Horse communication: when your horse says no!

billy oshea the rescue horse
Rescue horse Billy O’Shea
volunteer and dog rescue
Finca Love story
horse communication

"Accepting a “no” from your horse."  A very well written blog post from a positive reinforcement enthusiast Emily Dietz,  who supports our charity and mission to share knowledge on how to give horses a voice.

Let’s dive right in with an example: It’s a beautiful day, you’re at the barn and you want to take your horse for a ride. You enter the paddock, put the halter on and you start to walk as you immediately feel that your horse doesn’t move a centimetre. He just stands there and looks at you. You try again with some motivational words and some picking at the rope. But still nothing. You start to get angry. Why doesn’t he move!?

Most horse people have probably been in this situation before and can relate to the person in the little story.
There are different possible endings:

1. You try again, this time a little bit harsher. You poke the belly of your horse, pull the rope, you raise your voice. Finally, he starts to move and comes along with you. With some patting on his neck, you praise him. "I just needed to show him who the boss is", you think.

2. You let the rope loose, open the halter and let him go. What? Most horse people wouldn’t even think of this option. “Now he knows that he can always get out of training!”, “He got his will and won’t respect you anymore!”, are probably the first thoughts in a person’s head that learned that the horse has to obey them.

rescue horse

But, I promise you, your horse won't start kicking or biting you just because you respect his boundaries and his opinion. Of course, there are multiple situations where a free choice isn't possible or too dangerous for horse and human but right now I want to talk about the 95% of situations where it is possible to listen to your horse.

We decide everything in our horse’s life: We decide where he lives, what food he gets, who his herd mates are, when and what to do, we even choose when the mares get pregnant and most of the time we even tell them how they have to behave. So shouldn’t we at least give them the autonomy to say no to certain activities?

Think about it: The saying “My horse will never do something again if I let him say no now” implies that your horse isn’t enjoying the activities you do. So maybe think about how you can change something that will make your horse want to join you. Only when your horse is allowed to say no, he can truthfully say yes. And having a motivated horse that is engaging
and has fun is the best feeling ever. In the end, that’s all we want, don’t we?

Sadly, the horse world made us think that horses aren't allowed to have a choice and must be forced to do what we want them to do. But is it really rewarding if the joy is one-sided?

Your horse could have a lot of reasons why he doesn’t want to come with you:
- He is dozing
- He hasn’t been on the pasture in a long time and his nervous system tells him that he has to stay with the food
- He is interacting with a friend
- He has an injury
- He is tired
- There is a new horse in the herd
- The herd is nervous and he doesn’t want to leave them (which is perfectly normal for a herd animal)
- He doesn’t trust you or
- he simply isn’t in the mood.

Often we head to the stable with a plan. We want to work on a new lesson or we have been looking forward to a nice evening walk with our horse after a long office day.

So it can be quite disappointing to realize that he doesn’t even think about joining us but instead staying with his herd and his food. Oftentimes we take it personally but if we look a little bit deeper into the horse´s nature, we realize that the herd means safety for the horse.

Leaving his herd in nature is very dangerous. The second most important resource is food. Horses eat 16hours a day in nature and especially in fall/winter their priority is eating to survive. It´s not granted that a horse voluntarily leaves his herd. There are plenty of ways to work on that but for now I want to raise awareness for what it means for the horse.

We should also honor that they allow us to sit on their backs by letting them say no if they don’t want to. To get an authentic no it’s important to not punish the horse if he denies doing something. When the horse knows that resisting will have a negative outcome (not just punishment, but also disappointment = horses are very sensitive and can feel our emotions) his autonomy is manipulated.

Horses will always try to avoid negative consequences, that’s why pressure functions so well in the horse world. I personally don’t want horses constantly avoiding me and my actions. I want them to feel comfortable.

Especially if you work with rescue horses whose voices were shut down in the past it´s more than important to give them their freedom and their right to say no back. It can take a lot of time and healing to get a horse that has had bad experiences with humans to trust you. The basis for a trustful friendship is that the horse knows he can draw a line how far he is ready to interact with you and that you respect this line. Why should the horse respect your boundaries if you don’t respect his? 

Its always helpful to reflect on how you handle your horse, even if you're a professional.

So as an impulse: When was the last time that your horse showed you signs of refusal that you ignored?

How did you feel?

And how do you think did your horse feel?

"We decide everything in our horse’s life: We decide where he lives, what food he gets, who his herd mates are, when and what to do, we even choose when the mares get pregnant and most of the time we even tell them how they have to behave. So shouldn’t we at least give them the autonomy to say no to certain activities?"

Thank you so much for the amazing blog post Emily.

If you enjoyed it as much as we did you can follow Emily Dietz on instagram here and share this blog post on your social media platforms.

You can read more about how we train our horses this way here

If anyone else would like to write us a guest blog post please get in touch with Emma via email: [email protected]

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