I’ll never forget the day my horse refused that barrel jump. I was 13 yrs old and my parents gifted me my first horse. A bay Quarter Horse gelding named Mission. He was a total dream.
Mission and I did everything together – jumping, pleasure, trail, and even barrel racing. During one of our lessons he cantered up to the barrel jump and slammed on the breaks. I thought “that was odd.” We reapproached and he refused again.
My coach insisted I smack my horse – over and over with the crop. We reapproached the jump and refused again. This cycle of smacking and refusing repeated several times before I gave up.
I felt awful.
I never wanted to take lessons with that coach again… even though we had had many good years together.
My gut told me there was a reason that Mission was saying no – and I wasn’t listening.
Several months later I was able to jump the barrel jump with a different coach – we had been working on building up the confidence of Mission and I together. When the day came to try the barrel jump, it was a total breeze. Mission cantered up to the jump and leaped over like it was nothing. I was over the moon excited.
Over the next decade I was obsessed with understanding horses better. I wanted to know why they said no, and what I could do to help. I wanted to figure out how I could develop a relationship that had trust, respect, and a likeness for each other.
My dream relationship with horses is to have my horse willing to try, we trust each other, and yet I am still the leader of the relationship for safety…. But I don’t want this to come with a feeling of force, intimidation, or having a battle that pushes my horse to a place of wanting to get rid of me.
I really just want to get along, and yet have influence over my horse in a positive way.
Challenging the Concept of “Ask, Tell, Demand”
I was fed up with the notion that we should just smack our horse if they aren’t doing what we want. So many times I’ve heard the mantra “ask, tell, demand” or “add more pressure until you get what you want.” That just doesn’t make sense.
What if your horse is scared? How is more pressure going to help a horse that is legitimately scared? Pushing a scared horse usually causes them to explode and become very reactive putting both the horse and handler in danger of getting hurt.
What if your horse is confused? How is adding more pressure going to help your horse understand what you want? Pushing a horse that is confused usually causes them to become scared and reactive because they don’t understand what their options are. This also put the horse and handler at risk for getting hurt.
Horses can literally “scare themselves stupid” meaning that they get so scared and emotional that they stop thinking logically. They will literally flip themselves over, fall off the side of a cliff, thrash themselves into a fence, etc in an attempt to escape the pressure. Many horses have died or been injured because they were trying to escape pressure from a trainer.
The idea of adding more pressure to get what you want is dangerous. It’s dangerous because most people don’t recognize when it’s too much pressure until it’s too late.
Adding more pressure is also a lot like being a strategic bully – pushing, shoving, nudging, incrementally. This makes your horse nervous in new situations, reactive, quick to leave you, and if you aren’t a very balanced rider you are likely going to fall off (or if handling from the ground and likely to get stepped on, knocked over, or run off from).
Luckily there is a much better way to respond to “no” that promotes trust between horse and human, and teaches your horse to stay calm and think through situations.
4 Reasons why a Horse Says No
I discovered there are 4 main reasons a horse says no, and depending why they say no changes the best way to respond and help them say yes.
The 4 main reasons a horse says no:
Imagine if you are scared of something. Now imagine your teacher screaming, pushing, hitting, shoving, or pressuring you to complete the task. How does that make you feel?
The biggest problem with adding more pressure when a horse (or human) is already scared is that it pushed you into an emotional state, and if pushed too far you turn “black” into a panic state of fight or flight. It stops you from learning and being logical. It puts the horse (or human) at huge risk for hurting themselves as they try to escape the pressure.
The other big issue with adding more pressure when your horse is scared, is that it creates a negative loop in the brain. That means if you smack your horse several times at the water to make them cross it, the next time your horse sees water they are likely to start panicking even before you get to it. This means a display of dangerous behaviour like rearing, bolting, pulling away and you haven’t even touched the water yet.
When a horse is confused, they are trying, they just don’t understand what you want. In that instance it’s not fair to add more pressure. If you start getting aggressive with pressure when your horse tries something but gets the answer wrong, you are going to discourage your horse from trying and learning new things in the future. This can really halt your progress but also create more issues to overcome.
Sometimes we ask our horses to do something but then we realize they can’t. It could be because they physically can’t do the task we asked (not fit enough, is injured/sore, etc), the equipment or environment could be affecting them (saddle pinching, reins are too tight, footing is too slippery), or it could be a mental block (for example asking the horse to jump a 3ft jump but they’ve only been working on poles so they don’t know how to organize their feet to jump that high).
No matter which reason your horse can’t do something, if you pressure your horse into trying it anyway your horse (and potentially you) are at risk for getting seriously hurt.
- Doesn’t want to
Sometimes your horse just doesn’t feel like doing something – they would rather be outside sunbathing, grooming with friends, or grazing. This is the one scenario where pressure and release can work if done carefully – but if you use too much pressure it’s going to cause the horse to fight back with bucking, bolting, or other behaviours that really aren’t safe.
There are different signals and body language cues a horse does which reveal which reason they are saying no.
It is important to take a moment and figure out why your horse is saying no.
How to help your horse say Yes
- Scared = Wait
If a horse is scared, they generally need time to think and realize the request is okay to do. Be patient – even if it takes 5-30 minutes. Allow your horse time to process the information. Be politely encouraging them to try in a supportive way. The more you are patient with your horse, the more they will begin to trust you. As you build trust your horse will become faster at completing scary requests.
- Confused = Clarify
When the horse doesn’t understand, we need to think how we could make the answer more clear. Maybe our body language isn’t giving the cues properly, maybe we haven’t broken the task into smaller pieces yet to help them know what to do.Put the focus on helping your horse understand the answer rather than forcing it. This will encourage your horse to keep trying and how to be a better thinker.
- Can’t = Adjust
If you realize your horse can’t do something, it’s time to adjust. This means you could lower the jump, make the trailer more inviting, ask for a simple lead change instead of a flying lead change, etc. The idea is to adjust so that you ask for a less difficult version of the same task. This helps your horse still accomplish your request in some way.
- Doesn’t Want to = Motivate
Motivating a horse is a tricky balance. Usually it’s a mix of annoying your horse to try something, and then rewarding your horse greatly for their efforts. Positive reinforcement is a game changer in developing motivation in horses and has been proven to speed training by about 4 times. This is where some pressure and release makes sense – but pressure applied carefully so you don’t overwhelm the horse and push them into an emotional state.
To learn more about the 4 Reasons why a Horse says no with examples of the different the types of “no” check out the virtual masterclass or visit HarmonyHorsemanship.com to learn more.
By Lindsey Partridge
Founder of Harmony Horsemanship
Global leader in Equine Relationships trusted by Professional and Olympic riders
Multiple time champion and reserve champion for both Mustang and Thoroughbred Makeovers
Horse Wrangler for feature films and media