When Impatience and Cruelty are Normalized

Sometimes I find myself standing in front of people talking about horses’ feelings. I’m almost embarrassed; I was raised to be tough. Yes, I cite scientific research. Inside, I still hear my father curse me for spoiling horses, but most people didn’t think horses had feelings in his day. Except I think part of us always knew, even if it was inconvenient to have to care. We were farmers trying to scratch out a living. Our lives weren’t much easier than our animals’.

Other times I wonder how long I will keep posting these essays about calming signals. Understanding equine body language has taken over my life. It’s become my primary language and I just write to keep a thin grip on being a human animal. Then I cock a hip and give my poll a shake.

A few years ago, a well-known trainer messaged me about a calming signal essay he’d seen, saying it was interesting while calling it woo-woo. 

woo-woo   /ˈwo͞oˌwo͞o/   DEROGATORYINFORMAL noun  1. unconventional beliefs regarded as having little or no scientific basis, especially those relating to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine.
“some kind of metaphysical woo-woo”

Is that what he meant to say? It couldn’t be a compliment. Later a clicker trainer said she thought I put too much importance on how horses felt. She thought it slowed the training process. She was right about that. Building honest trust does take more time but my career wasn’t based on starting colts but rather on rehabbing troubled horses. Listening to them opened a door I couldn’t close again.

Was I too much of a bliss ninny, was I too sensitive? Compared to a horse? Or a cowgirl trope? Besides, I’m a party pooper when it comes to anthropomorphizing horses. I hate humanizing them because horses are so much more interesting than people. Dang. I said it.

I grew up like you. I loved horses and was told to be violent to gain their respect. I disobeyed and got in trouble. I’m sure sometimes the horses were in pain and I didn’t know. I’m no saint, back in the day, I got frustrated with my horses. I got louder and more insistent about having my way. It didn’t work. Not once. 

Harsh treatment of animals is interwoven in our culture. We love cowboy culture and rodeos and shows like Yellowstone, but the same is true in English riding. We romanticize the domination horses, hands jerking reins, spurs gouging flanks. Our eyes are so used to seeing cruelty that we barely notice it. Worse than that, if we want to be taken seriously in this culture, we tough it out. If you aren’t in an ambulance after a fall, you climb back on. We must be as hard on ourselves as we are horses. 

On the other extreme are those who think riding any horse is cruel and horses should all be used as healers and mystics. Or somehow returned to the wild, as if thousands aren’t standing in catch pens now. They seem to think humans have no option other than cruelty when it comes to horse ownership. The word ‘ownership’ sets them off as if it means anything other than who buys their hay. As if a word could possibly define the immense possibility between a horse and a human.

Are you like me? We don’t belong in either camp but at the same time, we’re no fun anymore. We can’t watch the Triple Crown races and we lived for them as teenagers. We can’t go to rodeos and pretend to not see the dark side. When western movies use the trope of horsemanship being a symbol of manhood, we wrinkle our noses and care about the horse more than the cowboy. 

Part of the problem with women and domination training is that we never really buy the idea. We do it because we were told it was the only way, but then we do it half-heartedly, which confuses horses. We send a double message. But we aren’t quitters, so we keep trying.

Instead, we educate ourselves. We learn that herd dynamics are different from what we were taught, and in the wild, horses live cooperatively. We read about studies like the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and then delve into more brain function research. We get a deeper understanding of what it means to be a prey animal. And we totally geek out on one of the few things we have in common with horses: When we’re born, we begin to build neurons in our brains, just like horses do. The first things we learn are foundational to who we become. In the case of horses, their first trainers set a tone for how they see the world, with fear or confidence. 

Intimidation or fear-based training works on young horses and kids. It can make a horse look obedient and a rider look cool. In time, the horse comes apart and we doubt ourselves. Are you working with a horse someone else has injured, mentally or physically, in training?

Somehow it seems many horses need to be rehabbed but we don’t look at why. Are we starting horses using out-of-date methods and then selling them before they come apart? And since humans don’t like to be corrected any more than horses do, telling a trainer how to train doesn’t go over well. Instead, disposing of troubled horses and buying new ones is what created our bustling but failing horse industry. 

Oh, the irony! Horses are stuck in their memory of their first trainer… and so are we. Relearning is harder than learning in the first place. It’s a dysfunctional oneness we share with horses, both of us struggling to overcome fear-based training methods that we were taught when we were younger, both of us hearing voices in our heads name-calling us for our weakness.

When will we learn that resolving the horse’s anxiety is better than creating more anxiety? Or that punishing fear doesn’t alleviate it? (Says the woman who was taught to be more threatening than whatever scared her horse.) But shouldn’t we all have a responsibility to do better once we know more?

Eventually, the idea occurs that rather than changing a horse’s behavior, it might be more important to understand it. We speak up, knowing it’s unpopular but we can’t stand seeing horses jerked around or run to lameness or so shut down that they play dead. Just because cruelty has been normalized doesn’t mean it’s okay.

The evolution revolution begins right where we are, novice or longtimer. Here’s the crazy part. There are so many more of us than we know; kind and understanding humans exercising patience and the ability to re-learn. Maybe we feel like a minority because admitting we were wrong doesn’t seem heroic to anyone but horses.

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

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47 thoughts on “When Impatience and Cruelty are Normalized”

  1. Hi Anna,
    I have to admit, since I’ve been learning from you, I do feel a little less optimistic about whether we can heal past damage, and/or whether we can ever really have the relationships with our horses that we dream of. The more I learn, the harder it seems.
    Speaking just for me, time was a big barrier to patience. Even when I was keeping horses in a small setup that I managed, I felt time pressure. I only had so much time, and I’m sure it made me impatient.
    And let’s not even discuss what happens if you want to exercise patience in a busy lesson or boarding barn. I’ve had children hassle me because I was taking too long to do something. Everyone’s in a hurry, feeling the pressure to get the most from our expensive passion.
    Although I no longer have a horse or even ride due to injuries, family responsibilities and money, I don’t think I would go back. I know too much and it feels too hard to do it the way that would feel right.
    But on a different note, did you see the video article in the New York Times about the two young boys and their pony who traveled from Massachusetts to the 1967 Montreal expo? While I was worried about the boys, all I could think about was that their pony was a saint.

    • I do hear you. I can’t let the hurry win. I think there are more of us. And I’ll go look for those boys. Thanks, Karen.

  2. As always a beautifully written and inspiring post. The hard part about having your eyes opened is that you see so much more that you have no control over (in a big boarding stable with a lot of young OTTB horses who sit in stalls for weeks, for one). Saying something in a conversation can be scary, but it’s like social justice work in any setting with any kind of sentient beings, I suppose. You make me want to be a little braver, and oh so grateful for changing how I am when I am around my equine friends.

  3. I loved this line so much: Understanding equine body language has taken over my life. It’s become my primary language and I just write to keep a thin grip on being a human animal. Then I cock a hip and give my poll a shake.
    Of course, I loved the rest of the article, too.

    Looking forward to meeting you IN PERSON (!) next week in beautiful Hillsborough, NC.

  4. Guess I’m a ‘bliss ninny’, too, Anna, but I so believe in treating my horses with kindness! My current riding horse was definitely trained with kindness as he is inherently kind and seems to try to do whatever I ask of him. The one I owned before him, not so much. My philosophy has always been that I want my horse to enjoy being with me as much as I enjoy being with him or her. If I cannot get my horse to do what I ask without using whips or spurs or other intimidation, it’s the wrong horse for me. I’m currently ‘of a certain age’, have owned horses most of my life and, thankfully, hope to continue.

  5. Anna,
    This article could not have been published at a better time for me — thank you, thank you, for instilling confidence in what I am trying to do.

    We just adopted an Off Track Thoroughbred from a phenomenal organization: Mid Atlantic Horse Rescue. You probably know of them?
    Beverly Strauss and her crew pull as many horses as they can from auction kill pens (some other areas, too). We adopted an OTTB,
    16.3 Giant, a few weeks ago. His race name is Ecliptical Jack and we now call him ‘Tico’. After racing for almost five years and now
    with arthritis in both knees and some bone spurs, he was taken off the track and transferred to some Claiming Race organization.
    He was abused and neglected and ended up in the Pennsylvania auction kill pen. He was in deplorable condition and close to
    death when the pulled him out. After almost one year of care, good nutrition and kindness and great women in his life, he is
    now well-recovered and living with us in Virginia. I am working with some anxiety issues and jumpiness, no doubt, but our gentle
    hand walks, rubs, massages, and quiet ways are winning his confidence, slowly but steadily. Louise, our barn owner noted that
    someone has obviously abused him and hit him. He’s quieter outside but very jumpy in the stall (which is open for him).
    It will take time, patience, and love.

    The Hanoverian, Strider (d. 2017) and Captain Jack have taught me much more that I have taught them. Together, they have taught me so much about body language, being quiet and calm, but consistent in my behavior around horses. Tico is responding very well.
    He cannot be ridden so all work will be ground/fitness exercises, obstacle courses and, going forward, a good life for him. The sad
    thing (where there now is one) is that he’s only eight. You cannot erase abuse, but I feel he will learn to trust again…in time.
    Like so many of the racehorses, he’s a gentleman with a huge heart. We are confident he will do well in his new life. A great
    Quarter Horse named Cole, is showing him the ropes. Cole is a rock and Tico is taking Cole’s lead.

    Wish us luck.

    I wonder if you might be able to stop in during your trip. I’ll look at your schedule. We are in Southern Virginia (Gloucester).

    Warmest wishes,

    • Thanks, Nuala. Sounds like it’s going well with the new horse. I do know that rescue but I’d be disappointed if they bought from actual kill pens. Maybe it’s a figure of speech… Again, best wishes.

  6. “Other times I wonder how long I will keep posting these essays about calming signals.” Just FYI, I, for one, will never tire of your essays, Anna. With each one, I always find at least one aspect of my behavior that needs tweaking.

  7. I would agree that we have an obligation to do better when we know more. There seems to be a strong need out there for many to do the same and know less. Learned helplessness? Great piece.

  8. Sadly, there are so many who claim to be tuning into the horse’s feelings, as it has become more acceptable that they have them. But I see so much of what they are doing that is also causing stress and overriding those feelings. It is one thing to acknowledge it, and quite another to actually let go of those methods learned in the dominance tradition. (If I see one more video of a horse who spontaneously lays down during a ‘session’ being applauded as a “release of trauma” I may scream!) And you are SO right – it is much easier to train a horse from foalhood than the journey with one who lost all trust and connection to humans through ill-treatment. The latter can be quite the test of our commitment to really hearing the horse, maintaining our patience, and setting aside our goals and ego.

  9. Anne,
    I’ve been in a program for two years and I graduate this December. I was drawn to Touched By A Horses’ Equine Gestalt Coaching Method because Horses are partners in assisting the clients healing. I’ve experienced this first hand as I worked on my own triggers and through a gestalt experience I have left in the arena my pain or grief and anger. Then i go into the round pen with the horse at liberty and they have balanced my chakras, stood around my heart chakra and raised my vibrations and some have pantomied and moved me forward from a stuck place. They foollow me around the pen when I am thinking and speaking my truth. They turn away from me and stop following if I speak from my mind and not my heart. When I am not aware of my feelings, they are and let me know it.
    I don’t use or work a horse, I partner with them as a healing duo. You have known this and speak from your heart to ours when you blog about your training and your experiences. I love what you do and say! Thank you.

  10. I’m currently having a long break from ‘training/riding’ horses – it’s been 9 years since I did anything considered ‘meaningful’ with them.

    With 9 still in my herd (of which 8 I’ve bred and the eldest is now 28), I’m hoping time and allowing the horses to ‘train’ me – mostly with where they’d like to be scratched, is going to help overcome years of ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ horsemanship ingrained in my cells.

    Your writings and that of all the others out there are showing me new ways of being with horses that don’t involve domination is re-training my brain so when or if I do need to teach my horses something new, I can let go of old habits.
    I’m a work in progress as always. 🙂

    • I am a work in process, too. This change of method means we finally listen and that’s what horses like. Well done you. Thanks, Cynthia

    • Because of you I found Anna and have been working with her (or should I say, trying my best to learn from her whilst struggling with my impatience and dominance) for at least 2 years now. Because of trainers like you who are willing to lay down their old methods and speak about it openly, it makes space for so many others. Also, when Ikey “told” me that he didn’t like pressure and being “told” what to do, you let me run with it, even though I was out of my depth. Gratitude to you x

  11. Becoming a person a horse can trust, so much to unlearn. Yet is there a more magical feeling than asking a horse, getting a no, accepting that no, and thinking, okay, where are we going with this…

  12. “ Part of the problem with women and domination training is that we never really buy the idea”. All of your post is outstanding. This stood out for me. As a woman of a certain age (though I’m unclear on how much has changed), I was essentially raised to be a prey animal. My grandmother carried hatpins on the bus in case a man became “forward “. I was taught to carry a church key can opener. In so many subtle and not subtle ways we were conditioned to react to predators. I was struck by the predator/prey thing while tent camping recently. We had bears come through every night. It was fine. There was a jerk camper. Not fine. He was much more predatory. I slept with a hunting knife to protect myself from a human. Horses: my experience has been predominantly barns and women. On some level, I think we all understand what it means to be a prey animal, conscious of it or not. Some of us dominate, maybe out of fear of being dominated by the horse? Some of us stop in our tracks and recognize some similarities. Some of us do both at once. Thanks for reminding all of us we can choose to let go of the worst of the predator/prey dynamics, and choose to be on the same side as our horses. In what world is learning more than one language “woo woo”? 😉

    • I totally agree, Jane. Thanks for this comment. Women do all share that understanding and I think it’s part of the reason we are so masterful with horses. Right now, I’m on the road in an AFrame camper, my dog and I have logged 10k miles so far this year. And the wary eye is always on two-legged predators.

  13. At our last horse show as volunteer coordinator I got to sit with a several gals who turned out to be very like-minded in our understanding of ‘training’. We all agreed on the importance of understanding but also the importance of the rider’s abilities to ‘listen’ and communicate with correct aids. But we commiserated with the current fad of fast-tracking along the Dressage levels for the sake of the ‘tricks’ instead of taking the time to understand the biomechanics of horse and rider to create the sync we are searching for. My trainer is a biomechanics person. This is not looked upon favorably in the club because it takes too much time to produce a rider with the correct balance and independent seat. Our consensus was that we use the shows as training tools but not our end-game.

  14. Two thoughts .. you ask if we are working with a horse who had been damaged mentally or physically by training. I imagine that is the vast majority of us, whether we know it or not. Which makes this work all the more important.

    Also I bet the idea that “the horse better be more afraid of you than what he’s spooking at” is also based in fear on the part of the human.. fear of getting run over, hurt, whatever. Providing a way for the human to feel safer will allow them in turn to treat the horse better. Not solving it, just naming it.

    • You are right both times, that first training experience matters so much…and yes, safety is the thing no one likes to talk about but effects everything. Thanks Shaste

  15. Thank you Anna for keeping on writing. It makes a difference! I want to stay optimistic that the collective consciousness is changing. We will still be sad seeing the scared, abused, shut down horses but also glad that there is a growing community of people who believe in sharing the best of ourselves with the horses we are privileged to own or come into contact with.

  16. Great reading as usual, your comments ‘hit’ a target, women seem to be the ‘under dogs’ in a lot of situations in public and private life. Although it is easy for a women to be a ‘victim’ and therefore have the mindset of feelings of ‘lesser than’, I think that, especially at this time, we have strong role models whom we can admire and therefore strive to stand tall, be proud of who we are and speak with passion for the things we care so deeply about. When writing about strong role models, I include you, Anna in that description, your writings are profound, deeply thoughtful and written with passion. I really hope that you will continue writing! It is through you, that, even at the ripe (old) age of 68, I have learnt to take a deep breath when my anger/frustration seem to be getting the better of me, gently turn and walk away! Maybe it is a result of suppressed anger or being a victim of domestic violence which happened long ago. Your teachings are so very important-please don’t stop! 🇦🇺💫

    • Thank you for your kind words, Cheryl. I appreciate this heartfelt and truthful comment. And I’m 68,too. Like you, old enough to know. Young enough to keep at it.

  17. Hi, Anna, Your blog was recommended by a friend and I thoroughly enjoyed this most recent post–and my first. I had a kind of strange experience reading it, a real sense of familiarity so strong that I called my friend to ask if possibly she was sending it for the second time. I commented to her that much of the tone and language, and the general approach, were like what I would expect from a llama trainer.

    Is it possible that you work with llamas? And would you by any chance know an old llama whisperer named John Mallon?

    If the answers are both “No,” I still look forward to reading, and have subscribed. But I do love unexpected connections. When I lived in Michigan, and about a year before I left, I worked with a woman who was head of a school for autistic children. She came out to my place and I was able to show her that, for me at least, learning to work with the llamas started with learning their language–a language different than any I’d encountered. We put together a tentative outline applying the same idea to her children. First, we had to learn their language.

    We are so eager to be sure others/the other speak our language. In my experience teaching plain old overprivileged teenagers in independent secondary schools, even adolescence has its own language that has not much to do with the words.

    Anyway, thank you for being here and speaking for the animals

    • Great comment, Patricia. I think I know a bit of that adolescent language… I’ve never heard of John Mellon, I have been all about horses forever… and yes, I have llamas that I’ve driven, hiked with, and did agility with. Only two left now, both in their middle 20s. The big difference between llamas and horses is you can intimidate horses (not that you get the best answer that way) whereas a llama will shut down with pressure. In other words, if we treated horses the way we must treat llamas, horses would do so much better. So yes, you’re right.

  18. Don’t know how I missed this post but what a delightful surprise to come across this gem. I want to print it and put a stack out in every feed store, tack store, western wear store, boarding barns, at every rodeo and even where trailers are sold!


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