Horses: Technique and Art

“Shut Up and Dance”

It was written on one of those little tin lapel pins and my friend wore it when we went to bars back in the day. It was like a rebel yell of a Zen mantra; we’d dance with men or women or dogs. It was a rambunctious celebration of being young and alive. We frolicked like colts cantering about a field, snorting and kicking up our hooves. Free.

Then life happened. We got distracted by family and careers. We bought calendars and scribbled appointments and noticed the sound of our parent’s voices coming out of our mouths. We learned the attraction of a slow dance because we were hurried all the time.

Before that, if we’d had the wild luck to have a horse, we’d climb on and if we wanted to go to the woods, but the horse wanted to go to that patch of tall grass behind the barn, there was no problem. We went to that patch of tall grass behind the barn.

Horses taught us to be spontaneous, but our new-found maturity, we decided we needed to steer our horses, control their heads, make them do a task. As soon as that happened, we started missing the way it used to be with horses when we were kids.

As the magic escaped us, we searched for what we lost. We asked for help from a neighbor or a local trainer. In my case, I got a book from the library because it was before the time of the Computasaurus.

Some of us found videos put out by trainers who were smart enough to see a need in the market. Technique got seasoned with the sweetness of financial gain… for the trainer. We were desperate to do better for our horses, who had about lost patience with us by now. Which means we had about lost patience with techniques.

We tried our best to find someone who knew the path back to how it was but there isn’t a trainer in the world who holds his hand up and declares, “I train with cruelty and abuse.” Still, some do. Each trainer had a different definition of leadership, along with various techniques for picking up feet, doing canter departs, and everything else. Some work and some don’t.

Disclaimer: Horse people are very opinionated, and everyone is certain their way is absolutely right. This includes me.

We got good advice and we got bad advice, but then we layered that with conflicting advice, and finally on top of that, what worked for your horse one day, probably didn’t work on another day. So we ended up with lots of techniques vying for dominance in our minds, and we got more involved with our thoughts than our horses.

Horses keep telling us that they are individuals and we keep trying to squeeze them into a succession of one-size-fits-all training plans that never quite fit.

Some of the horses didn’t show us much tolerance as we flounder with a new technique. They gave us calming signals because we were abrupt or gave cues louder than we intended. Or we didn’t really understand the new technique, so our confidence was a bit frail and the horses responded to that with confusion. Eventually, tired frustration made it feel like nothing worked but aggression, and that only worked if you kept escalating. Like a rat on a wheel, driven by compulsion and not inspiration.

A plague of doubt. And it doesn’t matter if it started with your horse or you. It was contagious.

The secret no one seems to mention is the technique, regardless of whose technique it is, will never be enough. A technique is a noun, a thing like a skeleton or a box. It’s dry science until we clothe it with creativity, make it our own, and then allow our horses to discover it for themselves. A technique is hollow until each rider breathes their unique life into it and then introduces it to their unique horse.

It’s a catch-22: The technique won’t work unless we are inspired by it but it’s hard to be inspired by a flat technique.

The answer is that we have to embrace the art of training. We must believe in the what if. We might need to show our horses more confidence than we have in the beginning.

Shakespeare, the bard of theater, said, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” It’s a much more poetic way of saying fake it, till you make it, but your horse is reading you right back as you read him. Can you be interesting and mysterious?

Put your doubt on a shelf and let the play begin. Let your serious goals for training take back seat to spontaneity. Lighten up with the science, horses like recess more than books. You were once that way, too, remember? Laugh at yourself. Let him see you try and if you stumble, laugh more. Show him it’s more fun to try than to stand back and doubt.

Success depends on not how well you mimic the particular technique you are using, but instead, how well you listen to your horse and engage him in the moment.

Technique is necessary and good. Then, shut up and dance.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 




This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Horses: Technique and Art”

  1. Completely, absolutely right. And as you suggest clearly but don’t explicitly state, the art is only possible when you recognize your horse as a partner and not a vehicle. Goodness knows, I have light years to travel before I can do much that looks like much, but my horses and I have got the partnership bit of the puzzle. We can have discussions and try things, and we know we can trust each other. I’m so grateful for that. Thanks for another super essay, and I hope your trip continues to go wonderfully!

  2. Such brilliance. Your style of writing makes me feel like an Oprah meme. Light bulb! YEEESSS!! I needed this exact article today.

  3. I like that. And isn’t that why we ride horses anyway? To relax and just have fun? As adults, we all forget so much of the important stuff in life. Thanks for the reminder Anna.

  4. Wow… my favorite of them all. Can’t help thinking of the good old saying…”can’t wait for my child to walk and talk and when they do – shut up and follow only as I do!!!

  5. I love this Anna. It reminds me why my forever horse is a forever horse. She will not tolerate just being ‘told’ ‘what’ and ‘how’. She needs a say. Some days she wants to jump, some days to dance and others to get out and rampage. Each ride I ask, “What shall we do today?” as we walk and warm up.

    And I laugh, regularly and with abandon.

  6. Love it! As a Special Educator, I know it is all about the individual of whom Imust read, observe an listen. Since I was 12, h orses have always been my summer students/partners since. I love the dance; however, it can be a different dance on different day! That subject could be a follow- up blog?

    Thanks for this one,

  7. So apposite Anna,

    At the beginning of December my horse and I were totally lost after me trying for six whole years to help him. I decided to ditch all the on line subscriptions and books for a bit and just be with him as I had done in the past with other horses that might have been considered difficult by some.

    After two months he now comes willingly, gives my requests a try asd does as I ask which shows me if my communication is rubbish and I am just getting back in the saddle. Every day is different but some days when it feels like I need to I just lay a blanket on the ground, it is still Winter after all, and lay down and chill out with them. Seems to do far more good than an hour in the manege trying to show him something. After a chillax he usually shows me something.

    Best wishes,


  8. Hello from Maine! I live on a hill and flat space is at a premium. I have one, flat area the size of a small arena that I refer to as “The Playground”. It is where I ride, set up obstacles and work with my herd. This time of year, when riding is not always an option, The Playground is used for turnout time and the horses each have their turn to run, buck and get the ‘yahoos’ out of their system. Yesterday, I remember thinking that turnout time should be referred to as “Recess” since it occurs on “The Playground”. With that in mind, I saw your statement “…horses like recess more than books.” and I can say you are spot on!!! : )

  9. Click. I just had an AH HA! moment, and I felt it right down to my bones. I’ve always said my gelding, who I ride very seldom because he’s A LOT of horse, should be a trick horse. He LOVES doing his tricks and never hesitates to show off to anyone who wants to admire his clever antics. Of course thinking back, it was ME who had so much fun training him to do his tricks. No pressure, no worrying if I was doing it right or wrong, just fun and delight and lots of praise when he got it. I now need to bring that FUN back into the saddle and stop worrying about what my clever boy is going to do, but just enjoy the ride and trust we will both enjoy the experience.
    A definite shut up and dance moment!! Thanks Ann, I really think this has made a difference in my perspective. Now if it wasn’t -10F out there I’d give it a whirl. Ah well, spring can’t be too far off.

  10. Beautifully put, but you forgot one additional piece – dance like no one is watching! Too often we are also worried about what others may think of our “technique” … or that they may judge us as less capable if our horse is not immediately responsive, or fitting a particular style. Ultimately, it is the voice and opinion of our dance partner that should matter most!

  11. fantastic blog! I have lately noticed that I have crowded recreation from my life and with my equines. Will put on my inner shut up and dance button now!

  12. Love your disclaimer! “Horse people are very opinionated, and everyone is certain their way is absolutely right. This includes me.” This is me, also! Whooooo! Good reminder to have a technique I am inspired by, and it doesn’t matter if other horse persons agree with my choice…they have their own inspired technique. Our relationship, my horse and I, are what is important! Let’s dance!


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