A horse that acts up can be frustrating. His antics prevent you from doing what you want to do, and sometimes things get dangerous. You want a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Yet you also want to have plain fun, galloping your horse through the meadows or doing patterns in the arena. It can be frustrating when the horse says 'no', especially when your values are on the empathic, compassionate side and you aim for collaboration, not dictatorship.
How do you figure out how to listen to your horse's needs, while still getting your own needs met too? How do you get a horse to willingly do what you want without resorting to violence? Here is what I have learned from working with hundreds of people looking to mend the relationship with their horses while still pursuing goals in the endurance, jumping and dressage realms. Whenever they have conflicts with their horses, these are the six proven steps that lead them to humane, empathic, compassionate win-wins for all involved without resorting to violence or intimidation.
1. Pause, Listen and Wonder
Whenever a horse acts out, initially let him be. Pause and listen. Refrain from judging the horse. Don't yell 'jerk!'. Don't tell others your horse is a brat, or has an attitude. Instead quiet your mind, ensure you are both in a safe place, and start exploring. He might be explosive in his refusal or he might be withdrawn. He might try to hurt you, or perhaps run away. Whatever his 'acting up' looks like, your approach is the same; start wondering. What is he trying to say? While horses rely on subtle, physical communication, humans are so focused on spoken language that we sometimes forget the importance of flicker of an ear or recognize the shiver of a back as an attempt of the horse to communicate with us.
2. Assess the intensity of refusal
When a horse moves away from me attempting to place the saddle on its back, or bucks after I ask for canter, I grade the intensity of his reaction on a scale from 1 being not intense at all, to 10 being very intense. The horse can use his body language to whisper "nah, I don't feel like it", which would be a 1 or a 2. Or he can shout off the top of the roofs, "HELL. NO. I WON'T. DO. IT!!!!", which would be more like a 9 or a 10. This tells me how serious my horse is about his refusal, and how important this specific disagreement is to him. The higher his intensity, the more important it is for both of us that I listen to what he is trying to tell me.
Remember the last time someone upset you so much that you started screaming. You were probably in a pretty bad spot emotionally. You probably screamed because milder expressions of your distress fell to deaf ears. How did the other person respond to your screaming, and how did that make you feel? What you need when you are upset, is a calming, friendly partner who checks in with you and says, "Hey, are you ok? Can I help?". The last thing you need is someone screaming back at you, or worse, physically assaulting you. Keep that in mind when dealing with a horse with an ‘attitude’. 'Attitude' is an attempt of the horse to get through to us and tell us something is very wrong.
3. The emotional origin of refusal
While not always easy, I try to pinpoint whether the origin of refusal derives from internal environment (emotional discomfort, physical discomfort) or something in the external environment of the horse.
Emotional distress stays with the horse, no matter what we do, where we go. Horses have a large amygdala, which is the part of the brain assisting in seeing threats clearly. Together with the hippocampus and the hypothalamus it forms the limbic system that helps the horse respond to danger adequately. When the limbic system is aroused, it takes several hours for the horse to find its equilibrium again. While your horse might not be battling a current problem, after seeing a deer jump out of the woods several hours ago, he still feels rattled. The adrenaline levels in his body are still elevated, and still influence his current state of mind, even though the original trigger is no longer valid or present.
Physical stress, especially the vague, hard to detect lameness, often pops up only in certain directions with certain speed (as in canter to the left, or small trot circle to the right). If the horse is happily walking and trotting to the left, yet balks at trotting a small circle to the right , my first judgement would be physical discomfort. If you are stuck trying to decipher whether your problem is caused by mental or physical anguish, try motivating your horse with clicker training, or simply with treats. Ask him to trot the circle again, and give him a treat when he complies. If this solves your problem, your horse might not have a physical issue. Instead, he might have a motivational issue. In other words, your horse is bored, and the solution to your problem lies in an entirely different realm. If the treats don't improve your horse's mood, call the vet first. After she has ruled out any issues, try a second vet, a chiropractor, massage therapist, saddle fitter, different farrier, etc. Remember that all these professionals are just regular people, and even when they deem your horse completely sound, that does not mean that they are right; they make mistakes too!
External stress, anything in the environment of the horse, including you can negatively affect your horse’s mood. Ask yourself "Are you in the right state of mind to be around horses today?". Perhaps you got yelled at by your boss, or you got pulled over for something on your way to the barn, and you are still tense.. Your horse picks up on your tension without realizing you are tense because of an ouchy memory. If you feel tense, relax yourself with mindfulness exercises, or just call it a day and come back tomorrow. External stress also includes other horses nearby who might have problems of their own. Horses are creatures of energy and pick up on energy shifts. If another horse in the arena is having a bad day, your horse's empathic abilities allow mirroring of anxiety and your horse isn’t always able to protect itself from being caught on the waves of the other horse’s emotions.
4. The very first time the refusal occurs.
Trace behavior to the first moment you have noticed it. A stomp when you put the saddle on. Slight white in the eye when you put the bridle on. A slightly slower pace when walking toward the arena. These are all clues that your horse is less happy. Analyze what happened leading up to this point. What was he doing. What were you doing. What were you not doing. What gait did you do. Which direction did you go. What speed were you going. Were you collecting or lengthening? What footing were you on. What was the weather like. How long have you been riding. What did you do yesterday with him. What did you do the past week with him. Is your tack still in the right place. Is something rubbing. Is there a rock stuck in his feet.
Overturn all elements and look for clues that might cause his behavior. Your horse might actually like doing what you ask him to do, but he might be sore from yesterday’s trail ride. He might actually want to go to the arena, but he has not finished his hay yet, so he’d rather fill his belly first. He doesn’t mind carrying the saddle, but there is a splinter in the saddle pad that you overlooked. He doesn’t mind going over a jump, but this particular one reminds him of something scary, and he just needs you to go a bit slower. He might want to learn how to bow, but his hocks are sore and he can’t bend them very well. He might want to canter to the left for you, but his tendon is injured. Etc.
5. What’s in it for the horse
Why on earth would a horse do what we want it to do? A horse needs safety, nutrition and water, that’s about it. We provide the horse with his necessities, and we feel this should be reason for the horse to comply with our requests. However, the horse does not see it this way. It is blissfully unaware that we break our back trying to pay for board, for the farrier and take an extra job to pay the vet for that last emergency call when our horse colicked on a rainy Sunday night.
The horse does not understand our sacrifice. He can’t, he does not have the capacity to think in this way. However, he is capable of thinking and reasoning in the present. As in, if I do A, I get B. Reward based training builds on this ability. As long as you systematically eliminate reasons for the horse that make it impossible for him to comply (emotional, physical and external stress), and provide the right reward, you can motivate a horse to do almost anything.
6. Define your values.
Is your horse your friend or your tool? Do you value achievements or relationships? This is a hard one. I am competitive by nature and seek approval by being the best. I have to work hard to not let this cloud my relationship with the horse. I do this by asking myself WHY I am asking the horse to do something. Do I do it A) to make the horse better, mentally, and physically? As in building strength, confidence, versatility, or do I do it B) to make me LOOK better, as in winning a blue ribbon at a show, or simply showing off my skills for an audience?
Type A training
“A” type training could be desensitizing the horse to a tarp, teaching it how to walk, trot, canter safely and calmly, jumping over a log, using it’s back correctly. The reason I filed this under A type training is that these life skills increase the chance of a horse finding an owner that will want to care for it. Not many want to adopt a feral, unschooled, green horse, but a horse that is quiet and knows its ABC's has a much better chance at avoiding the Mexican slaughterhouses.
If the horse balks at doing something that I ask because of A type reasoning and training, it is more important to me to continue towards my goals. After all, it is beneficial for the horse to reach the goal too. I keep changing my strategy until I find the one that unlocks the motivation in the horse and removes the roadblock that was in the way.
Type B training
However, if I am asking something because of B type training, it usually is because my ego is getting in the way. This means I need to stop, back up and go back to the drawing board to reflect and check in with myself. Examples of “B” type training and reasoning could be going yet another round at the show even after my horse already is sweating profusely, pushing my horse beyond its training level, asking things too soon, too harshly, resorting to violence to motivate it, using tools and gimmicks to tie its head in the ‘proper’ frame, etc. It saddens me to admit that I have resorted to all these things before, simply because I failed to reflect on my own motivations for what I was trying to accomplish. When my horse objects to anything that falls in B category, I just let it go. He is right. It isn’t important. It doesn’t cure cancer. It doesn’t end world hunger. It’s irrelevant.
This brings me to why you should let horses do what they want. Horses live simply, authentically, with purity, and they don't worry about tomorrow or the past, or about approval or your bank account. They see what's important (grass, water) and what's not (blue ribbons, fame), and through their refusals inspire us to take a good look at what we are trying to accomplish and what's behind desire for achievement. I have learned the less I force horses to do what I want them to do, the more they want to be with me, follow me, and build a relationship with me. The more I let go, the happier and more relaxed I become. The happier I become, the softer my horse's eyes gaze upon me and the more they are willing to go my way. Funny how that goes.
This doesn't mean you should let a horse kick, or bite you. Tony Gaskins said it right " We teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what you reinforce", and this applies to horses as well. Be safe and seek help when your relationship is damaged to the point that your horse resorts to violence to get its point across. But whenever a problem presents itself, for solutions, look at yourself first, then at your horse.
What to do when your horse disobeys
The next time your horse starts acting up, simply follow these steps to get yourself in a thinking state of mind. Take a deep breath first and make sure you and your horse are OK. Identify the root source of your behavior, and that of your horse. Look for solutions that address the problem for the both of you in a positive, mindful and compassionate way. Then use the information you’ve gathered to develop a win-win solution that fixes the core of your problem and that of your horse, and build the most harmonious, joyful relationship ever between you and your magnificent horse. Good luck!
A quick training through reward experiment to get started:
Get a bag of treats or carrots and take your horse somewhere where there is no grass, like a stall, an arena, round pen, etc. Stand next to your horse and wait for him to do something unusual. Like blowing, yawning, flicking his ear, whinnying, licking his lips, shaking his head, swishing his tail, stomping his feet, etc. Whenever he shows this behavior, shower him with love and give him a treat. And then wait. Sometimes you’ll have to wait 10 minutes, but when he shows the behavior again, reward with love and treats. Trouble shooting: If he goes after your treat, ignore him, turn around and make sure he does not get his lips on it. Do a jumping jack if you must to get him out of your space. When he moves away with his head from your treat, praise and reward. Congratulations, you have just taught him that if he wants a treat, he must first turn his head away from you!
Soon you’ll have captured your horse’s attention and your relationship will blossom. He will start to understand that you are listening to him, that there is a way to talk with you. Your horse will start to look at you, will run up to the gate to play with you, and will be eager to figure out today’s puzzle. And then you can apply this exuberance to any issue you have in the arena or outside. How do I know this will happen? Because I have seen it happen, over and over again with people who began training their horses through empathy, compassion and reward.
Go give it a try and let me know how it works!
Ps: Here is a picture of Wik and I with two of the tricks he taught himself in the way as described above; a knee raise and a tail swish. Notice the carrot in my left hand. He does not go after the carrot; he knows it is useless to try to steal the reward. Instead he has learned the appropriate way to ask for a carrot; a trick or two.
Photo by Brenda Ernst Photography
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