Does Your Horse Need a Tune-Up?


This is how it goes: Sometimes it’s just fine to go lollygagging around. The time isn’t right; you’re hungry or distracted by work or family, or where your gloves went to. You don’t want to ride alone but can’t find anyone to ride with. But then you find someone and spend the whole time talking to them. Or maybe you’re flat; your energy is just spent from being busy, so very busy that you get nothing done. There’s some dawdling while checking your list. And then some futzing around out of habit. You’re in the saddle and your horse feels like he’s part goat, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s a bad time to ask him for anything. Besides, he’s resistant.

Or it goes like this: Everyone is going to a clinic or a group trail ride. You want to go but you have so much anxiety about how your horse will behave or how you’ll be judged, that you’re immobile. Or while riding, a friend gets hurt and you want to help but your horse gets upset. (Or you do.) Maybe there’s a fire, or your horse is injured, and you need to haul him, and it has to happen now. It’s important and your horse must listen but for some reason, he won’t listen. And he’s still resistant.

There were times in my life that I asked my trainer to tune up my horse. Years later, I was the trainer tuning up a client’s horse. In the beginning, I was happy to do it. It’s always fun to climb on. In a few minutes, the horse and I’d be working through transitions, lost in our conversation, acting like old friends. It was lightly reminding the horse what we liked and if there was something we didn’t like, re-phrasing the question until the horse could say yes. Some horses get dull because of confusion, but they all get sticky from over-cueing. Humans are just the same.

Then my client would climb back in the saddle and have an improved ride, but soon enough the horse would be resistant again, and I’d climb on again. I started feeling like the horse was being sent to the principal’s office for a talk. I’d be the sort who would invite the parents (rider) in so we could all work together. I know other trainers might beat a horse into a tune-up and then ridicule the rider, too. Making everybody feel bad is still training, but at the price of any shred of confidence the horse or rider had. Most of us don’t need our self-loathing topped off.

Climbing on for an affirmative tune-up was fine in the short term, but truthfully, all three of us lacked consistency. My goal as a trainer is to turn out partners because the challenges don’t always come during lessons. I hoped riders had a passion to learn because horses seem to have a passion to teach us, and we can save face a little bit if we at least act like it was our idea.

This is what clients have taught me: They would like a simple technique that works on every horse. It should have three easy steps.

There are trainers smart enough to market just that plan. It doesn’t work, but they get rich selling it because people want it to be true. Maybe the technique makes sense to humans, so we commit to the plan so hard that we forget to listen to the horse. Do I need to remind you that human logic rarely works with horses?

I hold an unpopular opinion. I think riders have to be the ones to change, always a nebulous, awkward, and somewhat painful process. We have to understand the concept behind what we do; we have to understand how horses think. We have to ask in a way that the horse can say yes, and then be relentless in our praise, while remembering to breathe and respect his space.  We have to negotiate fairness and that means we don’t always get to have our way. And this can all be destroyed in an instant if our hands on the reins create resistance, which they almost always do. It’s enough to make you want to spend a fortune on yet another flimsy three-step plan.

Okay, fine. Here are my three easy steps. They are free, but they come with the disclaimer that “easy” is an abstract concept.

  1. Unless you are near hospitalization, energy is a choice. Take some breaths, excuse whatever attitude you have, and lift yourself up energetically. Embrace yourself because self-criticism is a heavy weight for both of you. It will be a conscious effort in the beginning but hold that standard of self-acceptance. Consistently show your horse the best of you and then notice how good it feels. It makes the burden lighter for your horse and it should be the admission price to sit in the most sacred place, spine to spine with an intelligent sensitive creature who will share their grace with you, at the exact level you consistently ask for. Eventually, you notice that you love yourself as much as horses.
  2. Use that energy to focus on yourself. Feel your sit bones in the saddle, take in the air which is always a bit better just a few feet off the ground. Feel your horse’s body between your legs, aware of his tiniest movements and calming signals. Converse in cues as light as air because each of his senses are so much keener than yours, that you know he can hear you. Look up, to a higher place, and trust his intelligence. Stay curious and bright, complacency isn’t an option because it will take a lifetime of learning to understand your horse. No time to lose.
  3. Hold yourself to a high standard of consistency. Not the number of times you ride, but the quality of who you are in each ride. Horses are always moving toward a way of being and it is your job to be an affirmative beacon for him, safety in an uncertain world, confident in yourself because a confident horse is the goal. We’re always training for the next ride, the human we want to be for the horse who deserves the best in all things.

Practice holding a consistent standard. Being dependable is a greater gift than treats or commiseration or any training technique. Life happens but when a horse and rider can depend on each other to be their best, we break the pattern of needing to tune-up horses. We need to take on the heavy lifting of making ourselves reliable partners, working on our own consistency so it can inform consistent, confident behavior in your horse. Seen in this light, consistency is the greatest kindness we can show our horses.

Eventually, it goes like this: There’s a beautiful pair. The horse is calm but responsive and the rider’s cues are nearly invisible. There is equal energy and relaxation; the contact on the reins is sweet and soft. Then, look down and thank your horse.

New book available Monday! Going Steady, More Relationship Advice from Your Horse. Available here and at Amazon.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

32 thoughts on “Does Your Horse Need a Tune-Up?”

  1. Another excellent one Anna! I’ve been on this journey to be able to tune, nay to not need a tune up as we’re so practiced in our communications. The payoff is visible and magical, as if three easy steps but far from it. The change had to be in me. Discipline isn’t about smacking our dears into submission but about a practice of habitual focus and self awareness and the consistency you mention. The reward is worth the effort. And when one removes self loathing in and around the saddle, it falls away elsewhere in life. And self kindness makes self improvement a joyful quest of care with ripples in every direction.

  2. Once again you hold up the mirror that, speaking for myself, helps me to feel so much better and more hopeful!
    Trying to change others NEVER works (I say this after 40+ years as a psychotherapist). But changing myself? Now that’s possible, and, as I’m learning, it’s fun, and helpful to others including my horses! Too bad this opinion is unpopular but the truth is it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.

  3. So, timely Anna.
    Did some tuning-up last Sunday (Aug25th) not because the intention was to tune-up. Nor was there a real necessity. There was just an amount of curiosity as the student/rider mentioned that her horse had done so well the day before and nothing of that seemed to be present on this Sunday. So, in the end I asked her if she was okay with me getting on board and to feel. Just feel. Assess? And the first thing I noticed was that within the transition from trot to walk the horse dropped all of her weight into my hands. So, there I did some tuning-up I guess. It made some things clear to the rider/student which she understood and could put into practice right away. It also made something clear to myself. Just on the point of deciding it was okay and my getting on board had served a good & valuable purpose something ‘snapped’ in my back. I could hardly breathe for a moment. The back pain (or was it injured intercostal muscles) has been very uncomfortable. Writing this now on Friday (Aug30th) the pain has become a little less. I have made an appointment with my massage therapist for tomorrow morning. She was on holiday. So, the bottom line being that tuning-up someone else’s horse can become a hazardous occupation when we are past 70.

  4. Well said. I cringe when I hear “my horse needs a tune up” as I feel it’s just another way for some trainers to get your money and owners don’t want to learn and do the work. Old phrase: Horses are not automobiles. The owner needs to learn how to keep their horse in good working order. And the older each party gets, along comes certain limitations. Learning from the trainer so you can continue to help your horse. Not just leave them in the hands of someone else.

  5. Anna, I had to take a few deep breaths after this one and have a few mantras for the next month or two. “An intelligent sensitive creature who will share their grace with you”. “Stay curious and bright”. “Horses are always moving toward a way of being”. Many changes taking place here as I near 70 and these 4 mares and 4 dogs sure keep me breathing and centered. They know.

  6. Thank you Anna. I was so considering a “Tune up” for my mare as I had felt like I had lost my way with her. Putting the focus back on myself and my awareness feels so right. I have to say I was triggered by the first step of pushing through fatigue and exhaustion. I am a midwife who gets calls out for long periods overnight and feels almost the need for hospitalisation after some births. Finding that balance and perhaps ignoring the more milder cases of exhaustion and just turning up with no expectation other than to be and breathe in the saddle might just be the answer. Not trusting my mare to hold the space at times I think is where I have gone wrong. Will be printing this page to hold it near and administer as required! Thank you.

    • What a beautiful and humbling comment. Thank you for the good work you do, Sue. And I think you are finding your way back.

      • Love this – so many truths I was smiling till my face hurt. I look forward to your blogs and always feel better for having read them. Thank you for being a clear and strong voice for our horse friends.

  7. Well, as others have said in their comments, I know I need a tune up so this is a timely post, as your posts always are ! I sometimes feel this oppressive Texas heat and humidity SHOULD be an accceptable excuse for low energy. So with heat and Bear’s tummy stuff, we have all been on a vacation for some months now around here. And yet, I know I can be consistent in whatever it is I am doing around Bear and Cash.. consistently fair I hope !

    What a paradox it all is !!! And not a day to waste as we hurtle toward the day when these horses , or I , will depart this world.

    • You’ve got dark-colored horses, the heat is worse for them…The paradox is there is no time to lose but we still go slow. ACK.

  8. This.

    It’s some hard work trying to become the person my horses deserve.

    Thank you, as always. Love and appreciate your messages, and the beautiful way you craft them.

  9. Wonderful post Anna, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve always felt that if a horse gets the better of its owner/rider but it was a good horse, everything is fixable. However, the horse will never forget that rider, or the tricks it developed, so it goes back home ok for a while before resorting to resistance again. Clinics are a good thing, for here all is revealed, the horse and its rider issues, everyone present learns from it.

  10. That goat !! I didn’t even see that photo bomb (?) the first time ! Great photo ! I posted a comment here earlier but i think it has disappeared. Nothing profound, just saying thank you, and I need a tune up for sure. The heat here has had us all on mental and physical vacation for months on end. I sure have aspirations to do better with my boys, and if I could just be consistently fair in all I do with Zen Bear and Cash that would be just about perfect.

  11. Anna, I was and still am so inspired by this piece. Though I am miles from being spine to spine with this horse; I consider being eye to eye just as sacred. I forced myself to leave my self criticism and self doubt behind this morning. Instead of focusing on training him to be the kind of horse I want him to be; I focused on training me to be the kind of human he needs me to be. Though we always seem to start off calm and together; there comes a point (as there was this morning) where he perceives that I am a threat and acts out. I had asked him to walk away from me out on the perimeter of the round pen; but after 1 time around he stopped so I asked again, and that’s when he turned his rump towards me bucking and running. I stopped, took a slow deep breath, let the tension drain from my posture, and quietly asked for a walk. He immediately changed to a controlled trot. So, I praised him and then turned away to take off all my ask and he stopped and turned towards me-FIRST TIME EVER! I know that I didn’t get the walk I asked for; but he was willing to continue the conversation and that’s what we both need to be the best we can be. Thank you for your endless insight.

    • Well done. Perhaps he dislikes round pens as much as I do. Such a big answer he gave you, but the conversation has started and that’s what matters. (Do you try leading from behind?)Thanks Laurie, and good luck going forward. Keep breathing.

  12. Yet another of your posts that speaks volumes to me. I’ve had very little interaction with people training my horses for me unless you count the woman who rode her before I got her. Years later I did get sucked into one of those marketing to try to train myself – and truth be told, my totally green hubby – who was a bit shell shocked that I came as a package deal with three horses.

    These days riding isn’t much of an option with my health issues. So it’s spending a little time sitting on my walker, visiting with my one smaller herd, breathing, and remembering the exceptional moments in my horse life past.

    To this day I vividly remember my first moment of true connection with my heart and soul horse, some 45 years ago. I was blessed to experience her after a remarkable equestrienne had ridden her for many years, so my mare was light years ahead of me, but I had true love for this mare and the heartfelt desire to dance with her on my side. The moment when what finally seemed all those hours and hours of riding other mostly patient – or at least teaching – horses came together and I truly plugged in with what almost seemed an electrical current passing energy and intent back and forth between my mare and I was astounding. That feeling of her back coming up yet at the same time feeling my seat seem deeper, the reins somehow feeling elastic, her body reacting to my thoughts seemingly before I thought them? Sublime. That I was able to experience that again and again with her was the fuel to my relationships with all the other horses I’ve interacted with since, and whether studying equine biomechanics and interaction from my kitchen window or watching my herd carefully while the farrier trims, I’m always seeking those connection moments.

    Thank yu again for your writings which inspire my next interactions. Off to ASmazon to buy your new book!

  13. Anna, once again you add to my resolve to continue becoming a better person…for the sake of the horses. I am experiencing a long, slow evolution and while my mind now rarely wanders when riding, there are endless opportunities for improving the conversations. I find myself exploring the balance between thinking and feeling, expressing and receiving. Thank you for lighting the path.

  14. Love love love this one so much!! I think sometimes we rely on our trainers too much and it eats away at our own self-confidence and our horse’s also. Even when your trainer praises you, it still sort of feels like cheating: yourself and your horse. I KNOW in my heart, my horse would prefer to have no one else on his back but me, and that the more I work on myself, the better he becomes. He will always be more athletic than I am, but I also know he tries his best to take care of me and if I can bring my confidence and trust up to his level, we have been “tuned up”.
    Thanks again for your voice <3

    • Thanks, Jane, and I’m all for partnership. Some trainers make messes of horses, but there are a few of us out here who work for the horse and rider’s partnership above the other things. (Sometimes I have to stick up for my job that buys hay. 🙂 )


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