Q&A with Trainer & Horse Advocate, Anna Blake
How did you come up with the concept for Relaxed and Forward horse training and what exactly does this philosophy entail?
I am a dressage trainer. The authentic foundation of our discipline says that horses should be relaxed and forward and that we shouldn’t substitute one for the other. It’s a tricky balance to find, but it’s best for horses. Along with that, it’s the balance I aspire to have in my life; it’s what I hope to see in riders I work with because it means that we are calmly focused, speaking up, and working for horses in a productive way in the saddle and out. Relaxed and Forward is an affirmative conversation.
I know you’re a proponent of using calming signals. Can you explain what those are and how they work with horses?
I think Calming Signals are the most important aspect of training; they are the language of horses. Historically we’ve made up stories about horses from the vantage point of how humans think. Understanding their language lets us literally hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, as well as their eyes, ears, tail, and every other part of their body. Hasn’t being able to literally communicate with horses always been our dream? Calming Signals is the art of seeing things truly from the horse’s vantage point. They give us a chance to listen and then answer, in their language instead of thinking they should figure out ours. We acknowledge horses by understanding them and respecting their opinions. It’s the platform for negotiating because after all, a partnership requires two voices.
How do you believe your training methods differ from many other methods that are popular today?
Since ancient times, there have been two schools of thought about horse training; one about domination and the other about kindness. My kind of affirmative training isn’t a new discovery, but we humans can always evolve. With the scientific breakthroughs we can update our methods of teaching horses effectively. With the understanding of calming signals and listening with more clarity, we can do a better job of understanding a horse’s nature and needs. Horses just ask one question: “Am I safe?” We need to answer that need before we begin with what we might like.
Do you believe all horses can be open to communication and training, regardless of their history?
So much of my experience has been in rehab . . . and our first stop always has to be to find out if the horse is in pain. Pain is a frequent calming signal message. In an extreme minority of horses, there might be a mental disability. That said, I have never met a horse who wasn’t open and willing to communicate. They are resilient, but we have to get to a method of training that supports horses and stops punishing them.
What are three tips you would give to someone who is new to horses and wanting to learn how to work with their horse in a safe and effective manner?
Only three?? My life’s experience, condensed down . . . okay!
1. Breathe. There is no better cue. Period. Practice exhaling and inhaling thoughtfully. Breathing is a cue to our parasympathetic nervous system to settle, and it does the exact same thing for your horse. Inhales for energy, exhales for calming.
2. Stay safe, never be complacent. Keep a space between you and your horse, be aware of your environment. It’s hard to come back from an injury emotionally, and your first job for your horse is to buy hay. Go slow and be conservative.
3. Just say yes. Aggression destroys trust, but at the same time, you want your horse to be a solid citizen. Find a source of affirmative training; work with a pro, read books, join an online group of supportive people.
I know you’re an author as well as a trainer (I loved your book, Stable Relation!), so can you tell us how writing has helped to further deepen your relationship with horses as well as your understanding of them?
Writing is just another way of learning. When I started my blog, it was to practice my writing skills for Stable Relation (thanks for the nod!) and five years in, I started the book. Now I have ten years of blogging under my belt and a sixth book coming this fall. Writing is something I do away from horses, but I’m sure the consistent practice deepens understanding. Creativity is the heart of both writing and training. Writing for so long, explaining behaviors and training in so many different ways, I think I’ve become a better teacher, speaker, and clinician. My writing has gotten me invited to meet horses around the world, and that’s the best thing of all. More horses.
Want more? Visit Anna’s website to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase books, subscribe for email delivery of her popular blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join her in The Barn, Anna’s online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and much more. Courses and virtual clinics are taught at The Barn School.