Bhim is a one-of-a-kind, I surely hope. People might say he’s still with me ten years after he came for halter training because I couldn’t get it done. Does he look cute? Tell that to the humans he’s taken out.
And to be clear, he’s here because Edgar Rice Burro asked if he could have a horse of his own and I can’t refuse that donkey anything. But I can reliably halter Bhim now. No one else can, but these things take time.
The thing that should be so obvious to all of us is that the training approach that created the problem will not be the thing that fixes it. Resistant, fearful, or aggressive horses (Bhim was all three with a vengeance) will not be retrained by using the methods that created the problem in the first place. For all horses, we must find a better training approach.
Sometimes I’ll be doing a demonstration with a horse, and I’ve told the onlookers what I’m going to do, which everyone can see the horse is not doing. I would rather say the horse is thinking about it, but the horse has paused and now the onlookers are getting nervous. Ten seconds might as well be ten hours. Some want to see me succeed and some want to see what happens when the horse doesn’t do what I want. After all, I’m the one who says, “Affirmative Training is the fine art of saying yes.”
Sometimes trainers feel pressure to make the horse do something and resort to intimidation. We’re so used to seeing cruelty toward animals that it seems normal, but I can’t help thinking that’s how the horse got that way. Horse owners feel the pressure to make the horse behave if the vet is coming. Riders feel pressure to be perfect if railbirds are watching. These are challenges to our patience and a betrayal of the horse because one moment we’re a peaceful partner and the next, it’s a fight.
My demo horse hasn’t blinked, and neither have the onlookers. It’s as if they were they’re a gaggle of kindergartners; one does the thing they’ve been told not to do, and the rest of them go quiet, worrying if there is going to be a punishment. These adults continue watching me, wondering if I’m going to spank the horse and they aren’t breathing. And for crying out loud, if I can tell, it’s a no-brainer that the horse can feel it, too.
I cock a hip, exhale, and in a voice everyone can hear, I address the horse. “You know I’m famous, right?” It works every time. No, the horse doesn’t care who I am, but the onlookers laugh and start breathing again. Laughter is a human calming signal. I don’t take any of it personally. Then, I prepare to go slower. It’s worse than that. I’m going to brag about going slower.
For those of us who have had a horse disappear from underneath us like a tablecloth jerked from under dishes, you’d think that a horse pondering and cogitating would be a good thing. A horse who thinks is safer and steadier. It isn’t always so dull, once the learning has happened, fast is good. Not to mention since horses are always learning, and it would be smart to not break the trust we have been trying to build. Ask Bhim.
Sometimes we’ll see a horse take a cue almost before the air settles from the ask. In that situation, the horse heard the cue coming before we were aware we gave it. It isn’t a faster response; we’ve telegraphed it without knowing. They read our bodies at calm times as well as when we are anxious.
If you want a horse to be that quick and responsive, the training must be clean and consistent. And slow in the beginning. Slow isn’t the right word though. We must be non-threatening. We have to make it clear to the horse, as he holds his breath waiting for a louder, scarier cue, that we aren’t going to use intimidation. Then we must wait until he believes us. No whips, no ropes, no loud repetitions. We have something better. Inhale-2-3. Exhale-2-3. We make peace.
If the first thing humans do when nervous or threatened is to hold our breath or throat breath, shallow if at all. Taking a deeper breath is a cue for our nervous system to normalize. Humans don’t trust breath, but horses know this. All animals do, and they depend on it. Exhales relax us. If we chattered less, we’d know, too.
Sometimes when we aren’t breathing, our horses will blow or snort and give us that cue. Bhim suggests that if we didn’t focus so much on horses taking our cues, we could take more from our horses.
Back to my demo horse, I took the first cue he gave me. The demo horse froze just a bit and I listened. Not being distracted by my goals or surroundings means I stay steady with the horse. I waited, and then “released” the humans. Now, the laughter has softened the air, the horse shakes his neck loose, and does just what I asked, without me repeating.
It was never about me, or the onlookers. It was always about him making a choice. Horses gain confidence in those precious internal moments. The investment is golden.
Here is the secret. It’s our human nature to accelerate. If things get sticky, we speed up and push harder. We mentally bolt… It’s our nature, not our fault. But we are also trainable. We can use our frontal lobe, if we aren’t busy taking things personally, and make a choice to focus on the task. We can choose patience over aggression. Horses over our ego.
Much more important than that, once our ego is on a sit-stay, we can take the cues our horses give us. It’s something a horse understands innately but we need to work on. Going slow and listening is a challenge for our species. It takes courage to not accelerate into a fight. And even more bravery to take the time it takes.
Taking a cue from a horse doesn’t mean they are “the boss of us.” It means they are a partner with a voice.
Bhim stands off to the side considering his options. Watching him watch me, I marvel at all I owe him, this 36″ horse who looms larger than all the other rehab rescues. They say horses come to us for a reason and it’s true. Bhim has the respect of the herd and the love of a good donkey. He doesn’t care what I do to buy hay. He doesn’t need me. Ten years later, Bhim doesn’t trust humans. We’re perfect for each other.
I know he cannot lay down his memory of his past. Instead, we’ll need to build him a new world. But no worries; he’ll show me how.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, audio blogs, daily quotes, free participation in “group lessons”, and live chats with Anna. Become part of the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.