The Argument for Curiosity: From Fear to Courage

Cadence teaching contact.

I rarely have any idea where I’m headed. I get in a car with a stranger outside of baggage claim and go to a horse facility I’m not familiar with. I don’t know the participants or the horses, their histories or skill level. It’s fine though, I’d wind up giving a different clinic each time, anyway. I always have a plan, my clinics are based in a “concept”, so we’re all tethered to an idea, but then the horses take over. That’s the challenge with wanting your horse to be a partner; they get a vote, too. It must be mutually beneficial.

It’s rare when a horse is at his best when I see him on the first day of a clinic. There’s been some serious grooming and a trailer ride to a place they may not know any more than I do. There might be stalls or maybe pens, but it isn’t like home and it’s already full of strange horses who are all on edge for the same reasons. There are strange smells and odd shadows. It’s a busy place. They may not sleep well; they may not even lay down. They have no idea if they are ever going to see their herd again. There are youngsters and new partners and rescue horses, each a unique individual. We all hope there’s that a certain sort of mature mare who’s used to this kind of weekend and will flick an ear to tell everyone to snap out of it and take a breath, for crying out loud. If not, I do my best.

On top of it, each horse’s human is usually a little excited. Humans come because they love their horse and want to do the best possible for them. They’re eternal students of the horse; they try hard, feel vulnerable, are there for all the right reasons, but still a bit nervous with anticipation; they probably alarm their own horses a bit. It’s complicated.

Some people think it’s wrong to put a horse in this kind of stressful situation. I get their point. When a horse is afraid and in his sympathetic nervous system (flight/fight/freeze), he can’t learn. The problem is that we can’t save horses from stress. I define stress as being alive. Wild horses feel stress from drought, pain, and changes in their herd. Here in the domestic world, we have vet emergencies, natural disasters, and an infinite number of unplanned opportunities. Horses need to be able to get by in our world, so they will be safe if the unthinkable happens. What if they outlive us?

One solution is to train horses to be relaxed and confident. After all, it’s not like horses need to be trained to canter. They’ve been doing flying changes in the pasture all along. We might use transitions as conversation starters, but the real topic must always be confidence. How to allow our horses the autonomy to be confident partners? We humans like to think that training could work like mind control; that we could teach them to lay down their instincts somehow. That won’t happen but we can encourage them to be problem solvers, resilient and engaged.

Disclaimer: there was a time that I thought teaching a horse to relax was nebulous hogwash. Training confidence even more so; after all, my own confidence came and went like a stray cat.

If stress is the nature of being alive, how can we make it work for horses, rather than against? People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that isn’t the same as confidence. It’s worn bravado. Maybe your brain is wandering off to your own bad memories now. The mistakes and scares; the times your horse spooked or hours later, the trailer remained empty. The trainers who yelled at you to calm down. The times you were told you were ruining your horse, but you were doing your best, and then you felt even worse about it. The nerve-wracking challenges out on the trail or in front of the judge. Everything you’ve read or the videos you’ve watched that make it look easy, but the horse looks sour. The memory of every wreck you ever heard about; the injuries to horses and people that haunt you still. All the contradictory training tips and all the bad advice from railbirds. Or professionals.

Is this how horses feel when they get flooded by too many cues, too many contradictions, too much micromanaging direction? If there’s anything as anxiety-inducing as being a horse, it might be “training” one.

When people ask what flooding means I’m reminded that water always seeks the same level; that we are as flooded as they are a lot of the time. The reason to understand how horses think and learn is that repeating bad training techniques, that are ineffective, damages a horse’s emotional wellbeing as well as not solving issues.

Great, you say. Now what?

Where does courage begin in horses? Think of every foal; their ears forward, their eyes wide, as they negotiate the world. Isn’t that brave? A horse that’s curious is engaged and thinking. He’s using judgment and when we reward thinking, we’re affirming his intelligence. It’s time to let your horse get curious again, even if it takes him a while to trust it.

My favorite way of encouraging curiosity is leading from behind. It’s letting your horse call the shots, so it’s harder for us than it sounds. It wakes up stoic horses, it gives reactive horses choice. It’s an activity that means something bigger to horses than us and that might be the best reason to let him lead you. Give it a try and if you’re worried that you’re training it wrong, re-frame that. It’s meant as an exercise in curiosity for both of you.

Leading from behind requires a human, despite being worn down by self-over-cueing, to turn stress into a prettier color. It’s getting honestly engaged with our horses rather than using a technique;  more creativity than answer by rote. It’s the practice of being in the moment and letting less be more. We “train” less and they solve the challenge on their own. Our biggest job is to breathe and acknowledge their intelligence.

Curiosity grows into courage and confidence. It looks like safety when a predator shows compassion. It looks like trust when a horse stands in his own autonomy.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

16 thoughts on “The Argument for Curiosity: From Fear to Courage”

  1. Leading from behind has improved my relationship with horses more than any other activity or training concept I can think of. I am seeing changes that I couldn’t have anticipated, and there’s a great feeling of curiosity (and humility!) that comes with it for me. Keeps me from knowing or wondering about the ‘right answer,’ and that’s super helpful because it takes away the dissonance that can make working with horses so fuzzy.

  2. I do get a little chuckle when my horse bends his neck back to where I’m standing (looking for affirmation that what we’re doing is ok?) I just slightly lift my outside hand and flutter my fingers, direct my eyes toward the universe, and off he goes…Fun Stuff!

  3. For one with separation anxiety, bringing them back is good training. You might also try to find the Training Idea post about separations anxiety… Welcome, Minna, and thanks.

  4. I’ve been finding that one of the unexpected benefits of leading from behind is that it’s also increasing my own confidence. As I watch my horse interact with the very “enriched environment” on my property (construction projects and equipment, neighborhood dogs he can barely see through the thick forest, killer squirrels and flocks of blue jays, etc) on his own terms I get to see him be curious and brave, and also see his reaction when something is scary, which is much more mild than the possible reactions I make up in my brain. I feel like the exercise is helping me get to know my horse on a whole different level. I’m grateful, and I’m pretty sure he is too.

  5. Awesome! Not having been here for very long, I’ve just read the Leading From Behind links, and I know Filly will relate to this.
    “Railbirds”. Never heard the term before, a good one. When you are at the rail, (a show ring, a sale ring, a clinic, any rail with observers) meeting strangers and exchanging comments, they always want to know who you are, do you have a “name”? Apparently if one is unknown, one’s insights are irrelevant. I rest in peace. I am not unknown. Any horse knows me instantly, and that is enough. What I need are the insights of others, always seeking more, and I thank you, Anna. This is why I am here.

  6. Yesterday early our favourite magic man came to do filly’s feet. Sweet, no issues. Then we tried “leading from behind” and when she said to me “Aren’t we lungeing?” I only had to show her once. Switch sides? Right on to it. Every time she learns something new, she seems quite chuffed with herself. Anna, your brilliance astounds me. All is back in its proper place, we can leave that strike and struggle issue behind us, and move forward.

  7. Curiosity keeps me motivated to learn more. Become a sponge and learn more. I have so much more to learn. Curiosity keeps my horse wanting to learn. And he knows so much more than me. Keep that curiosity in your horse, dont discourage it, learn from it.

  8. Anna, Thank you so much. This article touched my soul. I have been spending time with the horse that I have partial lease on. I am learning a lot and it is all new to me. Your thoughts are as spring water to my parched throat. I love to hear a different approach to being with a horse. I don’t have one person in my barn that thinks like me. I did get accused of ruining him to everyone who will want to use him because I waited for him and did not smack him with rope or jerked on his nose, etc. He was a horse that everyone called grumpy and stubborn, passive aggressive. Now that he and I are getting really close people mock me and call him my pet. He comes to me. He licks my hand. Touches me gently with his nose when he is worried. I think just leading him around, letting him graze and pick the patches of grass on his own (now I know what grass he likes the most :)) really made him trust me more. And I have a question too. His owner (who thinks he is often just lazy and stubborn) started coming to the barn and riding trails with him. I noticed he is more tense and jumpy and head shy for couple days after she rides him. Even when grazing, he goes to this guarded state as if I am going to snap him. I know she is not as patient with him. I was wondering if different handling of him by different people will make him more confused and more anxious? Should I look for another horse? Though my heart hurts just thinking about it.

    • Lori, without seeing the horse, I can’t guess what’s going on. Some of the things you mention are anxiety… but in my experience, horses adjust to who they are with at the time. Meaning, a trainer gets different behavior than the owner, than a child would… Most horses can cope easily with two people, ten is different. The challenge in leasing is just what you are saying, he still remains the responsibility of the owner and everyone does things differently. You are experiencing that rub now, sounds like. With critical railbirds added to the mix, it’s hard. Good luck, thanks for commenting. (I wish the peer pressure was lighter.)

    • Lori, I have very similar issues here. The horse I ride belongs to the boss lady, I am merely an aged caretaker-tenant. Mare is extremely more educated than its owner, and no dirt in her at all, but she developed her own answers to some issues. Like playing “barn and mate” sour, whinnying and screaming and refusing to stand, jerky and disconcerting transitions, rushing the gullies (well, she’d only ever seen a show ring and no idea how to handle the bush) plus had perfected the cross-fire (disunited) rudely swapping front leads, either one, deliberately. Now I’ve sorted her to my own satisfaction, but the lady will not submit to any instruction. After she rides her (intermittent cattle work), it takes days for her to come back for me.
      A good horse has to be your pet! Thank them for the compliment. Pets are our mates, they’ll do anything for us. Back in the old days they were a lifeline, you took care of each other, trust was mutual. You can’t spoil a horse with care and understanding, but by heck you can ruin them with bad hands/balance and standover tactics.


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