When your horse’s behavior seems uncooperative, is he feeling angry, being stubborn, or is he simply just confused? 

No matter what the cause, the solution doesn’t change. This article will provide some helpful info and actionable steps you can implement that will successfully transform your horse from obstinate to obliging.

Horse Brain

To begin, we need to have an understanding of how a horse’s brain operates. It’s always a mistake to assume that a horse thinks like a human. We should not expect them to cross over into our world. We should be willing to cross over into theirs.

You may see that tree blowing in the breeze as a refreshing gift of nature, but your horse may see it as a terrifying threat. That may not be rational thinking or result in warrented behavior to a human brain, but horses see things differently.

Humans are predators with a predisposition to conquer. Horses are prey animals with a predisposition to survive attack.

Is your horse mentally sound? Find out here: Mentally Sound Checklist

Horse Emotions and Behavior

A human experiences emotions that make us feel proud, excited, disgusted, jealous, and humble. But a horse’s emotions are more instinctual and controlled by physical circumstances instead of abstract thoughts. There is always an underlying reason for a horse’s behavior. A horse is not purposefully angry, stubborn, or trying to get the best of you. He is operating based on his past experience and his present circumstances while motivated by his innate desire to find comfort and security. 

Horses do not have large frontal lobes like humans. The frontal lobe is what gives us the ability to plan, reason, imagine, and think abstractly. A horse’s brain is dedicated to sensory and motor functions. They learn by repetition and seek for what feels good. And they have excellent memories.

A horse is always on the lookout for anything that may threaten his safety. Their self-preservation instincts are a huge motivation for their horse behavior. They desire to be out of harm’s way and comfortable. Horse are wired to spend less time reasoning and more time reacting. That’s why they are not extinct today. This is what has historically kept them safe from predators. That’s also why repetition and reinforcement are such essential training methods.

Listen to my podcast: Is Your Horse Angry Or Just Confused?

Factors Of Horse Behavior

Domestic horses are often the victims of chronic stress. Confinement to a small area often replaces their natural habitat. They are fed a diet that is not conducive to their gut and digestive system. The ability to roam and graze all day with their herd is taken away. 

Horse behavior is determined by both genetic predisposition and environment or stimuli. But experience and training can effectively modify all behavior. A horse can definitely get frustrated, scared, or angry if he can’t find the release from pressure he’s seeking. It’s our job to provide that for him. That’s why it’s never a good idea to hinder his ability to move away from something he’s not sure of. 

In the wrong hands, a horse may experience frequent conflict when the human is not clear about what they are asking the horse to do. This conflict escalates when the horse tries one thing and then another, but never finds the ‘answer’ or feels a release from the pressure he is experiencing. The horse is labeled as ‘stubborn’ or ‘uncooperative’ or worse.

Fortunately, a horse’s learned behavior CAN override natural instincts. A horse can be taught to respond to pressure in a more controlled way than bolting or bucking. We can be the ‘hero’ that helps him build bravery and find the way off of pressure.

Learn How To Think Like A Horse: The Ultimate Guide

Examples

When a horse is exhibiting an undesireable behavior, we need to look below the surface and discover the root cause. For example, we want to teach the horse to back up. So we sit deep and pull back on the reins to give the horse the idea to back up. The horse shifts his weight back. The rider doesn’t notice that subtle change and small try. No release, no reward.

So next the horse tosses his head. Still no release, no reward. The rider was expecting the horse to take 5 steps back before he quit pulling on the reins. Eventually the horse rears up out of frustration. The rider falls off and the horse finally has release from the pressure. And the horse has a new learned behavior.

If the rider had rewarded when the horse shifted his weight back, the horse would have begun to understand what the rider was asking. Now the rider could hold pressure until the horse took one step back. Release. Then two steps back. Release. And build from there floating the reins with each step back to make backing up feel good. 

For more details about backing up: Backing Your Horse

The more sensitive we are to the changes he makes, the lighter he will be in his response.  

But we get demanding or greedy and forget to make everything the horse’s own idea. How can a horse be angry or stubborn if what he is doing is his own idea?

Principles Of Horsemanship

You can apply the same principle above to any situation. There is an object your horse is afraid of. His natural instinct is to flee. So don’t force him closer and confine his freedom of motion. Work with his instincts and allow him to keep moving, but in a controlled way. Trot him past the object. Then maybe trot back by a little bit closer. And then a little closer. Encourage the horse to ignore it. It’s not a big deal. His human has provided him a way of escape and helped him become brave about it.

Conclusion

So it doesn’t really matter if your horse’s uncooperative behavior is because he’s angry, frustrated, or confused. The solution is to present an idea, make it become his idea, and then get out of his way while he executes it. Be aware of your horse’s sensitive instincts and work with them, not against them. Become the leader he can trust to provide him with safety and comfort. When you ask him to do something, make it clear, and use good timing to help him know when he finds the right ‘answer’. A release of pressure tells the horse ‘Yes’.  When he can find that release, his self-preservation instincts lower to the point that he can entrust himself to you.

If you can improve yourself, remember to think like a horse, and develop good timing of your pressure and release, you will find that a horse is actually the most moldable creature on earth. 

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.