A Short List of Things Horses Don’t Need Us to Teach Them.

If Edgar Rice Burro were to title this Bev Doolittle-like photo, he might call it Beauty and the Beast. He lives with this mare, but she is always fussy about something. She’s a huge control enthusiast and it wears him down. The mare has no ears to speak of and an overly dramatic tail. She may be capable of a good mutual neck-chew from time to time, but she’s a little too prancy for his taste. Gray mares are insufferable.

I’m sure you can guess what Clara thinks. The donkey is coarse, and for crying out loud, he doesn’t even care to pick up his feet. His ears are so unwieldy that they probably poke him in the eye on windy days. Although Edgar can open any gate on the farm, she’s certain he isn’t nearly as smart as she is. Because really, no one is.

Maybe you look at this photo and say, “Gadzooks! Perfect head position.” Edgar nods a thank you. Contrary to Clara’s opinion, he’s just as right as she is.

Equines don’t sit around talking about humans and we should be glad of it. If they did, I think they might call us control enthusiasts and not as smart as we think we are. They’d complain that we fight their common sense and work to diminish their strength. They might say humans have an exaggerated definition of what needs training. Clearly, humans are mistaken about who needs training, says every mare of any color.

Here is short list of the things horses do not need us to teach them:

1. How to walk, trot, and canter. They are born knowing how, landing with three gaits on the first day. Sure, the canter was wobbly, with too much up-and-down and not much here-to-there. It takes a while before foals connect to the earth enough to make large strafing runs at their mothers, but they are born to run. At the same time, why do horses fight our hands when we ask for a trot? Why do we think so many horses have problems with their canter depart? Especially when they lift to the canter effortlessly in the pasture.

2. Horses would like us to understand that they know how to hold their own heads. That we’re silly to focus on the 10% of their bodies in front of their ears when their hindquarters are the real deal. Of the total body mass of a horse, why do we need to micromanage that last 4 inches of the muzzle? How did the vertical angle of a face become the prize, more important than conformation or biomechanics? It isn’t a rhetorical question for horses. For a horse, a flight animal, it’s all about balance, front to back. Can he catch the earth and move? Balance is the most important ingredient in how relaxed and calm a horse can be, even at a gallop.

In the photo, Clara feels confident with a long neck and a soft poll, the result of a big strong butt, even if the donkey blocking the view of her best asset. Her topline muscle is stronger than the muscle under her neck; she’s lifting her back, engaging her abdominals, so light she floats into motion. Edgar has a straighter shoulder angle, a shorter topline and he uses the muscle under his neck like any self-respecting donkey; he canters with his nose straight out because he’s not a horse, he’s happy to remind you.

Thoroughbreds are built like greyhounds to run with elongated straight bodies that take longer strides, winning races not by taking more steps but by going farther in each stride. Belgian draft horses are built like bulldogs with short necks and broad shoulders built to lean into a harness and pull heavy loads. Some Friesians are tall and lanky, others broad and stout. Arabians vary so much that Egyptian lines can look like a different breed than Polish lines. Variety in the same breed can be extreme. So why do we think an Arabian can jump in the same height a Warmblood does? Why do we ask Quarter Horses to look like Andalusians in the bridle? Why do we try to force horses into a cookie-cutter frame instead of celebrating diversity? It doesn’t mean that Shetland ponies don’t love a good race, or that draft breeds can’t dance in the moonlight. It means it isn’t up to us to position a horse’s head. They have been doing that since they were born, and they know just where it needs to be. They understand that a relaxed back and a push from their hindquarters is what defines their head position, not a bit or human hands. The correct head position is a result of freedom of movement, at liberty in the pasture or under saddle. A soft poll is a gift of balance and trust, not a demand for contact with aggressive hands.

3. The last thing on the short list is the one we humans do by instinct that horses fear most personally. We think we must teach horses to give to pressure. They certainly don’t do it naturally, any more than humans do. That’s what all the domination tug-of-war is about. Why do we train generally peaceful animals to fight the reins? Not just fight them, why do we train them to lose the fight? It shatters their confidence to relinquish control of their bodies. Then their anxiety makes them dangerous to us. You’d think we’d figure out cause and effect at some point. Wouldn’t it be better if we stopped bothering their faces; if we trained ourselves to not pressure horses and instead, work in partnership with them? “Who died and made you boss?” said every mare, stallion, and gelding fighting for balance and autonomy. Head position is only language, balance during a moment in time, as is their sentient right. Instead of disobedience, think Calming Signal. Respond with softness; let the horse know you are not a threat.

Want to try an experiment about forward? Look here: Give him his head.

A few moments after the photo was taken, Edgar Rice Burro has his neck stretched out long and low to take full advantage of the fingernails working the dock of his tail. By then, Clara has heard an inaudible sound or senses a whiff of blood in the air. She tenses her poll, lifting her nose, her job is never done. She snorts and scans the horizon for lurking coyotes or predatory plastic bags galloping along with the prairie wind.


Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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24 thoughts on “A Short List of Things Horses Don’t Need Us to Teach Them.”

  1. I love the way your verbal descriptions and the exercises you suggest (like in “Give Him His Head”) all point me to awareness of my body and of my horse’s body. On a visceral level, not a thinking level. Less is more! Less action and more awareness. It’s a lesson I hear from you over and over, and it has deepened my connection with my horses in so many ways. Thank you!

    • Thanks Susan. Hard to connect with a horse intellectually when they connect through body language. Glad you’re seeing progress.

  2. Brilliant article. Would that it was read and properly digested by anyone who comes within ten feet of a horse.
    Thank you.

  3. I do not have a horse in my life. I just love to read what you write. Frankly, it can apply to lot more than horses. It is always interesting to me that when I am in need of the lesson, here you come with it.

  4. “It shatters their confidence to relinquish control of their bodies”….
    You superbly put yourself “in the horses shoes” once again with an observation that gives us all something to think about! Thanks again Anna.

  5. Another lovely “lesson”! So true & I agree with Jess – for anyone within 10 feet of a horse – should be a learned one. Sad how many people havent learned it.

  6. Love this. True story – I worked with a trainer once who I liked in a lot of ways but she had a thing about the giving to pressure and was trying to demonstrate that my Hanoverian (she mostly worked with Arabians) had “all his instinct trained out of him” because she was asking him to release to the pressure of the rein from the ground. I was standing beside her as she pulled the rein and he kept his head where it was. She insisted this was evidence that he was poorly trained, which admittedly ticked me off, not that I had trained him, but he’s such a great horse overall, responsive to the degree that I really never even USE the traditional rein aids. He was looking at me with the eye of a horse saying “would you PLEASE get this woman away from me?” I asked her what it was she wanted him to do and she said “give to this pressure.” So I looked at Keil Bay and said, Keil, would you please just turn your head to her so she knows you will do it if asked nicely? And he did. She said, well that doesn’t prove anything, he just did it because you asked him to verbally. :0 I said, well, since I’m a human, and speak English, and he has learned to understand and respond to my language, I feel like he’s pretty advanced overall. Good grief. The piece de resistance (sorry no French markings) was when she asked to ride him and I said okay. He flagged his tail and trotted around like the Arabians she rode and trained, looking nothing at all like himself, but pleasing her greatly. I thought that was hilarious and for me, pure evidence of his sense of humor and good-natured personality. If colluding with my horse against trainers who are not listening and watching the horse standing right in front of them, even when their pet theories don’t work on him, is wrong, then so be it. Keil Bay and I are partners in that crime. :)))

    • Partners it is. Just for reference, my mentor would have broken her wrist for asking when the horse wasn’t moving forward. I flinched for that trainer when reading… and my mentor rode arabians. Thanks, Billie. Love your comments.

  7. Every equine blesses you for this post! My response to “A Short List of Things Horses Don’t Need Us to Teach Them” was “everything.” Horses know how to do everything from the moment they hit the ground. As you pointed out, they know how to move, hold their head, use their back/butt muscles, etc. Humans just sorta need to get out of their way so horses can do what comes naturally to them. I’ve seen beautiful dressage done without any tack and a soft human on their back – what a difference from what you see in dressage competitions (horses with their heads tied to their necks, two bits, foaming at the mouth, swishing tails, stilted movements, riders so tense they might explode – it’s amazing to me these horses can even stand up). Keep speaking on the horses’ behalf and imparting the great lessons for us mere humans, Anna!

  8. I realize what Edgar’s color pattern is as well as Bandito’s, my donkey. It’s camo-to disappear in the winter-brown vegetation patchy with snow.

  9. I like this so much. I sometimes just sit and think about how much more intelligent my horses are than I might have imagined at some point. I love seeing them figure something out without my assistance. I think humans tend to want things to happen quickly, and when it doesn’t, to step in and try to MAKE it happen.

    I have learned so much from your writing. Keep on keeping on please !!!

    • I agree, seeing them figure something out keeps me spellbound. So intelligent. Thanks, Sarah. (I think after I die, my hands will keep typing.) 🙂

  10. Anna, acknowledging what we don’t need to teach our horses made me think about what we do need to teach them. An example that came to mind is asking a horse to yield his feet. I have 2 horses with unknown histories, and both are uncomfortable with yielding feet. Your current writing helped to remind me to step back and remember to observe the wisdom horses posses. My rogue boys do love grooming and after a lovely session I decided to ask for a rear foot on my horse who hates yielding his fronts. He yielded effortlessly. I focused on what he knows and has comfort with as a hopeful pathway to show him his fronts will be respected as well. Horses know best. And working with what they know gives me hope.

    • First, what a great blog idea. And second, I think you are doing it right. Perhaps he has some pain that hurts if either front foot is lifted…but beyond that, it’s about trust. I wish he’d come along quicker to trust you, but he doesn’t care what I think. He cares about feeling safe. Feet are a big deal, he’s right. Keep the faith, Laurie.


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