When I found out that Anna Blake was coming to Australia to do some clinics, and not only that, but coming within a 3 hour drive of me, I had to go.
Anna is the genius of horse communication, learning and using the horse’s own language – calming signals. She is also a dressage trainer and works in horse rescue. She leaves at Infinity Farm in the USA and runs The Barn, an online group where calming signals are learned and horse’s lives are made better. You can find out more about her here.
My wonderful mum travelled 1000km to come with me, both to support me as I brought Jack along, and to do some learning of her own.
Leading up to the clinic I was doing some pretty high level worrying. We would have to drive two and a half hours there and back. Jack would need to sleep in a different environment in his portacot, and be a quiet baby while we listened in at the clinic, and this was our first time away from my husband.
And then, disaster struck, my husband got a cold the weekend before. We went into hyper vigilant cold prevention mode – Alex wore a face mask while he was at home, we had the Glen-20 going and I even had my friend drop around her essential oils and diffuser (I am not yet fully convinced as to whether the effect of essential oils is not just placebo). Then I became ill, but thankfully only very mildly (Alex was in the throes of a severe form of man flu – is there any other kind?). And miraculously little Jack did not catch the cold at all – praise the Lord!
So we set off, arrived at our destination without too much trouble, and set ourselves up in the barn loft. The venue was a beautiful private property, with the most beautiful old style home you have ever seen, and grassy paddocks.
The next morning we met Anna Blake herself and she couldn’t have been more welcoming to me and Jack. As she held Jack’s hand she looked me in the eye and made a point of saying that my baby was welcome, that he would not be a disruption if he cried, and that if any of the other participants had a problem with him they would have to answer to her. I can’t express how grateful I am that she did this.
These were my top take-home messages from the clinic, the experience of taking a baby along I have written down afterwards if you’re interested.
- Calming signals are things horses do to either tell others to calm down or to soothe themselves, they include:
- Looking away
- Narrowing eyes (turning inwards, shutting down)
- Different ear signs
- Stretching down, rubbing nose on leg, sniffing ground
- Eating (often done to calm themselves)
- Licking, chewing, yawning, champing
- The only way horses have to tell us something is wrong is with their behaviour
- Don’t interrupt them when they show calming signals – give them a chance to say something
- Notice the “volume” of the calming signals – are they relaxed or frantic? Make sure you look at them in context
- If you are asking your horse to do something and they give a calming signal, STOP and listen, then ask again
- A horse’s senses are so much better than ours, we can ask with a whisper
- I cannot stop anxiety – it is part of life – but I can develop a training plan to increase my horse’s confidence
- Less correction, more direction
- Aim for curiosity in your horse – saying YES to them does this, then redirect with another question if it wasn’t quite what you wanted
- There is nothing to be gained by punishing a horse
- Use your breath – it is the most powerful calming cue we have
- Connect to your horse with meditative slow and deep breathing
- Inhale for energy, exhale for calming
- When riding:
- Rhythm is everything – keep your body in rhythm with your horse
- Be present in your body
- You must teach yourself to breathe
- When doing something new have lots of rest breaks to allow your horse to think
The day started off well with Anna giving a talk in the barn about what calming signals were. Jack coped well and napped in his pram. Later in the morning we went out to the paddocks to halter the horses and watch what they were telling us with their body language. Jack started to come a bit undone at this point and it was difficult to settle him. Mum and I went back to the barn and I had a tiny meltdown, feeling like we shouldn’t have come. Mum asked if I wanted to go home but we had come this far and what we were learning was really fantastic, how could I just give up?
In the afternoon a thunderstorm had us running back inside and Anna talked to us some more and demonstrated some of the principles of affirmative training while riding. I really enjoyed this and Jack was able to nap in his portacot upstairs in the loft. When the storm had ended Tracy, the clinic host, recorded a podcast episode with Anna and we were able to join in asking questions. Check it out here, it was really great.
By the end of the day I was really glad we had come and stayed, despite how hard it felt.
The next day we went home early as the wet weather had set in so standing out in the open watching the riding lessons wasn’t really feasible with Jack. That was ok, as the lessons we had learnt in just the one day were invaluable.
What I learnt about parenting and horsing from going to the clinic was that things will be hard. There isn’t any other way to look at it. It will be hard to ride regularly, it will be hard to attend events such as shows and clinics and trail rides. But in spite of the difficulty it is still worth doing these things. It is worth the effort to pursue my passion and I’m glad I did this weekend.