Sitting in a horse pen is the easiest thing in the world. I might even like to cook if I could do it in a horse pen. I am dead certain a root canal would be better out there. We all love the sound of hay being chewed and we even like the sound of poop being pooped. The soundtrack for this besotted love we all feel toward horses might be Olivia Newton-John singing Hopelessly Devoted to You. And if you are in your right mind, you’re considering putting thick black eyeliner on right now. Not that you disagree at all.
The worst thing about pen sitting is that it isn’t the same thing as working with horses. We can get a false sense of relationship while sunning ourselves among the muck with the herd. A horse smelling our shampoo isn’t true love. Horses nickering to us means it’s time to eat.
The romance of pen sitting is all fine and dandy until your horse gets injured or the farrier comes out or you think it would be a good idea to trailer train your horse, even if just for emergencies. Call it the “If I die tomorrow” plan. Horses need to have a solid set of fundamental skills to get by if we are not there. We don’t want to wake up dead and think our horses might not be able to pass simple tests. We want other people to want our horses if it comes to that.
We can never assume that because we tolerate, or even train questionable behaviors, others will appreciate them. For all the mares I’ve met who rushed at me with their hind ends first, as their owners laugh and scratch their backsides, I have to think how that could go the wrong way in practically any other situation. Unless the mare ran into horse trailers backward maybe.
Let’s get real. Aren’t we all tired of railbirds looking at horse people who use Affirmative Training methods as if we’re idiots who need someone else to manhandle our horses? The truth is as much as we love horses, we equally resent fear-based training methods used to dominate them, and have since they were taught to us as kids. We might not have known there was a choice back then, but we do now. Changing old habits is a process but horses keep encouraging us onward, surprising us with their willingness, and we’re learning to believe them.
The dictionary will tell you that the opposite of domination is submission. Here is a short list of other antonyms:
powerlessness, surrender, weakness, inferiority, subordination, and modesty(?).
That’s what the dictionary says but it’s nasty. Horses would hate us as doormats. And who would want that kind of control over a horse, as if it were even possible? Sadly, fear does work to some degree because horses are not natural fighters and can be intimidated. So much of how we work with horses has to do with how we see them. Are they nothing more than beasts of burden?
The opposite of dominance is trust.
It’s allowing the idea the horse is intelligent and capable of making the decision to work with us by choice, without fear or bribery. Sometimes the horse might even have a better idea. It starts by being vulnerable, listening to them, and then being confident enough in your horse to be patient. There’s nothing easy about that. Define the leader as the first one who trusts.
Affirmative Training is not the downfall of horsemanship. It doesn’t mean that we stand around until the sun sets and we all miss dinner. It means we train with the same peace in our minds as when we’re mucking their pen. It means we train with the same compassion we use when bandaging a wound. Because we understand that each interaction we have with horses defines our relationship and to be worthy of their trust, we must be the same person, regardless of the role we play at the moment.
The engine behind Affirmative Training is peaceful persistence. We plan ahead. We don’t take no for an answer but instead of correcting the horse, we take the answer we get, praise the horse for being engaged, and then ask a better question. If we are haltering, for instance, it means we calmly stay on task and don’t get distracted by the horse looking away or a silly tangle in the mane. We stay in the conversation, knowing that breathing is a training aid stronger than sticks and spurs.
Staying affirmative is about giving up the need to control every instant because the horse might even have a better answer. We give up throwing a tantrum if we don’t get what we want on our schedule. We chose to slow down when the horse is confused or just needs a moment to think, because whether competing or just sunning ourselves in the pen with the herd, we treasure every moment and we’re good at what we do. When we hear harsh old voices warning us about being foolish, we smile broadly to make the railbirds nervous, while inside we acknowledge we have more respect for horses than threats.
“Does it seem odd that in early training we need to desensitize horses to us? We need their kind of silence more than they need our noise.”
It’s a quote from last week’s blog and most people seemed to take it to mean the kind of peace we feel lounging in horse pens. I also meant it as training advice. If we want horses to understand us, we have to communicate more as they do. We have to be better at listening than giving orders.
Earlier this week I saw a photo of someone kneeling in front of their horse. Kneeling, as in prayerfully. Is that a creepy kind of relationship we’d even want?
While I was trying to discern if it was meant to be a weird new cult or intentionally funny, a common dilemma for me, my evil twin let out a howling cackle, knowing it would make for a great story at the next barn party. As if there weren’t times any of us would have taken a knee to pray to our horse, the barn cat, or anyone else who would listen, for a decent flying change or for the wind to stop before the farrier arrives. We need to lighten up and not be so deadly serious …in our love or our training.
It’s easy to be at the extremes of any continuum. Being too mushy or too harsh. The place of art and nuance is the center ground, finding equality while working with a horse. A true partnership happens when both halves are open to suggestions from someone they trust.
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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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