Enough with the Bliss-Ninny Platitudes!

Your horse is escalating. His prance is coming apart into a full-blown Flamenco dance with a furious stomp to his hind hooves. It’s audible; you’re on pavement in front of an indoor arena. His front hooves alternately pop the ground and swim in the air, as he tosses his head, jerking side to side, with his poll so tight that his mane stands straight up, then down, then up–matching his changes in altitude.

For what it’s worth, he has been at this same show the last two years running and he was perfect. So you brace. No bliss-ninny platitudes about breathing and positive reinforcement; this is a disaster.

A crowd is starting to stare in the way that people can’t take their eyes off a train wreck. Your friend, who has had horses as long as you have, says through a clenched jaw, “Can’t you do something?” It’s not like you haven’t been trying, so you pantomime offering her the lead rope. She isn’t crazy enough to take it. Your horse’s snit continues and now it’s as if you were fishing for trout and hooked a Great White.

Like all good wrecks, time slows down. You’ve seen mothers whose kids are howling and kicking out a tantrum in a grocery store aisle that have your look on their face. Then your horse lands a bit closer to you, and for an instant you get a look at his eye, or more notably, the white all around his eye. That’s when you get it–your horse is toddler-hysterical. Maybe he isn’t being disobedient, maybe he’s terrified. It’s a valuable perception but he’s flying on the end of the lead line like a kite in a ground blizzard. You’re probably really squinting by now; it’s gone on for ninety seconds.

Consider your options. You would like to whisper to him, but he’d never hear you above the roar in his ears. Should you go nuts and attack him with a whip and show him you’re alpha? Whack him in the face a few times; use that whip with the clever name. Back him up till he hits a wall and intimidate him in a quivering, terrified pile. Eventually, he shuts down in overwhelm and you win because you watch horsemanship videos. (Grocery store moms learn this fast–picking a fight with a hysterical toddler is never a good idea.)

Option two: Pretend you’ve never seen this horse before in your life. You could shrivel up from embarrassment, let go of the rope, and make a run for your truck in the lot before anyone recognizes you. After all, the horse is nuts and truth be told, you’re scared, too. Don’t try this. Some do-gooder always takes down the license plate number.

Option three: You’re a Dressage Queen. And you’ve read the fine print, past the competition rules, and you understand the actual intent and beauty of dressage; the lesson masters have taught for centuries. In dressage we believe that forward is the answer. We know that the best way to get a horse’s attention is by asking for transitions. And it’s time to help your horse.

Your horse seems unreachable. He can’t hear you breathe, yell, or anything else and is probably past any rational response. Breathe anyway. Do it for you.

He really needs a reward for something but it has to be a truthful exchange, so find a tiny thing to ask for. Here’s the tricky part–you need to distract him from his fit for an instant. There’s no telling what will work, so be cautious and creative and ad lib; you might shake the rope differently, or maybe bark a sound, or stomp your own foot, but give him a small startle so that you break the chaos of his fear and catch his eye.

That’s the instant to slack your energy and say Good Boy! You just reminded him you can help. You might need to repeat it, but go lighter and not louder. He doesn’t enjoy fear. He’s begging for solace, so give him a path to peace and reward. If you can, ask him to walk on. Whether it’s a tiny step or a huge jump, keep breathing and let him cover ground. Moving forward is where he’ll find his breath, too. (You’re staying alert, right?)

Now for the transitions-to-attention part. A transition is much more than a change of gait; it’s anything your horse isn’t doing now. If you managed to get him walking, ask for a turn, and good boy. Then a few longer steps, good boy, now shorter steps, and good boy. Keep it simple. On the ground, or under saddle, if he’s slow or doesn’t give the perfect answer, no nit-picking. If you’re looking to return to your usual sweet conversation/work with your horse, you have to accept him where he’s at. Fighting his behavior when he’s stuck doesn’t give him a way out. Less correction, more direction. You have to go into his hole with him and lead him out. That’s why they call it leadership.

Then let the transition-cycle work: Cue to connect with him, let him answer, and then reward his response. Politely ask for a bit more, reward that connection again. Perfect or not, now he starts to feel better about things and he tries a bit more. Reward his bigger effort, continue the cycle, and before you know it, it’s all hearts and flowers again.

It’s genuine horse communication when he follows your feet—the real natural horsemanship blends with the old-fashioned dressage principles. Positive training works; it’s the difference between partnership and dominance; the difference between putting the horse first or having your own tantrum.

The irritating thing about bliss-ninny platitudes that sound inane in the middle of a wreck–is that they work anyway.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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