The Simple Truth About Complicated Training

It was back around the time the light bulb was invented. My Grandfather Horse was a lanky spooky colt, I was still biting my lip instead of breathing, and my mentor put a western saddle on her stallion and attached her tackle box and pole to go fishing, (but the same thing might happen if they were going out to check cattle.) As they headed down the dirt road, her stallion would quietly lift to a canter and then begin to skip. I didn’t know horses could skip but the woman was always doing something I didn’t understand, while I was trying to master the finer points of walking without jigging. Clearly, I was a rider with room to learn and a goal too nebulous to name. My horse agreed that, yes, I was a bit of a hot mess, all dreams and no skill. How does that come together? The bouncing red and white float buoy on her pole seemed to mock me. Oh heck, my horse did, too.

Let’s say you want train something special. It might be a dream of tempi changes: flying changes at the canter done every few strides until eventually the changes come every stride and your horse appears to be skipping. Maybe you are a novice rider who dreams of galloping in the surf at the beach and you live in Montana. Or a western rider who’s curious about jumping and eventually doing a three-day event in a bikini of a saddle.

Or most special, a timid rider who has come off her horse, or fears it could happen, but still wants to find a way to trust. Perhaps an experienced rider with an anxious rescue or a green youngster just started under-saddle who isn’t responding to the way you’ve always trained, leaving you feeling a bit high-centered on their tense back. Sometimes the goal is so sacred there isn’t a word that doesn’t sound trite so the dream sits at the back of your mouth and gags you when you see a horse in a pasture. Egads.

Out of desire and desperation, you listen to sales pitches from trainers offering an obedient horse in 30 days of training, or you scour tack stores for a gadget to make your horse stop tossing his head. Soon, you’ve tried a few trainers, you’ve become skeptical of pretty words, and you have a tack trunk full of bits, tie-downs, harsh halters and sticks called different things that all end up being whips. You’ve spent hours on YouTube and the techniques don’t work on your horse. By now you think your horse is very unique, but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe you can’t even remember what is supposed to be fun about horses.

It’s because the thing you want isn’t available to buy. The thing your horse wants isn’t even quantifiable. This is the very best place to be because you have gotten beyond the flashing lights and slimy salesmen hawking false promises for hard cash. You are beyond the first trial by fire and now you have a chance to help your horse.

Want to know the secret to training horses all of the advanced, simple, or nearly mystical party tricks? It isn’t magic at all; there are habits that are kind of simple and dull. And deceptively effective.

  • Stop fighting.
  • Breathe.
  • Reward every try.

You know this. It isn’t new information; it’s the same old list. It takes no athletic prowess or specially imported tack and it works on all ages and breeds. Why don’t we do it? Not a rhetorical question, why are we blind to our horse’s efforts? Why don’t we recognize their small anxieties and give them time? Why are we impatient with good horses on hard days, punishing their inconsistencies when we are barely aware of our own?

Because simple is not the same thing as easy. Because knowing a thing isn’t the same as doing it.

So often, we ask for a small task and perhaps the horse shifts his weight, or maybe you look at his face and it’s obvious that the horse is thinking. It’s like a child in the back of a classroom too shy to answer. We have all been that kid. And we have all been that horse struggling to find the confidence to take that step.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the entire future of your relationship with your horse hangs in the balance during this moment of hesitation as the horse tries to balance his confusion with his desire to please. Many calming signals happen at this precious intersection of emotions. This is the instant we train patience or fear. Can we finally understand that the big dreams take seed in small moments?

That foundation of training is built brick by brick and if the beginning tasks aren’t solid, what comes later will not sustain either of you. All future work is begun in foundational work. The beginning work is the same for an upper-level competitor or a rescue horse, a high-dollar imported horse or the one in your barn. No horses come by trust and confidence easier than others. We must prove we are worthy of trust.

Communication with horses should never to be taken for granted; they are always wild in their hearts, fearful of predators, and yet they try for us. How do we allow ourselves to become complacent about their desire to work with us when we still burst into tears when we see a beautiful horse galloping?

Training is as simple as we let it be. Successive approximation is the ability to cut a large task into small doable parts, asking for each segment with patience and then rewarding every try. We don’t get everything at first, but it isn’t fair to ask for finished perfection if we haven’t cheered bumbling attempts. Successive approximation works with people and horses, it is that simple, but only if we are able to inspire a spark of curiosity, and then let the effort be perfect. Start with yourself. Cheer your own bumble.

The horse’s response is subtle at first. We don’t always notice because we are dreaming of tempi changes or 1.6-meter jumps or trust without practice. How can we stay in the present, be gobsmacked with wonder, and alive to our horse’s experience rather than lost in doubt and perceived limitations? It takes energy and focus and years of time. Where is that inner horse-crazy girl when we need her?

We aren’t doing tricks. We’re creating serious habits of communication, tendencies to try, and the ability to see huge success in small actions in both partners. Over time, horses become confident. Confident horses can do anything.

We don’t train good horses, we grow them from scratch. Champions all.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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21 thoughts on “The Simple Truth About Complicated Training”

  1. As I approach the five-year anniversary of being owned by my horses, I remember the day I said to myself, longingly, “I wish I had horses you could just walk up to and halter them!” as if I were wishing for pigs to fly or snow in July. I didn’t even know enough to know what I didn’t know. Now, I feel proud of them, but of myself as well, because we have created something together that needed commitment from both sides and we all went all-in❤️

  2. Every word true, gloriously insightful and heart-felt. Don’t you ever get tired of yourself?! New farrier came this morning. Peaches a bit uptight and I had my hand on the lead, tightly. I noticed (clever human). I gave her her head, stepped back, sighed and she was like, “Finally. What was up with YOU?!” Thanks, my mare, for giving me a calming signal. I had the opportunity to listen to you before I bought Peaches. She and I have benefited from that more than you will ever know. I started at trust, and all that follows has been golden. We will probably never compete, but I feel I win every day. Tears coming — bye!

  3. I should read this each time I head to the barn, to get my head in the right frame of mind before going out in pasture to greet my mare, to groom and saddle her, to walk beside her for the first ten or so minutes, and to lift myself onto her back for our quality time together. Feeling blessed.

  4. Love this, Anna! Takes me back to all the clinics, books, tack, and trainers that were part of my journey in search of the perfect horse; then after letting it all “go” (with your help) I discovered he was always there standing right in front of me.

    • I hate that all that in the past didn’t work, hate when trainers can spot a perfect horse, but glad it ended well… thanks, Lynell

  5. “Because simple is not the same thing as easy. Because knowing a thing isn’t the same as doing it.”

    You may have outdone yourself with this one Anna. Thank you ❤️

    A quick report of affirmative training in the hinterlands…

    Last week was dental appointment week. Dr. Jess came, with a new vet to their practice assisting. (We used to be on the schedule with a (wonderful) natural balance dentist, who treated Val with hand tools, loose in the pen, and no medication. Alas we are too out of the way for her now.) After a few minutes Val began resisting – strenuously – even with a dose and a half of zylazine on board. New vet blurted out a series of “no’s” “stops” and “quits” as he jerked Val around by his mane and halter – the rest of us murmuring “easy” and “good boy”.

    I said “Not trying to sound like a smart-a$$, but this horse used to get floated with no meds using hand tools. Do you suppose something is hurting him, because he does not generally “misbehave” unless he is uncomfortable or in pain – in the thirteen years I have known him.” To her credit, Dr. J pulled out the hand tools, and MAGICALLY – Val calmed down while we finished his treatment. Yay.

    • Ah, the fine art of asking for what you want without offending the pro too much to get it. Well done. Sometimes we have to remind the Dr. they’re a good girl, too.

  6. Love this Anna!! You put my thoughts that I’ve had about horses all my life into words and I love, love, love you and all that you get out there to us all. I’m so incredibly happy horses are getting a voice. I can see their calming signals and feel so sorry for the horses who’s owners do not. I hope you have a wonderful weekend and thank you for all that you share. You are horses guardian angel! ❤️🐴❤️🐴❤️

  7. Bravo, Bravo….you actually brought me to tears with this Anna. We all read and nod and agree with the principles but often tend to forget or be oblivious to some of these basics when it comes to our daily training. Thanks for wake-up call!

  8. I have read this several times. I appreciate the distilling to fundamentals. Why do we humans so easily forget this ? Like my frig magnet says: become brilliant at the basics. This essay reminds me of why I was drawn to your way of training and viewing the horse. It seemed like something I could learn and do ! And I’m still learning and doing these 4 years later.

    Thank you for all you do as advocate for the horse ! I know the weekend clinic participants are in for a good learning experience and I hope it will be rewarding for you, too.

    • Thank you, Sarah. It’s always the fundamentals. Dressage really teaches that and so do horses. I think it gives them stability, but also a launch pad. It’s the same old thing, but we understand better ways of training it as time goes on. But in a world of constant change, it’s a place to stand. An honorable place where we all can begin, and 30 years later, still want to be. (Clinic starts in two hours and I’m excited for the day.)

      • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The word “proud” came to mind and I immediately gagged on myself. I feel better now. Thanks!

  9. “Why are we impatient with good horses on hard days, punishing their inconsistencies when we are barely aware of our own?” I’m thinking of hanging this one in the barn so I see it every time I walk in.
    I wanted to take Noche (Ferd’s half brother and guardian) for a hand walk to start on some Springtime fitness (he despises long lines, round pen, or anything confining). He offered his head for the halter, but refused to walk on. This sometimes happens. It took us about 20 minutes to cover a 1 minute walk to the gate. There was no yanking, dragging, or snapping with the end of the lead rope. I did use a record number of “good boys” and deep breaths. As soon as we were through the gate Ferd EXPLODED. We watched until Ferd appeared to be in a safe level of control. Then, Noche and I turned and left with ease and had a lovely walk. Ferd survived Noche’s absence. Did Noche know that Ferd was exceptionally needy at the time? Who knows, but it didn’t appear to be a physical issue for Noche not walking on. I’m just glad that your wisdom interrupted previous patterns of “training” that I’ve been instructed on in the past. Thanks Anna, it turned out to be a positive day for both those boys.

    • Well done. Sometimes in the spring when the green things begin to change, horses forget all kinds of things… but glad it ended well.


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