Episode 130: The discomfort of learning new things

“How can I build my horses confidence, help her learn to respect me as her leader…without her being afraid.” A discussion about fear, discomfort, comfort zones, creating maturity in horses, confusion, clarity, energy…and choice.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. In today’s episode, I am answering a question. Let’s dive right in and listen to the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy, my name is Becky. I recently purchased a four-year-old–purchase/rescued a four-year-old mare in October of last year. So October of 2020. She was sold to me as green broke. I don’t like that word broke, but she–I very quickly found out she’s terrified of anything new. Plastic bags on a stick, bouncy balls, even having the rope tossed over her back. We’ve been working on all those things, having her feet done, any–anything new, anything especially around her hind quarter area. I recently, just this last week, was able to contact a couple of her former owners and found out that I am her sixth owner in four years. My question for you is, how can I build her confidence, help her learn to respect me as her leader without her being afraid? Because when I have to add pressure, she–she gets afraid. I’ve experimented with different levels of energy and myself. If I’m too soft it–she blows me off like, whatever, who are you? You know, she doesn’t care. If I–if I have to get too hard and by hard, I don’t mean like mean, it’s just if I really have to up my energy and disengage her hindquarters or, you know, what have you, then she gets scared of that. And when she gets scared, she’ll either freeze or get defensive. So I’m just not sure how to find that balance of helping her learn to find comfort but also help her understand that when I ask her to move or when I ask her to do something, she needs to do that. So any advice would be greatly appreciated. I love your podcast, I’ve learned so much from it and I am open to anything that you might have, any wisdom you might have to share. Thanks so much. Bye.

Stacy Westfall: Thanks for your question, Becky. When I listen to it again, your main question is pretty clearly stated and it is, “how can I build her confidence and help her to learn to respect me as a leader without her being afraid?” As humans, it’s interesting when I think about it, we have a very complicated relationship with the idea of fear. We even have quotes that are something like, “be afraid and do it anyway” or, “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” So it’s interesting when the word afraid or fear pops up because in those moments I often like to play around with the words. So in your question, I would like to exchange the word afraid for the word discomfort. How can I build her confidence and help her learn to respect me as her leader without her being uncomfortable? Doesn’t read quite as well, does it? Without her being uncomfortable, how can I build her confidence and help her to respect me as a leader without her being uncomfortable? It’s interesting when I switched that word out for being afraid to being uncomfortable, it’s like, wait a minute. Isn’t discomfort…hmm…I don’t know. Let’s take it another step. Another thing that you said in your question was, “I’m just not sure how to find the balance of helping her learn to find comfort.” I like that you said that because some piece of you is on to the idea of comfort. Now, the interesting thing is whenever we have one word that we’re, we’re on to kind of like comfort. I want her to be comfortable. It also implies kind of the opposite, which is, like I want to avoid discomfort or I don’t want the, you know, uncomfortable, some of those kind of things. It’s, it’s an interesting concept to play with back and forth. So when I look at fear, you’ve heard me talk in other podcasts that I actually will look at fear and use it to indicate what I might be thinking. So if I look–if I look at a horse and I think I’m not sure I want to mount up on that horse right now because I’m afraid it might bolt and I might fall off then when I listen to that fear, instead of ignoring it and saying toughen up and do it anyway instead of ignoring it, I think, well, do I have a history of this happening in this situation? Is the horse telling me something different? Do I know this horse? Is there no history at all? What is behind that kind of surface idea right there? So when I look at your question and I look at this idea of afraid or comfort or discomfort, I actually like playing around with the idea of a level of discomfort and a level of trust. So instead of looking at comfort and fear, I’m looking at trust and discomfort. Because if I trust, then I do tend to feel more comfortable and if I distrust or I’m unsure than that can be uncomfortable.

Stacy Westfall: So my first assignment for you, Becky, is to play with the different words as you’re out there because it’s going to make a difference. Let me say it in another way. I live in Ohio and I live about an hour from Columbus, which is a pretty good sized city, and I experience a level of discomfort when I drive on the highway down to or in Columbus. Now, it’s interesting because if I say I’m afraid of driving to Columbus or in Columbus, it has a different feeling than if I say that I experience a level of discomfort driving there. And the other interesting thing about that idea is that if I focus on the discomfort, I definitely feel discomfort when I’m driving around there because I can see other people texting while they’re driving. I can see semi-trucks that are swerving. And I’m thinking, oh, my goodness, like you are crossing both lines. Like, I don’t want to be anywhere near you on the road. And so I’ve got a level of discomfort of driving, yet I’m still making the choice to drive and I’ve even got discomfort that seems like it’s, you know, got a fear base that seems like relatively reasonable, like semi-trucks that are swerving and doing erratic things seems like a reasonable fear to have, yet I still get in the car and drive to Columbus. So what that tells me is that a bigger piece of me is focused on the reason while I’m–why I’m driving. So I’m–there’s a discomfort, but there’s more comfort than there is discomfort. So that’s how I’m choosing to drive. So it’s interesting when you start looking around life at the things that we do or the things that our horses do that contain kind of little nuggets of both. When I talk about this with people and horses pretty quickly, one of the first thoughts that people will present is, well, yeah, but you’re choosing to drive to Columbus and this horse isn’t choosing the plastic bag. And it’s true. It’s true that the horse isn’t choosing the plastic bag. And so in a way, you could look at it like the angle would be, I’m doing something unfair to the horse. But I wonder if that’s the most useful thought for a horse that lives in captivity. Because when a lot of times people are comparing horses that are in captivity versus horses that are out in the wild, they want to use a lot of the the rules of the wild, but sort of only like the hand selected rules of the wild. So it’s like, you have to really kind of dig deep into your thoughts about horses in captivity. My horses will–will serve as perfect examples. They have the benefit. They have benefits of being in captivity. They have farriers, they have vets. They have food that is served to them regularly. They have a very high quality of life in many respects that a lot of people would agree with. Then there are other aspects of their life that that people would disagree with. Some people disagree with the amount of work that I put my horses through. And so what’s interesting is to actually slow down and really stop and think about what the end result you want for your horses. Now, you brought up standing for the farrier. So that’s going to show up in–in some of my answers here. So there–there is a person out there who thinks the horses should be fully wild, and fully wild actually involves no farrier. It also involves inconsistent feeding and a lot of other things like no vet and, you know, possible injury from herd mates or from stepping in something like a hole, lameness, flies, predators, searching for food, walking for miles. So there are a lot of things that happen out in the wild that we kind of take care of over here when the horses are in captivity and part of the trade-off, the way that I see it, when I’m–when I’m looking at my horses and teaching them to understand something like a plastic bag, is that part of the trade-off of them getting the benefits of, you know, really consistent feeding and health care and all of this stuff, some of the trade offs is that they learn to live in this what we’re going to label for just purposes of conversation here, an unnatural environment which might involve plastic bags. And the cool thing is that when I teach the horse how to handle the plastic bag, it has a higher quality of life everywhere because the plastic bag was not actually out to kill them, even though initially they may have thought that. So I actually raised their quality of life as I raised their, I’m going to call, it maturity level. Now, it’s interesting if you think about it like a maturity level, because if a horse is truly in the wild and they are walking many miles to water and they are searching for food and they are fighting for food and they are fighting for breeding rights and they have times when they’re nearly starving abd times when they’ve got tons of grass and then times when they’re injured and times when they are sick and times when they’re lame and times when they are covered with flies and there’s no relief and times when they are having issues with other horses, those discomfort–those, those uncomfortable things actually mature a horse in the wild. So they get this level of maturity that comes from what the world, the environment out there, presents them.

Stacy Westfall: Now, my horses, they don’t live in that world, which is probably good for them because I have a lot of little creampuff ponies, which means that they think it’s really bad if they don’t have fly spray on time or dinner on time. And so their version of hardship is nowhere near the actual wild version of hardship. And so it’s a little bit funny to me because in ways there you could compare them to a horse in the wild and say that they’re a little bit spoiled because they they know the good life. And so that’s why sometimes I will teasingly call them little cream puffs. And what’s interesting is if you keep thinking about this even more, is that, in captivity, we have a unique ability to keep a horse immature because they lack the life exposure that would happen out on the plains. And oftentimes they lack the horse exposure, so the access to a herd of, you know, 20 horses or, you know, changing herd number because of like, you know, this band of horses then changes and goes to a different band of horses or one horse leaves this band and goes to another band. There are a lot of things that would happen in the wild that would mature a horse that aren’t happening in captivity. So in captivity, we end up with these horses that are not only not offered some of those natural things, but if you’re not careful there, accidentally limited in horse exposure and life exposure and human exposure because, you know, maybe they don’t get the interaction with humans and that starts to make some interesting horses. Because I would propose that when we’ve got these horses in any version of captivity, that the training is a benefit to them because it offers them a way to learn to think in a mature manner. So the large herd can do that, o if you have a horse that grows up, there are big ranches out west that have very large herds of horses. And even though they’re in captivity, those horses are getting a level of maturity from being in the herd and then they can get a level of maturity from humans training them, and then they can get a level of maturity from having experiences in life. And I think it’s a really interesting way to think about it because then when I go out there and I start teaching my horse something like the plastic bag or to how to behave for the farrier, when I run into those moments that I see discomfort during the learning process, it’s easier for me to realize that that’s what this is. This is a learning process and I recognize that when I’m learning something new, I’m uncomfortable. I remember talking about it in Episode 1 of this podcast, and you’ve heard me talk about it in other episodes. If you’ve gone back and listened to them all, I was very uncomfortable publishing the first podcast and I was uncomfortable for quite a while. And that was a discomfort that I knew how to step into because I know that when I’m learning new things, it’s normal for there to be something uncomfortable about it because I’ve got a lack of practice. What’s interesting is that as a teacher of horses and a teacher of people, I’m also comfortable with my students being uncomfortable. So there are things I’ve said even in this podcast already that I know will make some people uncomfortable when they hear it. And I’m OK that everyone won’t agree with what I say and I’m OK with putting it out there and letting people feel the, the discomfort of what I say because then that gives them a chance to feel something and ask themselves, what am I thinking and what do I believe about, for example, horses in the wild versus horses in captivity and what level of work horses should be required to or asked? Those are things that can cause discomfort for people and as a teacher, I’m okay with that. I allow for that discomfort. And when you go out to work with your horse, it’s interesting, if you start looking at it like this, you could ask yourself this question. Are you looking for comfort during the training or are you looking for the end result that is a horse that is comfortable during an activity like standing still for the farrier? Can you hear how that’s different? So if you’re looking for them to be comfortable as they learn something new, I’m not sure from my life experience how valid that is.

Stacy Westfall: Now, we can stretch the comfort zone in little ways or big ways, and the bigger that stretch is, the more uncomfortable it is. But for me, my experience of life has been that there is a level of discomfort during change. Now, I’m really OK with that if I know that the end result leads to a horse that is comfortable during an activity like the farrier. So the discomfort of the learning has a payoff at the end of it that the horse is now comfortable for the next 20 years of its life when the farrier works on its feet every, let’s just argue, six weeks. So I am enabling this horse to have a long-term, comfortable life during a short-term–short-term amount of discomfort or the horse being uncomfortable in the training process because I see that the end result is a horse that’s comfortable. So these are some of the things you can contemplate when you’re thinking about how to keep your horse accepting the training or–or at a level of discomfort that would be normal, natural. You can see where this gets a little bit complicated and you have to kind of feel your way around in it because here’s the interesting thing: If you go on and watch that YouTube series, Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac, especially if you pick an early episode like, I don’t know, three, four, or five, and you just watch it on mute., If you watch it on mute and then even better, don’t even watch me, just watch the horse’s reactions, and that horse was throwing a lot at me. He was rearing and flinging his head and dragging me out of the screen. And he was throwing a lot of big, puffy movement around or big not even puffy. I mean, he’s dragging me around. And you can see when you watch it that a lot of people could have a lot of different opinions on what was going on there. So it’s very important to me that you look at the whole process because inside of there, inside of that, and one of the reasons I really wanted to do a long series where I followed a horse for a year was because if you could see past some of the discomfort or some of the questions he was asking in very big, bold ways, if you could see past that, I could see, as the trainer, I could see the breakthroughs that were happening. That’s what made it possible for me to know when to release and how much pressure I could continue to add. And that’s why if you watch the whole series, you can see a continuous positive track of a horse that’s getting more and more comfortable, more and more relaxed, more confident in the conversation that he was having with me. But I think it would be interesting for you to watch it with some of the question that you asked here in your mind.

Stacy Westfall: One thing that’s kind of interesting about horses is that they do remind me a lot of my own kids, meaning that even though I was able to keep things reasonably the same for all three of my kids, they were close in age, they were still so different. And I see that same thing that goes on with the horses, which means that when I’m working with a horse and I’m thinking about stretching the comfort zone or I’m thinking about training them when I’m doing that, it’s very interesting to allow for the idea that they are individuals. So I just took my horses last weekend to a horse show and I took all three of them. Now, it was a reining show and I was planning on showing Willow. I was up in the air about whether or not I would show Gabby and Presto was going along just for the experience. And what is so interesting is to look at Presto’s experience of going to a horse show and just being there and the amount of discomfort that change caused him put him way up into this higher stress zone, where Willow, even at her second show, wasn’t as stressed as Presto was. And yet I look at Willow now after she’s gone to many traveling trips and things, and she looks like when she stands in the hallway, she looks like super quiet. Been there, done that, totally comfortable. I even had other people that were saying, wow, she just looks so at home here. And it’s really interesting, especially if you just jump back to a different YouTube series that I did in 2019 with the Trail to the World Show. And I showed a lot of video footage of Willow whinnying and whinnying and whinnying at the trailer and just being very insecure about the traveling to the shows. And it’s so fun for me to see how much she has matured because of the consistent theme in my training program of stretching the comfort zone. And I think it would be interesting for you to, again, think about what your belief system is around stretching a comfort zone–that could be with you, that could be when you look at other people in life, and that can be with horses. Because the theme for this is going to be that there is, there are a lot of questions here that are about the rider’s mind. When I’m listening to your question, for example, another thing that you brought up is the idea that when you have to add pressure, she gets afraid. And when I look at that sentence, I think, what if instead of afraid there, what if we think, when you add pressure, she reacts? Not exactly like react, I’d rather have respond because that’s like the end goal is that I add pressure, she responds, which implies more of a thinking where react tends to imply a little bit more of that, like, you know, flight or fight or afraid and that kind of stuff.

Stacy Westfall: But what if instead of saying she gets afraid, what if we just say she reacts to me? That’s even a little bit different than afraid because it leaves a little bit more room, because maybe when she feels pressure, maybe when she reacts, maybe that’s the way that she asks a question. That is actually very similar to what was going on in the Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac YouTube series. A lot of the questions that Jac would ask me were very big and they were–they looked a lot more like reactions. That was his like, OK, what are you going to do with this? And, and he would ask a very big question, but I could definitely have put it in the category of a reaction. But what about this? What if she thinks that when you add a certain level of pressure, what if that is her response? What if somewhere along the lines she took somebody’s release of pressure in that moment as, oh, this is what they want me to do when the pressure goes to here and they do this, I do this and there I go? What if there’s a response built into there? So as you’re watching the horse and you watch her and you do something where it feels like you add pressure and it feels like she gets afraid, see if you could look at that from a few different angles so that you break free of some of the words like adding pressure. That can be a triggering phrase for people, or afraid can be a triggering phrase. So it’s like, hmm, what if I do this? How does she react? Oh, is that a response or is that a reaction? Is she thinking? Is she asking a question? So as you get those curious questions coming up, let’s see if that shifts some things in the way that you’re showing up there. Sometimes when I listen to these questions, I’ve said it before, I have to kind of make up an image in my mind, like a little movie of what could be happening there. And when I hear you say that you’ve experimented with different energy levels and you mentioned too soft or too hard–it’s kind of interesting when I think about people experimenting with different energy levels because I think sometimes when people think about different energy levels, there are a bunch of things going on there. There’s like your energy level, but there’s also a thought that goes behind that energy level and there’s also a clarity of the cue system there.nSo in your example, you said that sometimes when you are too soft, you have the impression that she’s thinking, “whatever, who are you?” And a lot of times when I see something where a rider looks like they’re trying to be very soft, a lot of times what I see is a lack of clarity. So let’s just say that we’re sending a horse forward using a stick and string. So sometimes, sometimes when people get really soft, they get unclear. And so there’s a minimum level that you can be clear at. And if you go below that, it starts to feel a little wishy-washy. And it’s interesting when things are unclear because they can be unclear because the energy level is low or they can be unclear because if I don’t speak Spanish and you speak to me in Spanish, it doesn’t matter how clear you are, I don’t speak Spanish. So there can be a lack of training or they can be a lack of clarity. So if there’s a lack of the language, then whispering is not going to help. But also yelling won’t help either if they don’t understand. So if you’re being very soft and the horse doesn’t understand, that’s a possibility. That’s when I think to myself, OK, I’m being soft. Am I being clear? And so for me, a lot of times if the horse isn’t moving, then that means that I reach out and I start making a gentle touch, touch, touch. So there’s some kind of touching. Now, the horse can also be thinking, I don’t see what you have to offer. You know, you said you were too soft and you thought she was saying, “whatever, who are you?” To me, there are a lot of translations. It can be, I don’t understand. It can be, I don’t see what you have to offer. It can be, you’re not coming across as clear. And if you’re not coming across as clear, a lot of times the horses will–will read like, you don’t seem very sure about that. I think I have a better idea than you do. I’m really clear that the idea would be leave. Now, you seem to think there’s something else, but you’re not quite clear. And then a lot of insecure horses will actually be looking for clarity because they’re looking for a horse or a leader in this case that can stand up when things are kind of hard. And if you seem wishy-washy or too soft in your words, then it’s very interesting to try to peel back all the different layers of what I just said, because you do need to be able to unpack, at minimum, is it that they don’t understand or is it that they’re–that they’re choosing that you’re not being a clear enough leader there? And for me, that always means I slow it down and I go back to basics and I go, OK, moving forward, if you don’t understand moving forward, I’m going to tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. I’m going to use this consistent rhythm. You’re going to take a step. I’m going to release and basically, I’m going like back way down to whatever the minimum is for the example that we’re using here. Because I go back down, I’m like, hey, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you don’t understand. And that makes me go slow, but not necessarily soft. It makes me go clear, but not necessarily soft. Now, sometimes when people try to go soft, they do it from a feeling of being they feel bad for tapping the horse, so they try to be soft coming from a feeling of I feel bad touching the horse with the stick and string. And if you think of it like that, you can understand where that feeling of too soft is. Actually, there’s almost a guilt that’s associated with that. And that can often be that that lack of clarity that the horse is like, I don’t know what that is, but that’s not very–that’s like a lack of clarity because you’ve got this guilty feeling about doing it. So you’re basically conflicted about tapping. Can you hear how that would cause a problem? Because you’re tapping, but you’re conflicted because you feel guilty and that sends a weird energy to the horse.

Stacy Westfall: Now, you mentioned that you’ve also tried you know, I just wrote down the words, “too hard, up your energy, disengage the hindquarters,” and that she will freeze or get defensive sometimes. I thought that was a really interesting observation because the freeze or get defensive…what we typically have on the reactions with horses are flight, fight, or freeze. And so it was really kind of interesting to me that the most common one with, with horses is flight. And it was interesting to me that you observed freeze or get defensive. And so I want to make sure that we clarify what freeze looks like. So for freezing, it’s a–there’s an interesting thing that happens when you’re training the horses, especially when you’re doing the desensitizing, say, with the plastic bag. When you’re desensitizing a horse to something like a stick and string or a plastic bag, you’re basically teaching the horse to stand still under a certain amount of emotional pressure. So a lot of horses, you wave a bag around and they–that’s emotional pressure because it’s not even actually touching them yet and they’re like, got to go. I’m out of here. They run away. So that’s–it’s applying this emotional pressure. Noisy bag and the horse leaves in flight because that’s their reaction. Well, what we’re doing a lot of times when we’re desensitizing a horse is we’re saying to the horse, hey, horse, this bag is going to move a little. You’re going to turn and look at it and that bag is going to go away. And you’re going to start to get the impression, horse, that you have some sort of control over the bag, like your power of looking makes it go away, something to that effect. That’s one method that I use. And so the horse starts to feel like empowered by the fact that when the bag, when they look at the bag, that it–it magically goes away. And then as that builds their–as their confidence builds, it doesn’t take, you know, you can see it doesn’t take a huge leap to think that if the horse starts to think, I’m confident when I look at it, it goes away. I’m confident when I look at it, you know, I know it got closer, but it hasn’t eaten me yet. There’s all these different variations until it’s touching them and they still feel like there’s that confidence there that started with, I looked at it and it went away. And so as we’re walking up through that desensitizing phase, we’re kind of teaching the horse not to leave when we apply pressure. And at first it’s an emotional pressure, like we’re shaking the bag and then when they look at the bag, we take it away. So first, it’s an emotional pressure. But as they understand the rules of the game, typically we get to the point where we’re touching the horse with it and they’re like, oh, look, I don’t even have to run away then. Cool. This is awesome. Because there’s a big release, a confidence that comes from knowing that they can stand and be rubbed with this scary thing because they’re like, oh, wow, what I once thought was going to eat me, I’m totally I’ve conquered it. So this would go back to like if you’ve ever been in a situation where maybe public speaking felt like it was going to be a death sentence when you, before you did it and then you went and you did it, and then you walked away and you were like, I did that. I did that big, scary thing. I’m confident. I love giving that confidence to horses. That’s what I’m saying I’m seeing in Willow now when I go to the horse shows. She walks in, she used to look at it like a public speaking thing where she was terrified. Now she walks in she’s like, not a problem. I’ve got this under control. And when we’re teaching the horse that, it’s interesting in the plastic bag example, it’s interesting because the horse is actually learning to not move when we’re applying a certain amount of pressure. So then when we turn around and ask that horse to move, it’s almost like we’ve taught the horse to not move. And then we have to go back and teach the horse to move.

Stacy Westfall: So a lot of times that might be the first time that I actually go to tap, tap, tap and I’m actually touching the horse to ask her to move. To me, that’s a really important spot where I want to not necessarily go tap, tap, tap, whack because I don’t actually want my horse to think that I suddenly go and I suddenly stop because sudden go and stop actually rides a lot like bucking if you’re starting one that’s really young or one that you don’t know. So I like when they kind of ask me the question slowly about going because I know I can handle riding that. But taken to the extreme, that also causes me problems because now I’m tap, tap, tapping and my horse doesn’t move and if I tap, tap, tap and the horse doesn’t move and I quit because I think I’m doing something wrong, I can actually teach the horse not to move. Now, this is different than a horse freezing because in my example, which is fairly common, the horses like exploring the options of, hey, you just were doing this to desensitize me. Now, I’m not quite sure if moving is a requirement or not. So that tap, tap, tapping is a question. And I see that a lot more often than I do a full on freeze. Full on freezing tends to look different because there is this look like a shutdown. There’s this very shut down, withdrawn, or like it’s either that or it’s got this, like this look that they could pop, but they’re standing still. So their eyes have this really this intense look. And it’s, it’s kind of an interesting thing because what we ultimately want to be able to do is have the horse stand and have the horse move. And so a lot of times I practice the moving and the standing. And as I started to say it a minute ago, when the horse is standing and they might be thinking that this could be a desensitizing pressure, I will tap for a lot longer than a lot of other people will. As long as it looks slightly annoying, then I know I’ve got enough pressure. I want slightly annoying until the horse makes a move, because, to me, I think that when I’m being slightly annoying and they’re not moving their feet, I know that I’m not shutting them down. I know that I’m just being slightly annoying. And there’s a good chance they’re going to explore it within the next three or four minutes. A lot of times people won’t sit and tap, tap, tap, tap, tap long enough for some of these slower thinkers to think. And then what happens is the person goes, tap, tap, tap, tap, whack. And then what happens is the horses, some of them start to be like, I’m not quite clear on what the answer is, but I got to go because the whack is about to come. So then you start to train a little bit more of a frozen and reactive back and forth, because the horse actually when I’m looking at a lot of these horses, the horse wasn’t actually clear whether you were desensitizing at that moment or whether you were asking it to go. And it honestly thought you were desensitizing and then suddenly it got whacked. And you can see how that would then shake their, their comfort. They would shake–they’re like, oh, my goodness. Like, I thought I was doing the right thing, but clearly, it was wrong. And now I’m not sure. Do I stand the next time that the bags there? So I’m careful in how I go back and forth because confused…when a horse is confused, they often look scared because I’m pretty sure that when I’m confused, in certain situations, there is a look that looks a lot like afraid there. So a lot of times when you think about changing your energy level, you have to double-check in with is the horse clear on what the correct answer would be? Is there a clarity in the way that I’m asking? And then when I do shift my level of energy, how am I doing that? So to me, a lot of times my energy level stays about the same. I’m clear that I want the horse to move. And that feeling that radiates out from my torso as I’m asking the horse to move at a one, that energy level in my body, in my torso is the same when my hand is using the stick and string at a two, two, two, two, two, two, two, two, three, three, three, three, three, three, three, three. I won’t drive you crazy because I’ll do that for like two minutes straight. But my energy level in my body is actually about the same, even though the tapping level in my arm and hand might be actually going up a little bit. If I’m tapping at a two and I noticed after 30 seconds that the horse is actually relaxing into it like a massage, then I might move up to a three because I’m looking to find just the edge of a little bit of discomfort, which can be like an ear twitching or a tail swishing, even though they’re not moving. So this is my own personal way to know whether or not the horse knows the answer, because I’m not just popping them off into a reaction by going from a three, three, three, three to a nine, which maybe there are places in training where that’s appropriate, but if I’m not sure that the horse is absolutely clear, I go back to this more clear way. But the interesting thing is my energy stays there.

Stacy Westfall: What I often see with people is that they will take their energy–and let’s use the same example of getting a horse to move. They will often take their energy and they’ll say, I want the horse to move. So I’m doing groundwork. So I’m tapping the ground and I’m tapping the ground at a one, one, one. Nothing’s happening. Two, two, two on the ground and they’ll get to where they’re hitting the ground with like a seven or eight and they’ve never touched the horse. And the horse is standing there like, not quite sure, but I think we’re desensitizing, so here I am. I mean, they haven’t really said anything any different. It’s getting a little bit bigger. Maybe they want me to stand this pressure. Then what happens a lot of times is the first time they actually touch the horse they’ve been hitting the ground for two and a half minutes and they’re up to like hitting the ground at like a level seven. And then they just move eight inches over and then they hit the horse. Well, the first time the horse gets touched with the string, it’s at a level seven and the horse is like, yikes. Like, well, I thought I was being desensitized, but now I got to get away from here. So can you see how there is a—there’s a, there’s a difference in the cue system versus the energy level, and the energy level is even different in my torso versus hitting the ground. So a lot of times when I’m–I like the version where I am like I actually like the version where I’m tapping on the horse, tapping at a one, one, one or a two, two, two, because that–when I’m down in the one and two range, it is similar to a desensitizing. And the cool thing about it being somewhat similar to a desensitizing is they’re not overreacting and it gives them a moment to think, well, that’s interesting. Are they wanting me to leave or are they wanting me to stay? You know, it’s a little bit weird that they’re being so rhythmic with it and that they haven’t stopped yet. Maybe, maybe I should think about moving. And if you’re, if you’re tapping just at the level of discomfort, but you’re not actually sending them off into a reaction, then they have time to think through, geez, this could be desensitizing, but normally they’ve stopped by now. And I think they’re using a rhythm that is kind of weird. And, you know, it’s getting a little bit annoying. And I’ve tried shaking my head and that didn’t make it go away. And they’re still tapping and they’re still tapping. And I’m going to try moving my head. Oh, I moved my head to the right and it went away. Interesting. And then you begin tapping again and they start to be able to explore the pattern because you didn’t rush them through it. And it’s interesting when you think about it. When I watch people a lot of times when they don’t feel like enough is happening, they go to rush the horse through. You have to be careful because the thought that you were having was, this isn’t happening fast enough. So you decide to make it happen faster. Be careful, because when you go to make things happen faster, a lot of times that takes a skilled person to know how to handle the level of energy that you just called up in that horse. And if you don’t know how to handle the level of energy that you just called up in the horse, that’s when you get into these situations where now the horse is like, ping! They’ve kind of flown off into this thing and you’re like, whoa, what do I do with that much energy? I suggest that you figure out how to have the lower-level conversation in smaller things because then we can be sure the horse knows about moving. And it’s a slightly different example if you’ve got a horse that’s moving off kind of quickly. We have to put different things out there. But you’ve got to find ways that you can be absolutely sure the horse knows the answer before you just look at it like a raising your energy is going to help because a lot of times if the horse doesn’t speak the language, so if the horse doesn’t speak French and you just start adding a lot of energy, it’s a lot like yelling at somebody in French and they don’t speak the language and they just kind of want to leave because you’re scary. So watch your mind and watch your thoughts and the emotions that are happening there. I love that you said right at the beginning that you had the awareness of not liking the word “broke.” And I get it because it is a, it is a strange word. And it’s good that you’re aware that you’re reacting to the word “broke.” So when you said you bought a horse and they said it was green broke, you know, you could say it’s a green horse, which just means it doesn’t have that much training. But it’s good for you to know that you’re reacting to the word broke because you can kind of be on to yourself. You used the word “mean” later on when you were talking about raising pressure and you kind of clarified that that wasn’t what you’re doing. You also use the word “terrified” when you were talking about her learning different things. And these are all things that you want to make sure you slow down because if you put the word terrified on her, you’re going to show up differently than if you think she’s uncomfortable. And I’m going to put one more thought out there, because you put out the idea that she had six owners in four years. And my question to you would be, if we were on the phone, what are you making that mean? She had six owners in four years. What are you making that mean? What does that bring up for you? Does that bring up an emotion? Are you processing that as just useful information or are you making it mean that it’s a sad thing that she’s had that many owners because it’s going to change how you show up? I very often see riders who switch between their thoughts really quickly while they’re working with the horse. So it is not uncommon for me to watch somebody who’s working with their horse and I watch them and they’re being unclear in the way that they’re asking. And then they get really firm, which is the first time that they actually look clear. But it also came with a lot of energy and then they feel really guilty because they use all of that energy and they can do all three of those in 30 seconds. Unclear, very firm, guilt about being firm. And when those cycles are happening in the rider’s mind and body, it is a very unclear–and I’m going to even put out there–possibly an unpleasant experience for the horse. Because that lack of clarity in what you’re asking for, how you’re doing it, and whether you feel guilty about what you’re doing, all of that shows up in your body. And older horses that understand humans, they kind of, a lot of them make me laugh because they know how to sort out some of the things that we’re doing that are, that are less intentional.

Stacy Westfall: I had Willow at a show a couple of years ago, and it was the first time that I was showing Gabby at the end the same thing. And I remember that was the first moment of awareness that I had that Willow was actually being a babysitter. And the way that happened for me is that when I’m showing a horse, I have some, let’s just call it like a nervous tic or something, like, like habits that I have that maybe I’ll, like, shift my saddle around. And, and so I’ve got this–let’s use that as an example. So let’s say I’m nervous and I go in and somewhere during the ride I’m going to, like, reposition my saddle because I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit out of balance. But what was interesting to me is that I rode Gabby in a class and I shifted the saddle and Gabby had a reaction to it. And that was the first time I was aware I shifted the saddle. I was only aware of my habit because Gabby was like, whoa, what does this mean? Because Gabby was on high alert at the show that made me be like, oh, what did she just react to? Oh, she just reacted to be shifting my saddle. Why did I shift my saddle? Interesting. I think I might have just shifted my saddle out of, like, a nervous habit kind of a thing. Now, what was really interesting, very next class, go in, come around the same corner, I shifted the saddle. I was aware of it right after I did it because I felt it in my body and I felt myself shift the saddle. And I saw Willow’s ear flick and nothing else changed. And that is the beginning of a horse that’s becoming a babysitter in that she’s able to see, oh, yep. Been there, done that. Stacy has some nervous tics when she’s in the show pen and those you just ignore. That didn’t mean anything. Now, that leg moving like that, that means lope off. Here we go. Can you hear how there’s a confidence that Willow has developed? Not because I’m perfect, but because through experience she has learned how to sort out some of those things. And that is what I think a lot of times people experience an older horse that’s more attuned to picking through human emotions and reactions like what Willow is beginning to demonstrate and they, they’re used to a horse that knows how to do that. And then when they’re around a horse like Gabby, who’s like, what does it mean? They, they start thinking they’ve done something wrong. So that’s another interesting thing to contemplate. One last thing that you said in your message was this. You said you wanted to know how to help her understand that when I ask her to move or to do something, she needs to do that. And it was kind of interesting because when I was writing that down, when I was listening to that, my parentheses said, not really. And so I thought, well, that’s an interesting reaction to the sentence. She needs to do that. Not really. And my recommendation there is it’s kind of like I hold on loosely. And that sounds like terrible advice, right? When when you’re thinking about riding a horse or training a horse, like hold on loosely to the idea that she needs to do that. Let me unpack it just a little bit so I don’t sound completely crazy here. It sounds like great advice when you hear the saying, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. But what’s really interesting, if you read between the lines there, is that the horse has a choice. And for the most part, they really do, at least in my world, they absolutely do. And so I look at it like this. I start small and I start teaching them little things. It’s a lot like teaching a child to read or teaching a child to identify colors. And when you’re doing that, I remember teaching my kids, you repeat the small lessons over and over again until they’re so confident you can ask those questions fast. What color is this? What sound does this letter make? And you repeat it until they really know the answers. And the kids have access to other answers. They’re playing a game with you. They’re participating on–on a certain level because they want to. But you also repeat until they know the answers and, and they’re repeating them consistently. So it’s interesting that when I think about training horses, the horses always have access to options that you won’t like. And I think sometimes riders forget that when they ask a horse to move forward and they use a very standard move forward cue that the horse actually has many, many options available. Sometimes when I’m dealing with a rider and I can tell that they have fear, sometimes I’m aware that it’s because they’re pretending that the horse doesn’t have any other options or they’re hoping that the horse doesn’t have any options. I think sometimes the rider can feel fear because they actually somewhere in their body, remember that the horse actually has a lot of other options that they can choose. And so when we look at it, we–we have to think, well, geez, if that’s true, how can we even ride a horse? If–if the horse always has these other options, how can we ever learn to trust their decisions? And I think it’s really interesting to think, how do I trust the other drivers on the road while I drive to Columbus? Basically, I stay aware. I stay alert. I watch for the signs that they might be having issues. And I also know that life comes with risks. And so when I’m teaching the horses, I teach with a lot of consistency. I do teeny-tiny steps. I create patterns that the horses can see. I make sure that they really know the answers because I do the patterns over and over again. I measure how many times they get the answers right, how many times they get the answers wrong, how much responsibility I want to give them in certain situations, especially life-threatening ones, which is pretty much a lot of the times when you’re around horses. I want to see them practice it until they enjoy playing the game. They see the benefit of playing the game. It’s such an interesting way to look at it. And I love that you’re open to suggestions. I hope you found some nuggets in here that were really helpful to you. You might also enjoy listening to Season 3, which is the horse’s mind and Season 4, which is the horse’s body. It will give you even more precise things for like teaching certain movements and understanding what’s going on in the horse’s body and mind. And those were like Episodes 22 through Episode 49. Thanks again to everyone who’s listening and I’ll talk to you in the next episode.

Announcer: If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac https://youtu.be/hYKM0IsHvp8

Podcast Episode 23: Your Horse Has Questions


  1. Pam on May 13, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    Absolutely loved this podcast Brought so many things into a helpful perspective. Thank you.

  2. Teri on May 13, 2021 at 11:18 am

    WOW…truly amazing advice and unbelievable insight into the horse and owners mind. I could relate to your every word. Much gratitude from me and my horse!

  3. Celia Simon on May 12, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Thanks so much for marching us through the horse’s train of thought and the rider’s train of thought.
    It wall makes so much more sense that way.
    I have been working with horses since 1972 and I have learned something new with every horse.
    I continue to learn new perspectives every day.
    Thank you, Stacy!

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