How to Stop Taking Your Horse Personally

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

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

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27 thoughts on “How to Stop Taking Your Horse Personally”

    • He’s leading the change now… I often wonder if he’d been full-sized if he’d be euthanized for being dangerous. Thanks, Maggie.

  1. Loved this, Anna. Thanks for sharing & sending. Happy that you have Bhim-he keeps you ‘honest’. It’s so true that our “little guys” are in charge. My little guy is Finn, a pinto mini, who has never been ridden or worked in any way but he is still in charge, & the other horses, animals & me, are very aware of this fact. By Finn’s very nature, he is the one I would ‘crawl through fire’ to save!

  2. I have had the great good fortune to watch this lesson , not only with my horse , with many others. Seeing it thru your eyes is priceless. Thank you Bhim. Thank you Anna for finding the words.

  3. Such a timely piece Anna! Noche ( Ferdinand’s older half brother; I was told) is another complicated rescue. One step forward, 10 steps back. This afternoon, I was wiping fly spray in everyone’s ears because the gnats were vicious. This is not a new routine. Noche responded as if I was cutting his ear off and wouldn’t let me do his alternate ear. Being human, short on patience and long on fatigue, I yelled at him. He then proceeded to terrorize the other horses. I was so sorry about my reaction because I’m fairly certain I triggered his “aggressive” response. Lesson learned, and thanks for the timely reminder.

    • Good days and hard ones, on both sides… that’s just the path. Do your best, it’s that one step forward that matters. Thanks Laurie.

  4. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and Bhims story. I’m glad he found you, and you him. I’ve learned so much from you and one of the biggest take aways is going slow and most importantly breathing and listening. If I’m feeling any anxiety around my 4yr old OTTB I let out a big breath and we both relax as he does the same. Him and I are getting along so well together, I call him my gentle giant as Murphy is 17+ hh, I’m going to measure him again this weekend. Anyways, I’m in no hurry with him and am taking my time. He’s the sweetest boy, calm, sensitive, even lazy and would rather eat. But we are doing great with positive reinforcement training and under saddle we learn a little more each ride. He never raced so that’s why I adopted him, plus he’s SO HANDSOME!! Take care and thank you for all you do!! ❤️🐴❤️🐴❤️🐴❤️

  5. I stumbled here, and am in the midst of working through positive reinforcement training with my reactive, anxious two year old rescue pup. Boy, does your article hit home for me in working with my now 24 year old mare. I’m using similar general principles and concepts from the canine world on her since we’re re-learning each other after a three year separation. It’s a trip how much more communicative she has been WITH ME since we divorced our trainer. We’re finally having some real moments and fun together, but it can get sticky sometimes. I’m realizing she’s not trying to work against me. Finding new ways to ask is fun!

  6. Fantastic, as always. Love the last two paragraphs, especially. Will be working on the ground today with my rescue mare, Poppy, and will take your words with me. We’re just going to have a silent chat and breath a lot. I think I’ll take a chair and just let her come to me. That’s just the greatest feeling ever. Thanks, Anna.

  7. As always, you’ve made many valid and important points with wit and humor. One of the huge take-aways I’ve chewed on so much is the fact that the methods that created the problem are not going to fix the problem ( the worry) inside the horse.

    I am glad Bhim landed at your place where he can be his powerful, wise self, who is respected for his survival of a difficult past. When one looks at those eyes, we know he is not one to mess around with !

  8. My first thought was “how in the world does one mistreat a wee 36″ horse?” Sigh. The same way a draft horse, a toy poodle, a mastiff or even an elephant is mistreated – with intimidation, fear, pain & neglect. It’s the same smorgasbord of ugly that humans serve up to animals’ time & time again.

    • I think ponies and minis get manhandled because they aren’t 16 hands… This guy is all that, more like 19 hands and 36″…

  9. This is a paradyme shift for me! Thank you Bhim for your courage being the demo partner! Anna, I’m speechless, I’m “getting it” though, I think!
    I’m still navigating these waters and desperately wanting to find that peace of mind where I’m not thinking about what others will say or thoughts of confusing my horse, and not sure of next steps if he responds, etc. I guess I do have an ego after all.

    You described your goal of your mindset, but I am unclear what is actually going through your mind in that moment? Are you repeating in your mind to not think of the onlookers, ego, etc.

    Also, the cue was his eyes not blinking, therefore frozen, and your interpretation was, too much tension and holding breath from onlookers in the arena, right? Your communication back was your recognition of him and you cocked your hip, cracked a joke, and instantly removed the tension out of the room. Correct?

    I’m like a sponge in a ocean of non-believers soaking up as much of this new way to have a better partnership with my horse, and pets at home.

    Wonderful lesson, thank you

    • Yes, I think you get it. The power of peer pressure or performance anxiety, or whatever, is railbird chatter and can be crippling. I mind my own business, stay with my horse, I ignore them by breathing and releasing my own anxiety… My horse is telling me to be quiet and so I do. Yes, against tradition, but the tradition isn’t working… Thanks, Holly.


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