? Maybe you think it’s fun to be gone that long, but your horse is tired and flooded. If separation anxiety kicks in, a sure sign he’s anxious about your anxiety. Please notice you are tired, too.  Instead of thinking he should want to go home, understand that his brain doesn’t work that way, and this isn’t a training issue. He isn’t disobedient; he is overwhelmed. Upping his fear isn’t the answer. Can you spend the night and go home the next day?

When your horse who normally goes in the trailer refuses to, it’s a calming signal. It’s him telling the truth. It isn’t fair to take him away for a day or weekend, if you have not built that habit gradually. If you plan to take your horse off-property for clinics or trail rides, take short trips first. I mean, haul him, let him graze, and bring him home. Give him gastric support every time. Stop riding sooner, do less. Consider it an endurance ride, because it is for him, and then train for it. Do some serious conditioning, mentally and physically. If your horse is struggling, he’s asking you to prepare better. 

If it’s a fire or a serious injury, it’s a genuine emergency, you’d better have the trailer your horse fits in easily and likes. Stock trailers are made for emergencies. With fires, depending on the situation, it can be expedient to use a chute to load. It’s given me peace of mind to know this option. If a horse is already in their sympathetic system, flight response, it’s the smartest way. Make sure you have a first aid kit because horses can get hurt if we scare them into the trailer. Plan ahead and have what you need before leaving home.

Here is the real answer: Emergencies happen. Chaos always exists. No one is perfect. But please, understand that if you train affirmatively on a good day and then fall back on dominance training in stressful situations, you’ve shown your horse your inconsistency and erratic moods. You’re unreliable. Being a flip-flopper can confuse your horse enough that neither approach will work. And in the process, you’ve destroyed trust.

Let me give you a what-if. What-if your horse’s hesitation is him processing the question? Maybe your horse is weighing your request against the fear you might hurt him. What-if in the moment you doubt affirmative training, your horse is doubting the exact same thing? Calming signals happen at the intersection of conflicting thoughts in humans and horses. Like a game of chicken, which of you will break trust first? Because training isn’t about technique, it’s always about relationship.

You’re the one that has to prove Affirmative Training works, especially when it’s inconvenient. It takes more self-control and respect for your horse to be consistently kind. Much more strength to NOT lose your temper and patience. Let your horse read your confidence and focus, not your anxiety. Sorry to nag, but when was your last full breath? No one is perfect; it takes a lifetime to train a horse, but we must learn from our mistakes rather than punish theirs. If you are consistent it will work for you because consistency breeds consistency.

This is when the rubber meets the road; when trust matters. Exactly because you aren’t lollygagging around the pasture. Your horse really needs help now. He really needs you to ride like a girl.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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21 thoughts on “Affirmative Training is Fine, But What-if…”

  1. Amen! Riding like a girl IS the answer! As someone who is highly (and I mean very highly) sensitive to energies, I know how an equine feels when they are responding to our current mental and energetic states. We MUST be aware of the “vibes” we are sending out and swirling all around us. Everything is energy. EVERYTHING. So I am not spouting floofy nonsense, trust me. I feel energies and their shifts. I retrained my spooky, traumatized (by a trainer who probably had the mentality of the AQHA trainer you mentioned) mule by training me/myself. I had been through traumas, too – big ones – and had to learn to clear them and heal. So we did it together. Yeah, makes me cry. So before I call her from the field, I take a few moments to ground myself, breathe deeply (folks, deep breathing is a HUGE game changer for yourself and everything around you), let go of thoughts and any tension I’m holding, THEN I go get her and we have some fun. If I have to stop in the middle grooming to deep breathe, then I do. I remember to deep breathe on rides, too. Equines feel this and respond accordingly!! The times I felt like a “what if” came up, or anger flared, have dissolved. Sounds like magic. It kinda is. And we hold that magic within ourselves. We just have to make a small effort to wield it. And ride like a girl! 🙂❤️

    • Carol, thank you for this comment. Horses don’t heal us, but they inspire us to heal for them. For long ears, twice as true. Thank you for putting her first!

  2. One of my favorites!!!!! I also think about all the time, effort and progress that will be lost if you slip up and go for a dominant approach even for an instant. Going back to square 1 is much harder than breathing!

  3. I remember how worried I used to be about not knowing what to do when a horse spooked. It felt like a catastrophic (and shameful!) loss of “control”. That was then. Not long ago, IT happened, and I found myself saying “good girl” and walking along quietly as she slowed and came over to check in with me. I felt so good that it was my first instinct, not something I had to remember to do!

    • It really does get easier, doesn’t it. Anxiety about anxiety seems worse than “simple” anxiety. Thanks, Susan

  4. Wow, Anna, once again you are talking about life and our relationships with each other. Whether adult to child or adult to adult. WE need to recognize our own crap, our own fears, our own struggles and not dump them on someone else. Love it! Again, thank you, Anna!

    • Thanks, Carolyn. I never can tell the difference between horses and real life. Happy spring, hope you are well.

  5. Anna,
    I am taking this all very seriously, as I do with all your writing.
    We are moving to a new barn in three weeks’ time with four horses.
    I plan to hold a ‘planning session’ with the new barn trainers before we
    begin. Fortunately, they are quietly spoken and calm people, and the
    new manager said, “We will do it all gently, no forcing, and it doesn’t
    matter if it takes all day.” These words are from the barn owner, a
    Hawaiian-American lady who is brilliant in handling, quiet, fair and
    genuinely loves the horses she handles. Fortunately, too, we have known
    her for 12 years and she is consistent.
    Your words will soothe and help during that day.
    Thank you so much, Anna.

  6. Anna, your post is affirmative training for ME. It has taken three years for me to have my pushing 30 gelding to relax with me out in the herd, much less in the barn. I’m not even asking him to leave them at this point because I’m looking for consent to the simplest things, like picking up his feet (he consents willingly) and putting fly spray around his eyes—I need more patience with this. I tell myself that if it took 11 years for me to get my indoor feral cat to sit on my lap and accept petting, I have all the time in the world or as long as my horse lives, anyway. Thank you for this.

    • Affirmative training is cool that way… thank you. Jen. And there is nothing simple about surrendering a hoof…

  7. I love that post. So much hard truth. You know – the kind humans usually don’t like. Especially when it holds up that old mirror of self-reflection. Normally humans love when it’s all about them – just not when it’s about them being the problem. Horses seem to be a lot like children – they learn from example and feed off your energy. Thanks for the reminders Anna!
    P.S. So sorry to hear about your arm. I hope it heals quickly & completely so you’ll be sound again soon!

    • It’s hard to do right by horses and children. But we signed on for this, just like parents, thinking we knew what we didn’t know. Thanks, SueAnn

  8. Anna, as I sit here icing my right foot, which looks like one of those cruel black balloons that people think are funny to give to you on your birthday when you are no longer young; your phrase”…but he shouldn’t have to carry your anxiety too”, echos in my brain. The weather was turbulent, the wind was strong, the horses were anxious, and I successfully haltered and brought Ferd out to pasture. When I came in to get Noche, he approached me and after a moment offered his head for the halter. It was over his nose about an inch an a half when he and the remaining 2 other horses bolted. Clearly they were picking up on my anxiety. How do we train ourselves to look at the big picture and say “not today because chances of success are slim”? It is so hard being a task oriented predator on a time line, with the time line being about getting these horses comfortable before I die. If I didn’t already hurt I’d slap myself.

    • Oh, crap. I’ve been drowning in ice, it hurts too, doesn’t it? Please heal quickly. The weather here has been nuts too, so sorry to hear. So have the horses, for what it’s worth, I think it was the barometer changes. We’ve had lots of that this week. Sorry, but it isn’t all your fault. (And you know I’m not saying it to be nice. I’m not nice.) Let’s toast each other with Ibuprofen!

  9. This is just so good. Horses should never be subjected to our anxiety. We absolutely need to own it, make the time for doing things right. I’ve learned when I get a no from a horse that I need to let it go for a while, check myself. My relationships with the school horses I connect with in a week have never been better. “Breath is the king of the mind” B.K.S. Iyengar. (oh, and you ARE nice, you are just honest and authentic.)

  10. Thank you for this, Anna! I’ve learned so incredibly much from you.

    My biggest fear hasn’t been my kooky relapsed EPM horse, it’s fearing the woman—who has three horses next to mine— who screamed at me about my lack of “training” him. She’s managed to drive a whole barn of old school “hit the horse” women to madness and drama.

    The lack of understanding about the pain and messages the horse is telling us is unfortunately ignored by most.

    Sadly, that leaves days that I would love to be with him, but my sympathetic system is too amped up. PTSD from the past. I’m not going to dump that on him! But there’s a small window at the end of the day to have some quiet time at this barn. Breathe, breathe, breathe!

    Boarding here stinks.

    I’m in the process of getting him to pasture at a large serene farm. Instead of < a mile away, it’s an hour. But this decision isn’t about my convenience, it’s about him. He deserves every chance to thrive.

    Please keep your fingers crossed for us! We’ve been back on gastric support for 10 days, and will continue until he says he’s ok.

    • Oh, Kristin. Sorry to hear about the EPM, it’s a monster. I was just saying how that old school training starts to look like a trainer temper tantrum, and here you are, living it. So silly but then it is powerful in some ways, for scaring both horses and people. Good luck on the move.As for the commute, I do a whole lot of that. Two words… audio books. Take care.


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