The Difference Between Peaceful Persistence and Nagging.

Today, I’d like to use you as a human demo horse. Please, play along with me.

Let’s say you come to me for a riding lesson. It’s the first time and you’re on my horse. He’s tall and athletic and you don’t know him. And let’s say I’m a total idiot. I tell you to mount up. We’ll start with some canter work. You’d like to tell me why that’s a bad idea, but I don’t listen. I keep ordering you around. Just do it, I say. You stare at the ground, maybe mumble under your breath, but mount up. Trot, I say. Your feet are barely in the stirrups. Now I raise my voice. Just send your horse to the trot, right now. Do it. You tell me you need time; the horse isn’t ready. You tell me you have questions; you need a moment. But I yell back STOP BEING AFRAID as if that’s a cue anyone can take, but now I’m mad, marching towards you with a lunge whip. Pause right here.

Growing up, I was told that my horse needed to respect me. That meant my horse had to do what I wanted the minute I asked. Some trainers use the phrase “Ask, Tell, Make.” The theory is that the horse will do what you want responsively on a smaller cue because they know a bigger cue is coming. In other words, the threat that danger is coming. Threats make perfect logic to a human. Not so much to a flight animal.

We were told that horses should give to pressure, so we don’t stop cueing until the horse submits. Hold tension on the rope until the horse gives. But horses don’t naturally give to pressure, and neither do we. Or with the same theory, you kick your horse to make him move forward, but if he doesn’t move off, you keep kicking. Kick harder until he goes, get spurs, or add a whip. How far can you escalate? It becomes a war of wills until we find out they’re lame or have ulcers from stress. Not going forward isn’t always a training issue.

A lot of horses shut down when the cues get loud. They are smart enough to know a big cue is coming, but instead of obedience, they brace their ribs. They wait for our violence. They withdraw and go into freeze mode mentally. He can look like a push-button horse. Or a horse with eyes that are too still and dark. Hope you have your helmet.

Other horses will react unpredictably, and be hollow and tense. Maybe you are “man enough” to ride it out and that makes you cool. You either can’t tell the difference between forward energy and fear, or you like adrenaline sports. Your horse seems to get injured often and has chronic lameness. There’s white around your horse’s eye when you come near.

Once I was told that my horse should be more afraid of me than anything in the environment. I guessed that fear and respect meant the same thing.

Repetition of the cue again and again makes the horse dull. Whether it’s the slapping of a leg, the tapping of a whip, or the endless chattering of our voice. The more we repeat, the less they can hear, and the more frustration we feel. It’s not working. Everything has devolved into a wrestling match with anxiety on both sides. It’s hard to remember what we liked about this. This is how you can tell you’re nagging. It feels bad.

You can teach a horse to give to pressure, but that can be pretty damaging to their confidence. That’s the part that’s missing in some training methods. The results look good short term, but how long can a horse tolerate being pushed? It’s emotionally damaging and eventually, the horse becomes spookier and less willing. One problem with fear-based training is we have to hold a combative edge.

In Affirmative Training, we use a method called Peaceful Persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.

In this method, I’ll inhale, I might cluck, or say “walk on.” I might squeeze with my calves, but I’ll do the least I can get away with, and the next time I ask, I’ll use less. After I ask I’ll give my horse a moment to consider. He needs quiet to think, so I don’t interrupt him by repeating the cue he’s already thinking about. I’ll ask once and wait. If I get anything remotely like what I’m asking for, even if I can tell he’s thinking about what I am asking, I’ll reward him. Then wait a minute and ask again. My requests are not incessant, and I give him time in between to ponder.

Maybe he can’t answer because he’s braced for that big cue. It’s in his memory that it hurts now. He waits and I breathe. I let my silence tell him I won’t attack him. It takes time until the horse releases enough anxiety to even be able to think about the question. It isn’t disobedience. He needs to feel safe, and we need to listen patiently. I think of this as doing penance for those who train with harsh methods. When he can, the horse will volunteer. In the meantime, we want to kick. We don’t trust the horse is trying. Finally, we remember to breathe and take a step back.

Does it sound more like therapy than horse training? It is. The same methods that caused their problems won’t heal them. We want a confident horse, but the training has to support that option. Constant correction and nagging will not get us that horse.

Now back to being the demo horse, the beginning scenario. I was barking at you, the rider, so endlessly that I couldn’t listen. Does it remind you of something? You can’t get a word in edge-wise with me, just like your horse can’t get one with you if the cues never stop. They think we don’t listen and they’re right.

Horses are like the shy kid in the back of the room, too nervous to raise their hand. Horses are the wild kid acting out, trying to distract you from his insecurity. They’re waiting to see if you’re going to escalate the cue; waiting to see if they should brace their ribs. Once they’re satisfied they’re safe, they can think about the question. But again, it’s going to be hard for them to speak right up if we’re chattering away. Horses don’t interrupt or talk over us. They need a lull in the conversation to find their voice.

In the end, the short answer is this: the difference between peaceful persistence and nagging is our ability to wage peace. Do we listen to the horse, or better, let the horse speak up, or do we demand an answer immediately? Counterintuitively, listening needs to be prioritized over the desired result in order to achieve the result. Praise, not punishment. We pause and give the horse time to think because we care about his mental health as much as biomechanics and training.

Training is all about respect, but it’s our issue. We must respect the horse as a partner, not a prisoner of war.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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30 thoughts on “The Difference Between Peaceful Persistence and Nagging.”

  1. So important yet so widely misunderstood! I’ve learned that if I’d like a horse to be closer to me, the most reliable method is for me to take a step back❤️

  2. This was good-I think we ALL can relate. One of the last sentences really summed it up-“listening needs to be prioritized over the desired result”. Will be thinking of this during our next ride!

  3. Likely a lot of us know way more about the “ ask, tell make” way of training.
    While reading this piece I found I had to breathe to keep my jaw from clenching.
    As you once suggested “ the stick stops the conversation” so I followed you home like a puppy.

  4. Ouch! As often with your observations- I can see myself in a light that is not in alignment with what I thought I was doing.

    The only way to stop from being paralyzed is to remember “ when you know better – do better”.

    I will re read this often to keep checking in with my self – my horses deserve it.

    • I’m sorry; I don’t mean to make any of us feel bad. We do what we were taught, what we were told was right. I hope we progress as time goes on. My childhood wish was to try to see it from their side. It doesn’t mean I am guiltfree, just as you say. I’m glad we can do better.

  5. Another great blog post. I love them all . . . and today I will start donating. Meanwhile, I wanted to tell you about a little success relating to today’s blog. My cue for picking up a foot has been a light tap on the ankle. Recently I discovered that if I wait a little longer than I used to before tapping again while holding my palm a few inches away from his ankle (we’re talking seconds here) my pony will pick up his foot and place it in my hand. So thrilling to wait not re-tap.

    Looking forward to seeing you again in NC next month!

  6. Spot on, Anna! One of my major flaws was not realizing that my horse WAS listening. In my haste for “results,” that realization went way over my head.
    I especially like this: “Once they’re satisfied they’re safe, they can think about the question.”
    This whole essay is a great tutorial for how to “get ‘er done.” Many thanks!

  7. Anna,
    The definition of many trainers — I wish I didn’t have to say that.
    This type of experience turned me off riding altogether.
    And I only read the first paragraph. Thank you.
    Reading on…

    • After literally hundreds of lessons, I have to say I have never had a lesson like that. I confess I did have fun writing it though.

      • Funny, Anna. Yes, I regret to say I have had them.
        No more, only ground games, relaxation, and fun exercises which the horses seem to enjoy.
        But…they also let you know when they have had enough (usually after about 25 minutes) and
        that’s fine with us. We then take them out of the arena for a walk on the farm. They do their
        work and then tell us — “Time for our walk.” We think it most endearing. As Simon is 28, we
        feel he deserves to be able to make such decisions. Jack (at 17-1/2) works longer without

        Your communications/writing/blogs are superb. They keep us all happy. Thank you, Anna.

  8. Anna, this piece made me think of a Tom Dorrance quote. I think it goes something like, “First you go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then you go together”. It kind of sounds like a peaceful persistence approach. I really value your no-nagging plan of action/lack of action. I wish that the word training had never been a part of my vocabulary when it comes to horses. I imagine if I had heard partnership building or something similar, it would be easier to observe more and ask less, or just go with the horse. I’m on the journey to do just that, and it’s all because of you. Thank you.

    • I think that’s a great quote. Hard to explain in action, but that is the spirit. It’s a good journey to be on, me, too. Thanks Laurie

  9. Thank you. So true. The more horse people who speak these words, the more it will become the norm. The horses already know this. We need to catch up.

  10. This is so good, Anna !! I thought I had commented yesterday but apparently that was only in my mind and not here. I think this speaks to the value of videotaping oneself with their horse(s). I have been appalled to see in videos how little time I gave my horse to respond, and was almost continually cueing him, when I could have SWORN I was not. It’s like some of us go into a zone of no-self-awareness when we want our horse to do something !

    It seems so much of good horsemanship is about timing ! Give the horse time to think, reward the try or the effort right away. Don’t cue again too soon. Don’t wait too long on some things ( my chronic issue with the counter bend with Zen Bear). Please keep educating us on how to be better !

    • Timing is tricky, but then horses don’t judge us harshly. I think it’s about both sides being forgiving… because the it’s such a soup of past experience on both sides. Thanks, Sarah.

  11. This is a really excellent article. I often think how much I’d respect someone that chased me in circles and ‘moved my feet’. It wouldn’t be respect I’d feel but rather fear and mistrust. Thank you for giving me and others the opportunity to think again about some of the training methods that seem(ed) set in stone.

  12. Not a horse but a kitten who is learning about life on the road, which includes harness training. Thanks to you I’m putting into practice a better way of being. And he’s the smartest cat I’ve ever had over decades of felines.

    • Oh that makes me happy. For a hundred reasons. After even a short time traveling, comparatively, I have so much respect for what it takes… Good for you and good for the cat! Just tickled.

  13. Oh boy – this one really makes me realize how very wrong I was in so many ways. My horse, Chico, deserved better. He KNEW better than I did.
    Thanks Anna – hard to look back & know there were so many times I didnt do right by him.


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