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for a horse IMO), and have learned to tolerate human demands and interaction by being outwardly obedient and inwardly withdrawn.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

I have some new art up for sale!

You can see more of my equine and animal art at Free Rein Art Studio, Horse Art Online
or my etsy shop.   Free Rein Art Studio on Etsy

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!