Something bad happened. The details don’t need to be repeated for me to understand. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was; whether it was you or your horse. Excuses don’t help and emotions are rarely swayed by logic. Your trust has been broken.
Now you feel fear. Fear in the saddle. Fear about horses in general, but most importantly, fear toward your own horse.
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist; I just act like it when I give riding lessons.
First, can we all admit that tight feeling in the gut is something we have all know well? There is nothing unusual about a feeling of anxiety while climbing on a thousand-pound prey animal with keen senses and a flight response. It’s normal human instinct.
The most common thing that good horsewomen tell me is that they don’t ride like they did when they were kids–as if that’s a bad thing. Kids don’t have good hands or clear cues; what I remember most is going where the horse wanted to because I had no steering. Some of us rode fast and bounced when we fell, but the truth remains. Riding wilder is not better. It frightens horses. Bravado or dumb luck will never qualify as good horsemanship.
And worst of all, there is a huge ration of self-loathing that comes along when a rider admits they’re timid. It takes up as much room in a rider’s heart as the fear does. It’s the self-loathing that hurts the most to hear and see in a client. I’m certain horses feel the same.
Well, words matter. I’m going go back and do some editing before we continue.
Now you feel fear common sense. Fear Common sense in the saddle. Fear Common sense about horses in general, but most importantly, fear common sense toward your own horse.
The problem isn’t that we have fear common sense, it’s that we love horses and aren’t giving them up. Now what?
In my experience, hard feelings grow in the dark. Most of us have some time or place that the bogey man threatens us. I won’t say ignore him; there’s usually a spark of truth there. You should be cautious about monsters under the bed (lock the house, be careful in parking lots, and yes, monitor the dangers of riding.) Part of that fear common sense is an instinct for self-preservation. Like a horse.
At the same time, it’s incredibly powerful to drag your bogey man out into the daylight. The first time you admit that you’re timid, your voice might quiver a bit but right after that, your heart starts beating again. Your jeans feel like you’ve lost weight. And you have.
Riders get told to relax because horses can read our emotions. It’s true but humans who listen with their eyes read them, too. It doesn’t matter what you think intellectually, how much experience you have with horses, or what you should have done. Act timid or act with bravado, but you aren’t fooling us, so why not admit it out loud?
Share your feelings. Notice that the rest of us are just like you and let go of the self-loathing part. Besides, a bogey man doesn’t have a chance in the broad daylight with a bunch of middle-aged women glaring at him.
And while we’re being honest, one more bit of sideways truth. However it happened that your trust was damaged, it wasn’t that you lost control of your horse. You never had control. As a recovering Type-A who thought she could steer her horse, and the rest of her life, to brilliant happiness, I feel qualified to say the sooner we get over thinking we can even control our hair, the better we’ll be.
Let it go.
Forgive your horse. He responded by instinct; he didn’t betray you or want to hurt you. Forgive him because holding a grudge doesn’t work. Breathe and forgive him again. Feels good, doesn’t it?
If your fear common sense tells you he isn’t the horse for you, then lay down your silly ego and don’t be a martyr, owning him forever in purgatory. Confess that he’s the perfect horse… for someone else. Trade him for a horse who better suits you. It isn’t a failure to do what’s best for both of you.
Then forgive yourself. We are our own worst enemy and holding a grudge against our own instincts is crazy-making. Show your heart some tolerance and ask your brain to rest. Leave the trash talk to others.
Sit a little taller and remind yourself that you have a noble goal. To collaborate with another species in equality has been the life’s work of élite equestrians and children from the beginning of time. You have a rich heritage.
And there’s time. Horses are patient teachers and you’re lucky to have lifetime tuition. Buy the hay and you’re enrolled. On the ground or in the saddle, the lessons will be learned. Horses are perfect that way.
Most of all, count your blessings. Fear Common sense is not a tumor to be cut out. Fear Common sense isn’t a weakness, just as bravado isn’t courage. Think of it as a training aid. Fear is common sense trying to get your attention. Say thank you.
Word choice matters. We need to understand each other’s instincts for self-preservation because that’s how both species–horses and humans–will flourish.
If your fear is truly too big to have a conversation with and you freeze in the saddle and can’t breathe, just stop. If your anxiety is debilitating, get help from a real therapist. Do it for your horse, if not yourself. No joke. Having the bogey man with his hands on the reins is a truly dangerous place.
Short of that, just keep chipping away. Make friends with your instincts. Smile more. Reward yourself for small wins. Breathe. Go slow. Show yourself the kindness that you show your horse. Let him carry you to a better self.
Ever think about where courage comes from? It isn’t born of arrogance and success. It’s purchased, one drop at a time, by internal moments of persistence in the face of challenge.
Anna Blake is a horse advocate, equine professional, award-winning author, and proud member of the herd at Infinity Farm, on the Colorado prairie. She trains horses and riders equine communication skills and dressage, and writes parables about horses and life. | Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog
I hear lots of horror stories in my line of work. “My horse just started bucking, for no good reason.” “He was flying like a kite on the end of my lead rope.” “One minute he was walking next to me and the next, I had smashed toes, my head knocked sideways, and he was running away.”
In that instant, your horse goes from being your soulmate to guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Slightly less paranoid riders would call his behavior a psychotic break. He became unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Is the term betrayal overly dramatic? He broke your trust.
Lucky for you there are some rail-birds ready to dispense training advice. Put a chain over his nose. Run him in the round pen until he gives in. Get a whip and show him who’s boss.
Whoa! Slow down. Can we rewind? Tell the lynch mob that you’ve got this. Because if the only response is hindsight punishment, riders are doomed. Here’s a radical thought: How about listening to him in the first place?
Disclaimer: There is the very rare occasion when a pain response forces a horse to explode without warning. Think bee sting. If there is an extreme response, look first at his physical condition.
In most cases, the horse runs away just one step at a time. He gives warnings repeatedly, as his anxiety grows. He holds it together as long as he can. If you’re listening, you have time. Learning to respond to calming signals from your horse can save both of you.
When I ask riders for the long version of what happened, the story unfolds differently. Maybe he was hard to catch that day, or impatient and a bit barn sour at the gate, or maybe especially girthy during saddling. She got complacent. Small details were ignored for expediency. Some of us are so busy in our own heads that we don’t even notice the small details. The rest of us were taught to plow on ahead no matter what because we can’t let the horse “win.”
Then his discomfort got confused with disobedience. Horses just have one way of communicating and it’s with their body. If a generally well-behaved horse nips or tosses his head, don’t think you can “correct” his anxiety with escalation. When we get resistance from a horse, pause and breathe. Then resolve the anxiety while it is small and manageable. Let your horse see you as worthy of his trust.
The biggest reason to listen to your horse is because you have the awareness equivalency of a blind, deaf, hairless mouse. Horses are prey animals forever; their senses are so much more acute than a human’s that we literally have no idea what’s going on, even if we’re paying attention. Let that sink in.
On top of that, science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours; the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. When things come apart, it happens fast. It makes sense because flight – the instinct to sprint away from perceived danger – is the species’ primary defensive behavior.
I italicized instinct for a reason; it’s the important part. Is it fair to ask for obedience above instinct? The short answer is yes, our safety depends on it, but it’s complicated.
Say we’re walking to the arena. From the horse’s side, they pull their head away and graze because it’s their instinct to always eat. Horses are designed for full-time grazing. So we react by jerking the lead-rope. Fighting instinct is a bit like fighting gravity but humans have a plan and a clock ticking, so we get adversarial.
A rider with a greater understanding of her horse’s instincts and needs might feed a flake of hay while tacking up and then actively lead her horse to the arena by keeping a good forward rhythm in her feet. He has food in his stomach and she gets to ride within her time constraints. Best of all, there is no fight before the ride even starts. You can tell it’s good leadership because everyone “wins.”
Most of all, no one betrays anyone. The best reason for a rider to study and understand horse behavior is that learning their logic can keep us from a runaway of our own – an emotional runaway.
Granted, it’s a little easier to be logical in a discussion over grazing rights than it is in the middle of a dangerous bucking incident, but we have to start small.
And it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that, when you look at it this way, horses and humans aren’t that temperamentally well-suited to each other. So it goes; I don’t see either species giving up on each other.
All of this is to say that when your horse appears to overreact to his surroundings, he isn’t wrong. And adding our over-reaction on top won’t make things better.
At the same time, it’s our nature to think we know everything and that our plan is the only thing that matters. It’s a good reminder, even if your horses live on your property with you, that you are only a small part of their experience. They have fully dimensional lives, with emotional ups and downs, that have nothing do to with you at all.
If you want an unthinking partner with limited intelligence, dirt bikes are a good option. Otherwise, spend more time understanding and less time wishing horses were different. It takes more than a lifetime to understand horses. You don’t have any time to lose.
Yes, you could say that I’m making excuses for horses and, not as sympathetic as I should be toward humans who have been hurt and frightened. I just want to suggest that we be a bit more careful about the words we use to describe horse behaviors. We must learn to accept and support each other’s instincts for self-preservation because that’s how both species will flourish.
Aerospace engineer Duane Johnson photographed the horses while trekking in rural Colorado.
He spotted a pair of stallions facing off against each other for the right to breed with some nearby females.
Mr Johnson said both horses reared up on their hind legs and began 'punching' each other repeatedly.
After a brief but intense conflict one of the horses capitulated and ran from the field of battle.
The interloper was soon vanquished by the black stallion, left, who chased off his inferior challenger, right
The stallions square off with each other before rearing onto their hind legs and lashing out with 'punches'.
The stallion's artworks sell for up to $500
A former race horse turned artist has managed to prolong its life by selling some of it paintings.
Metro suffered from a debilitating knee condition when he was adopted by Ron Krajewski in 2009.
The artist from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, noticed how the horse like nod his head and thought he might be able to teach him to paint.
After training Metro with treats, he began to hand him a paint-dipped brush with which the stallion could splash on a canvas.
The resulting paintings have been successful and hundreds of the works have been sold.
Facial expressions research at the Animal Health Trust will help vets and owners recognise pain in ridden horses before it’s too late.
Experts at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) Equine Clinic are on a mission to help vets and owners recognise pain in ridden horses, so that they can get help before it’s too late. Owners, riders, trainers and some vets are known to struggle with recognising when a horse is lame from looking at horse’s gait alone, and some lameness is so subtle that only an expert eye can see it. Owners, riders and trainers also have a poor ability to recognise signs of pain seen when horses are ridden. As a result, problems are often labelled as training-related or behavioural (the horse is just being naughty), or deemed ‘normal’ for that horse because ‘that’s how he’s always gone’. Unfortunately that means pain-related problems are often disregarded, the horse continues in work, and the problem gets progressively worse. If pain goes unrecognised and is not referred to a lameness specialist early enough, problems become too advanced to be resolved, or managed as well as they might have been if spotted sooner.
Many people will have heard to be wary of a horse when he puts his ears back, or would see a horse is spooked if he flares his nostrils and shows the whites of his eyes. So if spotting pain and lameness itself is a specialist art, perhaps it would be better to educate people to recognise changes in facial expressions. That’s why Dr Sue Dyson, Head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the AHT, and her team have developed an ethogram to help them identify signs of pain from a horse’s facial expressions when being ridden.
The ethogram is a catalogue of facial expressions including the ears, eyes, nose, muzzle, mouth and head position. Each body part can display an expression which may be normal, or reflect pain, conflict behaviour or distress. In its first stage of testing, the ethogram was successfully applied by a variety of people from different backgrounds, to a selection of photographs of horses’ heads while they were ridden. Using the ethogram these individuals could identify different expressions in each horse, such as positions of the ears, changes in the eyes, and tightness in the muzzle. The results were highly repeatable among the analysts proving that, with guidance from the ethogram, owners could potentially reliably recognise different expressions in their horse’s face.
Stage two has now been successfully completed, testing if the ethogram could be used to distinguish between sound and lame horses. During this phase a pain score from 0 - 3 was applied to each of the facial expressions (mouth, eyes, ears etc.), and then totalled to determine an overall pain score for each horse. 519 photos of horses which had been categorised by Sue to be lame or sound were assessed. An amazing total of 27,407 facial markers were recorded, with results showing that there was a scientifically significant difference in pain scores given by the assessor for clinically lame and sound horses. The facial markers showing the greatest significant difference between lame and sound horses included ears back, tipping the head, eyes partially or fully closed, tension around the eye, an intense stare, an open mouth with exposed teeth and being severely above the bit. To further prove the effectiveness of assessing pain in a horse with the facial expressions ethogram, a selection of lame horses underwent lameness assessment and nerve blocking (using local anaesthetic solution), to alleviate the pain causing them discomfort when ridden. Comparison of their facial expressions before and after using local analgesia showed a significantly lower pain score once the pain causing lameness had been removed.
By focusing on the face, Sue has proved not only that it is a clear indicator or pain, but also that owners, riders and trainers could successfully apply this to horses they see on a daily basis. Recognition of changes in facial expression could potentially save horses from needless suffering and chronic injuries, by enabling owners and trainers to recognise pain sooner, and get these horses the veterinary care that they need. Developing a practical tool for recognising facial expressions, similar to that of a body condition score chart (identifying if a horse is under or over weight), could dramatically improve the health and welfare of all horses – which is something Sue and her team at the Animal Health Trust continue to work towards. For Sue and her team the study does not end here, with the next exciting stage of the project already underway with the development of a whole horse ethogram.
Source: Animal Health Trust UK
I think most horse owners who have had the pleasure of owning a mare have been exposed to their tendency to be somewhat temperamental at some point or another...I learnt very early on that my mare, Amber, would never be bossed around the arena. In fact almost always it would resolve in me begging, pleading and bargaining with her in an attempt to do the most simplistic flat work. Oh, how I learned the hard way, to read the mind of a mare!
I am almost certain that when I believe she will be good, she will be bad just to prove a point and when I think she will be bad, she will be good!
Rule number 1: you can never predict their reactions about ANYTHING; to do so in their mind is a betrayal of their sex. So just to keep you guessing they will always ensure that you are ALWAYS wrong.
If that doesn't keep you on your toes enough, they can also demonstrate continuous mood swings throughout the day. Some wear their heart on their sleeve, so to speak, and show you with facial expressions just how they are feeling…Others, like mine, prefer to present the face of an angel but don’t be fooled by this façade because in reality they have the devil on their shoulder!
Rule number 2: Mares love nothing more than being pampered and given gifts (simple things like fruit, veg and peppermints will do). Often before a show I enjoy bringing my mare a sacrificial offering of carrots and apples to put me in her good books prior to our competition. This is purely in the hope that this will put all the odds in my favor for a smooth ride the next day. Bribery never goes amiss with a mare!
As I mentioned earlier, to add to the difficulty of trying to predict what your beloved mare is thinking, her moods can change about fifty times a day! Anything can sway her mood. But nothing seems to change my mares’ mood more than an attractive gelding. She will squeal and stand up with her ears forwards in an attempt to get his attention, to only then go and bite him when he gets too close. So although we as owners think we have a tough time, think about the poor geldings hanging out with your mare!
Despite all of these quirks, mares also have the biggest hearts. If you can work with their nature and get through to them on their wavelength, you will have a best friend for life. Once their trust is won (which is hard to do) they will never intentionally put a foot wrong…well, that’s the theory. And on the upside lets face it; with a mare life will never be boring!
There's a common training myth that we need to act like the Alpha Mare and dominate our horses.
In this one minute video Ben Hart argues against this approach and promotes a better form of leadership that means training with clarity, consistency and direction.
It's safe to say that most pony-mad-kids dream of having their own pony. I used to spend hours on end imaging in what my first pony would be called, what competitions I would enter and all the different sparkly bits of tack I would have! Well my Mum also had that dream, and after nearly fifty years, she finally made the decision to get her own horse and since then, I have never seen her happier…
Although Mum had ridden as a child, buying her own horse was a step into the unknown. No matter how much online advice you read, or how many experienced people you ask, making the decision to buy your first horse is a pretty daunting prospect. There are so many adverts out there for starters – a quick initial internet search brought up hundreds of possibilities, and we didn’t really know where to begin! Mum also quickly came to realise that price was a very limiting factor – although she had been saving for years, her budget wasn’t exactly huge, and her expectations about what her money could get her had been a little unrealistic. A genuine schoolmaster is worth their weight in gold!
Unfortunately, I was away at University, so Mum went to see the first horse she liked the look of accompanied by my Grannie. It was definitely a bit of a gamble as Mum had just found this advert somewhere online, and we didn’t know his sellers or much about his background. Also, the advert didn’t give much away, but Mum literally saw the photos of Teddy and fell in love! Yes, I know what you're thinking! Teddy was advertised as a 15hh chestnut gelding, who had done a little bit of dressage but not much else. It was definitely his lovable face and gentle temperament that won Mum over when she met him. I remember When Mum rang me on her way home from visiting him she sounded just like the ten-year-old pony-mad-girl that I used to be. She was over the moon, and felt certain she had found the right horse. Although certain people will tell you that you shouldn’t buy the first horse you see, Mum trusted her gut instinct and went with what felt right.
Within a few weeks, Teddy had arrived at the yard and Mum soon came to realise all the difficult decisions that come with getting a new horse: who would he go out in the field with? What would she feed him? What tack would suit him? Luckily Mum was surrounded by plenty of very experienced horse people who were able to help, but it certainly made us both realise just how much there is to think about when buying a horse. In fact, owning a horse is a life-style choice, and not only does it require a lot of thought and money but it also takes up hours of each day. All in all, it's not much different from having a child! Mum has had to adapt her life to accommodate Teddy – she now gets up at the crack of dawn each morning to feed him before she goes to work, and spends her entire weekends at the yard riding, mucking out and doing boring jobs like poo picking!
As well as having to sort out logistics, Mum also needed to work at forming that all important bond with Teddy. Although he is nine, he is still a bit of a big baby, and can be very nervous. He took a while to learn to trust Mum, but she was keen to build a strong relationship with him as soon as possible. As a result, she got him into a routine and did simple things like brushing him every day, and chatting away to him (anyone would have thought she’d lost the plot…) so that he got to know her voice. She also made sure she learnt where his scratchy ‘bit’ was (the star on his forehead) and carefully noted any little quirks he had to avoid mishaps . For instance, it soon became apparent that he was a bit of an escape artist and could barge out of his stable without warning, so Mum had to learn to deal with that by always making sure she shut the stable door properly behind her.
As I was away at University in the first few weeks of Mum getting Teddy, I didn’t really realise the impact he was having on her until I came home. My Mum is someone who has always struggled a bit with her emotions and can get very down at times, especially when I go back off to University leaving her in the house on her own. However, getting Teddy must be the best decision she’s ever made. I’ve never seen her so happy, so enthusiastic and so motivated – I feel replaced as the ‘favourite’ child...ha ha! Spending time with Teddy has helped to de-stress her and has also helped her make new friends. Riding and mucking out has given her something to do each day whilst I’ve been away; all very good reasons to get out of bed. Since I’ve been home, I’ve become equally besotted with this little horse – I’ve been begging to ride him every day, and feel like a pony mad girl all over again!
The future with Teddy looks so exciting – we have just started teaching him to jump, and he seems to love it. We are hoping to enter some little shows, but before that I will need to have a few lessons with him as there are definitely things we need to work on to build up a strong partnership.
Do you have a story of a new horse? I’d love to hear how you're getting on together and the impact they are having on your life…
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We may not like to think of it this way but most of us are taught to deal with horses through force- the application and release of pressure to achieve the desired result. For example, if a horse is jump shy and keeps running out to the left, we are advised to carry a whip on the left side and dole out a little tap to deter further avoidance. The idea being that the fear he has of doing something, like going past a scary object or going over a scary jump is outweighed by the fear/pressure from us. However in many cases this can have the effect of reinforcing the horse's fear, of the jump or scary object as this activity then equals pressure or pain. This is a classic example of how we are punishing undesired behaviours through the threat of and the application of pain, and how this method can fix a problem temporarily, but it will never really overcome that horse's fear of jumping or going past scary objects.
Many equine behaviourist’s believe that ‘naughty’ behaviours like; running-out, bolting, barging, biting or kicking boil down to three very simple things - present or past fear, pain or miscommunication. When your horse is being asked to perform an action and he is punished if it is not performed, whether by using a loud, harsh tone, a quick smack on the withers or a smack with the whip, your horse is effectively being assaulted for being in pain, feeling fear or misunderstanding what you want. Either you, the handler are not giving clear correct signals or past experience has led your horse to react in a certain way.
We have come to believe that horses need to be led with a ‘firm hand’ or ‘they’ll walk all over you’. Now, I believe, that we approach horses in this way because we are the ones who are intimidated either by fear of being hurt or fear of failure and fear of what others think of us. But, if we can only realise that empathy goes a lot further than force in the equine world both horses and their owners will be a lot happier. Horses are naturally skittish prey animals and we need to gain their trust to give them confidence. So, the next time your horse doesn’t react how you’d like, think about WHERE this behaviour may have come from and try and think how you can change your approach, asking in a calm and clear way. We must remember to separate ourselves from our horse’s behaviour because it is never about us, it is a combination of instinct and past experience that have influenced the way they act.
Do you think pressure and release is a force for good or evil?!! Should pressure have no place in horse training or is it just a case of when you apply it, and how much?
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Every horse and pony displays little quirks and reactions that we construct into a personality. We call some horses ‘cheeky’, some ‘pushy’ and some ‘stubborn’, but have you considered that these labels are actually our way of trying to understand... READ MORE