Questions, questions — and how they can really help your confidence….

Questions, questions -- and how they can really help your confidence....

Questions, Questions……How to improve your own AND your horse’s confidence…


One thing I have noticed that affects our confidence when we are with our horses or with other people, is  knowing which questions to ask.


How many times have you heard someone really interesting, and want to ask them something – but don’t quite know how to say the question?  Or you are worried the question will sound stupid?


This not knowing how to phrase questions can make a big difference with our horses too


After all, if we don’t know how to ask clearly – why do we expect them to answer clearly?


As I said on a recent photo-quote I put on my facebook page, “sometimes we criticize the answers our horses offer us without wondering about the quality of our questions”.


First of all, let’s explore wy questions are SO much easier and better for our confidence than commands.

When we say to our horse “GO THERE!”, “DO THIS”   or even “DO THIS PLEASE” – in our mind this is a binary things:  the horse either does it, or they don’t.  This puts us in a difficult situation – if they DO it, great – -bt if they DON’t – -we are kind of stuck – and using commands means that if our horse doesn’t do it, they are being disobedient, disrespectful – and so it all becomes an argument – which is not good for anyone’s confidence.

In  a post two weeks ago I wrote about how difficult it is to run life using binary code – with things that are black/white, yes/no and right/wrong.  (the post was called Bardo – the space between)

When you give a command, the horse can only BE right or wrong – -and that is not really fair to the horse.

Especially when we are teaching something new


So what if we changed the binary to a scale – how could we interact with our horse in a way that gives a SCALE instead of a binary reponse?


Simple:  we ask a question.

If instead of saying “BACK UP!” I say “hmmm, how well can you back up today?”  or even “How IS your back up today?”

I have instantly created a scale.

And if my horse backs up – I can rate it from 1-10 in quality (straightness, softness, rhythm, regularity, enthusiasm) – -and then I can think of how can we work together to help you improve that back up

And that changes the WHOLE dynamic of the relationship – instead of it being about right and wrong, and about making my horse obey me – it becomes seeing where my horse is today and then thinking about how  we can work TOGETHER to change things.


This is a huge mindset shift for most of us – but it is important for confidence because it changes the situation from confrontational to collaborative – and working in partnership with your horse is MUCH more confidence building than being in an argument with them.


When I work or play with horses, I am very careful to think in terms of questions.  Sometimes it is a simple question “what do you think I am asking you when I do this?”  to see if we have a common language

Sometimes it is more of a “CAN you do this yet?” when asking for a movement and I want to see if their balance allows them to do it, or if I am asking them to do something that they haven’t done before

Sometimes it is a “how do you feel about doing this?” when I want to help them – for example I often ask this question in trailer loading – if I find out how they feel about it, then I can come up with a plan for helping them feel differently….

Sometimes it is “how much does me doing this help you understand my question?”  when I am using body language to make it clearer what I am asking


What is the difference to the HORSE when we ASK instead of ORDER?

To be honest, I don’t know.  No one really knows what goes on inside a horse’s mind.  I can say that I personally feel a HUGE difference between being told to do something (it makes me instantly brace and feel like saying no)  and being asked to do something (I generally think about it and do it) – so I could assume my horse feels the same

What I CAN say is that when I coach people to change from ordering to asking, and when people get the hang of  using questions to create the scale – I see their horses change.

The horses relax, become less bracy (less “armoured”)  and try harder to understand their human.  Their eyes soften, the demeanour shifts – and they learn quicker too.

Interestingly, the humans change too.  Guess how?  We become softer in our body language, more relaxed (after all we are only asking a question, and we are asking a question without a “no”!) we pay closer attention to our horse’s efforts to understand us – our eyes soften, our demeanour shifts and yes, we learn quicker too.


In a way this post is about yet another way to be NON-confrontational….and yet still be a leader….

If you ask good questions, that your horse finds easy to answer – and you keep the questions interesting – then your horse is going to look forward to being with you and WANT to work with you – -and that is very confidence inspiring.


Since we are talking about how changing our mindset from orders to questions can change ourselves and our horses – how much going from binary to a scale can make a difference – there is another one to think about.


How does saying “thank you” rather than “good boy” change things…..for you AND your horse…


I’d love to see your thoughts on that in the comments below….


Yours, in confidence






24 thoughts on “Questions, questions — and how they can really help your confidence….

  1. Excellent article. I have been trying to find a different way of communicting with my horse and I think you have actually put it into words! No right or wrong, but how well do we understand each other and how are we working together. Sometimes I feel he is trying to tell me things and I don’t always realise until later. Need to listen more openly.

    • Hi Joanne — I am glad it has helped – -I often find that I will be home in the evening and suddenly realise my horse was trying to tell me something earlier…

      it’s a journey 🙂


  2. The post on Touch made me realize how grabby (and rude!) I must seem to my mixed bag of animals. And now this one gives me a way to stop being bossy-and frustrated when the animals don’t respond as I’ve ‘ordered’ them.

    Now I’ve got more things to try and do. And new habits to replace some old ones.

    • Hi — thanks for the comment — I like the idea of having new habits to replace old ones – -we all sort of “know” what we are not supposed to do, but having an idea what TO do instead is often hard to work out!

      will bear that in mind for other articles too


      • I’d love to take credit for the idea but I got it from the book Smart Thinking by Art Markman. And it works fairly well-instead of not doing X and then having a vacancy where all you do is think about X, you do Y to take up the slack.

  3. That was exactly what I needed to hear when I needed to hear it. As I begin (continue really) training my horse into a discipline that he really struggles with, I find myself losing confidence in both of us, which darn sure doesn’t help his confidence either. He was a roping horse, ridden like a freight train most of his life. Lead changes were not needed, flexation and softness have never been part of his vocabulary. Compound that with what ever traumatic event it was that now has him terrified of ropes, and you can see that I am trying to heal a horse that is mentally broken. If I was a better more experienced rider, this might be easier for him, but I’m not so we struggle. Doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made, but it is very very slow progress.

    So now taking what you just wrote and applying it to what we are trying to do, perhaps I will get further. Perhaps if I ask what he can do instead of insisting that he do, we can both relax and communicate better.
    Thank you.

    • Hi Cindy – – you are doing an amazing thing helping a horse find himself again – glad if this or any other article on the blog helps in any way – keep us up to date with how you get on x


  4. Hmm lots to think about as always 🙂 I try not to be confrontational with Amigo, to say uh-uh with a smile rather than NO, but today I could have asked how he felt about letting me have the rubble bag back (used to drag forage and bedding around field/yard/barn) instead I said ‘back -up please’ with a porcupine to help, I could see he was wanting to play – poor lad, I;ll do better on Monday!

    • It’s a journey Margaret — as you can probably see from my own writings over the past year!

      as long as we are always trying to do better we are going to get there x


  5. Another thoughtful blog Cathy! I love the way these blogs make me think about how my mare and I interact. Just yesterday I asked her ‘How about going over there to ride?’ It was an area we hadn’t been thru in a while, many downed logs to go over and in a tight space. She looked in the direction and answered with her body and her mind: ‘I think I’d like to go there too’ and went there with purpose and a lovely forward walk. She gave a great contented sigh when we went thru, as if to say ‘Hey we did this together!’ It is so much fun to play with her! Thanks again for these thought provoking blogs!

    • thanks Mary – – I am glad they are thought provoking. Most of them come from being with clients and students and then something happens that feels like it could be written about and of interest to more people – interesting to see that works better than sitting and coming up with something on my own….

      Love those contented sighs….


  6. Yes, absolutely. My gelding hates it when I tell him but is usually willing to do it when I ask. Can’t blame him, I am much the same. I tend to say please and thank you too, it helps me keep things as a request. 🙂 My boy lets me know when I have accidentally ‘told’ me; gives me a dirty or hurt look and I apologise and ‘ask’ and I swear he smiles. It is a much nicer and safer way to be together, and both of our confidence has grown.

    • Hi Frances — oh I know those looks! Our horses are willing to share so much with us – including their opinions – -and when that happens it is such a lovely relationship


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  8. I can’t wait to try playing with this new attitude and mindset. Just lately when I have been trying too hard and haven’t had the desired outcome I have found myself getting impatient. Not good. This approach should help avoid that.

    • Hi Gerry — I find this too, especially when I feel time pressure on something. I also do what we talked about on the phone – -if I am doing a lot of days in a row with my horse, I make one day a week a “day off” for her – where SHE gets to choose what we do and all I do is set it up and enjoy it — this really keeps her refreshed and stops me fro over doing it!


  9. Great approach to a more ethical interaction between horse and human.

    I have a question. What is the purpose of the knots on a cowboy tied rope halter?
    Do they imply cooperation and asking, willing response, or are they part of the domination/submission paradigm that we seem to be trying to get away from?

    • Well it depends – some say the purpose is to focus things so if the horse “leans” the knots cause discomfort, so the horse stops leaning.

      Some say the knots make things clearer… A flat web halter communicates over a broad area and the knots on the rope one focus the information more clearly. Just as using a wide leg vs the light touch of a spur to communicate

      Some say a tight halter is kinder as the knots don’t move around, some say a loose halter is kinder as it is less claustrophobic..

      Some say a webbing halter is unfair as it is so easy for a horse to lean that many humans end up using large amounts of force with their horses…

      My view is that ANY tool CAN be used to communicate or dominate….

      And I am happy for clients to find what works for their horse and themselves.

      Good question to get people thinking Don!

  10. Have been asking since I read this Cathy. It’s so weird! For example when I go in the feed room to either get the wheelbarrow or get feed ready, my horse will try and come in with me. Before I have said “Go back” or some such thing but now I say “Would you mind waiting outside for a moment please” and it WORKS!! Then I thank him, it feels so calm and nice! Actually I sound like Sergeant Wilson in Dads Army!!

    • I have, for some years, worked to encourage people toward congruence in communication with the horse.

      When one has a “cue,” and delivers it, it often is unthinking, and often in the middle of a conversation with our very own internal hysterical spastic monkey that jabbers and jabbers. You know, the voice in your head we all hold a dialogue with when we are unfocused.

      This causes our communication to be at best muffled, at worst, incongruent and confusing to the observer-recipient of our message.

      Thus the horse tries to, with his superior sensory and communication assessment skills, to be stuck, confused, and most of all, frustrated with us. And we call his reaction, “bad behavior.”

      Yet if we could integrate all our horse read communications, posture, voice tone, modulation, pitch, facial expressions, movement, heartbeat, respirations AND scent, all the problems would, for the horse, go away. He’d know immediately, elegant and precise communicator that he really is IF we are not being messed with by that hysterical monkey, what we meant.

      So I teach, “Speak Your Thoughts, Emotions, and INTENTIONS,” right out loud. Just as this example offered shows. It is not your choice of words, so much as your clarity of intent as you speak them that the horse can read more fully.

      Please consider this, and with it, learn to breath talk with the horse, as this, even alone, with no sounds, can tell the horse the truth more quickly about your intent than any other channel of communication. But add breath and talking your intentions together and you’ll connect with the horse as never before.

      Pay no attention to those that laugh at you, and watch for them to sneak off and try it with their own horses. LOL

      • Hi Don — want to write a guest blog? The theme of this blog is confidence, and any post or insight linked ot helping people build and sustain their confidence is happily shared here….


  11. I always know I’ve read something good because it makes me think. If I’m not thinking about it later then I probably didn’t get anything from it. This is my first time reading your blog. I really enjoyed it. I’m excited about getting out with my horses and doing things a bit differently. Thank you Cathy!!

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