Letting Go of Shame and Blame. Do It for Your Horse.

horses and confidence, learning about horses.
Nope. Not me. I was allergic to this color, but Hannah dressed for success from the start.

How many times a week do I tell a client some version of “When we know better, we do better”? It’s a Maya Angelou quote, we all know it. It has no big words, we understand it. And yet we cling to the past. We smear shame, guilt, and remorse all over ourselves as if it’s fairy glitter. If horses were half as unforgiving as we are to ourselves, we’d all be dead.

Not to mention that when a mare needs to inject some sense into a silly gelding, she lays down a quick gnarly threat and then leaves it. The gelding remembers and the mare acts like it never happened. Why can’t we get over it?

I might be getting testy; I need a rant because all my empathetic soothing words fall on deaf ears. It’s like people want to think they’re a special case for being normal. It’s like we’re auditioning for a club that everyone is already in.

All good rants should begin with an extremely obvious example. Here’s mine:

Being frustrated about not knowing then what we are just learning now is like being mad at yourself for needing diapers as a baby.

Very clever, except the process of housebreaking children is quicker than learning about horses. Here is how you can tell; I started riding when I was about three or four. My parents had given up trying to stop me and were now using a tall mare as a babysitter. I was also sneaking behind the barn to pee, which passes for manners on a farm. Doing quick math, it’s been sixty-five years and I have been somewhat housebroken a majority of that time, but when it comes to horses, I am still learning more every day. And proud of it. Being trainable is a welcome skill.

The action of continuing to learn should, no, must be seen as a sacred duty. We continue to progress because it’s the best way to acknowledge those good horses who took care of us when we pulled on their faces and bounced in the saddle. Horses know that’s how riding starts. Why don’t we? It’s a show of gratitude to extend the life of a horse by taking the training they gave us on to our next horse. We are their legacy. It doesn’t look good when the legacy is whining with contrite self-loathing when we should be proud of what we’ve learned.

As we continue to learn, it doesn’t mean we throw out tradition, especially if it moves in alignment with new understanding, like what we are learning about brain science and autonomic nervous systems as they relate to affirmative training. Horses do not benefit from us living in the past. We would do better to use new understanding to forge better training methods that take the unique nature of horses further into consideration.

Start here: Research has shown that horses can identify emotions. The most-proven ones are anger and joy. Horses react to our emotions; it isn’t that they care how we feel but rather if they are in danger. A horse’s heart rate goes up when they sense anger, followed by them giving calming signals to let us know they aren’t a threat to us. They read our fear, not out of empathy but for their physical safety. When we are confused, they usually stop, confused by our confusion. Notice these emotions are simple and almost primal.

Do they understand feelings of shame and guilt? Empathy or sympathy? Does remorse feel good to them? How do they read these nebulous and conflicted emotions on our faces? As much as we want to languish in this swamp, horses are busy wondering if they are missing something that could threaten their safety. Maybe they identify it as random “human anxiety”, but horses can’t ignore it or understand it, so it lurks in a dark place and makes a horse wary. They don’t trust chronic passive anxiousness. Does regret feel like dread?

Does this remind you of all the misunderstood conversations where, in the name of being polite or kind, it only gets messier because we rehash the past, but no one wants to move ahead? Any horse will tell you change is hard. Also, inevitable.

We broadcast our failure to know what we didn’t know, but the truth is learning about horses is a process that takes a lifetime and if we think about it, that’s good news. We were all slow readers in the beginning. It was normal and we didn’t apologize for it. Why can’t we be that accepting of our learning curve with horses? Some of us feel loyal to our roots or have spent a fortune learning with the best intention, only to find the methods don’t always work or they’ve been outdated. The best training practices should improve. If you can let go of using the wall phone in the kitchen in favor of a cell phone, and not apologize, why is learning more and doing better a problem?

Flog yourself for past ignorance, chant mea culpa with every breath, but know a horse feels our emotions. Then they have to figure out what to do with them.

What if the thing holding us back is the frequent reciting of our past behaviors, prompted by old voices that no longer make sense? Could we tell the voices finally to just shut up? What if we gave up our worn-out apologies, spent drama, and low self-esteem? Instead, we could allow ourselves to be proud students of the horse.

Because if horses can feel our anger or fear, then they can certainly feel affirmative emotions like confidence and self-respect. Your horse would thank you.

Look at that photo again. What is it that fussy, opinionated Grace saw in Hannah? The mare was notoriously cranky with heavy-handed humans who thought they knew how to ride. Seeing that light interaction, I wonder if that’s the difference… that kids have no regret. Guilt is the very last thought in a kid’s mind if they get to be with a horse. They are too busy being in awe. Remember when it was all about the horse?

As a horse person of a certain age, we usually blame ourselves for carrying a little extra weight, too, even as we consider getting a pink tutu and matching helmet. Instead of adding one more pound of blame, drop the weight of regret. Shed old guilt this spring. Let it be less dead weight for both you and your horse to carry.


Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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40 thoughts on “Letting Go of Shame and Blame. Do It for Your Horse.”

  1. Thanks for this , I am also past my sell by date ( over 65) and a grandmother. As well as a rider and veterinarian. I understand horses and they understand me – yesterday I had to see a young broodmare who was losing condition. The sun was setting and we have “load shedding” which means electricity shut downs) here in South Africa. She was a downer in poor condition – mainly because it is now very hot ( we have a Cyclone passing over Mozambique) and her foal is sucking her dry. We got her up, I took a blood sample, then I took a deep breath – I needed to go internally to check for a uterine infection and also whether she had colic. But it was getting dark and the crush pen was too far… So I talked to her, stroked her neck and asked permission to go behind her to do a vaginal and rectal examination. She looked over her shoulder at me then rested her head near her foal while the owner held her. She stood still and I could make a diagnosis of a mild gas colic and treat her. I wish people were as friendly and trusting…..

    • And I wish we all gave horse a chance to be trusting… I don’t think you need me to tell you this, but well done. And thank you, Cheryl, for sharing this with us. No cyclone, but colic weather here in Colorado too. It’s a small world.

  2. This is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. From beginning to end — one thought after another — all reminders I need to treasure. Thank you!

  3. This is wonderful. I am in my 70’s and like you pink was never my color and I never, that I remember, ran around in a tutu. Sorry mom. I wish I had had a barn to go behind, like I do today and a horse to babysit me but there was no money for that. I was always in awe of these big beautiful creatures and yes as a child we carried not guilt.

    I have been able in my later years to live my dreams. I bread, raised, and trained several warmbloods and wished I had known what I am studying and know now. I never got into a lot of that hold them from the front stuff with one teacher I had. When I watched lessons with her I didn’t like it, so even in the lesson I didn’t do it. I liked having a softer rein to let the horse stretch. I did like how she taught. I am sure the other ladies wondered why I wasn’t doing it and made not very nice comments about me when I wasn’t around. I never let that bother me.
    I think the only thing I regret with those big beauties is I didn’t go slow enough and had not learned to listen to them. I now have 4 horses. Two from an auction, Trauma, one that was hop on and ride to break you, Trauma, and now a 3 year old feral horse that I went and picked up when he was maybe 6 months old. He had never been touched. Getting him into the trailer and home was trauma for him, but I had to go so slow with him to start and still am that at least at this point he is a sweet heart. A three year old, but a sweetie. I am in no hurry to jam any thing on him to accept.

    All of this has been a journey which I have loved. My body didn’t love it so much, but I did. It has been and still is a lot of work. I hope and pray I can keep it up until I die. Keep preaching Anna, we all need to hear it over and over again.

  4. THANK YOU for the reminder! I will go forward with a renewed purpose while knowing what I know now. I managed to live through the 60’s In Boulder, CO, and I am certainly doing better now and will hold onto no regrets.

  5. My version of this learning was the day it occurred to me, “What would it be like if everything I did, or have done or will do, is just fine?” My head exploded; I still remember where I was standing (since sadly it wasn’t that long ago!). An enormous weight lifted off my shoulders and I finally became able to learn and grow without shame. It’s really the key to everything 💗

  6. What a sweet picture. I see it often, horses that become marshmallows in the presence of a child and I often wonder how they seem to innately know to be gentle & relaxed. Now I know – it’s the purity of the child’s mind & the honesty that emanates from them. We adults must have loud & babbling conversations bubbling out of us with all of our emotions & thoughts swirling around us even as we are silent. The child is simply present with when connecting with the horse. No wonder many horses are drawn to them. They are hiding nothing and the horses knows it.

  7. Anna, thank you for this special piece. Woulda, coulda, shoulda’s serve no purpose. I love the joy of learning new ways to be with horses. I make sure to acknowledge all my horses over the years. Jennfer

  8. I think Maya’s thought implies something more like this: “When we know better, we ‘have the opportunity to’ do better”. If you don’t know any better, that’s one thing – but, if you know better and, still, don’t let that guide your behavior, that’s a harder burden, I think. Like all those people that knew calming signals when they saw them, but went ahead anyway.

  9. Head down with a furrowed brow, trying to think of something of significance to say. Oops, my mind’s a blank! Now that I’m empty-headed, it might be a good time to head to the barn, eh?

  10. Just read this and firstly recognized the old stories I’ve lived with for my adult years, don’t serve me anymore. When one pops up I ask if this can help me or someone else? A “no” response is felt, and the hought takes off like a plane asking if it can land and traffic controller says “no’.

    Today. My life with horses has honor, respect, love, presence and patience, all from learning to listen to the horse and those, like Anna, who’s passions and shared wisdom are available to those of us seeking.

    Thank you for reminding me what it was like to be a silly, horsestruck, little girl. I want to be her again.

  11. Bless your heart, Anna! How did you know I needed to hear that today?? Thank you! Your posts hit home every single time.

  12. Anna, please forgive me if I overstep my bounds here, but I wanted to share the sad news of the passing of Kathy Schwartz-Howe, co-founder of Days End Farm Horse Rescue located in Lisbon, Maryland. I met Kathy back in 1995, six years after its founding. Then and in the years since, I witnessed her tireless advocacy for the horses; never forgetting that she needed we humans to side with and get behind her enthusiasm to see that her rescues got a second chance at their new forever homes. Many adopters, including my husband and I, became donors and volunteers for her cause. It was in that year, 1995, that I met and adopted my forever horse Dover. Because of her, my life with Dover and the other horses we adopted – Hershey, Cappy, Sherlock, and Gully – had purpose. Thanks for listening.

  13. Anna, one of the things that helps me let go of self blame (in addition to your absolutely perfect words of true wisdom) is having a win. A recent example involves Noche, Ferd’s older brother. Noche’s personality fluctuates between Eeyore and Darth Vader. He tends to refuse going in his pen when asked and his refusal can be quite large and scary! I discovered that if I catch his eye from a minimum of 20ft away (further away works even better) and then take a few steps farther away while pointing to his pen and calling his name; he turns toward me and walks in his pen without so much as a blink in my direction. Then I can’t resist a verbal “Good Boy!”. Old habits die hard, but when they’re gone, there’s room for new, better habits. Thank you so much.

  14. This is a tough one for me. I somehow gave myself the message that holding onto guilt and shame was the equivalent of remorse and saying “I’m sorry” to the good horses I did not see. You’re right of course, the real apology is creating joy and space and new human behaviors that nod to what we know now.
    If the above makes no sense, blame it on the pneumonia fairy, and the broken foot gnome. I haven’t touched a horse in 30 days and feel that hole every second of every day. It’s been a loooong recovery. But…guilt and shame begone! Yep. Made many ill advised choices and decisions. But now? We talk. There are long winded wordless discussions that honor the horses who put up with my lack of knowledge. I have ro hope they’d be proud they had a part in that.

    • Sorry to hear that you’ve been laid up and hope you are on the mend. That’s a rough pair of ailments. Years ago I had foot surgery and I still claim it gives me insight into chronic lameness…kinda hope that isn’t true for you but we are the sort who relate most things to our passion.

      I also notice that the horse people who truly should feel guilty for what they do when they know better, never feel an ounce of guilt, and those who are committed to doing better and always learning do, are the ones who feel badly for mistakes that can only be visible in hindsight. All I can say is here’s to horses. Thanks, Jane. Hope the healing is sound and quick.


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