Listen First, Train Later.

Photo by Patrick McMahan
Photo by Patrick McMahan

The first time I met him, he was two months old standing in a stall with his mom. He was bright and intuitive, an Andalusian/Appendix cross and soon, my 50th birthday present to me.

We did it all right. I worked with him lightly over the next months and we got to know each other. The breeder did a slow-motion weaning process that was less stressful. We took our time and prepared ahead. I was actually aware that over 60% of foals develop ulcers when they are weaned.

When the day actually came for the colt to travel to my barn, I hauled a peaceful gelding up to keep him company in the trailer. We arrived early in the day, did a quiet job of loading the colt and took an uneventful hour drive back to my home barn.

The colt made friends with a donkey first, but everyone liked him and there was no drama. We spent the first afternoon exploring, friends dropped by, and he got hay snacks through the day. Everything was perfect.

That night I called the breeder to let her know we had arrived safely and settled in. I praised the colt for being brave and managing the day so well. I told her I was surprised to see him be so food aggressive at dinner time and she said that was odd, he hadn’t been that way in the past. We both did a phone shrug and I thanked her again.

The next morning I set about training some table manners. I asked him to step back and he pinned his ears, and we worked from there. He was a very smart horse who learned quickly. In no time at all, he was much less intimidating around hay and I was feeling great about my training skills. That was just the first time I didn’t listen to this colt.

This is going to sound very obvious, but still, here goes:

Horses don’t speak English. They speak Horse. As the theoretically more advanced species, it’s up to us to learn their language. The primary way they have to communicate with us is through their behavior. If we judge every behavior as bad or a training issue, we aren’t listening as well as we could. My new colt told me in the clearest way that he could that food hurt his stomach, that he was in pain, but regrettably, I trained that symptom away.

And just as obvious, training away a symptom is not the same thing as healing it. It doesn’t address the actual problem so it will pop up again as another behavior and the miscommunication plants a seed of mutual confusion or maybe even distrust. Everyone tells me that their biggest goal is to have a better relationship with their horse. The best body position in the world will never take the place of a good ear.

Just to be clear, it is never okay with me for a horse to have bad ground manners and be dangerous, even if they are in pain. Part of the art of training is finding a balance of respect and honesty. If that’s working, a horse shouldn’t have to fight to be heard. If we listen to his small voice, or even just acknowledge it, he begins to trust us. And conversely, if we discipline a horse every time he tries to tell us something, he will shut down or go nuts. Just like we do in real life.

Think of being with horses as a game of Charades. Their team is up and instead of categories like movies or book titles, they act out a behavior for us to guess the meaning. It might be a limp or excessive spookiness, or head tossing. We check for physical causes, then emotional ones. If we are brutally self-honest, we check to see if our horse is mirroring our own fears or anxiety. It’s confusing and our perception might be challenged. That’s why training is an art, remember?

“The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.” -Elie Wiesel

Once you have listened to the message, then by all means, train away. Positive training is a calming gift. It is a way for a horse to find peace, a way he can know where he belongs in a chaotic world.

Too many times, we identify our horses as having bad human habits: “He is just being lazy.” “He’s crazy, he’s seen that a million times.” “He’s a nervous Nelly, he just wants to run all the time.”

Our first imperative in working with horses is always their well-being. Horses live in the moment and their reality is physically sensed through their bodies. Good riders calm their own brain chatter and get present in the moment. We will get better results if we listen with an open mind and not just treat our horses like badly behaved boyfriends.

The gift that comes with bad behavior is a chance for positive leadership. It’s a chance to reward his vulnerability and honesty with compassion rather than punishment. Lots of us didn’t grow up in homes that ran by these rules, and the help we give our horses heals a bit of us as well.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.


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 “Listen First, Train Later.”

  1. Great blog! I remember what wonderful baby he was. I really think the problems go back to all the shoe laces he ate 🙂

    • That was the first incident that I know of, and he is an extreme ulcer horse, retired at 7. Also the finest horse I have had the pleasure to work with.

  2. Beautifully said. Supposedly I know this stuff, but honestly I love to read and reread the things I ‘know’ to keep it fresh and remind me to stop. Look. Listen. Filter out human interpretation. Thank you for the wonderful reminders!

  3. Learning to read, understand, and speak “horse” is a life long effort for us humans. Gratefully, horses forgive and allow us second chances to get it right. Thank you for the reminder to try, try again, Anna — as you implied, not only for our horses, but for our own healing and well being.

  4. It can be so hard to exactly interpret “horse”, even when you listen hard. A friend’s horse was signalling so many things he may as well have been standing on a hilltop, flailing his limbs in quick-fire semaphore. He got new feed, he got rid of his shoes, he got a different saddle, he got a muzzle, he and his companion got a “paddock paradise”, he got all sorts of attention from trainers, osteos, vets and treatments for worms and Lyme’s. Only, it seemed, as a last resort did he test positive for an ulcer. I haven’t yet heard whether treatments have been fruitful, but he had so many issues his poor owner has worried herseld ragged and spent a fortune, so they both deserve a turn of good fortune. Lovely, timely post, as always Anna. However hard it got, at least my friend kept on trying to listen.

    • Good for her! As common as ulcers are, it is strange to me that the diagnosis is so hard to come by, but it’s true here too. I hope things improve for your friend and her horse, they deserve it.

      • I wonder if it’s because the test is particularly intrusive/expensive (not sure if in US it’s the same as France)? Friend’s horse had to be kept at the vet’s, nil by mouth, for a while before being scoped, then prescribed the fairly costly treatment; all coming to, to quote friend, “the price of a small car”. Horse then went into founder when he got home, to great distress and alarm all round.
        My (different) vet was very reluctant to test Pom when his agression peaked a while ago and you thoughtfully suggested ulcers as a possibility which I hadn’t then considered. As it happened he advised trying a homeopathic hormone calmer as a first resort, which, luckily, had great results in allowing me to get close enough to P to listen.
        I keep rereading this post and get more from it every time. I’m so sorry your brilliant boy had to be retired. I hope this won’t happen for my friend.

      • I have some articles on Ulcers on my website, and I know a legal and less expensive alternative to the expensive one. It’s easier to administer too… Email me for more information. Their digestive system is so fragile. Really sorry to hear about the founder, so difficult. I’m sending her and her horse good thoughts, this is going to be a long few months for them.

  5. My project horse gets really sensitive in his back when exposed to rain and cold. His physical equals his mental tension. He tends to become spooky and uptight when his back hurts and he will settle down and relax when you ask him to move out and stretch. Their physical and emotional state are so tightly woven.

  6. Thank you for sharing making a mistake. I believe it’s the mistakes we learn most from, they leave the heaviest imprint. I am in a process of allowing myself (and all else) to make mistakes (instead of doing nothing or worrying about perfection). So I really appreciated your blogpost. And I feel sad about the horse having pain, horses are heroic teachers <3

    • I kind of like a certain sort of mistake…because it is the same thing as learning if you do it right. I think working with horses has to be a lesson every day and I mess up my good share… Thanks for your comment, keep up the good listening.

  7. I once misinterpreted my horse’s reluctance to hold his foot. I insisted he pick up… repeatedly. Suddenly, I found myself slammed into the stall. Don’t ask me how he did it, but that is where I ended up – and, in a lot of pain. Nothing broken, but my shoulder was severely bruised. I thought he was being a brat, and that I needed to be firm. Turned out he had thrush. Yes, sometimes we learn the hard way!

  8. Wonderful post!

    I think too often there is a tendency to discipline before listening (act first think later) with people and with horses 🙂 I try my best balance listening to my horses with expectations of them being good citizens but I am still learning.


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