Release: The Unflattering Truth


A few weeks ago, I was standing, talking with a client at the end of her lesson. She was at her horse’s shoulder, close enough that her sleeve touched him, and he had his head curved toward her. He wasn’t mugging her; just standing. My client said, “I suppose you don’t think I should let him be this close, do you?”

It’s a well-known fact that all riding instructors live for the sole reason of ruining any good moment a rider might be having. And it’s a common event that we talk about horses when they are standing right there, so the answer was clear. “Let’s ask your horse.”

I was about six feet away and I asked my client to step back as well, out of his space, and let the lead rope rest on the ground. That last detail is important. If we hold the rope, even loosely, the rope moves as our bodies do, but if it’s resting on the ground, it’s a clear, undeniable message. It’s the difference between waiting on hold and hanging up the phone.

My client and I continued talking about the lesson and a minute–just a minute–later, he dropped his head low. He exhaled a long slow breath and loosened his jaw. His body got softer and quieter. His eyes closed part way. Neither of us had seen stress in him before but he was clearly and obviously more relaxed. This good gelding is a stoic sort of horse; sometimes you learn more in hindsight than in the moment.

For today, I’ll define release as ending the conversation (whatever training or work you were doing) and letting the horse be. The physical part of that is easy. In my example, my client had dismounted, taken off his bridle, and put his halter on, all the while standing within a few inches of him.

The mental release is a good deal more complicated for us humans because it involves ego and desire and horse-crazy girl fantasies. In other words, it involves putting the horse first. We all like to say we put our horses first.

And we want to give a reward. There’s no doubt that a horse responds to a kind word, a warm touch, or even a physical treat. Humans like that interchange, too. We revel in that moment of connection and gratitude. I don’t want to negate that in any way, but this sweet gelding told the truth. He was still, at the very least, wary of us. And if taking a step farther away would release that feeling, why wouldn’t we do it?

The easy answer is that it isn’t flattering to us humans. I remember the first time I heard that the best reward for a horse was release. No, it couldn’t be true. I confess joy in mugging a horse, but even more than that I just hated the thought that my horse didn’t appreciate my cloying affection. Like a first boyfriend, I wanted my horse to hang on my every word and want to cuddle and coo. And for the horse, just like a first boyfriend, he’d rather have the relationship than talk about it. Ouch. Just ouch.

In order to progress in an equine partnership, it’s important to learn to truly release a horse, both on the ground and in the saddle. If it’s possible to cue a horse to have anxiety, (who hasn’t done that?) then it must also be possible to cue a horse to relax.

A horse who mugs a human isn’t being affectionate. When he searches your pockets for treats isn’t cute; it’s a moment of anxiety.  It’s the insecure kind of behavior a weanling might do in a herd, but not a confident adult.

Gaining the confidence to hold his own self up may not not be easy at first. If his lacks confidence, you might have to shake your lead a bit, almost like asking him to back, before letting the rope hit the ground. But if you ask him to step back, then you do the same. It might take more then one try and he’ll need time to understand. Help him find that distance easier. Say good boy. Rest. Then watch his honest release response.

The ability to cleanly release him from your mental expectations, no matter if you are fearful or bold, might be the highest sort of leadership, but we have to get our emotions out of the way to do it. Engendering an experience of safety and consistency is the basis of a bond with a horse. It’s the comradery of standing together, confident, with no need to prove anything on either side. The other word for that is respect.

Back in my martial arts days, we were taught that a human had a personal space that was about three feet in all directions and it was considered an aggression to enter that space uninvited. I was an introvert and sometimes confused with social parameters. I appreciated that this three-foot rule gave me a kind of line of demarcation; I could choose to hug someone, or if I felt uncomfortable, I could step back, and use any number of the same calming signals I saw horses exhibit. Acknowledging that we are similar animals to horses, it was easier to understand the confidence he could feel from an honest release.

Yes, the exact word is confidence. Isn’t that the elusive goal?

So try this experiment: Give your horse a complete and honest release. Start by standing a few feet farther away than you want to. Still your body, drop your weight, soften your shoulders, and cock a hip. The soundtrack for this is Sting’s Set Them Free.

This last part takes discipline. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Finally and most importantly, let go– free as a bird—release any expectation and judgment of him that you’re holding in your mind. When you have done it for him, then do it for yourself as well. Be the kind of leader he needs.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Be partners in peace.

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 “Release: The Unflattering Truth”

  1. This is a truth I have been unable to swallow. All this time I have been waiting for my horse to snuggle with me, just like a lover might do. And all this time she just wants her personal space. After all, as one of my ex-boyfriends once said “we are not joined at the hip.”

    • Ouch. Thank you for this blunt honesty. Now there is room for something deeper. Thank you so much for sharing this bittersweet comment.

  2. I read your email every day. I love your writings. I have had the pleasure of horses company for years. I pick up huge tidbits of knowledge when reading your beautiful writings. Somethings you write ….I did do at one time… but forgot about how important they are to my boys. Your Grandfather horse reminds me of my applaloosa who I named “Spirit” I renamed him from “Spock” because he rejuvenated my Spirit. I laid him to rest in November of 2015 after he had several strokes. He was 30. He was one of those “one in a life time” horses. I kept him going as long as I could. He had a HUGE personality. Even though he was walking crooked and leaning he was still able to pick up one hind foot and put it in a muck bucket when he wanted to make me laugh. Thanks you. Tina

  3. I’m in the process of teaching myself this- and I can tell you, discovering Uriah Heep style neediness in yourself at my age has been more than a little disconcerting lol. But, as always, onwards and upwards with thanks to and for the equine growth facilitators. Fab piece ?

  4. Ouch ouch ouch. And thank you. Yep. Guilty.
    Of the horses I take care of, two youngsters are in my “Clipper school”: learning that clippers can be enjoyable. One of my happiest moments was when a very large, older, frightened gelding…who had previously been violently manhandled around clippers (a lot) fell sound asleep while I was clipping his muzzle. He was a good horse who hadn’t been allowed to get used to the idea. In two months of short practice sessions, he went from bolting, scrambling, wild-eyed and fearful, to stepping toward the clippers and resting his muzzle in my hand with a deep sigh. Leaving the lead on the ground, and checking his space anxiety was crucial.
    Does this translate to my other interactions? Gah. NO. I want to hug and lean and kiss on my boys. I want the princess stuff: hugs, bumps, pocket pat downs. All the no no’s. (I don’t let them, but boy do I want to!) Thanks for the reality check. I’ll be physically releasing them more often.

    • It continually amazes me the wildly giant and amazing changes possible by taking one inch at a time. If you are stealing kisses in the cloakroom, I won’t tell. Thanks, Jane.

    Oops sorry for the caps.
    Does that mean a bad relationship.

    • It’s just a moment in time. Without seeing with my eyes, I won’t make judgement about good or bad without more info. If you are holding a rope, don’t let go and continue on…Stay positive. Thanks, Shirley.

  6. What about the horse who always wants to be in YOUR space? Unless there is food, that’s mine. Tuesday is a good example. After several days of being in his stall/paddock because of my schedule and icy weather, I thought he would appreciate turn-out time to run and play before I rode. After the initial buck and sprint, he wanted to come back to me. I told him to go play; he asked to come back. After several reiterations of this, I put his halter on and took him back to his quarters. Then I went back to the arena alone to scoop up a pile of manure left before the ice storm. His paddock overlooks our outdoor arena; he stood there, head over the rail, nickering at me.

    If I drop the lead or reins to back up and take a photo, he either follows me or wanders off to look for food. I can’t imagine him EVER responding like the horse in your example. Is mine a one-off?

    • Mine does this too. I leave it up to him- If he wants to follow me, just to be nearby, I don’t mind. As long as he’s being respectful of my space, he can stand by me, and half the time if I don’t make any move to put on a lead rope, he’ll ease a leg and take a little doze. I try to be mindful of what my body language is telling him- am I inadvertently signaling that I have expectations of him, that he may feel the need to stick close just in case, or am I calm and relaxed and in the moment. And still…he just wants to be nearby.

      • Mine wants to interact, mess with me; in other words, he’s not very respectful of my space. I blame his upbringing, but it’s also his personality. He’s playful and has a busy mouth, will play with a giant soccer ball or a Jollyball, undoes the latch on his stall door, etc.

        • All things are negotiable. Bad manners can always change. And many times what one person reads as play another person may read as very different behaviors. You say he doesn’t respect your space. That can be retrained kindly and quickly. Please be safe.

    • Again, I can’t see him and I can’t judge without more information. He sounds insecure. I would experiment with building his confidence away from you, you send him away and you retreat as well. Let his stand alone. Breathe. Quiet you mind, go neutral. Don’t engage him, trust him. Then google “learned helplessness” and see is any of it sounds familiar. Again, I haven’t seen the two of you with my own eyes, so I’m just guessing.

  7. When my brother would visit, he would get all goey-goey with my horse, and I could see this, “Oh boy, here we go again, I’ve got to put up with this,” face on my gelding. It was so funny. And it helped remind me that my horse really didn’t appreciate the effusive affectionate stuff. But occasionally I still just had to hug him!

  8. Love this. Wish I could share on fb. Thanks.

    On Fri, Jan 13, 2017 at 6:40 AM, Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” A few weeks ago, I was standing, talking with a > client at the end of her lesson. She was at her horse’s shoulder, close > enough that her sleeve touched him, and he had his head curved toward her. > He wasn’t mugging her; just standing. My client said, “I” >

  9. You nailed it again Anna and everything you said is so through! At the end of each lesson and before returning to the barn, I always unbuckel his girth a few holes and scratchmy poney all over his head where the bridle was sitting; that way, he has learned not to use me as a post. In the barn, I am frequently alone after my late lesson, I just untack him and let him stand by his best friend’s stall while I gently brush him. And you know what? He does not go anywhere, he just stand quiet, his head on the rack on the stall door, his eyes half closed. When I am ready to put him in his stall, I just have to open the door and tell him to go in his “house” and their he goes, slowly,all relaxed and happy even if food is waiting for him. No tugging, no puching, and it is all well, for both of us. Having a happy poney is my goal and it works, for me anyway. Thanks for the good work, can’t wait to read you next week!

  10. It is so easy for us to get caught up in ego and like this ‘closeness’ with our horses! Harder to realise what is best for a working partnership!

  11. Sounds alot like Tom & Bill Torrance and Ray Hunt. I attended many clinics in the late ’80. I’m 61 & I just bought a weanling & my daughter attended her first clinic when she was 8 mos. Through the years she’s never ridden any other way..

  12. Hi Anna I’ve been reading all the comments and you response to them. I must say that so far I like what you write. I’ve been around horses since I was 9 and now at 68 feel that I have a good understanding on how the horse thinks. I have allways found myself questioning the English Way on how and what the horse training is all about??? So I tend to go on instinct , so far this has worked for me and more so for the horses that I have had the pleasure of having over the years. I am fascinated by the way you think, it’s on a par with what I’ve always felt. So I was wondering if there is anyone in the U K or more specifically in Wales “that’s where I live”. Who teaches the same way you teach and think??! Thank you for an insight into your teaching. Regards Bev???????

  13. The timing of an honest release is key to understanding “feel” that these cowboys achieve . Watching them do a light and fantastic dance with their equine partner is an ultimate goal and the cowboy makes lite of it. “Anyone can, develop the feel and you will be there”.
    Your explination of release is poignant. That is where it starts and it is so small and quiet we don’t NOTICE it! 🙂 thank you for pointing out another important piece of the hunan to equine communication puzzel!

  14. You are such a good teacher, Anna, subtle & effective in the way you demonstrate your knowledge, the way you answered your student. I must get away from treating & mugging my own so much; even though they aren’t obnoxious I can see thru this post that they would probably appreciate the space & release much more. Thank you!!

  15. This is so timely. I’ve just moved my two horses home to my backyard, and I kind of thought they would loooove being so close to me every day. It’s been a bit of a blow to my ego that they don’t hang all over me every time I go into the paddock. Starting tomorrow I will try to be a better leader for them. Thanks for this.

      • Thinking back to my horse years – Chico was not all that impressed with “closeness” – unless he didnt feel good – then he would come up & just rest his head against my chest! He did get his point across!!

        • Love this comment, Maggie, because giving a horse some space, some choice about volunteering rather than just barging in forcing our position, gives him a chance to communicate. Yay! (A horse is more likely to offer communication, if we don’t barge in loud and in our own thoughts) Great comment, thanks.

  16. Oh, Anna. Your explanation about release and the road to leadership is so helpful to me. I have had trainers tell me I had to be the leader that my horse needed me to be. I never understood how to attain that until now. I see now my releases were never complete. Thank you for this!


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