Fear, Shame, and Affirmative Training


This is a photo of when you first fell in love with horses. Maybe you dreamed it and it took another fifty years to come true, or maybe you’ve had a horse every day since then. This is also a photo of the first time a horse frightened you a bit. Those two experiences are impossible to separate.

I’m continuing what I started in last week’s essay about losing confidence with a reader’s comment, “When it comes to horses, I think that fear isn’t talked about nearly enough other than in the context of, if you have fear, your horse will know it! I know that I have shame around my horse-based fear and I suspect most others with fear feel the same. I would love to hear more about this topic and how to work with the internal conflict of, “I’m scared,” versus, “I must exude confidence!”

Agreed, if you are afraid, your horse will know. Even if you put on a huge show of bravado, he’ll see through it. Here is a short list of other things he knows: He knows you love him. I don’t believe that horses feel that emotion the same way we do, but a horse can certainly read good intention from us. The proof is their willingness to forgive. The trick is to make your love just an inch bigger than your fear, in a way that makes horse sense.

It helps to understand what’s happening internally. When something startles horses, they move into their flight/sympathetic nervous system. When the dread is eventually released, they come back into the restive/parasympathetic system. It sounds familiar because humans have the same nervous system. When either horses or humans get a fright, we stop breathing normally. Panic follows because breathing is a life or death reflex. With nervous systems like ours, the fear grows fast; it’s like a double runaway but we can come back quickly, too. That’s why breathing is such a strong antidote for both of you.

Here’s the good news. These two aspects of our nervous systems aren’t divided by a narrow line; think of it more as a spectrum. One extreme end is the peaceful parasympathetic end and at the other is horror-filled sympathetic. It’s the spectrum between love and fear, a spectrum all horses and humans exist on. So, your fear is kind of ordinary and normal. Your confidence may feel like it’s deserted you, but it’s not really gone. It’s just sideways from you on the spectrum. I hope that cheers you up a bit.

Life is anxiety; there are no bomb-proof horses or fearless riders. Riders are never in control. Breathe. The best option is to build confidence in our horses and ourselves so when a challenge comes, we cope with it better. Then the more successful experiences we have that our coping skills work, the more trust is shared by both horse and rider. Tada!

Traditional fear-based training methods involve throwing the horse into his sympathetic system by constant correction or intimidation. A horse trained by fear and force becomes unreliable; he sees humans as untrustworthy, too. In affirmative training, the goal is not to keep a horse in his parasympathetic system but start there and begin the ride slowly. When the horse feels a bit of growing anxiety, a step toward his sympathetic end of the spectrum, we slow down and encourage breathing. What if fear was not a failure but common sense asking you to listen and go slow? As the horse soothes himself, he returns to the calm parasympathetic end and he builds confidence by knowing he’s okay. When the rider does the same, a positive tendency of behavior has begun. Eventually, huge challenges seem easy because rather than being flooded by the fear, both are able to slow down and release tension.

I can’t place the phrase, “I must exude confidence!” on the love/fear spectrum between a horse and rider. It’s a third voice; it has the ring of domination training for people. Did a trainer or parent threaten; was it the collective voice of railbirds? Were you punished for being too weak to be cruel enough to frighten your horse? Do you carry a residue of the pain from the break of trust, physical and mental? Your balance might be unreliable with such an unwieldy load to carry. Just like a frightened horse.

One other ordinary thing both horses and humans have is a good memory. We don’t forget bullies or harsh treatment. Maybe the reason we have compassion for abused horses is that we understand how it feels. Now it’s time to show ourselves that same compassion.

Reliving the negativity of abuse leaves a mark on us, energetically. After ranting a while, we have to stop calling ourselves rescues. Exhale, let the story go. Sympathy is a thin comfort and it doesn’t dilute fear. We can’t erase the incident that broke trust, it’s going to stay with all the other fearful experiences and that’s okay. Stop picking the scab, let it go.

Having an awareness of how confidence is lost is also how to welcome it back. Here’s where understanding calming signals changes everything. We can literally communicate with horses, by exchanging calming signals. We have a tool for negotiating the love/fear spectrum.

Begin by going to the arena with your horse and what’s left of your sense of humor. Saying “I’m scared,” is an honest start. Fear shrinks in the face of truth, so drag that monster out into the light. See? He has moist pale skin and he’s the size of a small reptile. Make him watch in the sun with no water. Tell him to wait by the mounting block. With any luck, he’ll get stepped on. I have no sympathy for monsters. I won’t worship fear.

Just walk and breathe. Do some leading from behind. It’s a beautiful day to start a new tendency of riding; to add a positive experience in a new stack next to the stack of less than positive experiences; yay for the opportunity to start over but with better tools this time.

When it feels okay, go to the mounting block and climb to the top step. From this height, it’s easy to see the haters who encourage you to destroy your horse’s trust and try to intimidate you with shame.  They’re trying to take horses away from you. Lay a quiet hand on your horse and remember you love him. Smile big. Ignore the voices as an insult. See them pouting? They’ll slink away soon.

You’re still on the mounting block. Your horse is standing quietly, tell him, “Good boy.” He may or may not have his saddle on. It doesn’t matter because your standing at about the height you’d be if you were on his back. Breathe. Remember how much sweeter the air is up here. Remember that little girl. Say an affirmation; mine has always been “I love my horse.”

Does it feel like you might be able to do more? Good. Step down off the mounting block and go back to the barn. Quit when you’re both still hungry. Give that good horse some hay and bring out all the rubber curries. Throw a party because you’re both on the way back.

Training a horse to be a reliable partner is simply the action of collecting a stack of good experiences. In time, with patience for our crazy nervous systems, they add up. Keep breathing, don’t let yourself be spooked by memories. And we all hear those voices, some of us have gotten very strict about which ones we listen to.

You’ll need real courage for this last part. To both you and your horse, offer a cup of forgiveness. Just enough to feel like a light sprinkle of cool rain. Feels good to let go just a bit, doesn’t it?

Relaxed & Forward Training is offering Back in the Saddle, small group, online intensives using personal interaction and videos in this slow confidence-building method with special attention to the horse’s calming signals. Coming in August, contact me with your email address for details.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

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Anna Blake

47 thoughts on “Fear, Shame, and Affirmative Training”

  1. Will read after this morning’s perfect weather ride when the rain starts, but wanted to share quickly that a mindset of observing without judgment finally quieted (mostly) my shame about feeling fearful inappropriately. Two books were mindset rockers: The Little Book of Big Change, and The Inner Game of Tennis. Neither is a book about horsemanship, but combined, my self talk has shifted in every aspect of my life as I pursue positive changes perpetually.

    • Horses do that, they’re Buddhist. Acceptance is bigger than horsemanship… Thanks, Dodie. Have a good ride.

      • with the internal conflict of, “I’m scared,” versus, “I must exude confidence!”

        I would take this a smidge further into the realm of ‘authenticity’.

        Society encourages people to operate from their ‘egos’. To wear many different ‘masks’ – ‘fake it till you make it’ …& to influence (& try to ‘control’ (ego) situations, outcomes, other humans – primarily with ‘words’.

        Internal fear can often be outwardly presented as over-confidence, dominance …
        Humans play this charade with other humans
        You cannot B/S a horse.
        – they demand ‘Authenticity’ – especially Mares.
        If you are going to ‘show-up’
        – BE REAL.
        Otherwise You are wasting everyone’s time.
        Remove all the masks, send your ego out for coffee, tap into your core
        If you can still remember who-that-is.
        & SHOW-UP – consistently, with your thoughts, feelings & actions ‘unified’.
        Horses understand this
        – & they will give you the same in return.

        You really do ‘get what you give’.

        • I agree and from most I know, that’s a work in progress. On the terrified days, it doesn’t help to yell “OMG, we’re all gonna die” as authentic as that feeling is in the moment. I think good horsemanship is a bit like good mothering. I don’t encourage false bravado, but an affirmation is a good thing. I appreciate the comment, thank you Kristy. Very good points.

  2. Thank you so much! This is just what I needed to bring to my partnership with beautiful Appaloosa, Tulip. She has been mistreated in the past, so we are both building our confidence, one step at a time. It’s challenging sometimes, but so rewarding. I tell her I love her every time we’re together, riding or not 🙂

  3. Anna, this post resonates with me on so many levels! One of the most valuable things my horses my taught me is the importance of separating my ravenous ego from whatever I’m trying to accomplish with my horse. I was horrified by the idea that horses take all my emotional dirty laundry and put it on the clothesline by the freeway for all the world to see – this was a flight or flight turning point. I’ve always been a timid horseman and it’s impossible to hide it from horse or human. Fortunately, my love has – as you said – always been at least a little bigger than my fear or my ego. I’m still learning to be like Popeye – “I Yam What I Yam” is my mantra, repeated sometimes with more conviction, sometimes with less. I’ve never liked it when people tell new, scared riders that the horse can sense their fear, without putting the statement in context. Yes, they know, but any horse that newbie has any business getting on, has seen lots of fearful, inexperienced riders, and the likelihood is that “your best” in terms of corralling the fear and functioning well enough to learn something will probably be good enough. Also in their favor is what you said about horses recognizing our best intent. All of this assumes, of course, proper supervision from a someone’s who’s qualified.
    I am living proof that that a human can be wildly imperfect and learn from and be loved by horses. All that’s necessary – and it’s a big “all”, is to embrace instead of resist those situations that feel like embarrassment/humiliation and understand their potential to help me grow.

    • Great comment, “my emotional dirty laundry and put it on the clothesline by the freeway” indeed! Thanks, Julie.

  4. Thank you for being the alternate voice of those cat calls of “A nurturer doesn’t belong in the round pen!”

  5. What works for me starts at the stall entrance. I did the Masterson Method Horse Massage Weekend Seminar a few months ago and our lead instructor started every practice session with the reminder to “leave your stuff at the door.” Excellent advice!

    So I remind myself of that advice before I enter the stalls to do anything with my horses. I try to leave my ego at the door and focus on what the horse is telling me by his reactions to what I do. I try to leave any fear or memories of accidents at the door too. If we have a job to do like check pasture fences, I focus on us completing the job. It works for me.

    That focus continues while I’m working with the horse and until I’ve unsaddled and turned him back into the pasture. If I have to answer the cell phone I carry with me or if my ego tries to reassert itself, I have to intentionally refocus on the task that my horse and I are doing.

    When I say “focus” I don’t mean I’m staring at the horse. I mean that I’m intentionally present — like I probably was as a 10 year old with my first horse many, many years ago.

    Thanks for another wonderful post Anna!

    • It’s interesting when it starts, I learned it riding up the dressage levels. It really sharpened me in just the best ways. Thanks, Paul, checked at the stall door!

  6. Anna, you have such profound nuggets of wisdom to share about the horse-human relationship. I am so grateful to have discovered your blog and your books. My riding horse is becoming a much more reliable partner because we have been collecting a stack of good experiences. (Your words applied to my situation.) Over the past couple of months I have kept in mind your statements such as “less correction, more direction”, “relaxed and forward”, “be the change you want to see in your horse”, and especially remembering to BREATHE. My horses are changing as they reflect the change they feel in me. I love it! Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing with us the wisdom you have gathered over the years.

  7. I am in just this place Anna. A year after breaking my back – I got back on and was riding within three months – but then two more falls and now we are both anxious messes. I am terrible at “just one more”. I need forgiveness to help me says that’s enough for today. I love the standing at the mounting block and stopping there. I would like to know if I can do your course please.

    • That is a lot of pain (knowing how you love that boy) and time will become a friend. I’m so happy with how the videos are going, this week I was talking about music and the horse stole the conversation… it was great to be able to demonstrate, in the moment, how it works. We’ll start by chatting at the mounting block to release anxiety, listening to him. We’d love to have you. I’ll be in touch. For now, take care and give that tall boy a scratch.

  8. I have read and heard that fear and anger are the same emotion. Flight, fight or freeze! The horses’ responses are the same as ours, hence the “show of bravado” which may end up in beating the horse to get your win, but you have made him angry, as angry as yourself, and now he fears you, and the relationship lacks its essential mutual trust.

    Adrenaline requires oxygen, be that adrenaline from fear, or from the anticipation and excitement of competition, even the personal competition of getting yourself from the mounting block into the saddle. Somewhere in some lost and forgotten bush poem is the line “Toe the stirrup and touch the rein…..” Often for me it involves a huge moment of trust, trust the horse, breathe into the moment and feed off the adrenaline, pray to the horse god that we both be safe, take a glance at the horse’s demeanour (eyes and ears) and then take the leap of faith, trust and natural ability. Who of you consciously look the horse in the eye before you step aboard? I am saying “Here we go, I’m getting on, are you braced, ready and steady?” Did you place his feet in such a way that he is not going to have to move at all to compensate as you go up? Because if he has to shift a foot, it may become more of a move than you anticipated. The moment of mounting has caused more accidents than any other thing we do with horses. So, if you were successful, you may feel a need to dismount, and lead him back to the barn, because yesterday you only made it to the top of the mounting block. But if you sit there and take a few deep breaths, you might then be able to walk him about a bit. I have a huge natural ability, but I am never ashamed to get off (given the opportunity), before I fall off, if things look like going bad.

    Thank you again Anna, great post.

  9. Just love the post!
    How much “stuff” (excess baggage??) there is to offload!
    When I read “What if fear was not a failure but common sense asking you to listen and go slow?”, my breathing changed and some tension relaxed away…plenty more to let go of step at a time.
    So grateful for your perspective and insights.

  10. I have been thinking about asking you about humming and/or whistling while grooming or handling horses. I don’t think I have heard you talk about it, but I use it. I find I can’t hum or whistle if I’m not breathing well enough. It slows and deepens my breathing. I have suggested it to a few young people and they decline to try it. Anyway, when I feel anxious, yes, fearful, I just hum or whistle until it passes, or longer. In the past weeks I have learned just how often I’m holding my breath, and I’m just wondering what you think about this. Have you used it? If you have experience with it, or experiment with it, will you let us know how it works for you or others? If it’s valid, I’d like to know how to help students use it. Only on the ground? In the saddle as well? Just curious. There’s so much anxiety in riding, I’ve been trying to help students with relaxation, and it’s not easy.

    • Singing and humming is better than not breathing, yes. I would try anything to promote breathing, every single time. Ultimately, I prefer teaching/learning consistent breathing to both, (teaching ourselves to breath before something fearful happens) because I’m most interested in rhythm with my horse and that is the most solid cue TO HIM, so that is the end goal. Kids are tough, too easy to embarrass and emotions that run with lightning. I hear you! I do better playing music, that way horse is prone to pick up the beat and help the rider. Thanks, Susie. Hope you are well!

  11. I didnt whistle or hum, but always had a running “conversation” with my horse or any that I was grooming or handling. Never thought about having to keep from holding my breath – but I guess my mumbling conversations did accomplish that. I seem to remember reading or hearing that talking to your horse was a bad thing?????????? Just like the catcalls, right?

    • It works for breathing, yes, and if it doesn’t get in the way with what I’m doing. and I use a few voice cues, so I don’t want “chatter” to dumb down or drown out those.(I might say good boy as a reward, but if it’s a constant chatter, it loses its impact to the horse.) Mostly I want to listen and if I am making noise, not to the horse but too myself, well. It’s fine, but I am always looking for direct communication and with horses, that isn’t much voice. And then Maggie, in another way, I think you and I will have a running conversation with horses until we die. Thanks.

  12. Once again, Anna, you write a truly brilliant composition. Thank you so very much for addressing this issue. I have a wonderful trainer/instructor but I can tell that she just does not understand my riding fear or why I have it. There is another wonderful gal at the barn who is struggling with the same riding fear issues that I have.

    • Hate to hear that, as an instructor, makes me sad. Keep friends with the other woman, don’t let yourself feel isolated. Thanks, Michelle

  13. You’d think that little fear monster would sizzle in a second in our sun. Guess they build them for the desert as well.

  14. dear anna blake. do you have any idea how much good your writing does, probably all over the world? please keep making us smile after all, and sending us good vibrations. i take the liberty to also speak for the horses that live with me: THANK YOU.

  15. If fear starts coming up on me I do the same thing that I did when I learned to snow ski which petrified me .. taken up a steep slope that was no bunny slope by an expert skier. I don’t know what he was thinking. I spent most of the time going down on my butt however when I would stand up I said I can do this I am in control and I maintained that mindset as slowly snow plowed to the right and the left through the moguls to get to the bottom of the hill. I didn’t like it but I did it. I ended up loving to ski but it took a lot of convincing of my brain every time I would face a challenge. I would always tell myself I am in control And it helped me be in control instead of having that spirit of fear freak me out and lose all confidence. Did I fall? Many times but I got up and went on and enjoyed the challenges instead of fearing them.When I ride my Mustang baby I try to give her confidence talking to her and telling her it’s OK that everything is just fine I convince myself and I think I convinced her so far anyway. 🙂


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