Questions questions part 2: a thinking horse is a safe horse

Questions questions part 2:  a thinking horse is a safe horse

Questions questions part 2:  a thinking horse is a safe horse…


To me, a safe riding horse is one who, when they have a problem, or a concern – turns to me for support or advice.

So if I am hacking out on the trail and my horse sees something that worries her – I want her to turn her head and say to me “hey, I’m a bit worried about that – can you give me a bit of help here?”

A horse who is used to looking to me for support, who trusts me to help them – is a horse who is going to ask ME what to do instead of making her own mind up and napping, spinning, bolting or any other decisions many horses make when they feel it is up to them to keep themselves safe.

I was riding Evie on a long hack one evening – it was a lovely soft evening with the hills and trees bathed in that gentle light that falls from the sun in the hour or so before it sets – and there was so much beauty to soak in.  I asked her to trot – and she did.  On a totally loose rein for about two miles – and then, she slowed, hesitated – and stopped.  She turned her head – and nudged my leg.  I focused – there was a fallen tree across the trail.  Blocking it – -and even worse, there was a mass of flapping white tape flying from all the branches.  She was telling me she was a bit worried about this, and asking me what to do about it.  Now THAT’s the horse I want to ride out on the trail, one who is connected enough that we are talking to each other.  In case you are wondering I had seen this from some time earlier and had just stayed relaxed to see what she would do – and I was very happy with the outcome.  It proved to me that we were partners at last.

For many horses, when they are out on a hack, and something bothers them – they forget about their rider, the rider is irrelevant – all they are thinking is “I have to be safe!” and the only way they know to be safe is to get away from there NOW….


To me that is not a safe horse to ride.


And however many times I play with dustbins, tractors, bicycles and other scary things – to get them used to them so they don’t spook – there will ALWAYS be something I haven’t prepared for – and how can I get my horse used to the unexpected?

The answer is I can’t –


BUT what I CAN do is teach my horse to Stop, think – and ask ME what to do about it….


There is a lot of writing about leadership – -if your horse sees you as a leader they will let you make the decisions.  That sounds great.  What doesn’t sound so great to me is some of the ways you are expected to get that leadership.

I have already written a couple of articles on non-confrontational leadership – and have a great guest blog to share on it soon as well

Let’s have a think about what sort of a leader I want to be:

Do I want to be a leader who barks orders, commands – and my horse just is expected to mechanically obey me?  Do what they are told and that’s it?  Well that might get me compliance – but it won’t get me a willing partner who is as committed to working with me as I am to working with them….

Or do I want to be a leader who has such good ideas, who is always there to help a friend out, and who is always appreciative of effort – that my horse WANTS to work with me, and it wouldn’t cross their mind to do anything else.  Where it is natural for them to look to me to get some suggestions for working through anything.


So how do we get the relationship where our horse sees us as the kind of leader they trust to go to for advice and support?


There are three main things I can do to build this relationship and have a safer relationship with my horse:


1.  Keep my horse safe

A horse’s primary motivation is to be safe.  Only when they feel safe can they think about other things like comfort, play, food and fun.  So one of the simplest ways to gain leadership status in my horse’s eyes is to have them know that *I* can and will keep them safe.

How do I do this?

There are many ways – – sharing and claiming space is one I have mentioned in an earlier post – and space is something the next guest blog will look at in more details.  One I have found very effective is easy to do if your horse is in with other horses.  It’s what I did with George, the horse who stayed with me for a while who had NO IDEA that humans were creatures to be trusted or listened to, and who definitely thought his own ideas were FAR better than any idea a human could come up with.

He was in a 25 acre field with 19 other horses in – they tended to cluster in small bands, and some of them were quite keen to “bother” horses when their humans were taking them in and out of the field.  I got permission from the other horse owners to do what I did – and this is what I did…

I put him on a long lead rope – and asked him to walk behind me.  A good distance behind me, and I used my stick as an extension of my arm to say stay behind me, you can come round the side a bit, but stay behind me and don’t come in front of me.  And I started walking around the field – keeping all the other horses away from him.  First we walked to the water trough – the other horses moved from my energy, and if they were a bit slow, I supported my bubble with movements of the stick and they moved away from us

Then I turned and walked to another part of the field.  One of the more playful horses circled behind us, I felt George begin to worry, so I turned, said to George “Don’t worry, relax, I’ve got this” and I sent the horse away.  I didn’t CHASE the horse away, this is supposed to be non confrontational for everyone – so I would use my energy and my sense of “bubble” to ask the horse to leave us alone, and this usually happened at the walk.

We did this until we could walk anywhere in the field without ANY horses bothering us – whenever George was worried, I did the “Relax, that’s MY job” – and after about half an hour, George was happily walking and trotting behind me, and not bothering at all about any of the other horses, trusting me to keep him safe.

If I were to put human thoughts in his head, it was as if he went “oh wow!  You are so cool, I don’t have to worry about ANYONE when you are here…..”

That was how he behaved, anyway.


This radically changed how he looked at me: from being the dope on a rope that bothered him, I went to the person who could move ALL the other horses, AND keep him safe….he looked at me with new eyes.

I helped a student do this with her horse recently – -we did it step by step.  First she practiced with one other horse in the field, one she knew – and when she was confident with that one horse, we did it with two horses – with their owners helping – and slowly we built up the game until she as confidently keeping her horse safe in a field full or horses.

One thing this really helps with is gate manners:  how many times do you hear people talking of how hard it is to get their horse out of the gate without all the others trying to follow or come through?  If you play this game, you can then turn it into the “everyone else stay 20 feet away from the gate while I am using it” game – which makes life a LOT easier and safer for you AND your horse.

Taking half a day to establish these games is investing half a day in your relationship with your horse – and your confidence.  Find a friend – and support each other in doing this and it will make a huge difference to how your horse sees you, and all done in a quiet, non confrontational way.


With George, we were able to do the exercise without a lead rope on the second day – -showing he now had real trust in me and my decisions.


Of course you don’t have to be as extreme as this to do this exercise – just finding a friend to be in the school with you when you are with your horses – and play with “chasing each other away” nice and calmly – so have your friend block your path and then as you approach you gently suggest her horse moves – then she can do the same to you – and you BOTH end up with horses who think their human is pretty good at keeping them safe.


2.   Feeling safe listening to you


Once our horse is feeling safe around us, and trusts us to keep them safe – we can now move on to proving to them that listening to us is also safe.

This may sound odd, but for many horses, when a human asks them something, it is the beginning of a challenging spiral where a human asks them something, they try to do what they think they are being asked – -and get it “wrong” and end up punished or told off – and so they really don’t feel safe when asked to do anything.

Some horses deal with this by going inside themselves and shutting down.  Others do it by overachieving – you ask then to put one foot on a pole and they jump the pole clearing it by about four feet.

What we need to do is create a situation where they realise that all they have to do is listen to us, try their best – and that is all.

Sounds simple – -but it’s not always easy as it involves a change in mindset for some of us….


How do we do this?

We find situations, places, and games where we can prove to our horse that whatever he tries is great, that we are not going to MAKE him do anything he is not happy doing – and that we are listening to him.

A good game for this the puddle game.  For many horses,  large puddles are worrying because they can’t see how deep they are, so this is a good trust game to play.

I have described how I did this with Gracie in a previous article, here is the excerpt:


When I took Gracie out for her first walk with me, my aim was purely and simply to prove to her that I was trustworthy.  I wanted to prove to her that I would never ask anything of her she wasn’t able to give.

And that all I asked from her really, was to try…

I found a large puddle, and asked her if she could go through it.

She said, ok, you want me to cross this?  I have to walk around it…

I let her.  Why would I correct her?  she was trying…

I simply brought her back to where we started and said again — can you go through the puddle?

She went around it again, I said thanks for the try — and set her up again.

Now like most horses, Gracie is smart, and she realised that her answer wasn’t what I was looking for.  She looked at me.  Looked at the puddle.  Then very slowly and carefully extended her right front hoof — and touched the water…

I said “Thank you!” and turned her AWAY from the puddle to some grass nearby and let her graze.

She was very interested in this.

We spent about half an hour at this puddle – -each time to tried a bit harder by stretching a bit further, putting a hoof in the water, or even two — I would make it clear that THIS effort was what I was looking for by taking her away and giving her a break.  The more effort, the longer the break.

Once or twice she worried herself and ran round the puddle again — I just laughed and set her up at the start again, and let her relax before asking for another try.

By doing this she learned that anything she offered was fine by me — and also that thinking and trying were the key things I was looking for.

Forty minutes – -and she slowly, thoughtfully and carefully walked through the puddle…..

This wasn’t just about puddle crossing – this was about her building trust in me — that I will be a fair, consistent leader — and will only ever ask her to do things I know she can do.  And I will allow her the time it takes for her to do them.

It’s not about the puddle:  it’s about building my horse’s trust in me.



So now we have a horse who trusts me to keep them safe from their surroundings – -AND they feel safe being with me and trying things when I ask them to.


3.  Building my horse’s confidence in trying and asking questions.

The third step is to develop my horse’s confidence in trying new things, and asking me questions when they get “stuck”.

I need the first two steps before I can really do this one properly, but this one is the key in creating a horse who will ask me for support when out on a hack or when they are worried.

This is very similar to an exercise that is commonly used when beginning clicker training with dogs:  after teaching them that click means a treat is on the way, the trainer puts a box on the floor, and encourages the dog to go towards it.  When the dog does something with the box – ANYTHING – the trainer clicks and treats.  Then when the dog does ANOTHER thing with the box – the trainer clicks and treats….

What does this reward?  It rewards trying new things – and as there is no consequence for “getting it wrong” (because there IS no wrong!)  the confidence that builds in the dog about learning grows in leaps and bounds.

If the dog just does what it did before – -the trainer waits…..  and gives the dog time…no corrections, no “No” – no risk of being wrong, just the wonderful knowledge that whatever you do will be appreciated and learning that when you try something new, there’s a reward!


This has been used as part of dog training for decades – and yet few of us think to use it with our horses.  Traditionally we are taught to say “do this” and if the horse does not “do this” we tell them off – at the very least we “correct” them.   Which is a shame – since we cannot be 100% sure that our horse even knows what we are telling them to do in the first place!

This is the main reason why I wrote the previous article – -about asking questions instead of telling, and how that changes our relationship with our horse.


So the other day, as the demo part of our horseless workshop on “What is a try?” where we put a couple of barrels and a cone in the round pen, and Sue brought her TB, Nathan in.

He was online, although you can do this at liberty as well.  Sue “sent” her horse to the barrel and said “what can you do with the barrel?” keeping her tone playful and questioning – a genuine interest in what he might do was important, as horses are great at picking up our true intent.

He went to the barrel – and put his nose on it.  Sue said “Good boy” and gave him a treat.  After a short break, she invited him to go back to the barrel – -he touched it with his nose, then, when there was no reaction, he put his foot up to touch it – again Sue said “good boy” and gave him a treat.

When Nathan got “stuck” and couldn’t offer anything new – Sue took him away from the barrels for a break.  And he found LOTS of new things to do with the barrels, ending up pushing them with his nose so they rolled…

What the observers and Sue saw was a horse who grew in his confidence to try new things, and who, as he got the hang of the game, would do something, then look at Sue to ask “was that treatworthy?  Was that enough”

Interestingly, he also started looking at her when he was stuck too, and when that happened, she helped him out by suggesting things (eg sending him to the cone instead)

One last thing we did – was we asked Sue to change from saying “good boy” to saying “thank you” when she saw Nathan trying and yet not quite dong something new enough for a treat —   and what we saw when she put this change into practice was that Nathan escalated his tries, in a calm relaxed way..

Afterwards we discussed what we had seen: Nathan had learned to try new things, to check in with Sue when he had a question, and had responded to the “almost release” of the Thank you – which is SO different to the high energy and possible pressure of the enthusiastic “good boy” Sue was previously using.

Sue then repeated the demo with Princess, a horse with a very different character to Nathan – and she enthusiastically tried many new things – and received many rewards.  AT one point, she stood and looked off into the distance – to me that meant she had mentally disconnected, so I asked Sue to gently bring her head back to in line with her, and just whisper ; that’s none of your business, we are playing here…” .  After doing this twice, Princess focused on the barrel, thought for at least a minute – and then offered another new behaviour – which we rewarded her for hugely and then ended the game.

With Princess we had to allow her the TIME she needed to think for herself and not rush her by giving her too many suggestions…



So now we have a horse who knows we are going to keep him safe, knows it’s safe to listen to us – -AND now knows it is safe – and rewarding – to try new things, and ask us questions when they are stuck…


What a difference this makes in our horses confidence in us….



Of course, having taught these things, and having persuaded our horses we are trustworthy – -we now have to STICK to this


So we now have to continue to:

–          Protect our horse and keep them safe

–          Respect their efforts and try

–          Not “force” them to do things they are not comfortable with

–          Take the time our HORSE needs to do things

–          Notice EVERY time our horse asks us a question, and give a kind answer…

–          Always give our horse the benefit of the doubt


When we do these things, we develop a relationship of such trust and goodwill that OUR safety is improved too – and how much does THAT do for our confidence?



Yours, in confidence














10 thoughts on “Questions questions part 2: a thinking horse is a safe horse

  1. Brilliant, just started to play with clicker its very funny and stress free. It changes things all round!
    Thanks for this, it confirms how I am thinking to improve things with the boy.

  2. This was a great blog? Helps me understand my horse so much more. Now I know why she is asking the questions. Thanks!!!

  3. I dream of having my horse see me in this way. Thank you for giving the steps towards achieving this relationship.

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