Understand Your Horse’s Needs and Dissolve Conflict in the Saddle

Do you want to stop fighting with your horse?  You probably have very specific goals that you would like to accomplish each time you work with your horse, but sometimes your horse seems to flat out refuse to work with you.  There are numerous reasons that your horse may be resisting your requests.  Today I would like to share one question that you can ask yourself to get to the bottom of your conflict:

What is preventing my horse from saying yes?

Asking this question reminds you to check in with your underlying needs, and those of your horse, to build the empathy that allows you to remove the thoughts that block you from building an empowered partnership with your horse.  Horses are not defiant.  They do not have the capacity to plan a purposeful rebellion against you.

Horses act based on their needs, instincts, and intuition.  When your horse seems to say “no” to a request it is because one of his needs not being met.  The basic needs that need to be met for your horse to say “yes” include trust, safety, and understanding.  Often there is a breakdown in communication for you and your horse which results in neither party’s needs being met.

Let’s look at a common mutual need, safety, and what happens when it is not met.  Safety includes the physical and emotional need to feel secure.  When you do not effectively honor this need for you and your horse, the result is escalating fear and an environment that grows less safe and secure as a result.

You have seen it happen time and again at the barn – let me play out the exaggerate sequence of events for you.

  1. Your horse, a prey animal, suspects a danger by the rail and shies away from it with a little look and counter bend.
  2. Your underlying need for safety reacts with a slight fear response and you try to control your horse to maintain safety by pushing him back toward the rail to control the situation and show him who’s boss.
  3. Your horse thinks, “Oh crap, the predator on my back is trying to send me into that danger – they really want me dead now!” and his fear escalates into a more exaggerated spook the next time around the arena.
  4. Your fear kicks into overdrive – now you really don’t feel safe – your horse is acting like a crazy idiot spooking at nothing.  “I’ll teach you there is nothing scary over there!” and a little inside spur is applied to prove your point.
  5. Now the fear is validated for your horse – the scary thing is now associated with pain – ouch!  As a result, your horse doesn’t want to go past that point on the rail at all.
  6. “This is ridiculous!  You have already gone past it twice!” and you are feeling less and less safe up there on your powerful mount so you get after him.
  7. Your horse concludes this is a very dangerous scenario and begins to act out with a buck or a crow hop.

And so it goes.  You have effectively escalated the situation so that no one’s need for safety is met.  Communication has broken down because fear from both parties has taken over.  Both of you feel like you are not being heard so you grow more defensive and determined to win.

The trust between you has been harmed.  I have certainly seen it get this bad between horse and rider – even worse truthfully – though a lot of times it is much more subtle.  Even in the subtleties it is important to look for the needs that are not met.

If you had honored your horse’s need for safety initially, you could have prevented the entire escalation of fear and negative behavior, built your horse’s trust and belief in you as a reliable leader, and met your own need for a safe and enjoyable ride.  How?

At the first shy away from the perceived threat on the rail you had the opportunity to ask, “What is preventing my horse from saying yes to my need for a quiet ride around the arena?”  His own need for safety!  A good leader would not push a fellow herd member into potential danger – she would push her herd away from the threat to ensure safety.

There is your opportunity.  Honor your horse’s need and ask him to counter bend and step away from the object with a cool and calm demeanor.  Your horse will learn to trust you, your fear isn’t triggered, and within a few laps you have proven that there is no threat allowing your need for a quiet ride around the arena to be met and your horse’s need for safety to also be met.  Now your horse wants to work with you because you are fulfilling his needs.

When has a situation escalated with your horse?  In retrospect, what could you have done differently to shape a more favorable outcome for you and your horse?  Reach out for support in your riding community – start a soulful horsemanship club to practice these ideas with like-minded friends.

A Message from the Horses
Download this guided meditation to tune into horse energy.

Relax in the heart-energy of Equus and hear what they are calling you to do.

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