Saying Yes to a Horse When You Mean No

Sometimes something someone says sticks with you because it’s brilliant. Sometimes it sticks because it’s plain wrong. I was working for a horse rescue a few years ago and a bodyworker came to visit the horses. The bodyworker did noticeably light and sensitive work on banged-up sway back elders and the herd melted in acknowledgment. Shy horses came near. Calming signals were shared and the herd grew silent in that eloquent way that humans never quite manage.

In moments like this, horses show us their vulnerability. Whoever started that story about herd dominance being the truth about horses has never spent much time in the pen. It’s always been about feeling safe even with their instinct to constantly be on guard for danger. It’s in quiet peace when trust feels nearly palpable. Their calming signal so plain, “I’m no threat to you. You don’t have to be so aggressive.” We moved from horse to horse in the pasture, breathing deep into our bellies just because the horses were. It wasn’t a special moment, it was ordinary. Just the way horses are if they are safe from predators. When did this get mistaken for boring?

Back in the parking area, the bodyworker asked if the rescue needed any training done. Careful to add that the training was different because you had to be a strong leader and discipline the horse to be obedient. I was sure I’d misheard, but the bodyworker/horse trainer chatted on about dominating horses with a smile as sweet as spring grass.

I remember this Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde horsemanship disorder because this sort of inconsistency is crazy-making for horses. One moment standing close and whispering, the next barking out ask-tell-make orders. Could anything be less trustworthy?

The bodyworker was a two-for-one deal, but most of us were told to be the boss when we started with horses. The plan was to climb on, and when your horse did something wrong, correct him. It was our job to evoke a quick response from a horse. Act tough, be tough, and get it done. We believed that a horse must be forced to work because volunteering was out of the question. It’s a depressing tradition but it’s all ours. Punishment is the lowest form of expression, even horses have a more evolved language than “NO!”

Lots of us still feel guilty for things we were taught to do before we knew better. Now we’ve sworn off fighting with horses, but that creates a new kind of confusion. We want to do everything at liberty. Or maybe with a whip in a pen and call it liberty because even now we don’t trust the horse. We don’t trust the silence as we stand in the pen anxiously trying to be patient. We wait for the horse to saddle himself, but we’re so busy coyote-watching, that we’re deadly quiet. Any mare will tell you, (persnickety ears), that someone has to start this thing. Meanwhile, the gelding is hesitant because he expects to be corrected, (dark partly frozen eye) knowing he’ll be in trouble soon. It’s the only thing he’s confident of is that people always get scary. He thinks humans (looking away) are unpredictable.

Now being with horses feels as awkward as a junior high school dance. So much anticipation and no rhythm at all. You lose faith and decide just this once, you’ll escalate and get it done. And thus confirm your erratic unpredictable nature to your horse. Or maybe your mind is flooded with techniques/methods/advice that all yell at you at once and you just stop because you don’t want to get it wrong any more than the gelding does.

Looking for the middle path between extremes?

It feels good to stop fighting, both you and your horse release anxiety. Let it be simple. Your priority is the horse’s anxiety level. Punishing a frightened horse is as bad as it feels. Start by being consistent in who you are with your horse. Give him the safety he wants. If you like the clarity of discipline, maintain kindness in yourself.

Yes, you say, but…

Giving your horse a voice doesn’t mean you give yours up. Giving a horse choice builds confidence but that doesn’t mean let him eat a bag of grain. If he stands at the front gate, don’t let him loose in road traffic because he asked. Be his guardian, keep him safe but know that partnership means two voices. Let yours be consistent and affirmative.

Our overall intention is what matters most, a tendency shown in our temperament. In Affirmative Training, the human gets to say what the task is. And the horse gets to say when.

Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating. And the horse will take the time needed to begin believing he is safe with his predator and relax his guard (lick and chew) bit by bit. Job one is to lessen the horse’s anxiety the instant we see it. Rather than evoke a response, we relax. He can’t learn if he’s frightened and we need to prove we understand that. This part takes the time it takes but if you give in to past methods, it will take longer.

If we constantly micromanage, horses will constantly resist. So many horses are broken down by constant correction when it isn’t needed, then don’t give a good response when it is needed. We increase the micromanagement. Soon fighting is just the ordinary language. Is our culture one of correction and over-management, or total permissiveness? Or can two negotiate?

Yes, you say, but…

Sure, bad things happen. Injuries or extreme circumstances. I don’t expect horses to volunteer against instinct, but we can maintain a tendency of peace in a chaotic world. He’s reading your calming signals looking for confidence.

If a horse evades a task, it’s never personal. Maybe a horse gets out and you must bring him back. Walk up calmly and say “Good Boy” even if you’re late for work. The priority is always the horse. Give him a scratch. He won’t want to return, so reward him, even before his first step. Keep your focus on his emotional state above the task. It isn’t what we ask, it’s how we ask.

Maybe your horse is getting into something he shouldn’t. You don’t need to rush to scold. Give him an amiable cluck to move along. Use your voice to help him be safe. Hold to the hard-won tendency of kindness even as you assert boundaries. Learning finesse isn’t a quick fix for either of you.

One day your horse will ask (tense poll, jittery hooves) for more steady support when he’s frightened. Reward his vulnerability with a firmer-focused kindness. The elusive middle path, the place of genuine trust, cannot be demanded, only discovered. You’re welcome, (neck stretch, soft eye) says your horse.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes

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31 thoughts on “Saying Yes to a Horse When You Mean No”

  1. I love this. There is a shift for good happening in the horse world-finally. It is slowly filtering down and through and our horses are breathing a collective sigh .

    Thanks for putting it out there and keep it coming!


  2. Peace confused with boredom. That whip can’t keep cracking if peace is to reign, can it? Thank you for this piece of clarity. Peace.

    • Was it Einstein who said we can’t both prepare for war and work for peace? I don’t know about the world, but I do know horses stop fighting when we do. Thanks Linda.

    • Thanks, Michelle. I veer away from techniques, so it does seem vague sometimes, I’m sure. Hard rules need to make room for the nebulousness of being in the moment when horses are involved. 🙂

  3. This is a great essay, Anna. When I adopted the notion that our horses don’t live by the philosophy of right and wrong, the way we humans do, it released me from that eternal struggle trying to figure out how to “make” him do what I thought was right. It’s been fun ever since. Thank you!

  4. I once read an article that said that it is silly to try to be the dominant horse; it just encourages challenging. Instead we should try to be its/their mother. Knowledgeable, protective, trusted, encouraging, firm and clear in direction; like a good mother horse or a good herd boss mare. I thought this made sense and have tried to follow it. The other day, I was out riding one horse and ponying the other. We were grazing so I had loose reins and lead rope. Something spooked them and they jumped forward ready to bolt. I said “whoa” firmly and to my surprise and relief, they both came to a dead halt. I quickly looked around to make sure there wasn’t something I needed to deal with. Then gave them both a stroke and told them what good horses they were. We went back to grazing. It seems so trivial, but I was thrilled that our relationship had developed to this good level. I have had them for 13 and 14 years to get us to this. Sure takes time!

  5. Great blog, Anna! Another one for my Anna Blake file. I’m shocked that the bodyworker would gain the horse’s trust through calming bodywork, then obliterate that trust when training it. How confusing for the horse – it certainly confused me and I wouldn’t trust that person. Maybe she’ll read your blogs and learn some things about relating to horses.

  6. Anna, this piece made me think of a quote that I recently came across, “If you can’t figure out how to be kind, figure out how to be quiet”. I think the quote conceptualizes a tool for affirmative training. I recently stumbled across a success with one of my horses who is very food aggressive at meal times even though he has free access to pasture. I have always asked my horses to take a step back before I put their hay down after being run down by my first horse ( please note he was a wonderful horse, but we had to work out some manners around meal time). Anyway, my method of gently motioning with my hand and asking for a back has been completely unsuccessful with Noche. Recently, I abandoned my method and just stood next to him with his flake in front of his feeder. He swung his head towards me, I stood still and quiet, he paused and the moved his shoulder away an inch. I said good boy and put down the hay. The next time, I held steady after he moved his shoulder away, and then he moved his head away a little as well; “Good boy”. By simply quietly waiting, he figured out that I preferred a little space and he complied. Huge rewards for asking not telling and exercising patience.

    • I hope you are still beaming about this. Because standing around waiting for something good to happen is so cool. Thanks Laurie.

  7. A group of women from my barn recently went to take a lesson from a well known and in demand dressage instructor. One of the women was describing her experience and people were gathered around interested to know how the lesson went. She explained that she was told to dismount at the beginning of the lesson because the horse wasn’t performing to the trainer’s liking. He told this woman that he could have this horse doing piaffe within 5 minutes. She explained how he walked along side her mare and hit her hard continuously with the dressage whip. She said once around the ring with this and the mare went into heat and she explained it was like submission to the trainer. The trainer told her she must use the whip… this is as far into the story as I could listen. I finished grooming my mare, gave her some hay for lunch and left with a sick feeling in my stomach. They each paid $150 for a “lesson”. I could never imagine paying someone to whip my horse. What lesson did the horse learn?

    • This makes my skin crawl, for his arrogance and for a group of women who did not stop him. And this is not dressage. I’ll keep the rest of my rant to myself. Your mare says thank you, for everything.

  8. This is so perfect. It is what I have been searching for and of course it came from you! ONLY yesterday, I had this discussion with a caretaker of many horses, a good horsewoman who in truth has to be concerned with safety, as she is the owner/trainer of a boarding barn with children about, etc. We were discussing the fine line between keeping horse and human safe and allowing them (the horses) to “get away with things”, and “voicing” their opinions and concerns. She feels my 7 yo mare is “testing the boundaries” with me like a human adolescent. Some of that may be true. I kind of laugh when it happens and gently tell my mare that might not be the best idea… I will continue to treat my horse with the respect she deserves, but she also has to respect me, not because I’m smarter, but because it is my job to keep her safe and to make sure she is a good citizen at the large boarding barn. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what we all know deep down. She and I are partners and I will never give up that relationship that has for the last year been built on trust. I will always look for her fear and anxiety first, and see it for what it is and respond accordingly, which is to tell her clearly and confidently that all is well. Your words will be printed out and hung in my own barn… once I have one! Thank you, Anna Blake!

    • It’s a tough thing to teach kids and lesson horses are generally saints, so respect for that. Children don’t have fully developed muscle control so it’s a challenge for any horse. But does horses test boundaries? Trickery and deceit are frontal lobe tasks and horses don’t have that brain function. The chances of a saddle fit issue is more likely than “attitude” so keep listening. Your mare is so young, it isn’t a crime to be immature. Keep listening, and thanks, Kathy

      • “It isn’t a crime to be immature.” Love that. Will use. I am a nut about saddle fit so hear you on that. I’m no expert so I know enough to call one in. So many ‘nasty’ behaviors are simply because of pain. If you ever want to do a thing on saddle fit this is an excellent video from a European Master Saddle Fitter. talking about what an ill fitting saddle can do to horse and rider. And what to look for to properly fit a saddle. Really good: If these links don’t work, just look for: 9 steps of saddle fit on You Tube by Schleese Saddlery. I’ll keep listening. Please keep teaching.

  9. Thanks Anna. I’m a little late to read this week. A old homeless dog came to live with us last week. In human terms he is very whiny. As he settles in and we figure out his needs he is so less so (of course!) My patience is there for him because of reading your encouragement over the years. Even at 3 AM! Thankfully we are into warm weather so I don’t have to suit up to take him out. ? The whole family here says THANKS for writing ? TAZ

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