Affirmative Training: Response Time and a Hail Mary Pass

My client and I were having an online meeting. We’d been working on a systematic process of getting her and Bradley, her gelding, back to riding. It’s a process that I’ve developed that has space for horses and riders to be individuals, and more than traditional training, we focus on listening to calming signals and building new habits. Things were going well. She had hit a bump and I was congratulating her. Hitting a bump means moving toward success.

A few short rides in, Bradley had tossed his head during mounting. My client videos her rides, so rather than this being a live lesson, we watched a video of a previous ride, a great resource because the camera has a habit of recording the big picture, the horse’s whole body, while my client only saw his head and neck from the mounting block. There was tension in his poll but no other calming signals, then he lowered his head and his neck stretched long. His halt was immobile and his tail quiet. I thought he had adjusted himself and she was right to climb on a few moments later.

My client wondered about the head toss. My first thought is always pain. Did her saddle fit? Was his back sore? The mounting process is very revealing if we listen. My client had her horse checked out at the beginning of the process of getting back in the saddle and resolved some questions. Or were they? We talked about possible supplements appropriate for the horse’s age and condition. If the horse is uncomfortable, riding won’t go well.

Then my client mentioned another habit during dismounting. It always takes a while, in live lessons or online meetings, for related information to be shared. With horses, as much as we want one simple answer, a question usually leads us to a tangled ball of twine that is tied to other behaviors. My client said her gelding tended to brace his neck at the end of the ride, the second her feet came out of the stirrups. She isn’t sure what he’ll do next, so she quickly jumps off. I wondered if she might negotiate that instant to less anxiety for both.

My client wants to be safe which some might call being timid, but I call having common sense. We all know when things come apart with a horse, it happens quickly. Scientists have measured response time in different species and horses are 7x quicker than humans. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? It’s how horses survive as flight animals; it’s why it can feel like horses are hardwired to spook. It should make us a bit wary.

But humans tend to focus on that bad side. We trust that horses will come apart quickly, but we fail to recognize it also means that horses can come back together 7x quicker than us, as well. This is why the power of breath or a kind word is a fundamental part of Affirmative Training. If we don’t have a mental runaway when our horses are being challenged, then we can help them. Given a pause, the horse will calm 7x quicker. If we can take a breath, the chances of the horse righting himself are very good.

It’s a bit like playing chicken. The first one to flinch “loses.” If we panic and grab the reins, it’s a cue that the horse is right to be afraid. But if the rider can stay the course just an instant longer and take a conscious breath, it slows time and the horse doesn’t need much. It gives the horse support to take a breath himself, engage his mind and make a choice. Horses don’t like to be scared; he wants to come back.

Could my client drop her stirrups and as he braces, could she stay on just a breath longer and give him a scratch?

It’s a small thing and it doesn’t address possible pain, but it is the kind of fundamental change that begins a huge shift in trust in a partnership. Rather than correcting what some might see as bad behavior, she is listening to his anxiety. She’s supporting her horse in feeling safe by giving him a moment to consider his response, to consider coming back (again, 7x quicker.) Don’t ever underestimate what giving the horse the benefit of the doubt means. It’s a way to offer trust a few seconds at a time. It’s a place for confidence to take root.

When we are with a horse, we are “training” every moment. We should focus more on what the horse is actually learning because this wasn’t about mounting or dismounting at all. Since 35% of head injuries happen at the mounting block, we need to have that helmet on, but we also need to listen to the small messages before they become big problems. I’m happy my client is seeing the best in Bradley and is supporting him in his efforts by listening to his calming signals. Breathing equals confidence.

But this wasn’t the best part. Just like my client only saw his head and neck in the beginning, I saw nothing beyond the ride. And my client buried the lead. Or more likely, it was Bradley who taught the lesson more than I did.

She told me about another incident that week. The weather had changed from warm to wet to cold. Blankets were drenched, so my client brought her horse into her barn, along with his pasture mate, to warm up overnight. She expected they would want out the next morning, and there might be some post-storm bucking and frolic. Instead, her normally kind gelding cornered his pasture mate and prepared to double-barrel him. It started as just horseplay, but in the limited space, anxiety escalated quickly. Things went sour in a blink.

My client saw the possible negative outcomes in her mind, wanted to help, and absolutely knew stepping in the middle would not be safe for her and only raise the anxiety more. She is right. Too often when we think we’re helping, we make things worse.

She mouthed some words that start with no and don’t but stumbled over what to say. She thought for an instant before reacting, an improvement right there. Then she called out, “Good Boy”, not because she liked what was happening, but to remind him who he was. She threw it high into the air like a Hail Mary pass, helpless to do more.

Her words interrupted the flow of the moment; it gave both horses a pause, a reminder that they had a choice, and it gave Bradley the confidence to rebalance himself. And he did that 7x quicker, too.

Probably best I don’t ask who’s training who in our threesome.

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

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20 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: Response Time and a Hail Mary Pass”

  1. I believe in the power of ‘talking to horses’. They don’t understand all we say, but they do understand tone, our calming words
    and an honest approach to their issues, borne out of a true interest in their (not our) welfare.

    My TWH, Simon, 25, had issues with mounting and dismounting. Our veterinarian focused on a potential nerve damage issue
    — he had some abuse in the past. Mounting was less of a problem, but dismounting seemed painful. He is no longer ridden
    as a result, and worked in-hand over obstacle courses, and in long walks.

    My suggestion is to ask the veterinarian to look at potential back issues. The change in his work has worked wonders — he puts his head into the halter and goes out willingly and seemingly cheerfully to do his courses (which include cavalletti, tiny crossrails and other obstacles, such as low hedges. He is rewarded for his 25-minute work outs with a lovely walk and hand graze, and
    sometimes a run through a shallow pond for fun. He is afraid of nothing and on Platinum CJ for joints.

    An equine massage therapist can often pinpoint areas of pain, and it’s not an expensive option.

    I hope Bradley improves. As with all pain/discomfort, it’s best to begin with a veterinarian and therapist.
    But also…to check all tack.
    Is the saddle made for him? If not, it does not fit. An ill-fitting saddle cannot be ‘fixed’ with pads and will do long-term harm.
    Is the bit upsetting him? Has he had his teeth checked?

    We looked at all areas with Simon, but tack was not the issue (saddle made to measure, bitless bridle, properly used.)

    Good luck with Bradley — I think he will do well, in time.


  2. Yes just this. Having the ability to pause, take a breath and offer a good boy. De escalating the situation with an exhale. I know this to be true and am surprised when I remember to participate . Over the years with you I notice This is slowly becoming habit. Good girl.

  3. I try to use the “good boy/girl” in the bad situations which I learned from your courses. It actually works well but is teally hard to not yell “no” first! One of the hardest things for me. Thank you so much, Anna for teaching that really good lesson! Nancy G. Charlie and Cricket

  4. This works for cats, too! One day out of the blue – or so I thought – our cat (DooDeeDoo) attacked his brother (SiSi) such that it drove him into hiding somewhere upstairs for well over a year. At first, when an attack would come, to no avail, I screamed to try to break up the moment. Then I started just calling DooDeeDoo by name in a “good boy” voice. It’s not 100%, but now he usually just comes back downstairs to be with me. So far, SiSi returns too…yippee!
    And to be sure, initially, we had several vet visits to make sure there was neither a physical nor mental cause for Doo’s unbrotherly behavior toward Si. I’ve been told this untoward behavior is not uncommon among the cat world.

    • Having a 15 year old female cat (Juliette) who seems to have accepted a wild bird (caged) but NOT the past two dogs – her “reasons” will always be a mystery. On the other hand, I left the door to the “catroom” open by mistake & Axel went in & ate ALL her soft and hard food. Found that out after he was chased into the living room by said cat and was very very guilty looking. Guess Juliette’s reasons could be understandable! Doesnt matter – we love them all anyhow.

      • Gee, Maggie, Juliette sure has turned my belief about cats and birds on its ear! As for Axel, he should’ve known better, cats almost always get the upper hand! But you’re right, we do love them all no matter what.

  5. Always so glad to hear I’m not crazy, Anna! A few months ago I was being ‘trained” by a trainer who, when I rubbed Peaches on the neck and said “good girl” for a job well done, said, “Don’t praise her that much. She hasn’t been that good.” Honest. She was videotaping the session and I have it! I was hugely embarrassed, as if being taken to task by a middle school teacher. I said to the trainer, “she went from a trot down to a relaxed walk. That was good!” And for Peaches, it was. I’ll never stop telling her what a good girl she is. Isn’t it important for them to know when they do something wonderful that they are not always relaxed about doing?! No need to answer that! I think we all know the answer!! Except some trainers, apparently….

    • As time goes on we move the endline, yes, but even a great horse can have a hard day when the simplest task is a challenge. And I don’t want praise to become so overused that it has less meaning. (not what you were doing, sounds like, but I might have added this to the post) When in doubt, or working with someone in doubt, an exhale is good. Many horses appreciate an exhale more than words. Thanks, Kathy. Give the mare a scratch from me.

      • Yes, to both. She was uptight that day, in a new environment, horses, tractors, some construction going on, so I think in that particular situation more was better for her, but I do also understand about overusing it. Will proceed with caution, but still err on the side of affirmative praise.

  6. Anna,
    Is it the words, the tone, or the breath, or our frame of mind that really reaches the horse? It’s REALLY hard to say “good boy!”, when Ferdinand is crowding and nipping. I’m trying to take a breath before I say anything because I stumble over the “good boy” if I don’t. “You’re good” or “You’re OK” comes out more easily for me in those tense moments. I love to reward with “good boy” when he makes attempts to master his anxious behavior. Am I slowing his progress with anything other than “good boy”?

    • I think it is our overall “intent” shown mostly with body language more than literal words. I’m quiet with horses and only use words sparingly… but yes, use more words when I teach. I think rhythmic breath is most important and an exhale is literally a cue for both our systems to relax. It would be different in every situation, so no keyword. I know he is challenging and without seeing him in this behavior in a video, I’m guessing. If he is crowding and nipping, pain might be part of his message and horses often are asking for more space. If food is in the conversation, or resource guarding, you may have to rearrange things to decompress the close space and his anxiety. You’ve told me he is special, I hope I get to meet him one day. The bottom line is they take our calming signals and often the best work we can do for them, is regulate our breathing. Give him a big exhale from me.

      • Thanks so much Anna.
        I have become more quiet around the horses in general……they seem to appreciate it.
        And I’m counting on you meeting Ferd and the rest of the herd when you’re able to target Boulder county in your future travels.
        I’ll keep breathing until then.


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