Thursday, 07 December 2017 11:51

Calming Signals and Pain | Anna Blake

First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound. 

That’s the warning that any decent equine professional gives before practically anything we do. It’s the common disclaimer; we almost skim over it as a formality before getting on to the training issues. In other words, we get complacent to chronic pain messages because it’s easier to train sometimes than it is to track down some nebulous pain. We should know better.

It’s the first question every rider should ask from the ground every day. Is my horse sound? Learning to read pain takes perception; it’s complicated in the beginning. It isn’t that we don’t care. We might not be sure and that means a vet call. We usually have a plan that day. Even if it’s a trail ride, we don’t want to cancel. If it’s something that involves money or hauling or inconveniencing other people, we usually think it’s not so bad and go ahead. We should do better.

There’s also a disclaimer that we should hear from horses –first, last and always. They are prey animals. Their instinct is so interwoven into their behavior and personality, that it’s inseparable.  Prey animals aren’t forthcoming about pain.

If your horse is stoic, he’ll grit his teeth, sometimes literally, and keep trudging on acting like he’s fine, until it’s too late. If your horse is more reactive than stoic, he’ll act aggressively hoping that bravado will pass for strength. They aren’t okay.

It’s common sense if you’re a horse. Prey animals hide their pain to survive. They are born knowing that the wolves kill the slow, lame members of the herd. Showing weakness, even within the herd, could mean less access to hay. It isn’t good or bad; it’s nature’s plan that the fit survive. We throw a wrench into that cycle when we domesticate animals so, at the very least, we must listen much more carefully.

Most of us can read enough herd dynamics to know that shy old gelding might need to eat separately. We proudly list each horse’s position in the herd as an affirmation that we know our horses. As if it’s some kind of equine astrology and now that we know the horse is a Sagittarius that explains everything.

I’ve been teaching calming signals for the last few years as a way of understanding small messages from our horses before they become huge issues. It’s fun to have a non-verbal conversation with a horse. I always give the reminder about soundness but often we’d rather have a conversation about challenges, like standing still at the mounting block. What if the mounting block represents the beginning of what hurts and your horse resists it because he’s smart? Not a training issue at all.

It’s about now that we have to ask the hard question: Is it my lousy hands or is he in pain for another reason?

How is his saddle fit? If you aren’t having that checked at the very least once a year, things have changed and he feels it. Maybe he has a rib out or his withers are a bit jammed and he needs a chiropractic adjustment. Maybe he’s in his teens and you have repressed the idea that his back might be getting arthritic.

I don’t blame people. Checking for soundness is an affirmation of our horse’s mortality. Ick. Lameness can be hard to diagnose, even with radiographs and ultrasound. And I think there are pains that horses feel that we just can’t find, even with the best help. Vet science is still an art.

If lameness weren’t complicated enough, the existence of ulcers can distract us from questions of soundness. Ulcers are a huge issue for horses. Between 60% and 90% of horses have them, and worse, they sometimes mask lameness issues. It isn’t uncommon to treat a horse for ulcers and then perhaps find a stifle problem underneath them.

For all our horse’s anxiety about pain and not showing it, and for all our anxiety about the same, we have to start by getting past our emotions, fear, and love for a moment. Stand away from your horse, take a breath, and watch with quiet eyes. These are calming signals that could also be signs of pain:

• A tense poll, elevated head.

• Ears back or one ear back and one forward.

• Tight muscles around the eye.

• Exposed white of the eye.

• Intense stare or partially closed eyes.

• Clenched lips or nostrils.

You’re right. Those are symptoms so common. Some are even contradictory. We see them all the time, it’s easy to be complacent about them. They could be calming signals to ask you to cue quieter or that they need a moment to think. Or they could be signs of pain.

It’s that experience where you type a couple of your own symptoms into Google to try to self-diagnose, only to find you could have one of twenty life-threatening issues. How many times do we think we’re just depressed but it turns out that depression is a symptom of twenty other terrifying life-threatening issues?

And suddenly playing with calming signals is less fun. If you have a stoic horse, then cut that minimal fun in half. Can we ever trust what a stoic horse relates? Are so many nebulous and negative unknowns looming large enough now that you doubt everything you used to think you knew?

Perfect. You’re not supposed to think you know everything.

Instead, work on having an open mind and good intention. We must be willing to see “bad behavior” as a message and not a training issue. Be willing to listen, but also be willing to hear things we don’t want to hear. Even embrace the idea that our horses might be in pain. I don’t mean that we all become equine hypochondriacs but how can we help them if we don’t almost welcome the idea?

Positive training, asking a horse to volunteer, is more than kind. It has a distinct advantage for the horse. He gets what he wants from a leader. He gets to be heard when he hurts.

First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound. 


annaprof150 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

 

Books By Anna Blake

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Thursday, 14 September 2017 10:58

Part Three: Riding Above Fear | Anna Blake

This is what we knew then: It started with a dream of dancing hooves and a flowing mane. He was strong and fast, and you couldn’t tell where he stopped and you started.

This is what we know now: Your horse is frightened and you know it. Or you’re frightened and your horse knows it. And it doesn’t matter who started it. You’re here now.

(Part One explained how a horse’s anxiety gets confused with disobedience when we don’t listen to his calming signals. In Part Two, we redefined fear. Now we call that emotion common sense.)

Then Corey left this comment:

So the only few lines or paragraph I would have liked to have seen …is the one describing all the methodologies out there one can try, with time and patience and constant forgiveness, before sending a misunderstood horse away to yet another home where lordy knows what will be done to him. IMHO……..

Okay, here goes. If you think this frightened horse is almost within your skill range and you have the aforementioned time and patience and constant forgiveness… or if you have acquired a huge dose of fear common sense but think your horse would be okay if you relaxed…

Begin here: Make sure your horse is sound. No, really, have the vet check him over. Call a chiropractor who does acupuncture. If the horse is the problem, he usually has a problem. Then, be safe. Wear a helmet. Remove your watch and work in horse time. Take good and kind care of both of you.

Anxiety is normal on both sides. Pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t the same thing as releasing it. Acknowledge the weird balance of dread and enthusiasm. Forgive each other again. Then know that this process will take some time.

Words matter. Negative corrections aren’t effective. Yelling “NO!” is a dead end. It isn’t instructive to horse or human. It’s right up there with yelling “Don’t be afraid!” or “Quit grabbing the reins!” or “Stop running!” Telling yourself or your horse what to not do is like trying to deny reality. Instead, create a new reality by using simple, clean, positive words like “Walk on.” “Breathe.” “Well done.” In other words…

Less correction. More direction.

Start at the beginning. Is there resistance during haltering? At the first sign of anxiety, pause and breathe. Humans tend to speed up when we get nervous. Before we know it, we’re wrestling with a thousand-pound flight animal, when slowing down in the first place could resolve the anxiety on both sides while it was still small and manageable. Go slow.

Then do something mysterious. Take the halter off and leave.

When you both volunteer for the halter, proceed to ground work. Ask for something small, like walking next to you, but you stay out of his space as much as he stays out of yours. Walk together independently. Take time to get it right; let him test your patience.

Think less about whether he’s right or wrong, and more about what your senses are telling you. Practice being less complacent. What are his ears saying? Use all your senses to “listen” to your horse. Soften your visual focus by using peripheral vision to see a wider view of your surroundings. In other words…

Less brain chatter. More physical awareness.

Listen to his calming signals. Cue his movement with your feet instead of your hands. Laugh when he gets it right, and even more when you do. Keep at it until both of you have let go of all the breath you’ve been holding. Then feel the anxiety begin to shift.

Stay with ground work for as long as you want. Build confidence by ground driving and doing horse agility. Your horse doesn’t care if you ever ride him again. Your relationship isn’t defined by proximity; it’s defined by trust. If you don’t share confidence on the ground there’s no reason to think it will magically appear when you’re in the saddle.

When it feels right, groom him and tack up. Go for a walk in the arena and stop at the mounting block. Check the strap on your helmet and climb the steps. Lay a soft hand on his neck and if he’s nervous, breathe until his poll releases. Until his eyes relax. Until he is peaceful and your belly is soft.

Only go as far as the beginning of anxiety and stop there. Release it while it’s still just a flash of an idea.

Then be mysterious again. Step down and go untack him. Remember where you started and celebrate the progress you’ve both made. Know there will be setbacks, so let this time be precious.

Find a good ground coach. Someone who is calm and breathes well. Then take tiny challenges, one after another. Slow and steady, throw your leg over and sit in the saddle at the mounting block. Breathe and feel your thigh muscles. They might need some air, too. Remember you love your horse and melt what is frozen. Dismount without taking a step and call it a win.

Next time, take a few steps. You don’t need to feel like you’re alone on the high dive… ask your ground coach to click on a lead rope and walk beside you and your horse to start. Take baby steps so everyone succeeds. There is no shame in working as a team. Then climb off before you want to.

Think rhythm. All good things for horses happen rhythmically: chewing, walking, breathing. All bad things come with a break in rhythm: bucking, bolting, spooking. Good riding for the horse means rhythm so that’s your first concern.

You can count your breath, focus on your sit-bones like a metronome, or ride to music. Whatever you like, just so it connects your spine to your horse’s movement in a slow, confidence-building rhythm. Then walk on.

When emotions arise, notice them. Refuse to demonize yourself or your horse. Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

This is the secret: Remember that science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours? While they come apart ridiculously fast, they can also come back together quickly, if we ask them to. Humans believe in a snowball effect; if the horse shakes his head or any other small infraction, the inevitable end is a train wreck.

It isn’t true. If you take a breath as soon as you feel anxiety in your horse, and he will do the same. Other days, your horse might notice you go tense and blow his breath out so loud that you hear it and take his cue.

It’s a partnership; sometimes we carry them and sometimes they carry us. It doesn’t matter who starts it. Just so we all come home safe.

Then one day you notice that the dark thoughts are rare. Instead, you’re distracted by something bright and shiny. It’s your childhood dream, balanced with common sense, right here in real life.


annaprof150Anna 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

 

Books By Anna Blake

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Published in Trot On Blogs
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 11:42

Part Two: Now I’m Afraid | Anna Blake

[Part One: My Horse Betrayed Me.]

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.

You’ve got that. It’s holding to a truth about yourself. And then horses. In the process, keep your love just an inch bigger than your fear common sense and you’ll be fine.
 
[Next: Riding Above Fear.]

annaprof150Anna 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

Books By Anna Blake

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Published in Trot On Blogs
Tuesday, 22 August 2017 10:55

Part One: My Horse Betrayed Me | Anna Blake

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.

The words we choose matter, not because they give horses a bad name, but because they damage how we think of horses in our own hearts.
 
Next, I’ll talk about fear in Part Two: Now I’m afraid.
annaprof150Anna 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
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