The Best Horse Conversations Start With “No”

Imagine that each time you climbed on your horse, he began to move in a slow canter, so rhythmic and balanced that you can just close your eyes. Never a wrong step, never a moment of confusion. Your horse knows the routine so well, you don’t need to cue him. You let yourself be lulled, a sweet softness to your hips as he rocks in the one-two-three beat. This is the kind of horse you can get along with. But then he slows to a stop and your open your eyes.

You should get down from that mechanical horse now. There’s a little girl waiting. 

Besides, you didn’t get into horses because they were dimwitted subservient machines. You aren’t wild about being subservient yourself. You live in the real world, where twelve-hundred-pound flight animals are just a bit more interesting. Who else gets to do what we do? Horses are still magical and it’s no dream. Square those shoulders and let’s go get our hands dirty.

How the conversation begins: You go to get your horse. It might be a stall or a pasture. There is never a problem catching him, but today he walks away. You could push it, but you don’t. There is no hurry. You could take it personally, but again, you don’t. 

Is it a refusal? That’s a harsh word. Maybe he just wants a minute. We humans always want immediate perfection in our horses, but that’s not happening. Can we manage to say good boy, just because he’s thinking? Listening without fixing is the big thing right now. Acknowledge his choice and let that stand. Assume he is right. It takes courage to let a horse have autonomy. Besides the conversation doesn’t end when one of you wanders off. It isn’t a problem, it’s an invitation.

Now is a good time to play the “I’m a Horse” game. Soften your vision, look beyond the obvious. What would you see if you were a horse? Peripheral vision is sharp, but the close vision in front is blurry. Is something moving just at the corner of your eye? There is a breeze carrying a world of information to your nose, not that you can do much more than imagine scents on the wind. What small sounds can you make out in the ordinary din of life happening? Is there birdsong? You have whiskers that are so sensitive that they are almost visual in their perception. What can you feel? A horse’s experience of the environment is keen and sharp. Everything depends on the attention to his safety. How long are you able to concentrate on the environment? Say good boy under your breath because he isn’t ignoring you. He can’t ignore anything, and the truth is that his focus is so much better than yours. 

Egads, has an hour passed? Only three minutes? Feels so much longer. We need to get more interested in our senses. They get so dulled by intellectual debates about horse behavior and training methods. 

By now the horse has probably stretched his neck a bit, walked an arc or two. Quiet calming signals without hurry. He might be getting a bit curious about you continuing to listening and still not fixing. You’ve got him right where you want him now. Horses need some space and quiet before they speak up. Consider this time investing in your horse’s trust. Besides, only listening for the answer we want is the best way to miss another message.

Passively watch your horse. Maybe take a small arc, but indirect. You hear him shake out his neck. This is the conversation; not one of you holding pressure until the other releases. You don’t want it to get that demanding. Subservience isn’t the goal. Besides, you can ask again. He is certainly smart enough to know that you being there with a halter means something. Ask in a smaller way and give him time to find a clever answer.

Humans are just like horses, some of us nervously blurt out an answer without thinking and some of us freeze up trying to reason it carefully. We doubt ourselves. It isn’t a question of giving the right answer for either of you. It’s about listening to calming signals and staying in the conversation. Stand and wait. Any horse will tell you that humans are too result oriented. The problem with tunnel vision on a task is that we are focusing only on the one response we want. It’s like putting blinders on our ears. We’re not just limiting the conversation; we’re diminishing his confidence. 

Are people watching you stand around with a halter? Good. Cock a hip and puff your belly out. Have the courage to be patient right out in plain view. It’ll drive them nuts. 

It’s easy to get a conditioned response from an animal. All it takes is a treat or some light intimidation. Like we haven’t all teased an animal with food. Like all of us haven’t gone along with a bully just to keep the peace. You want something different. You know that it takes more than a shared breath to make a connection. You know that creating anxiety, positive or negative, may get a quicker answer but that isn’t the same thing as trust. 

So, you take a deep breath, turn your shoulders, and shift your position a few steps, your body posing the question, “What if?” Yes, your boot just landed in horse manure. Shrug, you like manure, it’s a sure sign that horses are close by. It’s all you really want. Horses never become less than a miracle, do they? It’s impossible to look away from the arc of their neck, the breeze combing through their tail. You believe the intelligence in their eye.

You don’t want an answer by rote, you don’t want the rat to ring the bell. You’re certain there is something beyond that, even if you’re not sure what. If you just continue the conversation, gain some finesse with their language, and settle into the gray area of possibility, there is a deeper place you could find with a horse. It’s a place beyond mere obedience that’s so intimate and sweet that it’s a bit scary. Entry by invitation only; you must let your horse lead you there. You wait to be surprised. Can you value your horse’s autonomy as much as your value your own? Because as cautious as the first volunteer might be, it will open the door to a level of responsiveness that makes it seem like the two of you share one mind. Just then, an image of a horse galloping at liberty crosses your mind with thundering hooves and a proud profile. The mere idea will always take your breath away. Horses are not like any other animal.

But there you are daydreaming, meandering through thoughts in that fabled prefrontal cortex of yours. You’re not sure how long your horse has been standing next to you, breathing with you, patiently waiting for his halter like it was his idea in the first place.

Peaceful Persistence:
    Not aggressive.
    Not conceding. 
   Not emotional.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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46 thoughts on “The Best Horse Conversations Start With “No””

  1. Patient persistence may be the best concept of all that I’ve learned with you. It underlies everything. This is a beautiful piece.

  2. My mare, RIP, taught me peaceful persistence and I only just now realized that as I read your words. I couldn’t “catch” her in our 60 acre pasture if my life depended on it but I eventually realized if I just went out to share some space in her vicinity w/o asking anything of her, she came to me. From there we graduated to her coming in either when she noticed me up at the barn or when I whistled if she was out of sight. I sure do miss that girl. Often misinterpreted by others as “difficult”, I found her to be a reserved deep thinker who just wanted to be treated fairly & respectfully. The geldings I have now are like a totally different species compared to her but I love them all!

    • Sometimes I wonder if our most revered goal should be to be trainable. What a good mare. Thanks for sharing her, Sueann

  3. I’m working with a young, quite reactive, mare. I’ve done this from day 1 with her. She’s come to realize I will wait until she’s ready, but not go away if she ignores me- and there are times, still, where she will come up, and at the last second, turn her head away. I exhale, and just wait. I give her that moment- she’s willing, but not quite ready. She will always turn back, and once she’s on a lead line she’s so connected to you, she’d probably follow you without it.

    We have a parting routine, as well. A signal that she can disconnect now. She doesn’t give up her autonomy easily- so I have to reward her with that release as well.

  4. “Stand and wait.” And this: “Are people watching you stand around with a halter? Good. Cock a hip and puff your belly out. Have the courage to be patient right out in plain view. It’ll drive them nuts.” Love it. Thanks, Anna.

  5. One of the biggest/best things I’ve learned from horses is the value of patience. Your article reminds me of that knowledge. Thanks!

  6. I got so swept up in the imagery of a slow, rhythmic balanced canter that I almost fell off that mechanical horse of yours!
    Sometimes it’s good to be a human being, not a human doing:
    “Every once in a while, I’ll go outside and catch my goats just standing there, staring at a wall or fence. They could be facing any direction in their enclosure or doing any number things but instead they’re just head first at big blank nothing, chewing like it’s totally normal. Are they stupid or something? It occurred to me recently that they aren’t actually doing nothing. They’re being goats. They’re not supposed to do anything but be alive. Standing there is their job. It’s their purpose.
    “Follow that old joke: Don’t just do something. Stand there!”

    This essay is pure gold, Anna, complemented by these wonderful comments. Thank you!

    • Perfect, Lynell – human BEING – not human doing!
      Really wish I had just a little bit of this kind of being with my little old bay mare (I was 15 – she was 12 & had been around) Spent many many hours “catching” her. She and I would have benefited so much from Anna’s “thoughts”. Might have been a whole different world back then. I was smarter when I got Chico – but then he hadnt ever been mistreated – Goldie had been.
      We could all stand to do some being – not doing in so many other endeavors, right?

      • Afternoon, Maggie!! Our smarty-pants horses have known about this “being” thing all along. We humans have just been too busy “doing” to listen. With Anna shining a bright light on it a whole new world opens up!
        Not sure it works on cats or dogs, though. How is your sweet dog these days?

        • Yeah the cat thing? I’m not sure either. Axel is doing great. He is attached by my apron strings (if I wore one – or had one, for that matter). Thanks so much for asking. Every animal I ever had or have were the best things ever. Well except for 2 white ducks that I never really got to know! (years ago)

  7. Magic. Thank you for reminding me to put my ego aside. As a mental health therapist, I recognize this also triggers my anxious attachment style (fear that the horse won’t connect with me) and my desire to move to secure attachment (trusting in the process of developing a genuine and mutually desired relationship)!

  8. The longer I spend time with horses, the more I believe what it takes to become a better horse(wo)man, is essentially what it takes to become a better human… Thanks for this essay – it literally gave me goosebumps. 🙂

    • Dressage masters have said that for centuries, and I’d nod because I’d been challenged past any embarrassment. But there is always something beyond where we are, always something better… Thanks Christian- are you headed into hurricane season now?

  9. Studiously ignoring the H-word for the time being. We may be moving into an El Niño pattern which traditionally helps keep us on the se coast off the hook. Supposedly… maybe… It is definitely the beginning of my Weather Channel-free season. ;D

  10. This should be mandatory reading for anyone who interacts with a horse ! This, to me, is the foundation of everything else. The ability to listen and have a reasonable “conversation” with one’s horse is essential and this is the best thing I have learned from you, if I had to choose just ONE thing.

    As always , I love your wit and your humor ! Thank you for this essay.

    • Thank you, Sarah. It’s the ONE thing that remains the most interesting thing to me. I have so missed standing around with horses I don’t know during the pandemic.

  11. How beautifully written, Anna. If only your words could bypass my head and soak into my cells and being. Thank-you. Jinnie

    • Dont worry about the ducks – gave them to a friend of my daughters & they loved them. I went on & got Rhuen ducks (tame mallards) at one time I had 36 – all 3 hens were very productive. Loved my ducks – obviously I didnt keep 36 of them. But the 6 “starters” remained for years & a few of their offspring (named of course). I read the link you put there with the goat quote. And boy he hit the nail on the head – I’m a great one for “what if” – my daughter the same. I’m going to send that little prize to her. Actually, goats are one animal I never had – which I regret when reading about Anna’s.
      Thanks Lynell


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