Learning to Love Negotiation

Rule number one about horses: There will be a high learning curve. Most of us are drawn to horses because we feel some sort of connection. It doesn’t matter if we grew up with horses or only saw them in books, eventually, we find our way to a barn.

When we get there, some of us stand in silent awe and some of us are so overwhelmed by emotion that we might as well be screaming for the Beatles in 1964. It doesn’t matter where we start on that emotional continuum because as time passes, we’ll make every stop. Each of the seven deadly sins will be our own.

There is hardly a lesson where I don’t use the word continuum. In my mind, I see it as a pendulum on a clock, swinging in an arc from one extreme to the other. We are too afraid or we are too complacent. We punish too much or we sent no boundaries. We try too hard or we quit too soon. We are silent with our cues or we scream bloody murder.

Too much or too little, we understand the extreme edges of the continuum but the subtleties of the sweet spot in the middle can be hard to locate.

Humans aren’t great with nuance. We’re predators and we want what we want. Now. Our idea of leadership is to get our way and often we define success by clawing our way to money or fame. Even that isn’t enough; then we worry about how other people will judge us.

Meanwhile, horses are prey animals and that means constantly being aware of what’s happening outside their own mind and negotiating their safety. In herd life, the best leaders are the ones who keep the herd secure.

It’s right about here that I wonder for the umpteenth time, what is it about horses that draw us so strongly. It certainly isn’t our similarity.

Then, to make it all a bit more complex, not all humans are created equal. (We make laws, but it’s still true.) Some humans, predators by birth, also have the experience of being prey in our own herd. We have experienced the dark side of domination and we know that fear doesn’t equal respect. We know what it means to not trust our own kind.

When we want to escape the world, we go to the barn to find that equine connection we crave but as we begin learning horsemanship, often we’re taught to train with intimidation. The irony should not be lost on us.

This is all true before we every pick up a lead rope much less ride, and it deserves our consideration as we teeter on this continuum. Some humans have been negotiating their position in the world forever. What if that was an asset while working with horses?

Have you noticed that I’m being very careful with my pronouns? Our culture describes behaviors with a gender-related pejorative term. “Act like a man.” “Throw like a girl.”

And in an age when bullies can be mistaken for as strong leaders, being a good negotiator doesn’t have much rock star appeal.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a horse. That gift of acceptance over criticism has a huge value to a horse who’s fearful. Fear is a wild emotion that doesn’t go into a corner well. There is simply no aggressive response that works against fear. Traditional thought is to push a horse through it but no matter how exhausted a horse gets from intimidation the result is not going to be positive. Fear becomes institutionalized, not released.

Instead, let the negotiation begin. Can I ask for his eye? Good, release. May I enter his space? No? Okay, I hear you. Breathe. Step back. He looks at me like I might be unusual. I am making the middle of the continuum look attractive. I linger there, and let him take it in. Moments pass. May I come? Will you consider connecting?

Maybe he turns. His eyes go deep and dark and quietly, he offers me something indescribable. It might be his heart and the vulnerability slams me with awe. No, now especially, breathe! If a trainer feels frustration or anger, they should step back and decompress, but I do the same thing when I become besotted. For as much as I do love horses, I respect them more. Any communication that we have with runaway emotions, positive or negative, will cloud the negotiation. I want to be a place of safety, so I choose to stay emotionally level. My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.

I thrive on the creativity needed when working with horses, especially the ones who have been trained to not trust people. Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?

What if we let go of that certainty of ego and judgment and learn to honor the skill of negotiation.

Name-calling right or wrong is a superficial dead-end position to hold.  Positive training means making confidence easy for a horse. That’s setting it up so you can say yes, all the time. It isn’t a lack of respect in the horse or the trainer but the exact opposite. When that mutual respect becomes a habit, it turns into trust.

Great trainers of any discipline come to the place of understanding beyond domination.  Leadership is a humble service given with kindness. Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.

If I were to use a gender-related pejorative term for that, I might say they train “like a girl.” In the perfect world, it would be a compliment.


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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 “Learning to Love Negotiation”

  1. Good Morning Anna! This reminds me of Ebony, we have come to an agreement. She still does not get “in your pocket” like Maverick, but every once in a while she looks at me like, “OK, you can scratch behind the ear, or share my space.” It may be a small gain, but it feels more comfortable.

    • Ebony will always have an opinion and it’s good to be a mare. Good morning back, Sharon. Give that girl a scratch from me, you know, if she’s in the mood.

  2. Anna, My horse is in retirement pasture 3 hours away from me. I don’t go to the barn anymore, and I have unsubbed from a number of lists and pages about horses for a number of reasons. Mostly because it is too painful. But I still love reading your blog, because your wisdom applies to all of life, not just horses. Thank you.

  3. Will be reading this many times. Very grateful for your sharing your awesome ability to put these things into words with such clarity. About our relationship with horses, but such a fine teaching to carry over into the human world in so many ways. Virtual hugs.

  4. Anna, I love this, as I love so much of what you write. I don’t know how you do it, but you hit the nail on the head so often, it’s amazing. Thank you for all you do, and not just your beautiful writing.

  5. I walk out with a plan. I can hear the nicker, snickers.
    Instead of a long conditioning ride this morning we had a sore rib issue. And a massage. We got to the part where I stretched his leg forward…resistance…then release and he stretched both legs forward, head down. Down dog…heart soar.
    I miss my young body some but not my young ego. If I forget about either….well I have horses for that.

  6. Standing ovation for this one Anna. Negotiation is a powerful concept. And I celebrate negotiating like a girl! Woohoo!

  7. That’s just brilliant Anna. I’m truly embracing and loving this enlightening new trail n horsemanship. I’ve always ‘known’ that so many things were just not appropriate tools or methods to apply with our equine interactions, but struggled to find that better way. Thank you WWW for facilitating the discovery people like yourself 🙂

    • Karin, I agree. And I’d call it a desire to improve that brings riders to a different understanding of communication. So many folks have been novice riders for years, and struggle to get better…I think this is how it happens that we really can go to another level of partnership. And Yay! for the www, from my little farm all the way to the other side of the world. Thanks, Karin.

  8. As always Anna, your writing is so full of wisdom. Talk of continuums brought to mind a line from Emmylou Harris’s “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” which says, “Will she ride with him or will he ride with her”, in reference to a woman and her horse. I love to think about that amazing sweet spot in the middle of the continuum where there isn’t a question of who is riding with who, but instead where the horse and human have simply chosen to ride together.

  9. Love this , when starting young ones I like to feel when the right time is when I’m aloud on their back , it’s truely the most beautiful feeling ever knowing they trust you xxxx

  10. Oh Anna, you describe things so beautifully.
    “My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.” (How did you know…?)
    “Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?” (Thank you for that encouraging insight!)
    “Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.” (I found this place this morning, it was so beautiful…. back to quote #1 LOL)

    Thank you


    • Yes, Sue, you describe a circle here; that’s a healthy shape. I’d say this isn’t a bad loop to make. Good for you. Even better for your horse. Thanks, Sue.

  11. This is another favorite blog post, but I must admit I enjoy all your writing. I think much of what you’re saying is actually sinking in and in following your ideas and suggestions, I’m more aware of those times when we negotiate to that ahh moment. Thanks!

    • Yay. I know my writing gets repetitive sometimes, but this is what I hope happens. Thanks so much for giving it a chance.

  12. Anna, between your posts like this one, and the comments that follow, the light bulb is definitely on, but flickering as my little new-to-the-barn horse is saying, “You ain’t there yet, New Momma!” and so I continue to plug away at it. Thanks, Anna!

  13. I visited another barn this weekend, and as we walked out to the pasture to meet the herd I was mindful of how much we resemble predators. And apparently, the horses appreciated it, because as the barn owner was telling me which one was likely to be the first out to greet us, one of the shy ones left the herd first and headed straight over…to me. I gave a scratch and a pat and let her go back to her grass, and turned to find the owner looking at me curiously…”That NEVER happens,” she said. After meeting some of the others, there was one left, off on her own. “I’m going to see if she’d like to say hi”. I walked about halfway to her, extended my hand, and mentally invited her in, zero expectations- and she stopped grazing to come to me. Another scratch, some flies shoo’d, and I headed back to the rest of the humans…”Ok that also pretty much never happens. The horses think you’re special.”

    I’m only special because I try, and seek to learn how to communicate in a language they know. I think I’ve learned from you, most of all, because you can put it into words when they can’t.

    • Oh this is music to my ears. I get criticism that I’m too slow and ask too little; people get impatient with me sometimes, but this is the thing: This works. It only looks like magic. Thanks for this comment. I needed it today.

      • The timid ones? They’re relieved when you only ask for a little. The confident ones? If you only ask for a little they want to show you what else they can do. Either way, you give them what they need to do their best for you. And they want to be with the ones who make them feel good. Go slow to go fast (more progress comes from going slow). And the best part? It works for humans too.

  14. Wow! You put that beautifully!!! If only all horse owners were reading this !! Glad I got the message somewhere in some barn with some horse. Toby

  15. Thank you so much for writing this. Very encouraging to keep going on this path and convince other people to do the same. Thank you, thank you.

  16. I thank the Lord every day that I finally took the time to read your blog. Our first encounter was over spade bit horses, I kept reading your blog and it has really added to others who have made me think about my relationship to horses of over 40 years. a few people have helped start me on the right path, one being you, Mark Rashid and Crissi, Buck Brannamen, David DeWhispelaer(sp) and a few unknowns. I regret choices I have made over the years with horses but am starting to be better. I did Dressage for a while but could Not stand the pain of the horses so walked out. I highly do still respect a few bridle horse men and women, and follow on them on facebook. Such as Bruce Sandifer, Martin Black, Dorrance, Jaton Lord to name a few. Keep on truckn on
    Anna- you do so much good, hope to meet you in person some day and attend a clinic. thanks for the difference you have made in the lives of so many horses and humans .


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