Firm Resolve, Gentle Approach


The little paint mare stood trembling at the end of the longest lead rope I could find that day. The July morning had dawned hot and we were both sweating in the middle of her paddock, though the cause of her agitation was probably due more to the bottle of fly spray in my hand.

In chatting with her owner, she said that every summer the mare would tear off three fly sheets, ruin a half dozen fly masks and be covered in flies from her sunburned nose to her constantly swishing tail. Fly spray was out of the question, and trying to wipe it on wasn’t any better.  After two summers of watching her mare suffer, and having run out of options, the owner wanted to see if we could help her little paint horse through the issue.

After seeing the mare’s response to the fly spray, we decided to change a couple of things; we let her run loose in a round pen, and we found an old spray bottle that we filled with water.

I stood in the middle of the pen and began spraying water to the side of me and toward the ground. Without a halter and lead rope to contain her, the mare took off at a run. At first, there was not much change; she kept running, I kept spraying. Anytime she put an ear or an eye toward me or thought about slowing down, I would stop spraying. As she started to understand that facing the sound caused it to stop, her frantic run slowed to a canter and then a trot.

By the end of our time together she would stand still without a halter as I sprayed water, starting at her hooves and moving up to her legs. Her neck and body took a few minutes more, but she was standing quietly not long after.


After all of us took a long drink of water, her owner and I went back into the pen, haltered her and reviewed what we had done. The mare needed to move again, so we let her. After a few minutes, she quieted down and let the spray cover her.

We took another break, and this time we brought out the fly spray, starting at her hooves, pausing and then moving to her legs, paused a few moments more, and then her body. Though she wasn’t willing to put this on her list of Things That Are Really Cool, she stood still and calm. We repeated the process a few more times in her paddock, then at the hitch rail where she was usually groomed (without tying her). Although she felt the need to move around, the level of fear that she initially felt was almost non-existent, and after moving she would then stand quietly.

The reason I share this story is that so often we think what we do with horses has to get done right dang now. It doesn’t. And though there are some things that do indeed have an immediacy to them, that doesn’t mean that we have to do them quickly or with a hard hand. 

Granted, this mare was being tormented by flies and needed some relief but even then, we took our time, gave her breaks, and watched her closely so we could time our release (stopping the spraying sound) with the moment she was a tiny bit curious about it.

I have often heard that horses don’t wear watches. I would also add that horses don’t have deadlines; what they do have is a very clear sense of pressure. When we force them to stand still out of a misguided sense of having to get things done right this second, the result is a perfect storm of miscommunication.

Though our resolve is firm, our approach doesn’t always have to be. Erring on the side of gentleness and slowing things down often will make things exponentially easier with our horses. By remaining aware, calm and doing our best to work with the horse, we can often get things done in a manner that leaves them feeling better about the situation than when we started. As far as I’m concerned, that’s on my own list of Things That Are Really Cool.


26 responses to “Firm Resolve, Gentle Approach”

  1. True for our relations with all of life. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully.

    1. Love to you, dear SSL. xo

  2. “Erring on the side of gentleness and slowing things down” are two of the best pieces of advice around for dealing with horses (and other animals, including humans, for that matter). Thanks for your wise and compassionate approach.

    1. Thank you Tracey – the older I get the bigger fan I am of using the least amount of pressure needed. With humans and animals too.

  3. This is also on my list of Things That Are Really Cool. I just love this. Thank you for writing!

    1. 😃 thank you so much!

  4. Really enjoyed this entry! Thank you for sharing this story!

    1. Thank you for saying so, Renee!

  5. My mare was 5 when I brought her home and had been around a fair bit. I assumed that she had experienced fly spray but the first time I tried it she reared straight up (and I did not do a quick/abrupt approach). I realized that this was an issue that would need careful handling. I took a few months to get her comfortable with it. I started by simply spraying a brush and brushing the spray on her. I started a long distance from her when I sprayed and came closer as she relaxed. Eventually I was able to spray beside her and then letting it hit her a few times. Now I can do her in her stall with no concerns, although the first part of spring I am careful to make sure she knows what is coming. I don’t recall how long it took me but I know it was a few months and that was fine. I had to cover her with spray but being sprayed was not required. I let her set the pace. Some days I had to go back but it didn’t matter. This is a horse that does not respond well to heavy pressure but will respond if things are explained quietly.

    1. Perfect. I love it when that kind of time is available because it allows for a much gentler approach.

  6. Love love love this

    🙂 Jeane, from my iPhone


    1. Thank you thank you!

  7. Another lesson on practicing the art of patience. Any horse you work with is so very fortunate!
    Being reminded that horses don’t wear watches or have an agenda is always helpful!

    1. I agree: patience is indeed an art. Aren’t we lucky that our horses are such masters of that art?

  8. I have been working on getting a paste wormer tube into Bandit’s mouth for about two weeks now. Just touching, then around the lip, then in and finally over the tongue. I’m finding a few “waves” about which John Lyons writes: some back-sliding before going forward again. Still, like your post, when all is said and done our friend ends up trusting us instead of simply putting up with us.

    I really appreciate your opening with the story; right in line with modern training methods for humans.

    Keep these coming.



    1. Thank you, Art. I appreciate your vote of confidence!

  9. Excellent. Let them set the timetable, make the choice. We don’t need to be confrontational. It gets in the way of relationship, setting us back.

    1. Well said. 🙂

  10. As the saying goes patience is a virtue. I´ve learnt to postpone doing some things when my time is limited. Ruby (my 24 yr old Quarter) will just give me a dirty look and turn her back on me. She is way too clever. My dog has also taught me a lot about patience. I´m thankful for it. I´m sure it´s far healthier for me 🙂

    1. Thank goodness for clever horses and dogs!

  11. Brilliant, really good article loved it.

  12. “By remaining aware, calm and doing our best to work with the horse, we can often get things done in a manner that leaves them feeling better about the situation than when we started.” I wish humans would think about this in all of their work… Including other people. Fabulous post!

    1. Thank you Wendi – absolutely me too. 🙂

  13. This is so lovely….I am being aware of softness in all that I do; thanks to you and Mark. I am noticing that I feel so much more relaxed just by being mindful of using the least amount of pressure in all that I do; walking, driving the car (holding the steering wheel), doing chores, etc. I work in the customer service is educational to experience my emotions and the customer response when I choose to respond with softness. Thank you for this nice piece and for the guidance to be a better person.

    1. I really like that observation, and I have found it to also be true in my own life. Here’s to living without white knuckling our way through our days!

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