Frustration and Patience: two good friends of mine

Frustration and Patience: two good friends of mine

I have had several questions regarding people getting frustrated with their horses – and not liking the feeling.  We all want to be patient, understanding and capable – but that isn’t always how it works out when we are out there with our horses.  Fear isn’t the only negative emotion that gets in the way of how we relate to our horses – Frustration is a big thing too.

I remember being SO frustrated with my first horse:  She was being transitioned to barefoot, and I had to cut some pads of special foam to the shape of her foot ready to duct tape them on and walk her out – all to stimulate foot growth and so on.   Would she put her foot on the foam for me to draw round?  Oh no – apparently the foam would dissolve her feet and leave her defenceless and she was really messing around – I totally lost my temper, I was crying with frustration and slapped her with the foam pad before storming off in floods of tears swearing I would never have horses again.  Oh yes, I have been frustrated!

If we look at one description of frustration (this is from Wikipedia):

“In psychology,frustration is a common emotional response to opposition. Related to anger and disappointment it arises from the perceived resistance to the fulfillment of individual will. The greater the obstruction, and the greater the will, the more the frustration is likely to be. Causes of frustration may be internal or external. In people, internal frustration may arise from challenges in fulfilling personal goals and desires, instinctual drives and needs, or dealing with perceived deficiencies as a lack of confidence or fear of social situations. Conflict can also be an internal source of frustration; when one has competing goals that interfere with one another, it can create cognitive dissonance External causes of frustration involve conditions outside an individual, such as a blocked road or a difficult task. While coping with frustration, some individuals may engage in passive-aggressive behavoiur, making it difficult to identify the original cause(s) of their frustration, as the responses are indirect. A more direct, and common response, is a propensity towards aggression”

Just in that brief description we can see that there are many things that make frustration such an interesting topic for those of us who want to develop relationships with our horses.

The last phrase is the most obvious one: many people, in response to frustration, show aggression.  I am sure we have all seen this – the horse that refused that last jump, the pony that won’t go in the water – and the rider on top seemingly infuriated by the refusals getting more and more aggressive and forceful  — and solving nothing.  Bit like me slapping my horse with the foam pad – ok, it didn’t hurt her, but the aggression was still there! Then there is the passive aggressive reponse – do nothing in  the moment, but later deprive the horse of food, or turn him out and refuse to work with him the next day.  One friend of mine is currently refusing to interact with Gracie because she is, in his words “being petulant”—she is choosing to walk away from him, he feels frustrated – and has decided to ignore her and talk to the others until she “comes around”. A very human response to frustration.

This is because anything that comes out of frustration has very little to do with the horse – and EVERYTHING to do with what is going on inside our heads.  In fact, almost all frustration has its origins in us being upset with ourselves – but the most common reaction is to blame external factors and get angry at them.

Let’s break the description down piece by piece and see what that tells us about frustration – -and ourselves.

Inability to do something you want to do, an obstacle to achievement beyond your control, competing goals, in ability to achieve personal goals through perceived internal “failures”…

There is an underlying theme with all of these.  Summarised by that great first sentence:

“Frustration is an emotional response to opposition, arising from a perceived resistance to the fulfilment of individual will”

What this sentence is actually saying is that frustration is what we feel when we feel opposed, or resisted.  Wow, in other words, frustration is all about EGO.

Think about other areas of life:  frustration comes up when someone doesn’t think the way you do, won’t see your point of view, when you can’t control the situation – that’s all about YOU….

And while being focused on yourself can be great for interacting with people (managing boundaries)  and safety – it’s not always good when you are with horses.

Sometimes we do direct the frustration towards ourselves – and then the fall out for our horse is that we get tense, emotional, less clear to read – and less pleasant to be around.  All of which can be damaging if you are aiming to create a bond or develop a relationship.

Frustration towards your horse is when YOU feel out of control….and then attach the perception of “opposition” or “resistance to my will” to your horse.  In this case, our emotions are focused AGAINST the horse, and aggression, despair, irritation, — all those emotions are channelled towards the horse – which then mean the horse, bombarded by these feelings will usually act to protect themselves – and just exacerbate the perception of “opposition” or “resistance”.

When Sovereign first arrived, and I was checking out how he was, I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him to move it.  He swung his head round and “pretended” to bite me – and leaned INTO me instead of moving away.  Several years ago, when my ego was much, much larger (I’ve had most of it beaten out of me by various falls and mistakes, and what is left is regularly humbled by the horses I work with!) I would have said to myself “he is resisting me!  WHY is he resisting me? This is disrespectful!  I must teach him some respect and to yield to me!” and would have done a pretty intensive obedience-inducing round pen session with him.

And yes, that probably would have sorted out the shoulder issue.  He would probably have been very aware that going to bite me and leaning into me were NOT good ideas.

However, he would be choosing not to bite me or lean on me for the wrong reasons.  He would be doing it to avoid a negative outcome – not because we had a positive relationship.  There is a big difference between those two.

However, if, when I felt his head swing round as if to bite, and felt that shoulder pressing into my hand instead of yielding,  I said to myself “hmm, that’s interesting – he needs to protect this shoulder….poor chap, wonder why he feels the need to do that?  How can I reassure him that I am safe to be around? That he can trust me that if he does yield his shoulder it will all be ok” – then I would do something very different – -and in fact I did – I stood there and rubbed his shoulder until be relaxed.  Then I asked again, softer this time – and there was less resistance.  I rubbed – then asked again – and he sighed, lowered his head and stepped his shoulder away from me.

By reminding myself that this wasn’t about ME and how *I* felt – this was about HIM and how I could HELP him – the whole dynamic changed.

After this session, he gradually lost the need to pretend to bite or lean into me and yielded his shoulder quite happily.  And, what is even better – he transferred that learning to other areas of his body too.  By working on his h=shoulder in this way, other parts became soft and yielding in a positive, safe, smooth way.

One of the first things I talk about in my “Self Coaching for Confidence” seminars is how the way we describe an issue with our horse can colour how we choose to handle it.

“my horse is a nutter and won’t listen to me” – is an opposition based statement, where *I* am perfect and my horse has the problem….

If I reframe it to

“my horse does things I don’t understand – and I don’t know how to get him to pay attention to me or hear me” – this is a statement where *I* am responsible for making any changes, and it is a statement where the horse is the one who needs support and help.

To help clarify things here, let’s take a look at that other side of things – what does Wikipedia say about Patience?

Patience is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on annoyance/anger in a negative way; or exhibiting forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties. Patience is the level of endurance one can take before negativity. In cognitive science Patience is studied as a decision-making problem, involving the choice of either a small reward in the short term, or a more valuable reward in the long term. When given a choice, all animals, humans included, are inclined to favour short term rewards over long term rewards. This is despite the often greater benefits associated with long term rewards.

So Patience is SELF CONTROL – managing yourself, your emotions and looking to the longer term outcome beyond this short term obstacle.  Choosing a path, making a decision focused on what will get the long term results you are aiming for, not just reacting for short term release of the frustration.

Aggression, passive aggression, anger, violence whether physical or verbal – all give tremendous short term release.  They give the illusion of control by responding so strongly to a situation.  However, they do not achieve anything in the longer term and represent the opposite of self control – -they reflect an egocentric self-gratification.

Now I’m not saying that having an ego is bad: we need one to have effective boundaries in our day to day lives;   And I’m not saying frustration is all bad either – a low level of frustration with ourselves for being lazy, or not sorting out our bills, or not getting help for our confidence issues – can be a great motivator to actually act and DO something.

However, frustration that leads to emotional reactions to our horses has NO place in horsemanship.  It can only damage the relationship.

SO that leads to a couple of questions:

What can we do when we DO get frustrated?  Let’s face it, it’s going to happen – no one is perfect – so how can we make sure our frustration does not damage our horse, or affect our horsemanship journey?  The first step is to be AWARE of when we are getting frustrated as EARLY as possible.  With me, I find myself getting persnickety – very attentive to details in a nit picking way – that is the first stage of my frustration process.  If I catch it here, then all I have done to my horse is been a bit picky – and a few treats or some time hanging out and not demanding anything to particular will soon restore the balance.  What are your first stages of frustration?  And what can you do to get back to sanity?

The key thing to do as soon as you realise you are feeling frustrates is to do what I learned in my basic scuba diving course:





STOP: whatever you are doing that is leading to the frustration – don’t worry, the horse won’t htink it has “won” – they just don’t think that way – they will just think the game has changed, or you have had enough. If you are worried that your horse may react negatively to you just stopping outright then just change to a game you can both easily do, let your horse succeed and THEN stop – that way you still “win” as the horse does what you ask, and the horse “wins” because it gets it right.

BREATHE: reset your physical counter to zero –  let any adrenalin settle and make sure you are now restarting from a healthy position.  Fixing your breathing will also help your horse calm down and hear you

THINK: reset your emotional counter to zero – and engage your brain.  WHY is your horse doing this – or, more likely, NOT doing this?  Very few horses will actively resist out of ego, most likely its because they don’t understand what you are asking (in which case change how you ask); have no motivation to do what you are asking (in which case improve your relationship or the task itself!), think the task is too large to do (break the task down into smaller increments)  are fearful or unconfident about the task or request – see how many reasons *I* can come up with  vs the one reason “he is opposing me/disrespectful”.  Which means, thinking about the reasons will give us MANY options and ways of moving forwards….
A useful question to ask when you are thinking is – IF I assume the horse WILL do it – what can I do to HELP this horse do this task?  That is a radically different mindset from “what can I do to MAKE this horse do this task?”

The only reason to MAKE a creature do anything – -is to gratify our ego.

There are many reasons to HELP a creature learn to do something…..

And lastly – ACT.

DO SOMETHING – -preferably something different.

Luckily with Poppy, the horse who thought the foam pads were going to eat her – I had a much more knowledgeable friend who calmed me down, helped me see that she had never been asked to do ANYTHING like this before – and together we took about half an hour using patience and repetition – and rewards – to prove to her that placing a foot on a foam pad was actually quite a fun thing to do.

Nowadays, I find mediation helps me with perspective setting – and makes me FAR more patient.

I find having more knowledge makes it easier to be patient – after all if I believe I know eough to sort this out, then I can afford to take the time to do that.

I find that simply feeling safe can help me respond better, so I do a lot of things to preserve and develop my confidence.

And you know the biggest thing you can do that is all about self control and not at all about your ego?

You can ask for help.

I meet many people who are stuck in their spiral of unconfidence.  They may talk about being unconfident, write about it even – start groups for other unconfident people – -but the real journey begins when you look inside yourself and say – I will get help.  No more excuses that gratify my ego, keep me going along the same old path.  I will go out today and find a way to change this….

And of course, the real motivator for doing ANYTHING about our frustration is simply this: we love our horses and want the nest for them……sometimes just remembering that they are independent beings worthy of love and we want the best for them – is enough to turn that switch from frustration to fun….

This article started as a look at frustration and patience – and has ended up being about ego, self control and asking for help…..

I wonder if I should get frustrated about that?

Yours, in confidence



12 thoughts on “Frustration and Patience: two good friends of mine

  1. I found my frustration began to go away when I learnt to say “How interesting!”.Even with other situations than equine I stop myself weth this quote and then go on to think “Now why am I thinking this way (getting frustrated)and what can I do to change it? I am now working on my frustration on things out of my control like having to rely on other people to do something when I can’t do it myself…like when my car breaks down or something like that….guess its a never ending learning curve 🙂

    • yes– I love that phrase too, one trainer we both know well uses that so I thought I would not “steal” that for the blog – glad you mentioned it though as it is a VERY useful technique!!!


  2. Have a struggle sometimes with patience & if I’m near to blowing I go & kick the wall,works a treat the tenderness in my toe reminds me every time LOL , I own a rather dominant gelding who often throws up a “why should I” & have found interestingly enough that if I drop it & go to something he does with ease I most times find he’ll be more helpful when we go back to the original request.

    • great comment — and yes, the LB’s sometimes get us sucked into an argument and if we just change the subject they are happy to go along — which makes me think that a lot of the time that “why should I?” tends to come up when the thing we are asking is too hard, or too MUCH Effort right now – going to a simpler thing restores their try and gives us time to find a way to break that other task into smaller pieces — always fun trying to outthink an LB horse!


  3. It is often good to the opposite of what our initial reaction would be. Like Cathy rubbing and reassuring rather than insisting on the forequarter yield with more pressure. Am loving these posts – so much to learn.

    • Yes! so often our initial reaction is based on our own ego, fear, insecurity – and so is unlikely to be a useful one! I often say that only go with your gut instinct if you know your gut is well informed and well educated LOL
      The more I learn, the more patient I am…..and the safer I feel the less it matters if things go “my way” or not!


  4. Wonderful post… As they say, when you feel angry count to ten!

    Sovereign’s yields illustrate your points really well… I’ll carry on working on those regularly. And something I’ll keep at the forefront of my mind is that he’s YOUNG and still at the stage of learning and needing reassurance. It’s so easy to feel frustrated when an experienced horse who knows better doesn’t listen – as if they’re playing you around. But feeling that way as a teacher would be unfair, since we’re dealing with behaviours that come from defensiveness and insecurity – either he finds something physically difficult or just hasn’t learnt it yet. I feel strongly that he knows he’s learning, wants to do well, and realises he shouldn’t take his frustrations out on others… fascinating that he’d often ‘bite’ his own shoulder rather than one of us. I’ll also have to avoid the trap of feeling frustrated with myself if I don’t know how to teach him something, don’t give him enough time, or don’t have a back-up plan… I guess that forward-planning goes a long way towards avoiding frustration! I feel very lucky that your insight is ‘on hand’ :))

    This is also a great post to apply to daily life and the way we often feel around other people…

    Charlotte xx

  5. some time ago I heard someone say “change the way that you look at things and the things you look at will change” and this blog illustrates that so well. A bit like the saying – “if your horse isn’t doing what you want him to you have asked the wrong question or asked the question wrong”. Your last blog about breathing with your horse has made a profound difference to the connection I have had with my horse the last couple of play sessions. It has also helped with preventing frustration because I have had to stop and breathe with him, and take time to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my feelings so I can continue the session in a more balanced frame of mind. It’s a nice feeling!

  6. Lucy Nightingale Very good post. I am better over time and I do recognise my own frustration most of the time. I find removing myself from the situation better or just sitting down. I also remind my self that horses dont lie, whatever she does she does for her own horsey reason, it makes sense to her but it doesnt have to make sense to me (this has given me a strange sense of relief?). If there`s a monster in the hedge it is certainly real to her at that moment in time. I just have to trust her like she does with me when I lead her, ride her or put her in scary boxes on wheels.

  7. Once again Cathy, you have given us something to ‘lick and chew on’. I have found that the ‘how interesting’ statement is great to use for myself as a cue that I need to stop what I am doing, rethink the situation and change what I was doing. The tone of that thought is positive, reflective and makes me stop and regroup. Thanks so much for these blogs – they help so much!

  8. Cathy,
    I think you are so right to identify the internal sources of frustration and offer suggestions for how to shift those internal realities so that we can set down the frustration and get on with helpful things!

    I really enjoyed the mantra/steps you outlined:

    * Stop
    * Breathe
    * Think
    * Act

    What a powerful set of steps if we can turn them into our practice, and through our practice into our habit.

  9. So true! Once I stopped being so direct line & treating non-compliance as resistance, learned to slow down, wait, ask for less, became softer, started reading my horse better, I became less impatient! That was my problem and it solved itself and the result is my horse can do more for me. Great post!

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