Affirmative Training: Navigating the Nebulous.

“I have a three-step process guaranteed to transform your horse into your perfect partner and it only costs ten thousand dollars!!”

How many of you are thinking about what you could sell? And how many of you have fallen for some sort of snake oil training approach in the past and are more than a little cynical now? How many sure-fire, they-worked-for-the-trainer, signature training aids that don’t work are left dusty in the tack room? How many video fails have you racked up because your horse goes off the grid in a minute by giving a different answer? Add to that all the free advice that doesn’t pan out.

It’s enough to make a rational horseperson, if there is such a thing, go a little crazy, which by all appearances, we are. We just want to get it right, but that seems to be a moving target that bumps along differently every day. Then, we’re so busy waiting for a bell to ring when we get it right, that if our horse gives us an answer that is perhaps a better answer, we don’t recognize it. 

Go ahead and blame me. At each clinic, with people trying their best to learn it right, I still do things slightly differently with each horse. It was crazymaking if you’re taking notes. I didn’t get cruel or contradictory, but I do communicate individually with each horse. The door to communication isn’t well marked; I might have to ask a few questions first. If one door isn’t working, I’ll move on to another.

It’s required. Some horses are very young, some seemed older than their years. Some were over-trained in particular methods and some by a confusing variety of methods. Some were mares with hormones and some reacted to mares with hormones. Some of the breeds were old feral sorts and some designed by humans more recently. Some of the horses were visiting the farm and some lived on the farm which had been invaded by the visitors I just mentioned. Nothing was normal.

Even if the horses had been the same breed and sex, groups of horses will always have more individuality than conformity. Two of my personal horses are full siblings, and as different from each other as, well, my sister and I. Finding one training technique that fits all is as easy as finding one pair of jeans that we can all wear. Give it up. Humans were as unique and ‘not ordinary’ as their horses.

If we finally do get something trained with some reliable consistency, like trailer loading, it might flake out on a windy day or a dark night or the last day of a clinic. Why can’t anything thing be a done deal?

So there we are, tormented with whether our horse is right or wrong. But making a horse wrong does no good. Being wrong is just as much of a nebulous dead end for us. Can we give that judgment up for the time being? 

Rather than looking for that technique that will not fail, wouldn’t we do better to get more comfortable with nebulousness? If we ask a dog to sit, and they do, the conversation is clean and over. Horses will never be dogs. Some dogs aren’t even dogs. Egads, more nebulousness?

Instead of praising ourselves for rescuing and rehabbing, training, and getting horses to do unnatural behaviors, maybe we give up the techniques that created their anxiety issues in the first place, and we sit back and listen. Could we teach ourselves to value our horse’s nature and exercise our own curiosity more? Because the elusive relationship we are all diligently working on will come the minute we stop pushing for a behavior we want more than our horse wants to give.

Can it be as simple as getting unstuck in judgment? Then rather than looking for perfection, we would look for congruity as a way of building trust. The most important starting point is to be in the conversation. If we are able to keep an open mind, we might recognize it when a horse gives us a better answer than the right one.

Does that sound contrary? There’s a bit of donkey in every horse. Their DNA is similar, cousin-like. Donkeys would suggest we give up the idea of being leaders and try to get along until we convince them they are safe with us. Donkeys hold that bar higher than horses. And there might be a little donkey in us humans, too.

We want an absolute answer from an animal that can’t give one. We have to be radical thinkers and find new creative approaches. If it isn’t about control, could it be about freedom? Instead of contorting their answers to our will, what if we release our minds to run free to do the unexpected? Would a horse read that as peaceful and curious rather than predatory?

While you’re at it, give up the idea that you’re doing it right or wrong. It just adds to a horse’s anxiety. Instead, of making every request a life-and-death referendum on your rightness or your horse’s ability to surrender, think whatever you ask is just a conversation starter, with the goal of two-way communication. What that means is we go their way, affirming their confidence, and understanding it’s a start to negotiations. If our way is safe, they will begin to trust and circle back to us. Trust must come first, then all behaviors are possible. We gain trust by offering it. We become trustworthy.

If we are ever to learn true listening, it will not be through telling these mysterious flight animals to obey us. Not by making these beautiful and fragile animals weak and anxious through leverage and domination, even if the domination is kindly presented.  It’s our job to find the questions each horse can answer successfully, hopefully gaining just a small corner of congruity that we can build on. Call it shared safety. We become the peacemakers.

Instead of the eternal and childish “am-not/are-so” argument, what do humans have to lose by getting along? As any donkey will bluntly tell you, “We aren’t stubborn, you’re rude.”

It’s a fight we will never win as long as they are right. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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Anna Blake

15 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: Navigating the Nebulous.”

  1. I have to wonder why is it so hard to understand that every species is made up of individuals with different likes, fears, dislikes – why?
    Pretty telling that for hundreds (thousands?) of years humans considered themselves to be dominant, above all other species – you know “dumb” animals. All that time & NOW some of us (us, right?) wake up & realize dominance just may be in the eye of the beholder!
    I feel sorry for the poor folks who dont see the individual in every animal. They live very sad lonely lives.
    Keep on trucking, Anna and opening up minds because there are a LOT of minds that need opening right now.

  2. If working with damaged horses hadn’t convinced me of this, training Ibizan Hounds for dog sports brought the lesson home. This is why I have never “Sent a horse for training”. Not to say I haven’t spent thousands on trainers over the years, but I wanted to be in the conversation and to be the one building a relationship with my horse. My trainers worked with me and my horse as a team. Accept that everything about working with animals is nebulous, there are no rules. Only a conversation with each animal as an individual is going to be successful in the long run. Thank you Anna for helping us improve our understanding of their language and elevate that conversation.

    • Thanks, Peggy. I feel the same way about the relationship aspect of training… horses give a different answer to each person, one reason so many of us felt like horse whisperers as kids.

  3. Mesmerizing word-smithery here, Anna. Hooray for the many doors from which there is to choose. There’s bound to be one that holds the key. But if you run out of doors, open a window!
    (BTW, your photos are lovely)

  4. That was beautiful! Spoken so eloquently for another species. And so true! My current foster came to us 9 months ago, from an SPCA who removed him from his neglectful owner 3 months prior. They had to sedate him to trim his hooves. He was separated from his companion mare the day before we got him. He wanted nothing to do with us or our horses so we let him be. We let time, 40+ acres of pasture & brush, a swimming hole, daily feedings & a couple congenial horses do the healing. We respected his space and his desire to be left alone. It took a couple of months but the outer shell of that horse seemingly fell away overnight. He suddenly let his guard down, became social and his confidence has been growing in leaps & bounds. He started interacting with the other horses, laying down and seeking out interaction with us. The trust became palpable and soft willingness oozed from him. His eyes became “bright”, his intelligence & curiosity surfaced and he will do anything we ask now and often volunteer. We never had to sedate him for trims or vet visits. He will stay with the humans when the other horses go out to pasture. The change has been simply amazing. He is leaving in a couple weeks to go to a non-pro “trainer” who will get him ready for the annual October Expo & Challenge where rescue horses get to strut their stuff and find forever homes. I believe he is ready. I will worry & miss him of course but I will watch his progress on his Facebook page and be forever grateful for having had him. Birth is a miracle of nature for sure but the “rebirth” of a mistreated animal is every bit & more of a wonder & miracle of nature. Thank you Anna, for the knowledge, the understanding and the tools you’ve given me to be a better fosterer. Learning to listen, recognizing and using calming signals has changed my life and I believe the lives of every horse that comes thru our barn.

    • Letting them heal themselves… just so kind. Yesterday I gave two online lessons and in both, there was that softness than can only be given freely. Such a gift to see. Well done, Sueann! Thanks.

    • Oh if only ALL the rescues could be rescued like that. What a gift you gave to this lovely boy & I’m sure, to every foster you bring in.

  5. Yasssss. 🙌 Hail curiosity and open mindedness! I keep adding tools to my toolbox but the more I learn, the more I question… every horse (& dog) is different as are our working conditions. 👏


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