Monday, November 16, 2015

Does Your Horse Pay You Compliments?

Do They Even Like you??  

We can't ever be sure of what a horse is thinking since we aren't inside their minds... but the more time we spend with them the more we can guess!  Horse people LOVE guessing what their horse is thinking. (Me included!!)  Sometimes it veers toward the misbehaving side (common in parenting styles as well).  This is when someone views behavior and makes an assumption that the behavior is negative.  It could be a look, or a gesture or body posture or a response.  What I find interesting is how many times a negative emotion or intent is put on it.  The pendulum can swing the other way too.  A person can see no wrong in spite of what others may see as pretty blatant misbehavior or bad intent.    

As always the goal is to find a balance in what we see and the assumption we put on it.  I don't have any special mind reading skills so I am sorry I can't convey what your horse really is thinking... but the other day I ~~~ think~~~ my horse gave me a compliment.  :)  Yes, I am pretty sure he did.  

This is a gelding I got almost a year ago.  He came to me well trained, well manner and healthy.  But I was new to him and he was new to me.  We needed some time.  My horse is in his teens so conceivably he may have changed hands multiple times by now.  The last few years were tough years for horses since the economy and horse markets took some big hits.  Many people had to downsize. Horses require a lot of upkeep added to high hay and feed costs meant more than just a little shuffling around of horses.  Anyways he is mine now and I really like him.  I have sensed a reserve in him....not an all out shutting down that sometimes happens to horses that are used hard and have a temperament that leans toward the horse developing a 'thick skin' (so un-natural for a horse IMO), and have learned to tolerate human demands and interaction by being outwardly obedient and inwardly withdrawn.  They do what is asked of them, but there is a dullness about it.  Okay- I may be making some of my own assumptions and interpretations of horse behavior but since this is my blog I can.  Now back to the 'compliment'.  

(I hope this isn't anti-climatic with all this build-up!!)   My big lug of a gelding walked up to me..... lowered his head....and let out a big sigh.  :)  Yup... that was the compliment!    :)  My heart did a little pitter patter because I felt like I received some concrete evidence that this big ol' guy was actually starting to like me- and not just tolerate me.  

Agree?  Or am I putting my own wishes on him?  
Has your horse complimented you?  Tell me in the comments how.  I would love to hear.  

Happy trails!  

Sue Steiner

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You can see more of my equine and animal art at Free Rein Art Studio, Horse Art Online
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Sunday, November 8, 2015

De-escalating, Fear and Horses

De-escalating, Fear & Horses

Horses and humans are emotional, reactive beings.  The challenge in riding is to bring out the best in each other. 

 So how is this done?  I admit I am not an expert.  I am just a horse owner and have enjoyed horses and riding my whole life.  I find my time with them to be rewarding and healthy.  It keeps me active, refreshed and grounds me in a way that nothing else does.  I am not a competitive rider, nor have I ever wanted to be.  I like riding for relaxation and exercise. 
I am becoming somewhat of an ‘expert’ on de-escalating highly charged situations due to my line of work and interest in conflict-resolution.  Anyone who spends time around horses either eventually develops this skill or gets hurt.  You can develop the skill and STILL get hurt.  Getting hurt and horses are pretty much a given.  Which brings in the fear factor. 
 I have never been a dare-devil person.  I do not crave an adrenaline rush.  I am middle-aged and riding is the most athletic thing I do.  Statistically speaking, I probably engage in ‘risky’ behavior just by riding at my age.  I do find less and less people my age who still ride.  I know I am not ready to give it up, which takes me back to the idea of de-escalating. 

What does it mean to de-escalate a situation?  The definition of de-escalate is ‘to decrease in intensity, magnitude, etc.’ example: to de-escalate a war.
It seems fitting to apply de-escalating techniques to highly reactive horses…and people.  So how is that done? 

  • First and probably most important is for you to be in control of your behavior and attitude.  I know, that is sometimes very hard.  But you can’t think clearly or help another calm down if you can’t do that for yourself.  It takes practice and will get easier as you develop that skill.   Learning to self-regulate is a skill that will carry over into so many other areas of your life.
  • Do not assign ‘blame’ to the situation.  You can go over the events that led up to this at another time but now is not the time.  It is what it is and start there.  No judgment.  The horse (or your co-worker) is feeling what they are feeling.  That is where they are, so don’t hold on to bias or your list of ‘should haves’ into the situation.  You do not know the whole story.  Try to see it from their perspective.  Listen.  Observe.  Let them express what they are feeling. 
  • Be mindful of your own body language.  Horses are experts at body language and knowing someone’s inner experience.  Have good intentions and good thoughts toward the person (or horse).  Yes, it does make a difference.  Don’t crowd an angry person or horse.  Give them space.  Let the horse move its feet if it needs to.  I recently read a de-escalating technique for autistic kids in which the adult is advised to lower themselves to below the child’s eye level so not to intimidate them.  Obviously you need to keep yourself safe with your horse so don’t crouch on the ground…. But you can loosen your grip on the reins or lead rope and stay in a safe zone while the horse is allowed to lower his head, breathe and move his feet.  Angry people need to not feel threatened so do not to throw gasoline onto their fire with your anger.
  •  Frightened people and horses in highly charged situations are what I call ‘a live wire’.  Trauma (and instincts in a horse) cause them to think differently than they would do when they do not feel threatened.  Now is NOT the time to show them who is boss.  Step back, breathe, and talk slowly and calmly.  Do not give long instructions – they just can’t process that in the state of mind they are in.  Use fewer words and slow your body down.  Keep instructions simple and straightforward.
  • As the horse or person is given space, try to access where they are coming from.  What are they feeling?  Right now you need to focus on what they need… balanced with what is needed to keep everyone safe.  Soften yourself and see if they don’t soften as well.  Be observant.  You have to be vigilant about your environment but calm in your mannerisms and voice.  Do not engage in a fight.  Do not get pulled into an argument.  This is a biggie. Now is not the time to prove you are right.  Feel confident in your actions but do not raise your voice or add fuel to their anger.  You can have a firm stand on something—no, horse or angry person, you will NOT run over me.  Redirect but do not make it into a fight.  Redirect.  Redirect. Redirect. 
  •  Set limits and state consequences clearly and concisely.  The fewer words the better.  Keep voice calm, slow and clear.  Do not raise your voice.  State what you need to establish boundaries.  De-escalating is NOT about letting someone get their way…. It is about taking a dangerous or out of control situation and making it safe and manageable.  Limits and consequences are a fact of life and without them there is anarchy.  Keep anger out of YOUR voice and body language but be firm. 
  •  Choose carefully what you stand firm on.  Give a choice on something negotiable as you stand firm on the non-negotiable action. 
  • Do not rush… allow the person or horse time to process.  Their brain is functioning in flight or fight mode so they likely cannot process words as quickly.  Allow time for them to digest this information.  

·         Even with the best intentions and de-escalating skills some situations continue to spin out of control.  Think safety and get help.  Think this part out beforehand if at all possible.  If you are having issues with your horse (or another person) have a backup person close that can call for help.   Do not do this alone if at all possible.  Let someone know where you are and what you are doing and a way to signal help.  Ideally having other people close by (who understand de-escalating techniques as well) who can assist or get help is the best if at all possible. 

In the saddle, I physically practice lowering my center of gravity and getting myself grounded on the horse.  Sally Swift in her book, Centered Riding described the sensation as a helium balloon rising and falling in your body.  Practice what that feels like when riding and observe your horse’s reaction to the difference.  As my horse begins to get nervous or anxious I can usually calm him down by paying attention to my own breathing (was I holding my breath?  Tightening my muscles?) And making myself heavy in the saddle with soft muscles.  I find keeping an awareness of my body and his, noticing where my tension is and how tense he is has a correlation.   Another possibility is maybe I check out a bit while riding and he sensed my inattention?  I begin to ride more proactively (assertively) but not aggressively.  I stay mindful of tension in my own body.  My tension is picked up by him so I need to keep my body relaxed but alert.  I actively ride with cues and direction and with soft muscles and a deep seat.  I release after he responds to my cues.  I bring his attention back to me and I stay in control of (my body,) behavior and attitude.  (Referring back to #1 de-escalating tip.) I do not get angry.  I stay on top of my own emotions.  If the situation is unraveling faster than I feel safe, I get off.  I also keep in mind that I can work thru situations with my horse and we can both overcome obstacles so I balance between staying safe (baling) and pushing myself and my horse out of our comfort zone.  I pay attention to myself, my horse and our environment and use good judgment.  At least that is always the plan! 

Stay safe, have fun and ride on! 


De-escalating tips adapted from Top 10 De-escalating Tips.
This blog post was inspired in part by an article I read here:

To see Sue’s equine and animal art go to 

As always, if you’ve enjoyed this blog post, I always appreciate you sharing it.  Thank you!  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

New Perspectives in Horse Behavior

A Difference in Perspective on Horse Behavior

I hit a bit of a bump with my new gelding a few months ago.  I've been riding him out on trails around my home by himself all spring and summer but hit a snag when some 'behaviors' began to surface.  Horseback riders are familiar with behavior issues.  Part of the attraction and challenge of riding is the horse has an opinion in being ridden too!  Since horses can't talk they let their actions speak for them.  That means we have to interpret the behaviors.  Ahhh... another added dimension to riding!  

Someone asked me the other day if horses like to be ridden.  She was coming over to my place to ride my Arab mare Abbey (the chestnut in the above photo) and I could tell her truthfully that Abbey did like it.  I knew Abbey would enjoy the attention and interaction when my friend came over to ride because my friend is a beginner rider and Abbey loves beginner riders!  I told my friend, as long as she did not ask Abbey to anything overly strenuous, was gentle on her mouth (I have new riders use a rope halter on her because she has such a soft mouth) and didn't kick her, Abbey would enjoy being ridden very much.  Abbey loves to putz around the riding ring and enjoys shy or timid riders.  She loves people.  She becomes very maternal and sweet as a lamb.  Other horses would hate this or become frustrated!  

My personal goal when riding is to find ways to connect with my horse and for them to enjoy our rides as much as I do.  

This brings me back to my gelding.  We were not enjoying our rides because we were out of sync.  Rather than becoming more relaxed as we got to know each other he was getting more tense and anxious.  I admit to engaging in a bit of a power struggle but thankfully saw this was not a lack of 'obedience' kind of thing and dropped that course of action.  I like to keep an eye out for the more subtle discomfort issues when things crop up especially since this horse by nature is calm with a quiet temperament and not a naturally nervous, hyper horse.  He has some get-up and go, but that is different than nerves.  He's a Tennesse Walker and has the breed's tolerant, docile temperament.  I checked tack, saddle fit, bridle and bit.  He had been showing signs of not liking the bit (pulling, tossing head etc.) so tried a couple I had on hand.  I got a better response, but he wasn't happy yet.  I bought an Imus comfort gaiting bit from Phoenix Rising Saddles.   Win!  He immediately relaxed, dropped his head and was happier.   

The next, equally helpful change I made was to do something completely unexpected (to him) on our rides out.  What I was finding is he got more hot and nervous the more we were out- rather than settling in as we rode on he was becoming more anxious.  So I decided to ride out and find spots to just stop and hang out!  I dismounted, let him graze and just sat and enjoyed the scenery.  My guess is that my walker was used to being ridden at a good speed out on the trail and just kept gaiting away for long stretches of time.  Nothing wrong with that, except I run out of trail too fast if all I do is gait!  I usually ride for only an hour to 2 at a time which I think might of felt short to him.  He has extensive trail experience which is evident.  I have plans to purchase a nicer trailer this coming year and begin to haul him out to group trail rides etc. but we aren't there yet.  I suspect many trail TW are ridden in a way that doesn't quite match my environment (crossing roads with traffic, riding on neighboring farms where I have limited access to areas etc.) so we have to adapt to not having miles of trails before us!  Cimmeron wasn't sure what was expected of him if  it wasn't to just be a smooth gaiting machine for miles on end!  Stopping to graze and smell the roses worked wonders for him.  He did NOT become disobedient but rather sweet and relaxed.  Stopping became an okay thing to do.  I feel like we made a major step in bonding time too!  He appeared to enjoy our riding time as I did one of HIS favorite activities.  Hmm, a change in perspective!  It isn't all about me.  The horse is part of the equation.  

I had needed Cimmeron to be okay with walking (preferably on a loose rein) sometimes on our trail rides.  The glitch I was running into is he got upset if he was asked to walk.  He would stop and stand and walk for a few strides, but very quickly wanted to move out again.  I have overcome 'jigging' on the trail with my quarter horse years ago by doing circles, bending or going the opposite way whenever he picked up the next gait from what I ask of him, but those same corrections did NOT work with Cimmeron.  He became more confused and upset.  Sometimes trail horses are only ridden straight forward and 'fast'.  They know go and whoa but less about flexing, bending or circling.  My guess is this was Cimmeron's background.  He does NOT like arena riding either.  Thinks going around in circles is for the birds!!  We are doing more of bending, flexing kinds of things the longer we ride together because I like riding horses that bend :) and it's good for him physically, but really my main goal was I wanted him to not always expect to work so hard!  He could be a bit of a slacker and that was okay.  I love his gait and find he is a super fun horse but like to see him walk when I need him to and not just from exhaustion.  I want him to stay sound and healthy for a long time.  

It was a good move- step back from the 'argument' with my horse and think of what might be going on from his perspective.  Found a couple 'comfort' issues and corrected them.  Found a difference in perspective and enlightened Cimmeron to a good work/pleasure balance!  I ride for pleasure and relaxation so want my horses to derive pleasure and relaxation from it too!  Win-win for us both!  

happy trails!  


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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Horse You Need vs. The Horse You Want

The Saga of the Horse You Need vs the Horse You Want..... every horse person's story.....

Every horse person I know has a problem distinguishing the horse they NEED from the horse they WANT.  Not everyone stays confused about their horse needs vs wants but I am pretty sure most, if not all, horse person has struggled with this to a certain extent.

I think of myself as a pretty reasonable person.  Normally my wants and needs are not too terribly far apart. There are only two areas in which I could use some work in distinguishing my wants from my needs.  Art supplies are one such area.  I have just about every kind of art supply you could imagine just in case the inspiration hits and I must create.  I have everything on hand to create a multitude of  things from mosaics (with a collection of broken china, tile, tea cups and colored glass) to every kind of paint and drawing instrument known to man.  When I say I work in multiple mediums I truly do.  So in regards to art supplies the judgement mechanism of wants vs needs is a bit off but I have strategies in place now.   I have banned myself from Pat Catan's until further notice!  When I get the urge to create I go to my studio and fiddle with what I have already instead of shopping.  My scrapbooking friend who keeps trying to recruit me to be a scrapper is now on notice that she is not allowed to entice me into any more modes of artistic expression!  I knew when I went with her to a scrapbooking store closeout and spent almost $100.00 when I don't even scrapbook that this is an area where I must be disciplined.  Scrapbooking, in my book, is a deep dark money pit.  Those gadgets and pretty paper call to me but I recognize I do not NEED those things to create.

So let's take that same process and apply it to horses.  I know its hard to find horses that are trained or capable of performing in all the different ways in which horses are ridden and driven.  This problem creates a dilemma for the horse person.  Just as you can not find one horse in all your favorite coat colors or breeds you must decide on what is most important.  You narrow down your list to the characteristics you most desire in a horse.   You must learn to prioritize and compromise on your wants.  I make mental lists.  This is what I am looking for in my next horse..... blah blah blah.   I need this, this and that.  Simple.  So you begin your search.  Its so fun searching ads for horses, isn't it?  You know all the right places to go and all the right ways to 'read between' the lines to really know what the seller is saying.  Searching is half the fun.  Search and imagining what the horse will be like in your barn.  Ahhh, yes.  The fantasy of horse shopping and the reality of what you buy can be very different.  Horses play an active part in this too because how they act and ride from one person to another can vary greatly because horses are MUCH better at sizing us up than we are at sizing them up as suitable riding partners for us.

Sometimes our wants and needs are a bit mixed up!  

I have been on both ends of the buying fence-- buying a horse that the previous owner 'trash' talked and went so far as to cuss at the horse in front of us while we were there to try her out.  She turned out to be the very BEST horse.  How her owner missed her very endearing qualities is beyond me.  I have also had horses that I bought because they were beautiful but not suited for me or my situation.  Like the horse that was scared of her own shadow with me and would spooked at a leaf or freak out over mud or God forbid, a puddle, but rode beautifully for someone else.  Yeah, it kind of hurt my ego but ya know horses do that!

Horses and people change over time too.  Kids become better riders and need a more challenging mount.  Horses get spoiled from poor handling and become pushy and need manners  instill in them so not to get someone hurt.  Or probably one of the most frustrating situations is when a horse is in pain, but being a horse, becomes stoic about the pain but develops other behaviors- like bucking or being cinchy.  People and horses get older and need more steady mounts or less challenging activities.   Its hard to have the clear vision to see what you need in a horse - especially when you are attached to the one you have that may not be one well suited to you.

I know this blog post would be so much better if I could just wrap this all up in a few neat bullet point suggestions for you but it is never, ever that simple with horses.  I guess I do have a couple bullet list points.

Soft Eyes by Sue Steiner

  • safety should always come first
  • when a previously well-mannered horse begins acting out, look for pain, feed or turn-out issues which may explain the behavior
  • Don't be too proud to ask for qualified help- find a good horse trainer, it will be worth it to pay them instead of hospital bills or a horse you can't ride
  • let your horse be a horse by feeding them as their digestive systems functions and allow them time to be a part of a herd- nothing is sadder than seeing a shut down horse that is kept stalled and 'bubble-wrapped' because that is what the owner wants
A side note to the shut down horse comment:  I vividly remember during my boarding barn owner days several years ago, one of my boarders had a western pleasure horse that had every conceivable gadget and wardrobe accessory but was never allowed to even just MOVE as a horse would naturally move.  He was either stalled, on solitary turn out in his fancy blankets and colorful sleazy coverings (per owner's insistence) or being ridden in what looked like to every other non WP horse person as sheer torture in a WP jog or that crazy lame looking 4 beat canter (hear WP is getting better-- oh I hope so!!).  That horse was beyond tolerant.  He tolerated it better than I did and I only had to look and see the horse every day!  In reality though he probably had shut down a long time ago because what choice did he have?   He was a quiet QH and had known no other life.  The owners love him-- I am sure of that.  Just their wants took priority over the horse's needs.  I think we are all guilty of that to some extent, unfortunately.  

If you liked this blog and agree I will thank you now for sharing with your friends.  :)  If you disagree leave a comment... I am always interested in hearing other perspectives.  

Enough ranting.  Thanks for following and happy trails to you!  

Original artwork on this blog is copyrighted and mine but available for purchase at -Free Rein Art Studio  Thank you!   Sue Steiner