• Back to Basics Horsemanship

Showing a horse that you're listening

Updated: May 21, 2020

Something that's also really important is showing the horse you're listening. To me, having a horse isn't about the horse being in the "military" - It's not about you being the commander and them just taking your orders, to me it's a partnership. I want to know when my horse is uncomfortable or unsure and I want to give them a chance to relax and become comfortable with the situation rather than just saying "well, get over it".

Situation A: This starts with your approach and them turning their head to block you from reaching their side. Most people will gently use their hand to move the horses head out of the way and continue with their plan. BUT what if, in that moment, you paused what you were doing, dropped your shoulders, stopped being so "mission oriented" and gave them a moment to think? Some horses, that have more baggage, may block you "forever" - so do this process when you have nothing else that you actually need to do with them - they will eventually let you (may take way more than one session). For some horses your approach was just too quick or unexpected and they need a moment to process. Some horses may feel that you are exuding way too much mission based energy and they need for you to calm down a bit to feel comfortable. So, What do you do? You approach your horse, say to groom on the left side of their body (so your right), they turn their head (or even whole body) so now your path is blocked. Now, 1. recognize that they just blocked you 2. stop your approach 3. back up a step or two 4. think about your approach/mind set/energy level 5. observe the horses reaction* 6. once the horse seems relaxed again try again - still respecting their opinion and repeating the steps over and over - possibly with a short walk break in between. Your mind set shouldn't be mission based - "must get to left side", but rather just relaxed "lets just hang out". * in the beginning, especially if you're shut down, they may be confused about what you're doing - they're so used to just having their head pushed out of the way that you pausing throws them off a bit. So they may test this new "theory" of theirs a couple times - but eventually they'll understand. Phoenix, when I 1st got her was fairly shut down, ornery, rude, pushy and overall hard to handle. In retrospect is see that I was very mission based from the get go with her and never worked on an actual relationship. I had plans and just expected her to do it. OOPS.... So one day I just came to her stall and tried approaching her. She had a slight shift in posture, her ears shifted, he body tightness increased - I froze! took a step back, and just sat down. She was VERY confused at 1st, but eventually actually came over to me, checked me out, then walked off and continued eating. Eventually I got up and did it again - I got less of a change but still noticed a shift, so I froze and sat again. I probably repeated this process about 5x. By the end I was "allowed" to touch her face. Then I left. I came back about an hour later and tried again; this time not sitting down. She only blocked me once and then let me approach. She has been a completely different horse ever since.

Situation B:

You're riding your horse (or leading it) and then stop or tense up and look at something. Most horses would pull on the lead rope or ask them to move on. What if you allow them that momentary pause to think about what's going on? If their anxiety builds and they need to move, you can redirect their thoughts to going elsewhere. Again - I bet you're picking up a theme here - your energy needs to be quiet - just because your horses energy went up doesn't mean yours needs to. Even when redirecting - don't think "oh no! must go this way, must go that way". You need to just think "lets walk over here [about perpendicular from the source of the worry]" as if there was nothing influencing your decision to go there. Also, a note, don't try to micro manage the horses every move (this goes in general too - as long as they're being respectful and safe - that may be the most you can hope for), the more you micro manage the more stress you're putting into the situation. Just keep redirecting their focus back to you by wiggling the leadrope or changing your direction while keeping your energy low

If the horse just stopped but doesn't want to move, just give them the time they need to process. If you feel worried do the previous step. If you know what they're worried about isn't something to be scared of (truly), then don't change anything (don't shorten your reins, or get a better grip on the lead rope), don't ask them to keep moving or move at all - just let them stop and think!

Griffin sometimes doesn't like crossing water - but if you let him pause and look at it he'll happily walk through it without a further fuss. Moon sometimes gets really worried about seeing other horses out on trail, or big groups of people (especially if they have dogs too) - If you "tell" her to keep moving or do quick tight circles or even let her stop but I tighten the reins and my body it escalates the situation and she gets really frazzled - if I relax, even drop the reins to the buckle and just let her stop and watch for a while she will shortly thereafter drop her head, do a big exhale and walk on all on her own.

Situation C:

You want to go out on trail but your horse refuses to go any further! NOPE, NO WAY, NOT DOING IT!! Again, most would respond with "oh, get over it! MOVE"

1st off - don't get frustrated - remember my theme? keep your energy low.

consider why this location? is it always this location? Why now? Why not earlier or further down the trail?

For purposes of the example I'm going to go with that the refusal always happens in about the same place because the horse is simply unsure of what's ahead.

So, instead of pushing your horse on - 1st, again, let them stop and think, 2 - back off that point - fall back 25 feet (for example) and just allow them to stand there and be relaxed (not eating, not fussing - just relaxed (check out the other blog about the exercise of doing nothing). When their energy is down move towards that spot again - this time your goal, though, is to turn back before they balk or at the 1st hint at tension - and go back to taking a pause. You may need to to that a few more times - just pay attention to their energy - they'll tell you what they need. If their tension doesn't build go past that point a little bit - paying close attention to their body language! If they change pause (at this point you may be able to just ask them to stop and pause rather than turn back) if they don't, I'd like for you to decide on a spot and turn around there and go back home.

Your horse will notice that you're paying attention and actually respect their opinion.

Disclaimer: this isn't a softie approach, this isn't about "but you'll never get anything done if you always listen to your horses opinion" .... This is simply about showing them that you're listening. Once you have their trust, you can ask them to do new things and even things they don't want to do. All I'm saying is that you can ask nicely or you can have a fight about it. Asking nicely and listening will set you up for more willingness the next time you want something they may not like. By force you'll have a discussion every time.

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