The Words We Use

The author with Caleb, 1994. 

“My horse is such a jerk,” I sputtered, the dirt flying out of my mouth as I brushed off my white shirt. I could still hear Caleb’s rapid staccato hoofbeats as he galloped away. He was thirteen years old, a flashy chestnut appendix Quarter Horse with three white socks. He’d had another surprise bucking fit and this time I had come off.  Spectacularly. At a dressage schooling show, in the warm-up pen.

He was a skilled bucker too. He would plunge his head between his knees as all four feet left the ground. This time, I had sat the first four jumps, but just as I thought he was done, he added a twist to the left and off I went over his right shoulder.

After I recovered and remounted, we performed the best test we’d had all day. The judge made numerous comments about Caleb’s “nice impulsion at all gaits.” The irony wasn’t lost on me.

Often when I would talk with friends I would tell them what a jerk Caleb could be. How his bucking fits sucked, and how he was either lazy or airborne. The litany of things that I didn’t like about him became longer than what I appreciated.

About that time I started going to various horsemanship clinics and listened to what the pros had to say. It was an eye opening experience to sit for three days and not hear any badmouthing of the horses from these trainers. Up until that time, the only culture I had been exposed to was (I realized) based on a lot of fighting and negativity.

I began to search for the cause of Caleb’s bucking. I learned about saddle fit and equine chiropractic and bodywork, which at that time was just beginning to gain traction. I had both my horses worked on and I also worked on how I was talking and thinking about them. I practiced keeping my mouth shut when my old circle of friends started bashing their horses. Because of Caleb, I also learned about equine acupuncture, became an herbalist for horses, and learned how to keep him sound despite his numerous physical challenges. 

That was over twenty years ago. Since that time, I can say that because of this change in perspective, because of many years of learning, and because of Caleb, I prefer to search for the good in a horse, instead of focusing on what is perceived to be wrong.

The author with Caleb, before the unscheduled dismount. 

I had a flashback of this time with Caleb when I recently heard a rider talking about her horse with words that sounded like she was beyond frustrated.

“My horse is willful, stubborn, opinionated and lazy. He has ADD; he can’t pay attention to anything, especially not me.”

As we teach across the country, my husband and I hear these descriptives consistently. There is some form of name calling going on, a litany of all the ways the horse isn’t satisfying the owner. Most riders are actually eager to change their perspective, but I am also convinced that it is their horse who is waiting for the moment when their rider discovers that everything they wanted was within reach, all they had to do was drop the story. One of the many amazing things about horses is, after all, that when we change, they do too. 

Name calling a horse, or anyone for that matter, may be borne of frustration or anger but I can guarantee you that the only result will be to perpetuate an adversarial relationship. Name calling is a lack of imagination, it shuts down our innate curiosity and it smothers learning. Wanting to have a partnership with your horse, and name calling are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Since when does seeing your horse as an enemy to be vanquished yield a harmonious and pleasing relationship?

I get the frustration, and anxiety, and ignorance. I’ve felt those things too (sometimes all at once) and will feel them again, I’m sure. If you have a horse, you have signed up for constant lessons in humility. As we go along through this horsemanship journey though, I think it’s important to remember that whenever we feel like calling our horse (or ourselves, or others) names, it’s also time to find another way to handle the situation.

Personally, I like curiosity. I also like the idea of pausing and breathing. Whatever your favorite strategy for dismantling frustration is, do it. You may walk away with nothing but positive things to say about your horse. And your horse will thank you for it. 

20 responses to “The Words We Use”

  1. Thanks for this story Crissi. Did you find a cause for Caleb’s bucking?

    I have a Quarter Horse gelding who’s bucked me off three times over 10 years. For many years I thought the solution was to buy a new saddle or try a different series of groundwork exercises or attend a different clinic. What’s finally made a difference has been focusing on building a connection, and it’s radically changed his demeanor. The words I use fit into this new relationship because I can’t think of my horse or talk about him as a “jughead” while I’m trying to create and strengthen a connection. As you say, it’s an amazing thing about this horse that as I’ve changed (finally), he has too.

    I didn’t ride this morning but I did trim his hooves and what used to be a contest of wills has now become a pleasant experience. It’s not because I’ve spent lots of time drilling him in giving me a hoof. It’s because I’ve spent more time petting him, scratching him, and moving more slowly and with more awareness around him.

    Thanks again for this story!

    1. Hi Paul – thanks! Caleb always bucked a little, but as I started to focus on him feeling better and took him off of the high starch feed he was on, it drastically reduced. He was my transition horse – I started out being at war with him (through sheer ignorance) but as the years passed, and I realized that our relationship was more important than ribbons or him gratifying my ego, the bucking was so small and slow that he made me laugh when he would “buck” – because it was more like a hop.

      I’m glad to hear you and your horse are getting along better. I’m convinced that horses feel better when we quit trying to train them and instead work on understanding them.

  2. This is a wonderful essay, and so important. Many of us humans find it painful to be misunderstood and to be blamed for things beyond our control. It’s surely true of horses and other animals too. I have a horse who was completely misunderstood by an earlier owner, who accused him of all kinds of character flaws. She considered him stubborn, mean, unreliable, and just rotten. I will admit that he is opinionated, which isn’t a surprise in an animal as intelligent as he is. But that’s a feature, not a flaw. I’m pretty sure that a lot of his troubles and perceived character flaws could be traced to the allergies that used to irritate his skin to the point that a puff of air could make him spook. That isn’t really a problem where we live now, but even in the past when he was in the depths of his summer misery, my understanding that his behavior had a reason made all the difference in our partnership. So I could not agree with you more, language matters, whether it’s the names we give our horses or the ways in which we describe them. So does empathy, and the understanding that we need to see “acting up” as a prompt to detective work rather than to punishment.

    1. Well said, Tracey. I agree %1000.

  3. How absolutely perfect! You are of course, completely spot on, and I too am amazed, fascinated, and sometimes downright discouraged at the way people talk about their horses. Ignorance is the basis for misunderstanding or misinterpreting a behavior, yet so many riders blindly blame the horse without exploring what could be causing things to go awry. I loved this Crissi, thanks.

    1. Thank you Jeane! I’m much the same – a lot of the time the name calling goes in one ear and out the other. And sometimes it’s so in my face I have to blog about it. 😉

  4. Well said, at the barn I ride at I’m so thankful the name calling and ignorance is very small. And the owners, most of which are middle aged women like myself just want to enjoy a nice trail ride so it’s pretty calm. But I use to show hunter/jumpers so I vividly remember the frustration and all that we did back in the day, which was NOT understanding the horse as I’ve grown to understand them today. My relationship with my two horses now is amazing, and fun, I enjoy them as much as they enjoy me. Very nice to read and I hope many read your wise words! -Thank you, Diana <3

    1. Thank you Diana – you’re very fortunate to have such a nice place to be.

  5. Oh, Crissi! Another spot on sharing. This brought up such an emotional response in me. I think we owe Caleb a huge amount of gratitude for starting you on the path to knowledge that you now share with so many. Thank you! <3 <3

    1. Thank you Gail! Big hugs to you 💜

  6. I so felt the heartache/break below the anger and frustration; your gritty strength and the relief. I witnessed firsthand the transformation fueled by the deepest love and care and gratitude (indebtedness) for Caleb. He came first with every hour of mixing herbs, the hours and money spent on the best hay, the right specialists, the perfect shoes… What a master teacher he was, all the way to the very end. The decisions made at the end, the way you showed up for him and her. And the beautiful wise gift to horses and humans and the world you are now. This post captures all of this and more succinctly, directly. Thank you, Christina.

    Soul Sister Love

    1. SSL, you are my Ambassador of Love! I cannot express what it means to me to have your witnessing, love and support all these years through my journey. 💜

  7. As Jeane DeVries said above, “spot on.” As usual.

    Once on a long drive to pick up a rescue my daughter and I were noodling short phrases that might be used to help her trainees. One that we found that may be useful to folks is, “You may, and should, say ‘good horse.’ Often. But you should never say ‘bad horse.’ ”

    They just don’t exist. Except perhaps some so broken as to beyond help. Even then, “broken,” not “bad.”

    Another thought was to think, do we say “please” and “thank you” to our horses? As in shifting in the barn, “Turn, please. Thanks, Tilley.” Not that they know the words, though they might learn. But it such politeness should lift our own attitudes and the language that follows.

    I also liked Tracey’s comment above about the term “opinionated.” As my daughter likes to say, “Of course they are opinionated! They are an animals with brains, not machines.” It seem that the pleasure we find building the relationship comes from using gentle persuasion: asking them to change their opinions when necessary. And when not necessary, they get a vote too.



    1. Yes and yes and thank you, Art. 🙂 Words are linked to our intention, and horses are masters at reading intention.

  8. The comments above are so heart warming. I believe language conveys intention. The more positive our words the more favorable our desires are related to our horses or any sentinent creature…humans included. Slowing down is one of the biggest gifts Horse’s try and teach us everyday. Every time I go to fast that’s when the frustration comes in. When I take time pause and let life flow at a natural pace things go so smoothly and almost effortlessly. I have worked very hard on choosing my words and making sure they come from a place of peace. We all lose patience but it is usually because we are going to fast in the first place. Thanks for a wonderful blog and putting such good energy and message out into the world❤️🐴

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and the ever helpful reminder that we can always choose to slow down.

  9. Hi Crissi – thanks for sharing your story with the nice ending and learning experience. When I was very young and wanted to train horses and teach riding, back in the late 60’s early 70’s, I was fortunate enough to work for a gentleman who was a horseman first and a trainer/horse dealer second. One of his favorite lines when it came to dealing with problem horses and their riders was that “It’s 90% the rider causing the problem”, and that included the three of us who worked for him! He would always look for the reason the problem started – with the way the horse was being ridden or what and how he was being asked to do something, how the equipment fit or what the equipment was that was being used. That statement made a lifelong impression on me, as well as some of the other ways he treated his or others horses. The horse always came first, then you took care of your equipment, like cleaning the trailers, and putting your tack away if you had been out on the trail, showing or maybe fox hunting. Then, you could go for lunch!!

    Barb Thuerk

    1. You are very fortunate to have learned from that kind of person!

  10. As always. Beautiful + profound. Thank you. I’ll be sharing with a young client.

    1. Thank you Sheri!

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