Horse Trainers: How Do You Know Who to Believe?

It was the end of a long clinic day, and we were wrapping up. Almost done on time until this question. “How do you know who to believe?” There were people new to horses, lifelong horsewomen, and those who rode as kids and returned later in life. The thing they all had in common was that they constantly heard contradictory information. They didn’t know who to believe. Trainers, vets, or trimmers; no one agreed, and asking for a second opinion made things worse. They complained that the pros all contradicted each other. Especially me. I hear that a lot.

I could have told them they should just believe me. I train affirmatively and put the mental and physical welfare of the horse first. I didn’t say that although it’s true. The question wasn’t personal. There isn’t a trainer in the world who says outright that they are abusive. We all paint ourselves golden. Some of us make excuses for cruelty and some of us avoid it at all costs. But no one openly admits to cruelty.

Their confusion was genuine, so I listened to their frustration. It wasn’t just professionals who disagreed, it was the other barn friends as well. Good friends who advised them to do something one way, when an equally good friend said the opposite. As if training methods have gangs. Now friendships were in the balance, too.

They were so eloquent in expressing the anxiety of wanting to do the very best they could for their horses, but simultaneously being pulled apart. When I was starting with horses, I asked for advice and got such a ball of twine bunch of answers, that I felt the same way. Now I was being asked the question and it deserved a better answer.

Part of the confusion is that folks new to horses look at rodeo with horror. Even the day-to-day harsh training methods are rough and they are appalled by how fearful the horses look. AS THEY SHOULD BE. They aren’t fanatics, but usually women of a certain age who don’t want to fight with their horses. Fresh eyes would help all of us.

So many of us who have been around for a while have become complacent to normal cruelty. We can say the word without visible distaste. We’ve seen harsh training our whole lives and slowly become callous.  Others turn a blind eye to things we don’t like rather than confront the traditions. We may not like it, but we are part of how cruelty became normal.

Some of us have been around long enough that we’ve tried most methods, not willing to go as far as we’re told. We aren’t willing to rise to the full measure of dominance and so we do a “lite” version with fewer pain calories. We know we don’t need it and feel better that we’re gentle in our fear-based methods, so our horses are only a bit scared of us.

Others don’t have much choice in professionals, so we have to negotiate carefully. We hope for the best, breathe with our horses. We go along but hold the anxiety we might be heckled for being a wimp if we spoke up.

The old voices inside us die hard. Most of us don’t talk back, because when you think about it, domination from trainers, vets, and trimmers works on us as well as our horses. We fear the correction, too.

Or maybe we go too far the other way. We get so soft, so quiet that our horses worry we’re stalking them like coyotes. We allow dangerous behavior and horses lose confidence because we have stopped communicating. We do what we call liberty, but our horses pin their ears. We are such extremists. Why is a mutual partnership so hard to find?

I want to tell them there have always been time-honored traditions of Affirmative Training. That science has debunked fear-based methods and given us information that is changing the horse world. I hope they study more, because after all these years of learning, I haven’t reached the end. What I know most is that horses are individuals and as much as we just want to do the right thing, that might change day to day. That listening to the horse is crucial, above any training plan. Calming signals above techniques.

A better question is can you tell the difference between what you want to see and what the horse is saying? Do you assume you know, or have you studied equine language? I’ll warn you, it’s easier if you don’t actually understand them.

Finally, for what it’s worth, this is my advice when looking for a professional. It’s dawned on you that we don’t all love horses. You want to find someone who does, but it isn’t about handing out treats. A professional who loves horses is curious, engaged, and vulnerable with each horse. They know enough to have the simple answers ready and are willing to dive for the hard ones.

The second method of picking professionals is better. Listen to the horses.

If you can watch a video, turn the sound off. If you are watching the trainer live, count your breath or use earbuds as a way of not hearing external distractions. Listen with your eyes. Without the sales pitch, just look at the horse. Read his calming signals. Does he look anxious? Are his eyes dead or half closed? That isn’t a connection. Are the horse’s ears active, his poll soft? Curiosity is a sign of courage in a horse. Does he look beautiful in the natural way of a horse?

Everything a horse thinks is written all over him with unrelenting honesty. They’re the ones to trust. But first, we have to take our lens of human emotions away. We have to learn to think like a horse. It isn’t a romantic gesture. It means accepting their anxiety or confusion or pain, even when it isn’t convenient.

Many answers are elusive or nebulous, but cruelty is not normal. Confusion is. Horses have emotions, but we need to learn to tell the difference between ours and theirs. Horses aren’t problems to be solved. We just get to support them as we can. Do our best and fall short, because we are only human.

Horses teach us our limitations until we set ourselves free of the need for control we will never have. Not anywhere in life. And just like that, we stop trying to create perfection. It was always right there in the horse. Always visible in the cooperation of a herd. We were the ones fighting.

I hope we will never know it all, that we will learn more every day. Some traditions hold through centuries and some are horribly out of date. We have to change and stay engaged. Asking for help is a strength.

We might be born loving horses, but knowing them takes a lifetime. The sooner we can sort out the professionals who can help us understand them, the more effective we can be, and the sooner our horses find the safety they seek.

Available Now! Undomesticated Women, Anectdotal Evidence from the Road, is my new travel memoir. Ride along with us on a clinic tour through 30 states, 2 oceans, and 14k miles with me and my dog, Mister. It is an unapologetic celebration of sunsets, horses, RV parks, roadkill, diverse landscapes, and undomesticated women. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies from me.

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35 thoughts on “Horse Trainers: How Do You Know Who to Believe?”

  1. “Everything a horse thinks is written all over him with unrelenting honesty.”
    I like this. That communication to us puts the ball in our court to respond in a manner consistent with that horse’s personality and ability to understand.

  2. Here’s the thing – I am not a horse person. But everything you write applies to, well, life. I love that. I love expanding the specific out to the general.

    These two statements struck me as especially insightful –

    “I’ll warn you, it’s easier if you actually understand them.” Letting go!

    “Curiosity is a sign of courage in a horse.” I never thought to put curiosity and courage together but, yes, stunning.

  3. Anna, as you so often do, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I belong to a lovely barn family and yet get conflicting advice almost daily. It’s tough and frustrating, especially when human relationships that we don’t want to damage are involved. If only we could routinely put the horses first. I love the advice to watch the horse and its expressions during interaction with trainers. To accept the horse where it is, emotionally, rather than projecting our emotions on them. Anyway, thanks for your insight!

  4. Thank you once again Anna for knowing what this softie needs to hear. Some days I wonder what is the right amount of strength/confidence.It’s a challenge for me to not be too soft, too quiet. I think my mare who I “rescued”, has taught me to be more quiet. Coming back to horses in middle age has allowed me one of the very best ongoing educations…… each horse has their own personality. I feel I am still behind in my own confidence. The kind that allows for as much trust between my riding horse and myself. I think this comment became more than a comment. Thank you for untangling my brain this morning ha!

    • I think we have the capability, as women of a certain age, to be better listeners and better partners than ever. Keep up the good work. Thanks, Melanie.

  5. Many years ago I took a young horse to a Buck Bannaman clinic. My horse was very smart and already working well at liberty and on a loose rein. After doing ground work with the flag thing (we had never worked with the flag) I was told my horse was resistant and needed to work longer. I said no and stopped. Got sideways looks and the clinician said i was babying him.
    The following day was mounted work. The clinician kept us on our horses (mostly three and four year olds new to mounted work) for nearly three hours. We were supposed to do another three hours that afternoon but my youngster, who had always worked willingly and happily flattened his ears at the saddle. His back was warm and obviously sore. I sat in the bleachers and caught flack for not making him work thru it. Watching the afternoon session I saw lots of what I now know were signs of horse discomfort. How many of the remaining 5 riders knew their youngsters were sore and stressed and were essentially bullied into riding. We did not go back for day three.

  6. The title of this grabbed me when I saw it, and the content addresses so much of what I’ve encountered in the short 6-years since horses became part of my everyday existence. My first observation as I began a self-imposed crash course in all things horse was that “natural horsemanship” meant chasing a horse in a round pen with stick and string. RFD-TV had show after show featuring different clinicians doing it, so it must be what you’re supposed to do, but it didn’t feel right to me. Then when I observed it in action with a few locals who reside in my rural Arkansas community, I realized that the “stick and string” was more often used as a weapon, and that anger seemed to be part of the horse training equation
    On the flip side, I have spent time exploring the click/treat avenue. I am absolutely committed to training dogs using operant conditioning, and it’s a proven way to teach any mammal certain behaviors. Beyond that, I personally haven’t seen any horses trained using R+ that I personally would want to have as my partner on the side of a mountain.
    So as a horse “newbie” in my sixth decade, looking for a safe way to interact and actually ride off into the sunset with any one of the 3 lovely steeds that now reside in my barn, without doing anything to them that feels wrong in my heart and gut…
    Thank you, Anna!

  7. Indeed, the horses are the best measure of an expert’s ability. What is saddest to me are those people I’ve met who DID see issues with their horse’s behavior under a chosen expert, but the expert explains it in a way that sounds ‘logical’ so they accept it and even adopt the language. It seems still easier to believe ‘pretty words’ than their own eyes. And, as you mention, it is very intimidating to convince ourselves that somehow an admired expert can be wrong. Here’s to people watching (and seeing) more and listening a bit less!

    • I love my profession. I have been blessed to work with the best teachers and some were human. But we have to stay curious, every one of us. Thanks Lia.

  8. Anna, your blog has given me the confidence to know I’m not off-base when I follow my gut and ever so politely decline/ignore advice from others. In fact, I simply don’t care what others think of me when it comes to my horses. What matters most is what my horses think of me. Thank you for giving me the tools to even begin to know & understand what they are thinking & feeling.

    @MaryBarton Kudos to you Mary Barton for having the cojones way back then to stand up for your horse!

  9. Anna, I love what you’ve said here today. In fact, if all that ever survived of your writing was this entry, it would be enough. It is perfect.
    Today I spent a wonderful hour with Buddy, breathing together, peaceful and present. And when we went our separate ways it was in peace. That is as it should be. Two species who’ve found a common language – who meet up, spend time and then go to our very different lives better for the time we had together.

    • Mare, this is so good to hear. He’s still a new horse and this is so much progress since he came. Yay for both of you. I agree, our lives intersect, overlap, and then separate. All the sweeter to come back. Thanks for the wonderful comment

  10. Anna, This is a wonderful post. Deciding who to believe and picking a horse teacher, which I prefer to the word “trainer”, is fraught with peril both for the horse and the horses owner. And, just to be clear, we don’t own horses, at least in most cases, they own us. The idea of turning off the sound and watching the “trainer” and the horse without the distraction of sound is genius. You are absolutely right, listen to the horse. I believe it is really important that someone who is going to teach a horse starts out establishing a respectful relationship with the horse. Sometimes you have to give respect to get respect, and like with children, sometimes you just don’t settle for anything but respect. There is a hierarchy in every horse herd. If you are going to teach a horse, most often at some point in time the horse needs to be submissive to you, just as most horses in a herd are submissive to other horses, the alpha mare excepted. Horses make other horses submissive by moving their feet. In the horse world, he who allows his, or her feet to be moved is the submissive one. This is not to say the horse shouldn’t have it’s say, and we always have to listen and often heed what we are being told. You shouldn’t make them move their feet with a stick or a rope. although you can create pressure with a stick or a rope without striking them. Energy, you move them with your energy and by communicating with them, asking or telling them like another horse would, first by using your energy. I have never had that fail. That said, the horse world can be violent, when all else fails, horses will bite, kick and strike at one another. If the disagreement with a horse was getting to that level I think I would back off and let the horse soak for awhile. So, those are just some of my notions. I have admired you after having been introduced to you methods by Dawn Perine, who I also admire.

    • Jim, thank you for your comment and kind words. Personally, I don’t like it when people respond with more reading material, but here I go. Have you read anything by Lucy Rees? She and others have debunked the myth of hierarchy in herds. I don’t want a submissive horse and don’t use whips or treats, preferring authentic energy, meaning my own. I’ve used these methods on rank stallions and abused horses of all breeds and feel confident that herds are ruled by cooperation and not domination. It’s a huge shift of paradigm, and the old one that makes sense to a human more than a horse. (We are loathe to give up dominance thought) But there have always been trainers who worked from this standpoint of partnership rather than leadership. Just to say, I hope we continue to grow in our understanding of horses. Different viewpoints help us, as do open minds. Thanks again, Jim, respectfully.

      (google: )

      • I don’t disagree with you and thanks for your suggestion about Lucy Rees, I will for sure look her up. Actually, when I wrote that comment I had forgotten about Mark Rashid’s observations about the passive leader. Point well taken, thank you. I have found that as a practical matter, when we communicate to horses what we want them to do in a way they can understand, more
        often than not, they do it. I once worked with a Colonel Freckles horse that all I had to do was give him a picture in my mind of what I wanted and he would do it.

  11. I love this post. And as empowered adults we can all use this advice. Another question is how to raise the next generation of horse people?

    I have two daughters who I’m proud to say have the self confidence to question authority. But it’s been a lonely horse journey for them so far because the horse organizations available for kids (4H, pony club) in our experience do not align with the values you describe, and we agree with.

    How can we provide positive coaching for the next generation?

    • Great comment, Shaste. Thank you. I know the Pony Club manual was recently updated, but the trickle down to kids is very slow. I’ve met teenagers who hear the same old dominance voices in their head that I have, a pretty disappointing thing. Many horse groups for kids are headed up by conservative old school folks, well-intended perhaps… I worked with some local 4-H kids but came away thinking that the leaders needed me most. These busy people who volunteer aren’t always the most informed… It’s a quandary and not all parents can afford to hire pros to work with them. I hate to say this, because the weight of the world is on the shoulders of Moms, but they also seem to be the ones who eventually get things done. I think Moms have to fight for it. Sorry.

  12. I’m a certain age now. I’ve worked for 4 different horse trainers. I can honestly say none of them consistently listened to the horse or understood, well, horse body language. You are so dang right. Of those trainers one liked horses, but not any specific horse in a specific moment, (that’s a tell for me), the other actually liked horses, and specific horses as they were working, but lacked insight into pain and language. The other two didn’t like horses at all. One was proud of it. It’s kind of horrifying. Everything you’ve said I second! Learn horse language in general, then the quirks specific to one horse. Extrapolate. Tune out human voices. Turn up the volume on horse voices. Why did I stay? To help the horses where I could. I learned a LOT from watching excellent vets. They do uncomfortable stuff with horses, and the good ones know how to ease the tension, and help the horse work with them. It’s a dangerous job. I’m not a trainer. There’s many skills I don’t have. But I am great with helping horses through anxiety and fear. Someone recently handed me the lead of a 17 yo “trained” horse and asked for help. Within about 10 minutes it was clear to me he was stuck and utterly alone trying to cope with a 2 yo bouncing baby brain. He was quietly terrified to do anything. It wasn’t a hugely visible anxiety. No one had ever taken the time with him to both build his confidence in himself or in people. He had no clue he could rely on me or anyone for help. It made me very sad. So I met him where he is. Mentally stuck at 2. It meant taking a horse that looked trained and going back to basic handling for a 2 yo. He’s used to shouting at humans and not being heard. Brushing his tail, I was watching his ears and body for any signs of “it’s too much” or “it feels weird”. Nothing. His go to communication was to lift a hind leg like he was going to kick, and he was shaking, because he knew he’d get it for threatening to kick. But he wasn’t threatening to kick me? He was trying to say “slower, softer”. I immediately stopped. Waited for him to put his foot down, and very gently went back to his tail. He could not believe I understood him! Sigh. I told him I got it, he didn’t have to shout, lol. His owner is an FEI judge, with a ton of experience. He’s in re-training with a friend. Good Trainers don’t have it easy either, trying to convince (truly good and loving) long time horse people that they aren’t actually hearing their horse. I think the problem is we aren’t taught “horse”. We’re usually taught how to make what we want happen. I know I was in the “make them do it” education school. Sorry so long, this hit me in the heart!

    • Thanks, Jane. This is a wonderful comment. Usually you and I agree on most everything, but for the first time, I do disagree. You are so a trainer. Maybe not “professionally”, and with all the money trainers make, who can blame you, but yes, you are the best kind of trainer. But we aren’t taught horse, as you say. We’re told to listen, but not what to actually listen to.

  13. “A better question is can you tell the difference between what you want to see and what the horse is saying”. My answer to this question is ”sometimes”. I wish the answer was “always”, but sometimes the distractions in life get in the way. Anna, do you think that horses remember our misunderstandings of them? I try so hard to be present and without expectation, but I do fail sometimes. I see progress in terms of trust, but I wonder how much my distracted days slow us down.

    • Bhim has been giving me a master class in that this year. They certainly remember, but even fearful ones don’t seem to hold a grudge when we mess up. I don’t think they spend much time thinking about us at all, they need to stay in the moment. I think they care about survival, having enough to eat, if they feel safe. They are like bad boyfriends. They only think about themselves. Don’t underestimate the progress you’ve made, and know that progress is never a straight line.

  14. This is such a fine essay, and speaks to much of my own experience. Two things here really stand out for me.. training methods do have gangs, and can you tell the difference between what you want to see and what the horse is actually saying. The latter is such a deep pit we could mine it the remainder of our lives I think.

    As a psychologist I can’t resist commenting that the discernment between what we want to see and what is actually there is a widespread phenomenon in every aspect of life, especially relationships. Can’t recall who determined that about 80% of what we think we see and hear is projection. It’s a miracle we survive and thrive despite that !!

    Anyhow, thank you, Anna, for expanding our awareness and keeping us on our toes.

  15. Another beauty which had me tearing up toward the end, as they often do. There is so much to comment on, but let me start here: I have started to voice my opinion more, but by example. I “advise” by example. At the horse barn where I board I find I must walk a fine line. There have been a few successes. I have seen some folks ending the treat feast since I made a few comments about it, using myself and my horse as an example. “I don’t give treats because…”. “Would Peaches like a treat?” “No, I don’t give treats because…” You see where I am going. “My horse gets turned out for 4 hours.” “Really? Peaches is turned out all night because…” and, “My vet recommended long turn outs because (the obvious reasons)”… Sorry, Anna, if this sounds overly simple, but I have seen people ponder, consider, and then actually take action! It’s a quieter way to help and it is a way I am most comfortable with and I think others are comfortable with it as well because it gives them time to think and process, and like our horses, don’t we all need that? And I often say, “Like Anna Blake says — you be the treat!” “Anna who?” That’s when the real fun begins! Tomorrow I am wearing ear plugs and will (gently and passively) watch mine and the herd. What a GREAT way to observe behavior and learn — without any of our human distractions. Thank you for everything.

  16. “Always visible in the cooperation of a herd.” Truer words never spoken my friend. The answers to everything are right there.



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