When your Horse is RIGHT – Part 1

Let’s start this off with a hypothetical (or not so hypothetical) situation. You are riding your horse. You want to turn left, but your horse turns right.

Was your horse wrong to do that?

You answered that question in your head almost immediately after you read it, didn’t you?   In this three part series, we’re going to dig deep into what is really happening in your horse’s mind, and how we can work with that to achieve a consistently positive outcome – for both of you.

What your answer was depends on how you typically conduct yourself in potentially confrontational situations. There are generally three different responses here. Let’s look at them.

The Concept

The Response

Obedience The horse is wrong and is ignoring me.The horse requires training / tuning up / reprimand / etc.
Acceptance Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.  Just laugh about it and move on.
Failure I blame yourself. It has to be my fault! What am I doing wrong?!?

What would you do? What should we do? We’re going to chat about a fourth option.

Lets start by looking at an indisputable fact:

A horse following the rider’s focus.

Whatever your horse does, the have a reason for doing it.

In their mind it is the right thing. A horse’s mind – and then their body, if left to follow a thought – will be drawn to the highest pressure. That might be the gate, a buddy or running in fear.  Read my last article on Teaching Horses to Handle Pressure for some great insight on this.

Here is my thought. You’re both right. You have a good reason for wanting to go left and your horse has a good reason for wanting to go right. If, in your mind, the horse is wrong then you’re having a conversation breakdown. This is no different than having a disagreement with a person, and you choosing not to see things their way – if only to understand how their point is valid to them.

Let’s touch on conversation. What is the most important trait of a good conversationalist? That’s right! Being a good listener. In addition to that, one of the most important jobs of a good leader is causing our followers to want to follow us. The solution – our fourth option – then, is a combination of the two.

One of the biggest blunders we can make – and believe me I’ve made it a million times – is not listening to the horse. It happens. You might be on a trail ride with some buddies and focused on your conversation more than you are your horse. They might be giving you subtle signs, but you’re not picking them up because you’re fixated on your friend’s tale of Facebook drama.

The good thing though, is that we can remedy this easily. The horse has a simple language that doesn’t take us long to learn. If, that is, we commit to learning it.

Let’s look at our example again. We desire a left turn. For that to be successful, we need the following:

  1. Knowledge of where our our horse’s mind is. If they’re under pressure, thinking of escape routes, thinking of a buddy or just about anything else, then one fact is clear: they are NOT thinking of following our focus.
  1. We must present a focus that the horse can follow in the first place. If we don’t provide something to follow then we’re not leading.  If we’re not leading,  it should be no surprise that our horses do what they want. And in my mind, they’re justified in doing so. Watch my Horsemanship Top Ten video on Situational Awareness to learn more. 

Learning to communicate in the language of the horse is a prerequisite to riding, training and coaching.  What I’ve found is that factual knowledge of the horse’s body and mind generally doesn’t find it’s way into conventional conventional rider and horse training.  We’re taught a lot of ‘how’ but not a lot of ‘why’.

Without knowledge, horses are washed out of training programs because they’re misunderstood.  Riders become frustrated.  Let’s change that up.

Stay tuned for Part Two to figure out how we take this dilemma to a great outcome!
Scott Phillips

April 2018

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About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

4 thoughts on “When your Horse is RIGHT – Part 1

  1. Brittney

    This is interesting. As often “issues” or miscommunication that my horse and I experience when I’m not fully aware of a) where my focus or goal is or b) I wasn’t paying full attention to her cues.
    I notice this more when we are riding through an open field rather than a trail. More focus is required because I have no true obvious goal (trail). But if we are weaving through trees and my focus is clear (which two trees are we going to aim between), we have better communication.

    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Excellent! Thanks for sharing. When riding – even in an arena – without a path that’s obvious to the horse, they can struggle with something as seemingly basic as, “Where are we going?” The good news is – we can make that much easier for them 🙂

  2. Sylvia Penner

    This is what it all boils down to. We need to remember to communicate with a horse in a language they understand and not keep assuming they think like we do. 🙂

  3. Charlotte Moller

    This reminds me so vividly of an issue I experienced with my horse at the Trail 2 Clinic in the summer. My horse’s buddy, who had comes with us to the clinic, and who wasn’t participating that day, was back in a paddock while we were navigating the trails. My horse was very focused on missing her friend, and every time we got close to the area where the paddocks were they both started calling to each other
    Suffice it to say her focus was not at all on me, and when we got to the point where we had to turn right she emphatically turned left which was the direction the paddocks were. It is interesting now to read this article and think about how turning left to reunite with her friend, who was clearly missing her, was definitely for her the right and sensible decision!

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