Affirmative Training: The Opposite of Dominance Isn’t What You’d Think

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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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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20 thoughts on “Affirmative Training: The Opposite of Dominance Isn’t What You’d Think”

  1. In my mind the whole “domination” theory probably comes from the story that man is dominant over all other species. Which is a crock frankly. I mean, look around, exactly how well has that worked. The number of animals that are now extinct BECAUSE of our constant push for more, bigger, better – which of course is the human mindset. What our “domination” has caused is so much destruction to the natural world. Dominating horses is just one more example.
    NOW I will get off my soapbox & stop ranting.
    Trust is so much better.

  2. For me, the most powerful learning has been to step back instead of forward, acknowledging the horse’s right to make the decision. I told a friend, after watching her pursue her horse in circles, hand reaching out to try to grab his hoof, like a weird spiral dance, that the time it’s most important to back away is the time you’re most tempted to reach forward. That exact moment, when you step back rather than chase, is the moment that trust is built. The powerful feeling, when the horse chooses to step towards you, has absolutely no connection with dominance and everything to do with partnership.💗

  3. Loved the last sentence-how true! Yesterday, I was trying to clip the hair on my mini’s feet, but he decided it wasn’t going to happen. For the past 7 years I’ve been doing this & Finn has always been OK, but not yesterday, so I’ll try again today. Thanks for writing this, Anna.

  4. This has it all … trust, peaceful persistence, listening … the keys to everything! We also need patience, with ourselves and the process more even than with the horses. That was always my biggest demon, when I was in a public stable. Everyone else seemed to ‘get there’ faster than I … but not really! They would speed through the early work, sure – but they would always hit a wall. My ‘tortoise’ work would eventually pass their ‘hare’ work because the trust and foundation were so solid. But that is something that can be hard to see at the beginning, unless you’ve already experienced it. Just my personal testimony that everything in this post is absolutely spot on!

    • I agree, we compare things that will never be fair to compare. It’s our nature to do it and just like horses, we learn in hindsight. Thanks, Lia.

  5. “The opposite of dominance is trust.”

    Perfect way to say it.

    Although, I still like going out to the pasture and just hanging around with my horses. To me, it’s part of the relationship, and my appearance doesn’t always mean we are switching to my plan.


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