Horses want to be partners, not obedient servants. Partners think for themselves. This means they do not always do exactly what you ask (or think you’re asking). Or they sometimes do things you have not asked for. This can be a sign that they are thinking like a partner, trying to communicate with you, keep you safe or show signs of trust and attachment.
These actions can be misconstrued as disobedience. They might even be punished. It is like being with someone who ignores what we say, and negatively interprets everything we do. When we do this to our horses, we overlook important information, and become a source of anxiety instead of security for them. But you can avoid that by recognizing equine behaviors that indicate a horse is acting like a partner.
1. INITIATING COMMUNICATION WITH YOU
For many years I thought of equine behavior mainly in terms of a horse’s responses to what I wanted him to do. I overlooked the fact that horses do not just react to what we do. They also initiate communication with a goal in mind, a strategy to achieve that goal, and the ability to come up with a new strategy if the initial one fails.
In one study, a bucket of delectable goodies (apples, carrots, or oats) was placed beyond each horse’s reach. The horses experimented with different methods of getting the attention of a human standing nearby, and directing her attention to the bucket. When the human was facing them, horses tended to seek eye contact, then look at the bucket. When that didn’t work, horses tried more creative strategies to get the person’s attention and direct it toward the goody-bucket. Some were subtle; others used whole body motions.
Sometimes my horses’ meanings are clear to me. Brandy gazes longingly at the grass on the other side of the gate. “Please open the gate.” Shiloh tips over the water tank. “Empty. Need a refill.” Sapphire once met me at the pasture gate and stuck her forehead right in front of my eyes so I could not miss the burdocks that completely snarled her forelock. “See this mess? Fix it!” Bronzz limped up to me and held his lame foreleg out to me. “It hurts.”
Other times I am really slow. Shiloh often lifted a hind leg while we were grooming her. Assuming this was a disrespectful gesture, I scolded her sternly. One day, I noticed that her ears were not pinned, and her leg was waving under her belly, not at me. When she put her foot down, I very cautiously reached under her belly and worked my way back. When I reached her udder, great gobs of crusty goop came off in my hand. Shiloh sighed with relief. This is a perfect example of misinterpreting Shiloh’s meaning because I was focused on her waving leg without noticing that the rest of her body language was not threatening. And because I was too busy assuming she was being disrespectful to notice that she was desperately asking for help!
So, why didn’t she find a more polite way to call attention to her plight? She had tried. She had danced around in her stall, lifting her leg and swinging her face at her flank. She’d rubbed her tailbone bald. To my embarrassment, I never connected those actions to her udder. When she lifted her leg, all but pointing at her udder, I had scolded her. Many horses give up trying to communicate with people. To Shiloh’s credit, not mine, she persevered until I finally caught on.
Now, if Shiloh needs to remind me to take care of her udder, she shifts so a hip is in front of me. This could look like a threatening gesture to someone who does not know her, but I know she is just “showing” me the body part that needs attention. If I don’t “listen,” then she lifts her leg.
Horses have a concept of what we know, and this influences their communication. This is a sign of the social intelligence that makes for sophisticated communication in horse herds.
In another study, food was hidden in a bucket that only the horse’s caretaker could reach. Each horse saw the item being hidden, but in some instances the caretaker was not present when a second person hid the food, so presumably the caretaker did not know about it. When the caretaker apparently did not know about the hidden goody, horses worked harder to get her attention and direct it to the bucket.
This means horses understand that they might have information that we do not. This is especially relevant when horses spook or act suspicious of a situation. If we act like nothing’s there, as I was taught long ago, we suggest that we haven’t noticed a potential problem. In this case, a horse might escalate the behavior in an attempt to direct our attention to it. We have more credibility as a leader if we let the horse know we do notice the situation. I look ostentatiously at whatever the horse is worried about and announce with great authority, “Yup, I see that. It’s a whatever. No problem.” Assuming, of course, that I know for a fact there is no danger. When the horse is still not satisfied, further investigation might be needed.
Sapphire once gave a dramatic demonstration of pointing out a danger that proved to be real. She and my husband Jerry were in the lead on a lazy summer trail ride when she suddenly took a flying leap, whirled around, and stood snorting and glaring at the trail. Since Sapphire was typically the last horse to spook, we all searched until we found the cause: a groundhog hole nearly hidden in the weeds at the edge of the trail.
One way to interpret the meaning of a horse’s behavior is to notice what it accomplishes. As a result of Sapphire’s warning, which the other horses probably deciphered before we humans did, no one stepped in the hole.
How often is this sort of behavior misunderstood when the cause is not obvious to people? “Stupid horse, he spooked at nothing.” Yet it is nearly impossible to know that a horse has spooked at “nothing.” They hear and smell things we do not. Their vision is specially adapted so that, in addition to splendid peripheral vision, they are not deceived by color camouflage as we are.
2. TAKING TIME TO FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT
When horses first encounter a new cue, or a rider who gives cues differently, they need to decipher what is wanted. This process might involve trial and error. Or it might start with a pause as the horse, apparently doing nothing, is considering the options.
The first time I asked Shiloh to side-pass under saddle, she was confused because the cues were different from when I was on the ground. She tried going forward then back, moving her haunches then her shoulders. I waited, gently holding the cue, until she tried moving shoulders and hips at the same time. Although ragged, it was the right idea, so I instantly praised her lavishly.
Experimenting is a compliment: It means our horses trust us not to punish them for honest mistakes. Shiloh would not experiment when she first came to us. It took her a long time to learn that she was safe making mistakes.
Unlike Shiloh, Brandy often does nothing at first when presented with an unfamiliar cue. Initially I found this disconcerting, because it felt like she was ignoring me. I was used to receiving an instant response, even if it was a wrong one, so even 10 seconds felt like a long time. Apparently Brandy actually thinks through her options. If I just wait, her first try is usually close to what I want. With practice and confidence, her responses get quicker.
3. ANTICIPATING WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO ASK
When I want to ride through a gate, I do not need to maneuver Bronzz into position to open it. He automatically lines himself up so my right hand is at the gate latch. I did not plan this; it evolved because we opened a gate on every ride, either to go into the arena or out of the paddock to the woods. I praised him when he first lined up on his own, and he generalized it to any gate we encounter.
Bronzz also learned the maneuvers needed to close gates with minimal cues from me, allowing us to easily close even heavy gates that swing uphill. This kind of initiative shows that a horse is tuned in, understands his job, and is performing it willingly.
Sometimes a horse is so tuned in to your body language that he responds to cues you are not aware of giving. If I am thinking about trotting, and my horse starts to trot, he is probably responding to a minute shift of weight or tightening of a muscle. It is only fair to give horses the benefit of any doubt because they are usually more aware of your body language than you are.
Convenient forms of anticipation are often taken for granted. A horse lowers his head when you pick up his halter. At hoof-picking time, he has each hoof off the ground when you get to it instead of waiting to be asked.
Anticipation is not necessarily appreciated when a horse’s job involves precision responses to a rider’s cues. In that case, you can discourage it with clear cues for the action you want instead. Horses are quite capable of understanding that initiative may be appreciated in some circumstances and not others. For instance, yes for gates or hoof-picking, but not in a show ring.
Horses may also anticipate when learning a new skill for which they have not yet coordinated cues, timing, balance, and execution. For example, a green horse learning to canter might break into a canter when he thinks (correctly or incorrectly) that his rider is getting ready to ask him. He should be praised for his willingness. When he is confident about cantering, secure in his balance, and clear on cues, then you can gently remind him to wait for the appropriate cue.
It’s best to avoid punishing anticipation because the action is offered in good faith and not intended as disobedience. I once knew a nice lady whose talented dressage horse worked hard to please her. When he was learning flying changes, he started to offer them before she gave the cue. Her instructor insisted that she punish him for anticipating the cue. The horse took the correction so much to heart that he never did another flying change under saddle for the rest of his long life.
4. OFFERING AN ACTION THAT’S BEEN REWARDED BEFORE
In this instance, you have not asked for this action, and did not intend to; the horse is acting on his own initiative. A horse may do this to earn praise, or to “negotiate” a different activity than the one you’re requesting. The crucial point is that he is volunteering an action for which he received a positive response in the past. This is a huge compliment to you and your relationship. He is trusting that you will not punish him for making a suggestion of his own. Horses who have been taught only to do as they are told, and punished for any deviations, do not take such initiative.
As soon as Snickers learned how to do turns-on-the-forehand (a pivot around the front feet), he began to offer them whenever we halted. I laughed and let him practice, because a horse who is trying to score himself an “atta-boy” and a withers scratch obviously is not out to cause trouble. When he had the maneuver down pat, and the little dance got tiresome, I either ignored it or asked him to do something else.
Horses may offer a substitute behavior when you ask for something they find difficult, confusing, or just less interesting. Bronzz’s favorite lateral move is haunches-in (traveling with the hind feet slightly inside the track of the front feet). It is easy for him, and he sometimes offers it when I ask for shoulder-in, which he finds more difficult. When we do agility courses, he’d rather pick up a Hula-Hoop than stand in it.
Although you do not normally want to let horses change your agenda, you can notice what they like to do, and ask for it as a reward after they do something else well.
5. DISOBEYING FOR A “GOOD” REASON
We have a state forest adjacent to our farm. Bronzz and Sapphire learned the forest trails the first year we lived here. One day both of them flatly refused to cross a culvert they’d crossed before without hesitation. Bronzz went as rigid as a statue. Sapphire went into reverse, her pretty palomino neck arched, nostrils flared.
My husband and I agreed this was not disobedience; it was a warning. Even though the culvert looked fine to us, the horses did not trust it. They readily agreed to an alternative that was much more work: bushwhack through underbrush, scoot down a muddy creek bank, clamber across rocks, climb up the other bank, and squeeze through a maze of saplings.
Their suspicions were validated a couple weeks later when we got a phone call from a friend who rides the same trails. Erosion around the culvert had created dangerous sinkholes that were now obvious.
Refusing to obey a command for a valid reason is called “Intelligent Disobedience.” Service dogs are taught to do this. It is what stops a guide dog from leading his handler into traffic. For a horse, warning us of possible danger is part of being a responsible herd member or partner.
Horses see, hear, smell, and feel (through their hooves) things that we cannot. Faulty or misunderstood cues from a rider often require a horse to guess what to do. Unexpected circumstances may require a horse to react faster than we can. Punishing horses for using their own judgment can be perilous. My worst fall occurred when a horse obeyed my faulty command, and we landed on top of a jump. Had he refused, I would have been spared a serious injury. That was when I recognized the danger of demanding absolute obedience.
Intelligent disobedience is at work when horses slow down for insecure footing, refuse to go forward onto footing that looks unreliable, refuse jumps because their rider is poorly balanced, or opt to detour around situations that look risky. No prey animal wants to risk falling or getting trapped, and his caution protects us, too.
Slowing down with riders who are wobbly or anxious is a job requirement for horses used for lessons, public trail rides or therapeutic riding. If they did not ignore or “disobey” unintentional leg motions and shifts of weight, they’d terrify—and potentially unseat—their riders with all sorts of unexpected moves.
Some people fear that letting horses “get away with disobeying” undermines future obedience. My experience is exactly the opposite. If you fail to trust your horse’s good judgment, you lose credibility. I once overruled Sapphire’s objections, insisting we cross a flooded creek in a February thaw. I did not realize the danger until I felt Sapphire bracing her body against the current as she picked her way across slippery rocks. I peeked down to see icy chocolate-colored water swirling around my waterproof boots and thought, “If she slips, I’m going to drown.” After that she refused to get anywhere near the creek when it was high.
When you trust your horse, he is more likely to trust you when you do need to overrule him. If you suspect a horse could be right about danger, you retain your position as decision-maker by deciding on Plan B after the horse has warned you that Plan A might be risky.
6. SIGNALING TRUST AND ATTACHMENT
Your horse’s attachment to you is significant, and not only for sentimental reasons. Horses who are attached to their trainer have a stronger sense of security, and therefore are calmer, more focused, and able to learn. Horses who lack this security are more likely to be fearful and distracted. Thus, attachment impacts the success of training, independent of the techniques used.
People may not doubt that their dogs love them, yet few notice that their horses are attached to them. The idea is even scoffed at by many, and surely it is easier to sell a horse if we don’t believe the horse cares. But many do care … and deeply.
We saw it the day Sapphire was delivered to us. Her teenage owner was committed to showing in Western Pleasure. Sapphire despised ring work and repetition, but was reliable on trails. A career change made good sense. When Melissa brought Sapphire to us, Sapphire appeared to think they were on a routine clinic or lesson expedition. She dove happily into the clover-laced grass in the little pasture where we turned her out, until she saw Melissa’s truck and trailer disappearing down the road without her. Then she ran to the edge of the pasture screaming that heart-rending “Don’t leave me!” whinny.
It was months before we felt that Sapphire was getting attached to us; it was very clear a year later when we left her overnight at the equine hospital at Cornell in preparation for a lameness exam. Her desperate screams rang in our ears as we left, and met us when we arrived the next morning. The moment she saw us, she quieted, and became a model patient.
Possibly Sapphire just got unusually attached to people, but I do not think so. I think she was just quicker to suspect she was being left behind permanently, and more eloquent about showing her distress.
Signs of attachment can be so mundane that they are misinterpreted or overlooked altogether. Welcoming us with a nicker, or leaving a hay pile to greet us. Relaxing contentedly when we groom, talk to them, scratch itchy spots, or just hang out. Not walking off immediately when we turn them out. Tuning in to us even when we’re not asking for anything.
I have seen this tuning in when I ride a student’s horse to demonstrate something. Even as the horse is politely doing as I ask, he keeps an eye and ear on his owner, and gravitates to her the minute I dismount. Few owners notice this or appreciate its significance until I point it out.
Attention-seeking is another sign of attachment. Brandy comes to nuzzle me in the paddock. Bronzz plays silly games like sneaking out of his stall when my back is turned; picking up the wrong foot at hoof-cleaning time; or lifting anything he can fit his mouth around, including pitchforks, wheelbarrow handles, or the cats’ water bowl, undaunted by the mess.
Changes in behavior when we’ve been away are another clue. While Bronzz was still living with his breeder, Fritz, I went away for two weeks. The day I returned, Bronzz did not come to the pasture gate as usual when he heard my car. Instead, he walked to the far corner of his pasture and stood there with his butt toward me, acting like he couldn’t hear me calling him. As I prepared to hike out and fetch him, Fritz translated jokingly, “Bronzz says you hurt his feelings by going away, and now he’s going to hurt yours.”
Sapphire’s reaction was just the opposite. She met us at the gate with happy nickers, and knocked herself out to please us for the next two days.
The most disconcerting sign of attachment is a horse “clinging” to us when he is scared. If a horse has not learned to stay out of our personal space, it can feel like he is trying to run us over. He is really acting like a scared foal who wants to press himself to his mother’s side. Since no one wants a half-ton panic attack plastered to her side, it is hard to see this behavior as a positive sign that he is looking for our leadership. A horse who respects personal space can look to us for reassurance and guidance without becoming a danger.
verall, all of these behaviors are the purposeful actions of thinking partners. They show that your horse has confidence in you as a leader. It’s up to you to appreciate these actions for what they are and build on them.