Perhaps the most common sticking point in developing a partnership is when your horse reacts with a big “no” to what you ask of him. Understanding equine behavior doesn't have to be a mystical phenomenon reserved for those with decades of experience in the horse industry. Getting a fundamental blueprint for understanding a horse's reaction will significantly improve your ability to address the behavior and work towards a solution (minus the frustration).
The good news is that horses are dynamic; they are always learning and growing. Let the following guide serve as a baseline for assessing your horse’s reactions, adjusting your approach based on what you know of your horse's unique personality already.
The Three Most Common Reasons Behind Your Horse’s “No”
In order to "read" a horse, you first need to understand what they are apt to do to survive. Typically, you will see behaviors linked to one of three things: fear, dominance, or confusion.
For example, bolting is often a fear-based response; leaning into pressure is often a more dominant behavior; and horses that just aren't improving are likely confused. Pain can never be ruled out as a behavioral factor, but today we will focus specifically on these three most common reasons for opposition.
What is the Opposition Reflex?
The Opposition Reflex is a sophisticated way of describing the tension that occurs when your horse opposes your idea. When the horse feels a stimulus, does he yield to it, or oppose it? When he opposes it, is he likely to flee, fight, or ignore it? Every horse will display the Opposition Reflex in its own way given the circumstances.
As we dive deeper into fear, dominance, and confusion, which best describes your horse’s reactions?
Reason #1: Fear
Horses that exhibit fear-based responses will often be described as "bracey." They brace against things in order to survive. And it makes sense: if horses had yielded to pressure in the wild, the species may not have survived. Such reactions are often quick, tight, and tense. In this mode, horses aren't thinking, they're reacting.
Solution: Adjust your approach to make simple goals that match the horse’s level of energy. Doing things in a rhythmic manner is a great way to reduce stress. You can also reduce stress by retreating from triggering stimuli. When you intentionally re-approach, you will see that the horse is not nearly as fearful.
Reason #2: Dominance
People often think dominance means an aggressive horse, and that's not the case. Dominance among horses is simply means: "who moves who," and this is really what we admire when we see "horseplay." Horses that are typically described as "mouthy" or "naughty" tend to display responses to pressure that fall into the "dominant" category.
Solution: In this case, you’ll want to focus more on the quality of yields and the horse’s overall responsiveness. This is important, because you are establishing who moves who. The better you can move your horse's feet and emotions with quality, the more leadership you’ll gain in the conversation.
Reason #3: Confusion
Horses become confused when they simply lack understanding. When a horse is calm and responsive, but still doesn't offer the response you seek, that is the wrong time to apply more pressure. In the case of confusion, how could you set up the task so your horse could not be wrong?
Solution: Make the correct response so obvious that the horse chooses your idea with ease. It is our nature as humans to apply more pressure as things "go wrong," when really, we may just need to step back and adjust our approach.
Dig Deeper into Equine Psychology
Everything about developing, handling, and riding our horses begins with an understanding of how horses feel, think, act, and play. The Ultimate Horse Behavior Video Series is a collection of videos that will help you build positive patterns with trailer loading, barn manners, and on the trail. These are not just partnership development tips focusing on technique but applied horse psychology for understanding your horse's nature.
With this series, you will learn how to read your horse’s body language and create solutions to the obstacles you face while developing a partnership. You will understand what your horse is thinking and feeling so that you can communicate more effectively with him in any situation. Join Pat Parelli as he guides you through practical learning sessions that anyone can immediately apply to their partnership journey with their horses.
These videos are on PRESALE NOW! They will be available on DVD or USB flash drive. Shipping in November.