Can’t vs Won’t – the confident horse…….

Can't vs Won't - the confident horse.......

Many trainers talk of the different between “wont “and “cant”—and this can be a very useful way of thinking.  If you look at your horse when you are asking them to do something, and can see the difference in their eyes, nose, mouth – and whole posture and see when they are saying “I can’t do that” rather than “I won’t do that” – this is great information in helping you develop your relationship with your horse.

The story of Tia and the trimmer was a good example of seeing a  ”can’t” and that realisation , that it was  can’t and not a won’t , was the key to helping her become easier  — and safer! – to trim.

So what is a “can’t”?  A “can’t” is when your horse wants to do what you are asking – -but isn’t able to for some reason.  Maybe you are asking them to go over a jump – and they are refusing it: this could be because they can’t sort their body out to jump safely, or they are worried about touching the jump and so they are stressed – or it might be that they are so worried about getting it wrong, and being corrected, that they daren’t even try to do what you want them to do.  As you can see, the can’t can be physical, emotional or mental….all these can’ts lead to a horse who can sometimes appear to be stubborn, resistant, argumentative – when in fact all they are doing is the best they CAN do – and they just cannot do what you want right now.

How can you tell if it’s a cant?

Learning to read your horse is so important in this – and one way to learn to read the can’ts is to do ground work that asks your horse to do difficult things – and watch what they do when this happens. One of the benefits of the ground games like the labyrinth, pole work, or the games of natural horsemanship – is that it puts your horse in situations that apply a little stress, in a safe way.  For example, asking your horse to walk across a tarp can be a great opportunity to learn to read your horse. Whether your horse crosses the tarp or not is almost irrelevant – what is important is can you watch your horse as you ask him to put a foot on the scary object – and learn to read when he is worried, when he is concerned, when he is asking you a question and when he has switched off or gone inside himself and you have lost that connection.

The photo for this article shows Barney asking a very clear question about stepping into the water – clearly she is not happy about doing it, and is asking her human a question.

Look at your horse’s eyes: are they wrinkled above? Are they soft and liquid (like they are on a sunny day when you are just hanging out together) or are they slightly tight, tense – and look as if your horse has gone inside himself rather than looking out and about him?

Look at the nostrils: are they the same as they are when he is just hanging out with a cocked leg – or are they wider, tighter – with some wrinkles above one or both?

Look at the mouth – is the lower lip loose, are the lips just loosely touching each other – or is it clamped tight, with – yes, you guessed it, wrinkles at the corners…..

Look at the head – is it low, high? Relaxed or tense?

And look at the whole horse – compare him when he is half asleep leg cocked, to how he is when there is a scary noise, or object –

Is he ignoring the object, looking anywhere except at it – or is he curious about it?

The point isn’t to get him over the tarp – the point is to USE the exercise of going over the tarp to get to KNOW what your horse looks like when he is worried, stressed, concerned – when he is saying “I can’t do this…..”

Because if he is saying “I can’t do this” – the only logical answer is – “That’s ok, let me work out how I can help you…..” and as humans, we can take a step back and think how we can make the task easier, how we can build our horse’s confidence so he believes he CAN do it, or how we can support our horse so he is physically capable of doing the task.

I often have people say to me they have problems when their horse canter s—maybe they are bucking in the transition, or struggling to get the “right “lead.  And usually when I go and play with their horse online, what I see is a horse that is simply trying to get the balance right and, at the moment, is not physically able to offer a smooth canter transition, or the right lead – he needs some exercises to build up and develop the muscles that will make that action easier – this is an example of a physical can’t

Sometimes people say to me their horse “won’t “ go through puddles – he always goes around them.  When I go and play with these horses I often find that they are unconfident about putting their feet in a place where their vision means they can’t SEE how deep it is, or if it is safe – and they are having to trust the human that it is a safe thing to do.  By working with them to slowly build their trust and confidence in what their human is asking of them using various exercises and games, they grow in confidence and end up able to happily walk around OR through a puddle depending on what their human is asking of them – -this is an example of a mental can’t.

Tia was an example of an emotional “can’t” – when her leg was held by the trimmer, she felt stressed, panicked and worried that she wasn’t safe, and so became aggressive – to defend herself.  By using a lot of friendlying and patience, and proving that we were listening to her, she realised she WAS safe, that nothing bad was going to happen and so was able to relax and allow herself to be trimmed.

In my human coaching, I have a fundamental belief that every one of us does the best we can with the resources we have.  This is a key value for my coaching and my life as a whole.

So – what happens when I apply this same belief to horses?

If I believe that every horse does the best they can with the resources they have – then what happens to my system of separating “can’t” from “won’t”?

Isn’t “won’t” – just another form of “can’t”?

Even a  won’t is just a cant on another level.

When I am asking a horse to do something – and that horse clearly says “I WON’T do that” – either by standing still, appearing stubborn, or by reacting and pushing into me to avoid the request….

What if that is just another form of “can’t” do it?

From the psychological point of view, a “won’t” can be seen as just a lazy way of say “can’t be motivated to…..”

If you have a horse who you feel is saying “what’s in it for me?” or “why should I?” – that could be seen as a won’t – or it could be seen as “I can’t motivate myself to do it…..I can’t see the point in doing this….” –

Why does this matter?

When we think a horse “won’t” do something, where does it lead us?

For many of us it leads us to frustration, arguments, and “making” the horse do it… leads to escalation and force rather than softness and lightness…..

Whereas when we think a horse “can’t” do something, it leads us to “how can I help you?”

That is a huge difference in mindset – and impact on our horse….

Nowadays, when I meet a horse who “won’t” do something – who seems stubborn, a bit of a “why should I?” attitude….

….instead of thinking “this horse won’t do that, what shall I do to get him to do it”…

…I think – “hmm, this horse can’t see why he would want to do this thing – how can I help him see a point in doing this? How can I help him realise there is a better, easier way to be – how can I make doing this easier for him?”

And you know what – it becomes easier for both of us.

As someone I respect once told me – there is only one part of the human body that is larger than the same part in a horse’s body – and that is the brain.

And when I think of even the worst “won’t” as a “can’t”—then I am using the power of my brain to help my horse find a better, easier way of being with me – which is a win/win for both of us….

How will changing your view of the “won’ts”  to “can’ts” help you and YOUR horse?

Yours, in confidence



13 thoughts on “Can’t vs Won’t – the confident horse…….

  1. And of course Barney was quite happy to go into the water and splash around on a previous day thus making it even more important to respect
    her current lack of confidence!

  2. It definitely helps me to think Tia can’t do something… Yet. I’m learning to read all those little wrinkles. And of course you discovered that she will try very hard for a polo!

    • Hi Cheryl —

      yes the motivation of a treat can work wonders for many horses, once they are not too scared of what is being asked….. who thought wrinkles would be so important?


  3. Hello Cathy. I’ve recently subscribed to your confidence blogs and I am thoroughly enjoying them. A friend passed on your details some time ago when I was really struggling with my own confidence issues. I follow Parelli Natural Horsemanship and own a LBI/LBE pony but as a RBI myself, I struggle with confidence almost daily. Cracker can switch from LB to RB in a nano-second when the environment changes, for example, and I struggle being the leader he then requires – having not been looking for a leader up to that point. In the school, he is always a typical LBI and can only be motivated by treats. Having read this current blog, I shall try to think of can’t rather than the usual won’t this week and let you know how things transpire. Thanks for your time in writing such useful material and sharing your knowledge with us.

    • Thanks for subscribing Elaine — having subscribers makes a difference to how the blog is viewed and measured so that’s great! A lot of the people I work with follow natural horsemanship — and its difficult when you and your horse don’t match very well! let me know how this weekend goes for you!


  4. I wish I had known, 8 years ago what I know now, I would not have pushed my dear friend so hard! I think he forgives me now though! 🙂

    • Ah almost every day I apologise to the horses I knew before I knew what I know now LOL — seriously though, I do feel for the horses who have taught me so much and that’s part of my drive to be the best horse person I can be for the horses I have now


    • you know Connie — you are right there! and it is one of the vicious cycles of the whole confidence thing: you lose confidence so do less with your horse, so your horse becomes bored — and then they act in a way that doesnt inspire confidence and so it goes on!
      This is where the ground work can be SO useful – -keeping a horse stimulated and progressing while you work on your own issues can make a huge difference when you are ready to get back on again


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