Anticipation or Adaptation?


I’ve been noticing that as humans we distinguish between planning to do something, and actually doing it. I’ve also noticed that we spend large amounts of time on the former and sometimes zero on the latter.

Horses don’t make that distinction. They are either doing something or not. So when we are riding, if we are kinda sorta thinking about perhaps sometime maybe someday trotting, and our horse trots? Technically, the horse just got the correct answer. We can celebrate how smart, willing and tuned in they are.

Usually what happens is we get frustrated, pull on the reins and holler “My horse is anticipating me!”

As if this is a bad thing.

Really what is happening is two fold: we have either (knowingly or unknowingly) repeated a pattern and the horse is following it, or we spent so much time planning before asking that the horse just went ahead and did it. As I see it, this is great. Wonderful even. We have chosen to get to know a creature who, by some miracle, not only appears to be uber talented at reading us but is willing to go along with our plan.


Think about it: if you knew what your co-workers or friends wanted to do; if it was clear as day and was being telegraphed every second and you heard and felt it, would you want to go along with their every plan?

Horses do this. All the time. They are hardwired to get along, to be as peaceful as they can be about it, and to look for ways to work within the flow of what is happening at any given moment.

I think most of us would agree that horses are really good at connecting. They are also Masters of Patterns. If you show them something the same way often enough, they will start to rely on and trust the pattern. It’s part of their evolutionary makeup: knowing the route to get to water or food, or a shady spot on a hot and blistering day was how they survived in their environment. It’s how they still survive, even though their roaming area is usually much smaller than their predecessors. And they have room service (i.e. humans).

Many years ago, a horse’s roaming area was vast. I wasn’t there when horses weren’t any bigger than Great Danes, but my guess is many of the same things that happened then, happen now. Mountains don’t get up and walk away. Rivers may dry up, but given enough rain, they will flow in roughly the same area. Grassy plains stretch for hundreds of miles and though subject to wildfire or drought, it was rare that it happened to the whole area. If there were big changes, the horses did what horses do best. They moved until they found somewhere more hospitable.

Once we brought horses into our lives,  they lost the ability to seek out a different environment. We are their environment; we are the food providers, we decide the how and what and why and when every day for them.  

We may be experts at thinking and it may have brought us this far, but horses are masters of feeling and responding, and making sure they stay alive.

All of this is to say, that we have a mountain of untapped potential residing right outside in the paddock.

IMG_2298The next time you’re with your horse do a little experiment. Think less. Do more. Trust your good intentions. Trust that your horse will do his best to do what you are asking. Trust that you won’t mess it up. Even if you do make a muck of things, it’s ok. Because besides horses being great at connecting and Masters of Patterns, they are also wildly good at overlooking our shortcomings.

We can work with their vast skill and knowledge or try to change or fight it. Either way, the horse will go on being a horse and they will find comfort in their life, or they won’t. Interacting with horses isn’t always easy, and we don’t always get it right. I do believe though that if we make acting more and thinking less a priority, we can get farther and become closer with our horses than even we can anticipate.

Photos: Crissi McDonald

8 responses to “Anticipation or Adaptation?”

  1. Acting more, and thinking less – I like that. A philosophy for life, one might say. Less thinking – is more. I am passionate about horses, like many many people. And so I drink in as much knowledge as possible about how to be with them. I was riding my youngster yesterday. I thought about what Mark said once, at a clinic I spectated at. And I thought about thinking ‘trot’ – in terms of two beats as opposed to four of the walk. I began to ‘trot’ with my body, and my Sensei trotted, too. It’s taken thought to get there; but what it boils down to is, DO what you want and your horse is happy to go with you. Sometimes, he will trot when I haven’t consciously asked for it. Then, I’ll go with him, because that raw forward movement is precious and I want him to think forward. I see it as a partnership. He teaches me. I teach him. It’s a two way conversation if you will. Some might say, ‘if he trots without your asking, you’re training him to do this, or that, or the other.’ But maybe he felt something in my body or mind that even I wasn’t aware of. After all, horses are predated creatures, and consequently more honed than we predators in protecting themselves from harm. So, who am I to create unnecessary white noise by saying ‘no’. Keeping things pure, and simple, and doing, rather than thinking, has been an epiphany. I love your blog Crissi.

    1. Thank you, Claire. I can see we are both on the same wavelength! I also see our time with horses as a two way conversation. And wow does it ever feel better that way. My hope is that is true for the horse, too.

  2. My Lexi is one of those more whoa-than-go gals, and if I even start to think about a halt she’s there. On the other hand, I have to REALLY think about a trot, usually with my body. I am always amazed by her ability to read me, and after many years with her it has become a conversation and I read her right back. I’m still slow to catch on sometimes, but she’s a patient teacher. And the patterns you mentioned: how true! After the conversation begins I find that we both feel happy and successful when we utilize those positive patterns. I know she’s more likely to trot at a certain point going a certain direction so I will use that to our advantage until we really start “talking”. Why make it an argument? I like how you’ve taken the time to think and care about what matters to horses – good stuff here!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your conversation between you and Lexi. I agree: life is too short to fight with such amazing creatures.

  3. Well, I only got a paragraph or two in before you triggered a thought! A number of times in the round-pen I’ve thought, for example, “OK, I’m going to ask for an inside turn,” and before I can actually begin sending signals to various body parts, the horse does it. It MIGHT be coincidence, but I decided to never “correct” him when this happens, just in case…

    1. Very wise, Bob. I think growth comes from those places where we dare to try a different response. Thank you for telling me about this – I enjoy hearing them.

  4. Interesting you posting this now as just recently I noticed that Monty responds to my conversations. I was unknowingly telling him about transitions immediately before applying any aids, and often saying the same thing, i.e. “Okay, we can walk now” or “are you ready to canter?” So I decided to just talk and not cue him to test it. Voila! What a cooperative smarty pants. 😉

    1. I love it “…cooperative smarty pants.” Good for you for trying a different conversation.

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