When Your Horse Falls In a Hole.

WMreinaidHorses fall into holes all the time. Metaphoric holes; the really tricky kind that jump up and surprise you when you least expect it.

Holes might be things like confusing cues; you want to canter but instead find yourself in a road gait. (I hardly ever make gaited horse jokes.) Or maybe it’s a tarp that he’s seen a million times that’s in a whole new strip of sunlight–otherwise known as a leak in the space-time continuum. Or maybe some idiot brought a baby goat to the barn. It can be anything.

Sometimes your trainer is even the cause. If a lesson is going really well and a challenge is in order, I might announce loudly that I’m going to ask for something “really hard”, or I’ll literally say I’m about to throw the horse and rider in a hole. Lots of times announcing it out loud is enough. If a little more of a push is needed, I usually ask them for a transition requiring just a bit more finesse than usual, and since they are looking for the worst after my warning, they fall into a hole of over-thinking or over-hurrying or any other ordinary mental flop sweat.

This is a good thing because if you are going to fall into a hole, doing it when the trainer is actually there is a smart thing. Your trainer can teach you something really valuable; how to help your horse climb out.

Rule number one when your horse falls into a hole, is to go right in with him. Meaning we’ve all seen riders punish their horses for making the wrong choice. They assume the worst first, rather than giving their horse the benefit of the doubt, they demand obedience. Then the horse gets upset, his mind shuts down as anxiety mode kicks in, and nothing good can happen now. So saying something like You’ve seen that before, Stupid or You should know how to do this by now, Dummy cannot possibly help. Standing at the edge of the hole and name-calling isn’t a cue he can respond to and the rider has created a break in partnership.

You were part of how he got into this mess, so embrace the bad. Stay present and connected. When your horse falls in a hole, go in there with him and help him out.

The first thing to do when you get into the hole is take about three deep breaths to slow things down. Give him a scratch; you aren’t so much rewarding him as reminding him that you are partners and you haven’t abandoned him. It’s what a good leader does to provide encouragement.

Now is a good time to lower your standards, so you can say thank you more often. So go back to something simple that you know he can succeed at, and as soon as he even thinks about doing it, reward him big.  Be generous, so he will learn to be kind. When you are partners again and the trust bump has been smoothed, return to the original task and cut it into three or four tiny bites. Ask for one piece at a time with slow breaths and generous rewards. Take all day. Then string a couple of the bites together, and eventually when he willingly does the whole task, pat your own self for remembering that going slow works every single time.

And that trust is a living thing; it grows and breaks down and is brand new every ride. Take nothing for granted. Trust is a gift that’s volunteered. It’s sacred and rare and you can’t buy it with money, but it will grow and thrive when given a committed diet of respect.

And eventually, my warning that there’s a hole up ahead is a cue to smile because there’s an opportunity to show off just a bit; a time to become more consciously aware of working together and truly enjoying a challenge.

“To practice equestrian art is to establish a conversation on a higher level with the horse, a dialogue of courtesy and finesse.” –Nuno Oliveira always says it best.

(I might add, “Especially if you are in a hole.”)

Of course, there are holes that riders fall into as well. It happens when we carry our day-trash into the saddle, or when a judge is watching, or maybe when we have a gut-busting desire to relive the past…canter depart.

That’s when, if you have been kind and fair, your horse gives you the benefit of the doubt and returns some of your generosity. Because he has had good manners modeled for him, he’ll come into the hole and carry you out. He’ll make you look better than you deserve, and in that moment you’ll be humbled by his heart.

To earn a horse’s trust, you have to offer it first. Another word for that is optimism.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm

Have you read my book yet?

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

45 thoughts on “When Your Horse Falls In a Hole.”

      • Remember the “Everything you need to know in life you learned in kindergarten”? The same applies to learning everything (well, not EVERYTHING) in a barn! To be honest – learning everything to do with horses is just a never-ending education. But boy, is there a lot you can learn in a barn = too bad more people dont have the opportunity – just think, about the change that could be made in mindsets!!!
        By the way, how are you doing?

        • Yes, horses require a level of honesty that usually stretches us… Doing fine, Maggie. Slow but after seeing the new xrays with all the hardware inside, feeling good. Thanks for asking.

  1. Thank you often post exactly what I need to hear. Amazing. Riding a 5’yr old that I did not raise myself is a challenge some days Slowing down, deep breath and praise and trust Great reminder!!

    • Thanks. Not as fast as I like, but stall rest is giving me time to rethink how I do things. I notice I’m kind of an all or nothing sort…

  2. We’ve been in those holes, thankfully with our trainer standing by to help us both out 🙂 We are learning so much from you Anna! And yes, read the book twice already… looking forward to Relaxed and Forward!

      • Last year I saw a demo by a trainer, I can’t for the life of me remember his name, but he had 3 horses. He rode one and the other two did maneuvers from his voice commands only. He could get one horse to come to him when he called its name and the others stayed put, he said this was difficult to teach. During the Q&A after someone asked what was the hardest thing to teach and his answer was trail riding. He went on to explain that in the arena things mostly stay the same allowing the horse to give him most of his attention. On the trail there are so many distractions and scary things that you have to have a very strong bond with your horse to help him deal. I found this really interesting and now I am no long JUST a trail rider!

    • NEVER is someone “just” a trail rider! How many people do you know that only ride in an arena & never get to experience being “out there”. Having “babysat” (sorry for all the quotes) several people who had only ridden inside – it was truly intimidating for both the human AND the horses. I believe the best thing there is – is to be out on the trail anywhere – just you and your horse.

  3. Never let on to your horse, that what(ever) you are doing wasn’t your idea…

    That’s what my trainer used to say. My guy worries about being wrong – overachiever tb brain. And if he’s not giving me what I (thought) I asked for, it’s a good bet that I asked wrong anyway. 😀

    • Good comment. Too many times trying too hard looks like getting it wrong to a horse. (And of course it’s us who asks wrong.) Thanks

  4. Hi Anna, this is such a great analogy! I don’t think I’ve ever read such a helpful analysis of what’s going on and how to recognize and get beyond the “holes”. It’s a different and very helpful way of saying the things we hear and read about all the time, and hopefully this time the penny will drop… Yet another barn wall decoration!

    • Thanks, Christina. That’s the goal. I think we all have to hear/see/feel things a dozen ways before we can internalize them.

  5. Loved your book and past it on to family and friends. I just love your humour and common sense. I found somebody just like me trough your writing. Hope we meet some day. Get well soon and dont over do it, it slow the healing process. And remember, three months stall rest for a minor tendon injury, you got surgery… but you are still a spring chiken!!!

    • Thank you and so glad the book struck a chord. I really appreciate you sharing it. If you like, an Amazon review spreads the word as well and helps us stay in the suggested reading pile, but either way, I am so glad it touched you. As for my stall rest… well, I think it dawns on me a little more each day that this is going to take more time than I think or want. And it doesn’t matter what I think or want. I think that’s what you mean. (My Grandfather Horse spent years on stall rest…awk.) And thanks for the kind comments.

      • If I can humour you a bit more, I will be riding for the first time in seven months next Tuesday at 14h00! Woooooooo!!! I will be longeg on a secure, school poney. Unfortunately, not on my poney, the one I got injured with…He his to unconfortable at the sitting trot but we will see how my foot repond with all the flexion. Hang in there!

  6. Hi, Anna. This is something along the lines of “A good friend will bail you out of jail when you get into trouble. A great friend will be in jail with you saying, “Man, that was fun!'” Or at least that is my take-away and will try, try to employ that sentiment.
    In keeping with that, this weekend I developed “wind puffs” below my fetlock (ankle!). Just to let you know, I crawled into that hole with you so you wouldn’t be alone. Here’s to a solid recovery for both of us!

    • I like your take-away…

      It’s too depressing to say Misery loves Company… so here’s to dragging out lame selves back to soundness soon. Thanks!

  7. I LOVED your book! I just finished it yesterday. I bought it for my trail riding club (I’m the librarian) and will be sharing it at our meeting on Thursday. I’ll also share your blog. Look forward to more followers in the Portland, Oregon area 🙂 If you are ever in the area on book tour we’d love to have you speak to our group. We have a lot of “cross over” riders who do many disciplines with their horses- dressage, western dressage, gaming, team penning and cutting in addition to trail riding & horse camping. I think your book and blog have universal appeal to all riding disciplines.

    • Thank you so much. Little self-published books like mine get lost easily. Please encourage folks to review it on Amazon, but either way, the most special part is that you liked it enough to share. I so appreciate that. And it is my goal with the blog to describe dressage as I believe it was intended, and that’s good foundation work for any riding discipline. So thanks for the push there, it all helps.

      I don’t have a book tour scheduled; they are costly for little guys like me, but I have lots of friends in Washington state so you might see me…And again, thank you so much.


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