Cleaning Out the Toolbox

If it weren’t for manure frozen into the ice, we’d have no traction at all and it’s only the eleventh week of January. It’s been dark with below-freezing temperatures outside for so long that I can’t remember. I’m standing in front of the fridge, seriously considering cleaning it out. I can see a jar of pickles that are a pale watery gray color. Do they qualify as toxic condiment waste? It’s a testament to my extreme aversion to kitchen activities that rather than getting a chisel and paint stripper, the required tools, an idea for this week’s blog appeared. It was on the bottom shelf behind the peppers and beer.

When I started with horses, we used to talk about having a toolbox. It was where we kept training ideas that we picked up along the road. Things that made sense or were said by someone we respected. We would hi-grade ideas we heard or read about and keep the good ones. Later, out of context, some worked but mainly we collected and still more got piled on top. Each time we added potential training ideas we felt better educated. A toolbox was a veritable dictionary of advice that might be helpful as we worked with horses. Or at least we could debate on either side of the argument because we’d collected all the contradictions, too. We wanted to be well prepared and probably bought the tack to go along.

By this time, our toolbox is bigger than the barn and we couldn’t find what we were looking for if there was a Percheron tied to it. By this time, we’ve learned that a dozen methods only make it hard to pick one, and jumping back and forth between approaches seems to confuse our horses even more than it does us. It might be time to check some expiration dates, get rid of the things that might be poisonous, and make it easier to see what does work. 

Where to begin? Some horse owners value time-honored tradition but we know so much more than we did a century ago. 

Consider technology. We can text a photo of an injury to a vet and consult. We can see a digital x-ray on our vet’s computer a moment after it was taken. We each have a vast library resource on all equine topics on our computers. We have better testing and diagnosing skills. For all the horses struggling with pain who were sent to trainers to “straighten out” and if that didn’t cure the problem, were disposed of, we can do better now. We need fewer training tools because we have the technology for better health care.

We do a better job with nutrition through research. We know more about EGUS and have found a more natural feeding regime than the “two flakes, twice-a-day” tradition. We can test hay and get better answers for metabolic horses. We can feed in a more natural way, keeping their digestive system working in a way closer to how it was designed. Not only can we diagnose issues sooner, be we have better treatments available. When I was first treating horses for ulcers, we bought ranitidine over the counter at drugstores. We have know-more-do-better opportunities. Horses who are fed properly are more likely to be good riding partners, we can toss a few more training aids away if we let our horses eat when we tack up. 

We have some great joint supplements and better pain medications, (not counting the illegal drugs used on competition horses and track horses,) that keep horses more comfortable. Saddles have better designs and are lighter with better fits. Improved hoof care includes better trims and fewer shoes, and if needed, boots support sore hooves. Girths and bridles are padded and ergonomic, all supporting freedom from simple pain and restrictions from poor-fitting tack. Horses are more willing to move forward and more comfortable under saddle, so a few more gadgets can be eliminated from the toolbox along with some training methods for “lazy” horses.  

Some of the biggest changes have come in the area of brain research. We know more about how horses perceive their environment and respond. Horses are literally hardwired to respond to fear; it’s a survival instinct. Understanding how different horses are from us means we can relate better to them. The short version: Horses can’t disrespect us because that’s an executive function taking place in the frontal lobe and horses don’t have one (comparable to ours.) If we aren’t listening to old voices about making horses respect us, that toolbox gets a bunch lighter.

Animal behavior studies have proven that horses live cooperatively in herds and that long-held story about herd hierarchy just isn’t true. The myth of horses needing a strong leader is debunked repeatedly in several large studies. Foundations shift, and we get a bit defensive.

More research into the horse’s autonomic nervous system lets us better understand their sympathetic nervous system responses. Simplified, when a horse is afraid, he can’t learn but if the horse is in their parasympathetic system and we give them time to think, good things happen. In other words, fear-based training has been proven ineffective. This one is more personal, most of us were brought up training with ideas of domination, so this means changing old habits. It’s another know-more-do-better chance and more tools are excused from the box.

Personally, the awareness of Calming Signals, not just listening but understanding what horses are saying with their body language has been the biggest change. Once we learn to recognize pain, both physical and emotional, and we are able to work with work the horse affirmatively rather than merely trying to control their behavior, the elusive idea of true partnership truly begins. We do less and get so much more in return. The toolbox seems almost empty now, but for a breath of fresh air.

The question is do we want to memorize techniques or better understand horses? How can we translate the words from a research paper into a training activity that supports the horse? We have to evolve methods of training to incorporate this new knowledge.

It is our job to listen better as too many “training issues” are actually not about training at all. We must evolve training methods to meet our new knowledge to do better for horses. Human logic is not the same as horse logic, we have to see it from their side without anthropomorphizing or falling for a sales pitch for a training method we wish was true. Calming signals have provided that link; it’s the horse’s literal voice, not the voice we make up. It isn’t about English or Western riding, it’s about us wading through cultural romanticism and evolving to help the horse, regardless of tack. 

Some riders (me) value tradition. That could be a trainer born a hundred years ago (Oliviera, Dorrance) or a trainer born almost 2500 years ago (Xenophon). If they were still here, what would they say? Would their training methods be the same or would their learning have continued and their methods evolved to improve the lives of horses?

We don’t like change any more than horses do, and it’s work to change habits. Should we push ourselves to continue to learn? Or is tradition sacred?

With true respect for those who have pushed the line of understanding forward, both horses and humans, and lived by the know-more-do-better rule, is it time to consider what traditions we have outgrown and which should stay?

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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43 thoughts on “Cleaning Out the Toolbox”

  1. Some of us were taught as children that “the horse comes first”. That’s a tradition worth keeping but others should be proverbially thrown under the hoofs of horses as they go galloping past. First, do no harm, or, “the absence of interventions that may cause adverse outcomes” is the goal. Start with that, add Calming Signals, affirmative training, mindfullness, etc. and the tool box is only about 1/2 full. Less gadgets, more empathy. Thanks for emptying my tool box and also for a very positive post. Makes me feel good about how far (most of us) have come. What will the world look like for horses in twenty years? It feels like it might be so much better.

    • Maybe it’s a difference in our ages, or where we were located, but that isn’t what I was taught as a kid. Animals were for work, they didn’t have feelings, and it’s been a long road to get to where we are today. I do agree that the changes have been wonderful to see and yes, what will the world look like for horses in twenty years? Thank you, Kathy

    • Kathy you have created the Rosetta Stone right out of the box. Thank You. This is the best words to quote to someone that I can think of. Permission to quote you??

      • Thanks, Barbara. Glad you liked it! If you are referring to the words in quotes, they are not mine and are public so quote away! Everything else you are free to quote. Good of you to ask.

  2. That makes your point exactly. We all had, and have, such different experiences. Hopefully we can all agree (now) on those things which benefit those animals we use for pleasure. Animals were beasts of burden and still are. The livelihood of the people depended on it. There’s no shame in that. We hope the animals are looked after properly. Some are and some aren’t. Spreading the word as you do, can only help. Thank you, Anna.

    • Thanks, Kathy. My father, a farmer who grew up plowing with mules, would think I was a total idiot. When we know more, we have a choice.

      • I read your amazing books so I understand. I think perhaps your start is what brought you to be the horse advocate you are, so there’s the good in it. Also, no hoof, no horse, really meant no horse (or mule), no food, or money for food. We did the best with what we knew. As my mother used to say, we don’t know what it’s like unless we are in the shoes… My mother smoked for years, now knowing it was killing her. Just sayin’… I try to have empathy the best I can for those who came before us in the horse world. I think (sorry to get personal) that your dad is proud of what you have accomplished and given back. Perhaps he would have as well, had he been brought up differently. Enough! Sorry for going on. Have a great weekend and I will stand quietly next to a horse today for all those who loved horses, but did not know better.

  3. Heck when I was growing up, with the exception of garage & basement during the winter, dogs weren’t even allowed in the house – can you imagine?!!!
    However that did not ever mean it was okay to be abusive. Respect life and if you assume responsibility for another life then you must do just that, be responsible!
    Yes the world is a different place now and for many horses, that difference means the world.

    • Dogs in the house? Inconceivable! And that line between abuse and responsibility was up for debate then. It’s better being an adult with a band account! Thanks, Sueann. The dogs say hi.

  4. So much better in so many ways. But still…. there are many who dont have trainers like Anna – who get pushed too far at too young an age. My granddaughter is now rehabbing horse no. 3 – one who was leased to someone who either didnt know how or didnt care to learn how to care for him – then he was tossed into a field & left until the owner re-claimed him. His feet were an awful mess & he looked just plain rough & ribby. Beck sent me a recent picture & he looks much healthier AND happier. She kept the no. 2 horse as her own & he’s doing great – he was one of the young ones pushed into eventing. I know there are many really good trainers, but sadly, there has to be a place for the other’s “cast-offs” – not that its always possible to heal what others break, but they all deserve a chance – ALL of them.
    I still remember a hunter/jumper trainer at the first barn I boarded – she said her young horses all had a discipline/purpose that they were happy doing – it just took some time to find out what that was. They were green broke – but not ridden till they were four years old!

  5. “Animal behavior studies have proven that horses live cooperatively in herds and that long-held story about herd hierarchy just isn’t true. The myth of horses needing a strong leader is debunked repeatedly in several large studies. Foundations shift, and we get a bit defensive.”
    Morning, Anna, and all!
    Not riding anymore lessens my expectations for how much my horses need to “behave.” But I do wonder about this behavior that is now seen as a myth, that is, the horse needing a strong leader. I have witnessed cooperative living among the horses in my care, but I have also witnessed strong leadership. For instance, I learned early on the quickest way to influence the whole herd to head to the barn was to start with the leader. As well, I have many memories of the “leader” horse needing to flatten his ears for only an instant to get the others in line, and other similar examples of leadership exhibited. Am I missing something here?

    • I think maybe the horse that flattened his ears to get the herd to move to the barn may have been the most anxious about getting fed, or possibly the most anxious horse. Anna can explain this better than I can.

    • Lynell, I would recommend reading Lucy Rees on this question of heierachy. She is a leader in the field.

      What I can say from a Calming Signals standpoint is that we usually think the horse with the most anxiety is the leader and the problem with that, is that we might miss other messages. (this might be what Linda means.) For what it’s worth, I have a mare whose answer to every question is “OMG, we’re all gonna die” and we are still working on it. And yes, always easier to start with her because her patience is nil. Not saying that is true for your horse, just noting my experience with horses I meet traveling and those in my barn. Without seeing your horse, I can’t guess.

      • Thank you, Anna and Linda. The horse in question was my Appaloosa, Cappy, who passed away six years ago. I will have to think on the idea of him having anxiety.
        Thanks again, you two!

  6. Cognitive dissonance knocks some upside the head harder than it does others. It isn’t easy, but it is expansive. I hail tradition but see how it sometimes becomes confinement. Toolboxes are made to be opened and organized. I like this essay a lot!! I also admire a sense of humor still functional in freezing temps! Thank you!

  7. Yes, yes, yes! we’ve got to let go of those old ideas and advice that don’t work. As always, listen to the horse and be willing to change what you’re doing. We have to be able to ignore those people who think there is only one way to be with your horse.

    • It’s funny to me, not in a ha-ha sort of way, how much contrary-but-absolute railbird truth is out there. We need to find a different voice to listen to, and I think it should be the horse’s.

  8. Great blog. It’s harder to do than one thinks. Unlike the faded pickles, training techniques get ingrained and are harder to get rid of. And different things work for different horses, so like those old tools in the back of our box, we hate to get rid of them. For one horse, lifting his front leg up and then out, followed by a cookie, taught him what I wanted for a Spanish walk. My other horse was happy to let me do it and give him a cookie, but never got what I wanted from him. He finally figured it out watching me with my other horse. So I try different things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Such fun.

  9. I like this essay very much. One of your very best ! Brilliant to make the connection between advances in treating pain/health problems and the decreasing need for tools in the toolbox to manage behavior.

    Thank you for your relentless advocacy for the horse.

  10. Great article Anna! I have been decluttering my tool box since I ‘found’ you a few years ago: a day or two after you had held a clinic in my neighbourhood in Australia. I hope you will come back one day…

  11. What if we just trusted that the horse was always going to tell us his truth, and we just learned to listen? That, and putting our expectations in the back seat, and, instead, treating what the horse needs as the first priority, sure would cut down on the contents of the tool box.

    Quite well written, by the way. Very artistic use of the English language.

    • We don’t have to trust horses to tell the truth. Being deceitful is another of those frontal lobe behaviors, horses can’t do it.
      Thanks, Rhonda.

  12. Over the years, my toolbox has become nearly empty of actual techniques. There’s a few, mostly having to do with vet visits, or safely body clipping a hind leg. I think of techniques as a sequence of actions that we’re told will produce a desired result. So many are fear or pain based, at least the ones I learned. Sure. Results may happen. But the cost is enormous. “Don’t let them win!” Do horses even think in terms of “haha, I won THAT round?” Not that I’ve seen? Now my tool box is full of verbs: patience, calm, laughter, breathing, empathy, humor, energy, quiet, etc. The rest got tossed with the crank nose bands, or heck, even cavessons.
    My dad grew up with his grandparents draft horses, the ones who plowed the farm. They way he remembered it, they were not tools, they were an essential part of the family farm team, and were treated as such. No matter how dirty, cold, hot or tired the humans were, no one ate until those horses were groomed dry and gleaming, bedded in clean straw with fresh water and enough hay for the night. And they got checked on before the humans went to bed. This was during the depression, so it’s saying a lot that the horses came first. I know this isn’t true for so many many work horses of that era. But it all stuck with me. He learned to ride by climbing up the horses leg to get on its back, and the big old draft horse would turn his head and push his butt the rest of the way up if he got stuck. No bridle, no reins, just “gee” and “haw” and “easy now” and “whoa”. It’s how they plowed. I think this must’ve marinated in my brain over the years, so that when I finally heard “you have to be the leader “ and “you have to MAKE the horse more afraid of you” , I questioned it unconsciously. It didn’t fit with the team work I’d grown up hearing about. It didn’t fit with horses and humans being in relationship and working together. Of course, I still did crappy things I deeply deeply regret. I believed the experts. But thank god for that niggling little “I don’t think it has to be this way.” Wonderful post, Anna.

    • Oh Jane. This is why I’ve always loved your writing, what a picture. Not lovely, meaning I know hard work was done, but with such respect. I had an uncle this way with his draft horses. He kept them after getting tractors, other farmers thought he was nuts. Thanks, so much and here is to a world more like your dad’s. Thanks for this memory. You are his beautiful legacy.

  13. Loved the toolbox analogy Anna, and also think it expands out to general beliefs. Never too late to question the origin of beliefs, and whether that belief is still valid, or if it ever was. I’ve been years weeding out the “not mine” beliefs, and feel lighter for it. Recently camped next to a paddock of horses, and was in seventh heaven!😀

    • When Xenophon was comparing horses to dancers, the Romans were slaughtering animals for sport in the coliseum. I always remember a photo I saw of Michael Vick’s pit bulls (The football player charged and convicted for fighting dogs.) after they were rehomed. It was a great photo of a bunch of people of all weird sorts and the dogs cuddled on laps with gaping mouths and bandanas, looking like a class reunion. We can evolve when we question the norm. Thanks, Annie. All your years of camping, good for you. My best spots are always in just the same (yet different) location. Heaven indeed.

  14. Hi Anna,
    I’m very curious to know what research shows that horses don’t need leaders? And how are you defining leader?

    I was taught that we have a responsibility to our horses to be the leader in the partnership. That does not mean to dominate or control them, but that we decide what we are doing when we are together, and we support and encourage the horse to be “with us” in whatever we are doing together.

    Is that the kind of leader you say horses don’t need? Or is it the dominate/control type leader you are saying they don’t need? If you are saying they don’t need either one, I would like to hear more, and I’d especially like to read those studies.

    • There are many studies but I would recommend books by Lucy Rees. She is highly respected and has spent years doing research. Your question depends so much on definitions. Traditionally fear-based training was called ‘good leadership.’ If we decide what we are doing, that sounds close to controling/micro-managing/benevolent domination and then I’m not sure that we are listening well. If the horse is in their sympathetic nervous system, it isn’t working. So I understand your question but the words we use don’t always describe the horse well, especially if we are not well versed in Calming Signals. So these are the words I would choose and they may or may not fit your definitions: I believe horses need compassionate partners who listen to them. A partnership has two voices. Hope you enjoy the reading; it’s eye opening.Thanks, Alice

      • Thank you! I will look for Rees’ work. Please say a bit more. When you say “I believe horses need compassionate partners who listen to them. A partnership has two voices” I get that. Is that somehow incompatible with the human being a good leader?

        For example, if my horse and I are out riding on a trail and we run into some trouble, does a good human partner say to the horse, “What do *you* think we should do?”

        Or, rather does the good human partner say to her horse, “I’ve got this. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

        Because I believe that since horses didn’t choose to put the saddle on themselves or put my butt in it, and they didn’t choose to go on a trail ride–I made all those choices with their consent–it is *my responsibility* to take the lead. It’s my job to say, “now we do this, now we do that, we’re going this way,” etc.

        That is being a leader. If horses don’t need that kind of leadership, then what happens out there on the trail when you come face to face with a dangerous situation?

        • Alice, That isn’t an easy answer, every horse is different and it might be a rabbit or it might be a bear… it deserves much more consideration than I have time to type out in this small box. When I am on the trail, my first goal to to build my horse’s confidence in themselves. I am working online today. BUT I have over 1300 blogs on my website, and there is a search bar. And I’ve published a few books.

  15. Thank you, Aliice, for the ‘good read’ suggestion. It’s now on my order list from Amazon. As a scientist myself I prefer to trust scientific research more than anecdotal stories. ( Unless, of course, they come from Ray Hunt or Tom Dorrance-Ha)


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