Interior Design: Do It for Your Horse

Imagine your brain is a room. Stand in the middle and slowly turn to take it in. Would it be a cathedral with beautiful stained glass? Maybe bookshelves all around and an oversized bathtub in the middle. Sleek and contemporary or antiques and overstuffed sofas. Would it have a balcony over your horse pasture? Is your mind filled with rainbow emotions, bold in primary colors? Is it all a sophisticated off-white with tan accents that hide dirt well? Have you curated your favorite art or is it simple and stark? Or is it more like the junk drawer by the fridge?

Pause. Take a moment and see the interior of your brain. All the creativity and love. All the scars and dark corners. Please, for just a moment, take honest stock. This is obviously another of my long-winded analogies, but patience, please.

When discussing equine welfare, we list their requirements as the Three Fs: Forage, Freedom, and Friends. We are better at providing more feeding opportunities than we used to be. No more two flakes morning and night. I hope horses have adequate turnout, not that all of us can have two hundred acres of irrigated pasture. I hope our horses live in the most natural way possible and that we only use stalls to store hay.

Most of us fall short in one area or another. It’s a negotiation, a question of finances, location, and reality. When I boarded my horses, I drove forty-five minutes each way, making the drive seven days a week. I lived close to where I worked, reasoning that I’d traded a barn commute for a work commute. Or at least, that’s how I justified it. Boarding two horses equaled a mortgage payment. So, I thought of that farm as my personal country club, as if I could afford one. Keeping them there, I felt rich in the things I valued.

And I tried to mitigate the lack. I required an indoor arena and hacking opportunities so we could stay active year-round. (More justification for the cost.) One farm had a beautiful outdoor arena with split rail fencing, shrubs and trees around it, and a wide view of the front range of the Rockies. Some days, I’d begin my ride with a walk on the rail and it was so entrancing to feel the stride of my horse, while looking to the western horizon, I’d get lost in daydreams for an hour. My young horse didn’t share this experience. There were squirrels and monsters in the bushes. He had to be constantly on guard.

Once I moved to my farm on the flat windy plains of Colorado, I understood the horse’s view more deeply. My arena was open with very light fencing and no dark corners or shrubs for predators to hide in. My horses behaved as if we were working on a clean sheet of white paper. There were challenges, but all were in plain sight. Once I began training professionally and clients hauled in, their horses settled easily. It must have seemed safe to them, except if they had a run-in with my sand-colored cat who used one corner of the arena as a litter box.

Most of us have learned to see through our horse’s eyes to some degree. It starts by being afraid of what they might spook at. That usually ends up with the human being spookier than the horse, and constantly looking for disaster takes the fun out of riding. Ironically, that’s when our view most matches our horse’s. Eventually, the horses grow older, or we get exhausted and become less defensive. Seeing their side becomes easier. Horses cheer us on. If we never evolved past that, it would be fine.

Some of us want a more profound relationship with our horses, whether it be advanced training, more adventures, or a process of rehabbing, which kind of ends up all being the same thing.

Now imagine your horse’s brain as a room. Make some jokes if you want, but then settle in. Consider the Three Fs again, because they are the foundation of wellbeing. The horse’s lifestyle impacts training success more than your love for them or anything else.

Consider their breed. Are they stoic, hiding their fear? Does their age and maturity level show in the decor of the room? Do they rage with hormones? If so, the color reflects that. Is their room an obstacle course or a few miles of beach sand? A hack in dark woods or a wide, sunny meadow. Now be honest, again. Knowing that horses are prey animals, that all unknown things are life-and-death danger until proven safe, what does your horse’s brain room look like? Are the ghosts of harsh training around every corner, have past experiences left painful marks? Are the mirrors covered in black because insecurity has stolen their confidence?

Sadly, as much as we might want to tidy up our horse’s brain room for them, we can’t. No more than we can perform miracle cures for sick children or starving masses. “Thoughts and prayers” are probably better than nothing. They just aren’t much better. Action is called for, and for once, it isn’t a task that requires a trust fund.

You’ve heard it a million times. If we want a different behavior from our horses, we must change first. If you have chosen the path of Affirmative Training, that means understanding we need to make ourselves less like predators and more of a safe haven.

Horses read our undisciplined minds at a distance. We are transparent to them, but we could pause at the door and tidy up our minds better. After all, it’s the only brain we can control. We already do some rearranging when we’re at work or around kids. We let the place go a bit when we’re sick. Too often we show the worst side of ourselves to the ones we love and save good behavior for strangers. Lousy habit.

It will take some focus and self-control, but maybe it’s time to do some redecorating. Replace the dark clouds with blue sky, drag some monsters out, and unclutter the place. And create an open, affirmative space, where a horse could graze without fear and feel accepted, just as they are. It’s the listening space we give horses when we slow down, breathe, and let go of our shortcomings.

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12 thoughts on “Interior Design: Do It for Your Horse”

  1. Yesterday I sprayed my five mares with fly spray at liberty, and recalled how stressful even attempting that task used to be for all of us. While there was a little dancing yesterday, even the spookiest mare basically chilled while being sprayed. I don’t know which came first, and actually I know it wasn’t linear at all, but I can see that we’ve all gradually become more settled and comfortable in the living rooms of our brains❤️

    • Susan, so good to hear. What a nice “view.” When we stop fretting, horses are certainly smart enough to draw the right conclusion.

  2. You keep rocking the analogies! No complaints here. I’ve read this blog a few times now, and your words inevitably reminds me of the concept of spaciousness that my beloved Will and I discussed and that he wrote about in one of his books. A feeling of spaciousness when with another person is highly desirable of course and indicates he/she has potential to be a good mentor. Same is true for therapists I believe.

    We seek the ones who grant us enormous permission to be ourselves. Why should horses be any different? I’ve experienced repeatedly the positive impact of being more spacious mentally and physically with my horses, even if I can only manage that for brief moments here and there. For me this spaciousness , this decluttering as you call it, means no corrections or criticisms toward the horse, saying “yes.” and being light-hearted within myself. Thank you for reminding us of being mindful of what we bring to our interactions with horses !

    • Sarah, best comment ever! I love the word ‘spaciousness’ as a way of being who we are. I think it’s double for horses, as their instinct for non-collision is a fundamental. And wouldn’t a therapist do more good than an impatient trainer? Thanks Sarah, wonderful.

      • And another thing, therapist vs trainers… the concept of acceptance. Therapists take us as we are without judgment. Ring the bell, again.

        • I appreciate your positive responses to my comment. In all fairness, I must say not all therapists bring spaciousness and non-judgment to their work, and instead, may have an agenda. Some approaches and interventions are subtly more coercive. Insurance companies practically demand that you be so .

          But I work hard to embody full acceptance, and I know that is at least partly why I have always been drawn to your affirmative approach to horse training.

          I don’t know why it never occurred to me before encountering you that spaciousness and positivity might work equally well with my horses !!!

  3. Anna, I love this piece! It’s very timely for me as I am working with a Lusitano from Portugal (arrived last year) who seems to be a hoarder of empty spaces in my room! Talk about the surgical precision of every micro move I have to make. No horse has ever taught me so much about my body position, core on or core off, weight on which foot, and when and where. Some days I have an ice cream headache coming on by how much of a position nazi this boy is. And yet, he is the best teacher I ever had in minding my body, being respectful around the horse’s head, and knowing where my belly button is pointing towards. If I don’t get it right I get a solid “F” from him. That could be a bite, a violent slinging of his head, or a stomp. He is a truly bred bullfighter and a very handsome one to boot. However, his cute face and long eyelashes are deceiving when he is in teaching mode (biting..and nipping) and boy, if I take the wrong step I get struck with a beautiful flaxen tail so hard I have streaks in my face for hours afterward. Luckily things have improved and we are starting to form a relationship of acceptance. Meaning: I am minding my body and hands.. He is not always on the warpath but will surely remind me if I step out of line.
    It amazes me when teachers (horses or otherwise) come into our lives just when we are ready to take the next step. When I thought I had my share of “difficult” horses, thinking I knew how to handle them, one came along to teach me that it is not them being difficult but me having a larger degree of human ignorance. This redhead ensures that my eyes are wide open now and that I will not miss a single dance step in our Tango.

    • Oh, Susanne. I love this challenge for you. My first Andalusian was similar and finding out that, for all I knew, I was still on the surface… it was demoralizing and exciting. Good for you!!


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