Photo credit: Melissa Arnold
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Recently at one of my clinics, a rider told me that three different trainers told him flat-out that his horse did not like him. He was hoping that the clinic would help him understand if the horse would ever come to like him or if he should get a different horse. I was hoping that the clinic would help me understand why a trainer (let alone three of them) would say something like that to anyone, let alone their client.
We know horses are very emotional animals, and we know them to also be very relationship oriented. The question is, what does your horse think of you? And what are the signs that tell you? People say all the time, “I want my horse to like me and I want my horse to trust me!” All the “want” in the world won’t make this happen. Learning to read the signs from your horse that indicate his emotional state—and asking yourself what you are doing that is causing this reaction—will get you where you need to be.
What horses want the most is security and comfort. They love things that make them feel safe, like clear rules and expectations, consistency and strong leadership. They love to rest, they love to be praised for a job well done and they love it when you take all the pressure off of them. Horses don’t like you or dislike you randomly. They react to how you make them feel—safe and content or anxious and uncomfortable. Analyzing the mistakes you make and the reactions of your horse will help you find the answers and bring your relationship with your horse to a whole new level.
Do Horses Like People?
In the case of the owner who was told that his horse did not like him, I personally found that to be ridiculous, but I gradually came to understand what was going on. It wasn’t a matter of who the horse “liked” and “disliked,” it was a matter of riding skill and how the horse reacted to the rider’s mistakes.
It was a young Quarter Horse gelding, only 3 years old and working very well under saddle. He had been trained and ridden a by several different pro-riders since he was a 2-year-old. This is a great start for a horse, and it certainly showed in this horse’s performance at the clinic. He was cool as a cucumber and keeping up with much older and more experienced horses. The reason why this guy thought his horse did not like him was that the horse was showing some signs of frustration when he rode—but not when the trainers rode him.
When a young horse is ridden primarily by pro-riders, that level of rider becomes the norm for that horse. They are highly sensitive, fast-learning animals—and they come to know the patterns, routines and idiosyncrasies of the rider fast. Of course, the pro-rider is generally very balanced, using light aids, and very consistent in her cues and expectations of the horse—giving praise and rest when earned, and correcting the horse fairly when needed. The pro-rider that is very accustomed to riding green horses also knows what to expect and knows how to avoid problems. This consistency and confidence of the rider is palpable to the horse and results in a confident and compliant horse.
I learned a long time ago that when starting colts it’s a good idea to have more than one person ride the horse, so that the young horse comes to understand that there will be different riders, who cue and ride differently. When a horse is only ever ridden by one person as a youngster, and that one person is a highly qualified rider, the horse rightfully may come to believe that all riders will be exactly this way. Then at some point, when the new rider comes along and cues differently, holds the reins tighter, and gives conflicting and confusing signals, the horse is shocked and frustrated.
Signs to Look for in Your Horse
Horses are all quite different in their temperaments, so their reactions to a new and/or lesser skilled rider may range from mild frustration to downright anger and revolt. Some horses have a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. These horses tend to be less tolerant of the rider’s mistakes. Like people, some horses have the patience of a saint, while others, not so much.
When a trained horse becomes frustrated with the rider, the signs may be as subtle as a shake of his head or tensing/hollowing of his body, or as blatant as swishing the tail, kicking out or flat out refusing to do what the rider asks. As his frustration with a lesser skilled rider grows, he may start shutting down, refusing to move forward, diving toward the gate or center of the arena, or running right through the bridle—no steering, no brakes. These are all signs that the horse is frustrated with the rider and feels like he is being treated unfairly.
This nice QH gelding did not dislike his owner—he just wished he rode as well as the trainers. The horse never acted out badly, he was just happy when the trainers rode—and a little frustrated when the novice owner rode. When the rider made a mistake—like pulling back on the reins when he wanted the horse to go forward—the horse would get understandably frustrated and shake his head or swish his tail in irritation. This does not mean the horse did not “like” the person; it meant he needed to learn to ride better and own his mistakes.
Fortunately for us, horses don’t stand around the water cooler and decide which humans they like and dislike, or who did what to whom. They live in the present moment and they react to your actions (good or bad). They learn to trust you—or not—based on your actions, not whether they like you. They get frustrated or irritated—or they become content and relaxed—based on what you do. That’s why most of the time when we are having problems with trained horses, we have to examine our own actions—not blame the horse.
As the clinic progressed, I worked with all the riders to develop a balanced seat and to ride with all their aids—not just their hands. In fact, we worked on controlling speed and direction without using the reins, cueing lightly and consistently and having proper position in the saddle and moving fluidly with the horse, having clear and reasonable expectations of your horse and following through with consistency. The young gelding worked very well for his proud owner, and at the end of the clinic I asked the rider, “Do you still think your horse doesn’t like you?” Seeing the huge smile on his face as he kissed his horse smack on the lips, told me all I needed to know. Maybe it was my imagination, but in this moment I thought I saw a twinkle in the horse’s eye that said, “Thank you (for fixing my rider).”
Enjoy the ride!
Trainer and Clinician