Episode 131- Painful thoughts that hold us back with our horses


The way we think about things created a feeling that shows up in our body and our horses are aware of it. This is why it is so important to take a look at your thinking. One place to start is by separating the facts from the story.
Then look at each phrase of your story and identify the emotion you feel.
“One of our own horses is having a hard time recently” (sad/guilty)
“For some reason she wants to spook at everything” (powerless)
She just reverts all back and I have to start all over again (inadequate)
Tonight was a very hard night (despair)
Sometimes when you look at your story from a different perspective you can make new decisions on how you want to proceed. Thoughts will occur but you have the power to decide what to do with them.


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 this episode, I’m answering a question that in one way is very specific, but in another way, it’s something that I’m willing to bet many of us have grappled with. I know I have. Let’s dive right into the question.

Caller: Hi, Stacy, this is Roxanne. I have recently started feeling like a complete failure. I am trying to start my training business. After years of riding horses and just doing my own thing, I’ve decided to branch out and actually share my passion with the world and help more horses and more people. However, one of our own horses is having a hard time lately, for some reason. She just wants to spook everything, she’s seven years old. I’ve been working with her–we’ve had her for three years. I’ve been working with her on desensitizing a lot and it seems like it’s going great and then one day something just spooks her and she just reverts all back and I have to start all over again. And even tonight was just a very hard night. And so I feel like she’s starting to show me that I can’t ever be a true trainer because I can’t get her past this and I don’t know where I’m lacking and why I’m screwing up so bad. And I don’t know if there’s possibly something in her diet like her blood work that I have to check that maybe needs to help her find something to help her on that? I don’t know. I just feel at a complete loss and any insight would just be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Stacy, for the podcast and thank you for always talking to us.

Stacy Westfall: Thank you for asking your question, Roxanne. It takes a lot of bravery to be that honest and vulnerable in a public setting like this. I’ve contemplated which order and where to start and how to proceed, and as I was doing that, I realized I was doing it because I had the thought that I want to be kind to you. And then I realized that maybe I have a belief underneath there that says something like, if you’re going to be kind, you need to be really soft about how you deliver this. And that was causing me this dance of where to start and how to proceed. It is kind of interesting because I know myself well enough to know that I tend to go for, like, honest and direct. So it’s interesting that I was having this little battle in my own head that I was aware of. So I’m going to go ahead and take a deep breath, and be honest and direct. And I want you to pause for just a moment and think about this: I just confessed that I feel uncomfortable on some level with being really direct right now, yet I’m choosing to step into that discomfort and own it. So the first question I have for you is, can you see the possibility that you might be making the problem more painful with the way that you’re thinking about it? Let’s look at the facts that you gave me. Facts that we could prove in a court of law or that we could observe easily from an outside perspective. Facts that everyone would agree with. Fact, you have a horse that is seven years old. Fact, you bought the horse three years ago. Fact, the horse has spooked. Now, I’m going to go with this, I’m going to–I’m going to keep this one in the lineup, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch because does it fit the qualifications? Would everyone in the world agree that your horse spooked? Or do you think there might be a person out there that would say something like, you think that’s a spook? You should see…fill in the blank. But for fun, we’re going to keep it as a fact. If you wanted to make it really factual, then what you could actually do is make it really specific. Like I was riding my horse down my driveway and my horse turned around and headed home at a trot. So you would have to really break down the idea of spook, which spook is kind of a little bit of a more loaded word and has a lot of different variations, depending on who’s describing it. So you’d have to make it really factual. So let’s look at these one more time. You have a horse that’s seven years old. You bought the horse three years ago. The horse has spooked. Without all the story that goes around it, the facts don’t hurt. So one more time, facts don’t hurt. It’s the thoughts and the stories that we surround them with that creates the feelings that you’re experiencing. So let’s look at some of the thoughts or the story that you left in this message. I’m going to say a phrase that you said, and then I’m going to go ahead and pause and see the emotion that it would bring up in me. You’re not here, so I can’t ask you each phrase and ask what emotion that brings up. So this might be different for you. If any of you want to play along with this, what you could do is after I read the phrase, you could hit pause and stop and really think about the phrase for a minute and then see what your answer is for the emotion. Before you hit play and find out what I said, it’s really important that you figure out what these phrases are meaning to you, how they feel, because, spoiler alert, your horse is feeling whatever is being created by this thought. So here goes. One of your statements recently started feeling like a complete failure. When I say that phrase, I feel awful. I’m trying to start my training business. When I put that one on, I feel worried. One of our own horses is having a hard time recently. Sad was the first one that came up for me, but guilty was kind of like a side note, but it kind of would depend on what the rest of the story was. So I kind of got–I would have to sit with that one inside my own story to figure it out. So sometimes you’ll have like kind of almost a dual thing going on, like sad guilt. And so you’ll have to figure out because it’s going to come from the rest of your story that you’re telling yourself about that. Here’s another phrase. For some reason, she wants to spook it everything. Powerless. That one makes me feel powerless. She just reverts back and I have to start all over again. That one for me is inadequate. And then this final one, she started to show me that I can’t ever be a true trainer because I can’t get her past this. This one, I went ahead and wrote down three different ones that came up, depending on the angle that I kind of looked at this through, and the three words I came up with were exposed, frightened, and helpless. So let’s take a deep breath again and review the facts. The fact is, you have a horse that is seven years old, you bought the horse three years ago, and the horse has spooked. Again, that one’s almost not a fact, but we’re going to roll with it. So, again, without all the story, the facts don’t really hurt.

Stacy Westfall: If I was going to start looking at this set of thoughts that you’ve given thought by thought, the one that I would actually start with is the one, she’s starting to show me that I can’t ever be a true trainer because I can’t get her past this. And what I would do if I was journaling? Which I do. And if I saw that thought that I’d written down and I thought, who did that? Who said that? I would start by owning it and I would change it to, I don’t think I ever can be, because then that gives me the ownership over it. And then I would take a look at what I was making that mean. Then I would say, do I actually believe that? Do I believe this about like what does it mean to truly be a trainer? And what does it feel like if you’re a trainer and things are happening like this? And does that mean that you’re not a trainer? So kind of put it all out there on paper so you can look at it and examine it and see if you really believe that thought that popped up in your head because some of the questions you could ask would be, what is the appropriate timeline for this horse? What is the correct path for this horse? To better illustrate this, I want to share some excerpts of a true-life story that involves a horse, a rider, and a struggle. I don’t want to give away the ending. So when I read it, it’s going to be a little bit choppy and then I will link to it. I’ll tell you where it’s from at the end. And then I will also link to it in the show notes so that you can read the full blown story. But this is what I want to read for an excerpt. And when I’m reading this, everyone listening, put yourself in this situation. What does this feel like and what does this mean? As you’re going along you’ll be able to see how many different things you can make this mean. Here goes.

Stacy Westfall: We didn’t have an arena, so I’d ride him up and down the road until he got scared and wanted to go home. I was a teenager at the time and started to wonder, what fun is this? I had a trainer and started bringing him to her place, but I was anxious about taking him anywhere because he was so unpredictable. Was he going to freak out or hurt himself? We then made the tough decision to leave him with this trainer and get him sold. After we dropped him off at my trainer’s place, she called less than a week later. She couldn’t believe I’d been walking and trotting under saddle. He wouldn’t even let her on him. She told us that if people couldn’t ride him, he couldn’t be sold. Little by little, she was able to sit on him. I kept riding him too and he bucked me off a few times. I dislocated my jaw in one fall. Then while we were trying to break him to the spur, I was foolish and popped him one. He launched me and that’s when I broke two vertebrae. Later in the fall, he broke his jaw in a stable accident and it mangled his face. To this day, he’s either asleep or getting into trouble. Thank goodness there was a veterinarian at the barn doing dental work on some other horses who was able to sedate him and give him antibiotics right away. I sat with him all night and took him to surgery the next day. It was horrifying. After the operation, it was like he had braces. They wrapped the pins with wires around the molars and across the front teeth, covering them with acrylic so the wires didn’t cut through his gums. I’m sure it was similar to what happened when I got my own braces. An incredible amount of pressure and pain. It was at least three weeks before he was able to pull grass out of the ground. Going through all this had left him exhausted from fear. I could see he was brokenhearted and that broke my own heart. (I’m going to skip a section and then continue on. Here’s later in the story.) So much later I rode him on a Sunday afternoon and there was not a soul around during our ride. After we had finished, I figured I hadn’t been observed and I walked back to the barn almost in tears. I was so frustrated and certain that I was just never going to crack into the top tiers of the sport. I was done at that point and I decided I would do something else, a career that at the end of the day was rewarding. At the stable, I was approached by a professional. The potential we see. All of a sudden, the fact that I was broke and scoring a 64% didn’t matter. I knew our path wasn’t going to be a straight shot, but I knew this was the right path for me. I was that kid who couldn’t afford, who couldn’t do, who couldn’t have. That’s where you’re going to find the next top star. What is the best advice you can give someone like that? I’m sure they’re looking for something like work hard or seize opportunities. The best advice I can give, however, is to learn how to succeed at failing. Learn the way to get back on your feet. If you don’t fail, well, you’re not going to make it very far.

Stacy Westfall: Ooo! I was just reading excerpts from an article in Dressage Today about Laura Graves and her horse Verdades, or Diddy. Laura and Diddy won medals in the Olympic Games, the World Equestrian Games, and their Dressage World Cup. It is an amazing story about her buying this horse when she was 14 years old and he was six months old and their incredible journey all the way to the Olympics that, as you can hear, was not a straight, smooth shot. Can you imagine all the possible thoughts and feelings that she could have had anywhere along the way? And it’s not a problem if you have them. It’s a problem if you make them a problem. So here’s what I have to offer you. Here are some of my thoughts about the situation that you’re in. Your thought, I can’t ever be a true trainer, is blocking you from seeing the amazing things that you’re already doing. Just by calling in and leaving this message, you demonstrated that you’re willing to have difficult conversations. If this horse was owned by a paying client I have no doubt that you could call them up and say, here’s what I’ve done, and explain the training. Here’s what’s happening, and explain a recent spooking incident. And you could say, I’m not totally sure why this is happening because that’s just you stating where you’re at. Maybe you want to use the word lacking. Maybe you don’t. But you just say I’m I don’t know where this is, why this is happening. And then you would feel the power of what else you said in here, which is I have some ideas. Maybe a vet, maybe blood work. If you embraced the conversation without making it mean that you’re a failure, it might actually sound really factual instead of so painful. So when I look at this on another level and I go to the four square model and I think what we’ve been talking about is the rider’s mind. Now researchers say that we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. It is totally fine to have 60,000 thoughts and a whole bunch of them are going to be not so useful. The best thing to do is recognize you don’t have to believe all of the thoughts that go through your mind. So if being a true trainer means getting rid of all the negative thoughts, then I’m not anywhere close to that yet. Just this morning, I turned Willow out in a green grass pasture and I pulled the halter off. And as it came off over her first ear, she did one of those head twist things because she knows how the halter works. and she popped her head out and wheeled around and ran away. And my first thought was, that was terrible. And then I was really angry at myself because I didn’t see it coming, because somehow I should have seen it coming, even though it hasn’t happened, I should have prevented it. And I could totally feel myself beginning to spiral. And I was able to take another deep breath and be aware that I’m going to have other opportunities to work on this, that this one moment is not an indicator of who I am or who she is or exactly where our training is. It’s a snapshot. I could even retell the story that she hasn’t been turned out on the grass for a while and she was so excited because she was. But, so it was a piece of it that I wasn’t even letting myself think of because I was just thinking that was terrible and instantly just went to being angry at myself for having not prevented it. So just that awareness of understanding that my brain instantly offered me that thought that it was terrible and that I started to run with it. And then I’m like, wait a minute. You know, in the big scheme of things, I definitely want to watch and make sure this isn’t becoming a pattern, but it’s not a pattern. That’s why it caught me off guard here. Getting really aware of this thought feeling loop is important because especially when you’re working with horses, it shows up in your body. And so when I put myself in a situation like what you’re describing with a spooking horse–I’ve been there a lot of times–when you are worried about a spooking horse, then what happens is you start to show up differently. And I’m going to guess that with you at–also attaching, like, your career to this, that it’s going to show up in your body even more. What happens for me is if I am having those thoughts, like worrying about spooking horses, for me, I know I’m going to get tense. I’m going to breathe more shallow. I’m going to be looking for what they might spook at. So essentially, like I’m tensing up and preparing, which you could easily argue is a part of the problem. So this is why that dance of the rider’s mind in the rider’s body is important to start breaking apart. Because when you can be in the spot where you can say the horse might spook, but you own it in a way in your mind that you’re not making that such a big deal, it’s not a problem for you because you know how to ride it and you know what you’re going to do. And you’re not making it mean that you’re going to lose your career when you can get to that spot. Then for me when I’m there, then I can ride with an openness that actually is easier to ride the horse with. And if the horse spooks, I show up without all that tension in my body and I can answer it not coming from that…I’m going to call it overly prepared, but really, it’s like a tense, shallow, possibly even playing a role in causing it kind of a way. That’s the piece of the dance you need to watch right now.

Stacy Westfall: Now, if we want to just stop and talk just about your horse, the way the four square model works is we’ve also got the horse’s kind of side of this thing where there’s the horse’s mind and the horse’s body. So maybe it is starting in your horse’s mind. Maybe the horse is legitimately surprised by things. Maybe the horse is daydreaming and not really paying that much attention and then is like, oh, I oh! Like it kind of like wakes up and it has that. Maybe it’s holding its breath the whole time. And these are the things that will help you get little clues as to why it’s happening. There was a subtle hint that maybe this was a more recent thing as opposed to an ongoing thing. So you want to be able to analyze that, put down all the things about what it means for you, and start looking at all of these little breadcrumbs, all these little clues and–and say it could be starting in the horse’s mind. It could be spooking for many different reasons. It can also be a question. I believe I’ve trained some horses that were trying to figure out the connection of their action and my reaction. And it’s really subtle, but it can be a question. So if you look at something like rearing, if you’ve got a rider that’s afraid of a horse rearing, then that means when the horse gets closer to rearing, when they start getting in that kind of a frame in their body, then something shifts inside the rider because the rider is, maybe we’ll say, afraid. So when they feel that fear, they ride different. They get shallow breathing. They don’t make the same movements with their hands and their legs. And what happens is the horse feels the change in the rider’s body and then some of them start being like, oh, interesting. I wonder what that was connected to. And they’ll start playing around trying to figure out what that connection is. And sometimes that’s just an honest question. You know, they’re just experimenting with, why does this trigger? And so sometimes it’s real subtle with spooky horses, but sometimes you can learn to feel the difference between like a legitimate spook and kind of like a half-hearted spook where they’re like almost trying to trigger something in the rider. Like, what are you going to do with this? It’s like a little bit of a question. I’m not saying this is the case for you. I’m just saying one of the ways that it gets a lot easier to diagnose this is if you aren’t really sensitive about the subject. If you can feel your sensitivity to the spooking or the rearing or what you might be making it mean, as you can break that apart, then you can interrupt that cycle and you can see whether it’s coming across more as a question from the horse or whether the horse is legitimately scared or scared and then doesn’t know how to recover because there are a lot of different ways this can go down. And then it was interesting that you mentioned the horse’s body. You mentioned, you know, checking blood work. And I think it’s worth checking their bodies because I’ve seen horses that had pain issues like a small OCD bone lesion or–or, you know, ulcers or different pain things like that, where there’s like a low level of pain. And sometimes if it’s like a, like a bone lesion thing, they’re actually fine at one level of work but at a different level of work, it shows up differently. And so some of these physical things can cause inconsistent behavior. So it’s very interesting. One thing that would be worth considering would be ulcers. And I’ve talked a lot about Presto and spooking in earlier episodes of the podcast. And for me, it kind of maxed out when I took a trip to Maine and I hauled him for about three weeks, so we were hopping around to different places. And so over a three-week period, I hauled him a lot. And during that trip and when I got home, I noticed that he had some classic ulcer kind of signs that he had never had before. So sensitivity when brushing his belly and cinching him up and that kind of stuff. And it was interesting because I started seeing those signs and I went ahead and started feeding a supplement called Succeed, and I saw a huge change. Now, what was really interesting is these kind of, I’m going to call it these classic ulcer symptoms, went away. But some of the more subtle things, including the spooky part of him, reduced dramatically. So then what that does is I’m looking in hindsight and it makes me wonder if Presto has had stomach issues maybe his whole life, because if he always had something going on, let’s say, remember, he was taken it off his mom at three days old and he was raised on, you know, the bucket milk and stuff. So let’s just say for argument’s sake, that he had something going on from very early on, all the way up through. What’s interesting is that he would have been just kind of living with it. So it wouldn’t necessarily have the symptoms that a sudden onset of ulcers would have. So this also means that I had always experienced him the way that he was. And so if a little bit insecure and a little bit spooky was part of who I just thought he was it didn’t seem out of character. Now when I took him on the longer road trip and he got more irritated that’s when I knew there was something different. But it’s still really interesting to think that when I treated him for the digestive issues, he got a lot more…a lot less spooky, just a lot more quiet, overall quiet. Now, he’s still more insecure than a horse like Gabby, because I think that is part of the temperament that’s there. But for sure do I think that supplements can help some of these horses to have some of these issues that don’t have what I’m going to call classic symptoms? I think so. I kept him on the supplement for about 90 days, and then I took him off. And for a few weeks he seemed like he was fine. And I thought, well, maybe it was just whatever. And then I started to see teeny tiny signs. The ones that I would have missed before that I thought were just kind of normal. Now, I was like hyper-aware of them. I saw those little tiny signs coming back, put him right back on the supplement, all those little signs went away. So for I don’t know how long, but as far as I can see right now, Presto’s going to be living on the supplement for a while. So can you see how easy it would be for me to beat myself up about missing something with Presto? I could go back and tell that story in a way that I was just a horrible horse owner and I could label myself a lot of really negative things. And if I thought it was going to be useful somehow, maybe it would even be worth doing it, but I can’t see any use in it because I choose to believe that I was doing and I am doing the best that I can. And I don’t see the upside in beating myself up now. I think sometimes the thought can be, well, if I if I’m really angry at myself for missing that with Presto, I’ll be more attuned to, you know, watching for it in another horse. Or I can just be like, wow, I didn’t know that was a thing. I’m going to watch for subtle signs and other horses just because I want to, not because I’m trying to like be mean to myself and punish myself for a past, “mistake.” I know I was doing the best I could every step of the way. And then all of a sudden one day I learned more. So with that, I have one final question for you. What if nothing has gone wrong here? I don’t know your path. I don’t know your horse’s path, but I do know my path hasn’t been straight. Laura’s article says that her path with Diddy wasn’t straight. What if nothing’s gone wrong here? Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again 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:

Laura Graves: The Making of Diddy. The story Stacy was reading from:


  1. CHRISTINE CHILDRESS on May 19, 2021 at 10:57 am

    Disregard the supplement question – I listened again and caught the name – THANKS!!

  2. Christine E on May 19, 2021 at 10:45 am

    Stacy, thank you for taking the time to answer this listener’s question! I get where she is at – I *so* get it. I’ve been there myself back and forth multiple times over the years of owning my current gelding – 19 years and counting at this point, and he *still* throws me for loops. Time and time again I find myself doubting my own worth and abilities as a horsewoman and beating myself up over it until I was black, blue, and even broken at times. Sometimes even doubting my own worth completely! All this to say, I also wholeheartedly, hands-in-the-air, agree with everything you said in your reply to her.

    The truth is, we are always learning. When we know better, we do better. But hard as it may be, we aren’t born full of all the “smarts” we’ll ever need at birth. We learn by doing, and we learn a lot especially by making mistakes, or to re-frame that, by trying something one way and realizing it doesn’t work given the current situation/circumstance. Reframing how we look at the facts is VITAL, and something I need to remind myself of constantly (some of us are just wired more that way than others – like the horses who are naturally/by birth more “anxious”). If I try something and it doesn’t work, I need to ask myself why, and if I don’t know why, then perhaps I can just start with the facts: I did X, and X happened, but I desire X to happen instead, so I can now try Y and Z and see if I get a different result, etc… and the best fact of all – each thing I try will teach me something and help me grow and become an even more capable horsewoman than I presently am!

    Thank you, Stacy, and thank you to the brave listener for asking her question – it’s a lesson we’re likely all in need of, especially if we work around horses!

    Hugs and blessings to you all,

    • Stacy Westfall on June 23, 2021 at 6:54 am

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment. It’s so meaningful that your comment even has other listener comments?
      This is the stuff that makes podcasting worth it!
      So glad to be part of your journey?

  3. CHRIS CHILDRESS on May 19, 2021 at 10:39 am

    LOVE your podcasts!!! Can you share the name of the supplement used on Presto please

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