To solve any horse ‘problem’ or to build a solid, bombproof mount, it is essential that you listen to your horse. A horse will always, always tell you where he is still unsure and needs help. But to listen to a horse, you must become aware of the signals he is giving you. If you miss those signals, you may be setting yourself up for a wreck.

Questions To Ask As You Listen To Your Horse

It’s helpful to remember that most of a horse’s brain is dedicated to motor and sensory functions. A horse does not think like a human or have the same type of emotions. They are prey animals and naturally suspicious. Horses gravitate towards what feels good (mentally and physically) and avoid what doesn’t. They learn by habit. Horses are aware of the slightest movements we make and are generally more tuned in to us than we are to them.

You can get an indication of a horse’s current mental state by looking at his neck, muzzle, eyes, ears, lips, and general body language. Is he tight and tense or loose and relaxed? Do his feet move in a cadenced, flowing way or are they choppy and rigid? Is he standing still or frozen in place? What is he telling you?

Can he go from a trot to a lope without going faster than you are asking? Will he lightly yield his shoulders and hips during groundwork? Can he pay attention? Is there a magnet (barn, buddy, gate) that dominates his focus? Ask these questions when evaluating a horse.

Consequences Of Not Listening To Your Horse

To illustrate this point, I will describe a session I had recently with a ‘problem’ horse.

The owner had ridden this horse six times with no big issues. Then, the seventh time, he blew up and bucked her off. The owner was utterly surprised when the horse took her for a bronc ride and was understandably afraid to get back on. So she called me.

She had not been listening to the horse.

The horse was trying to tell her that he was still very unsure about some of the basic fundamentals. The horse had little confidence. And when the pressure of a rider was thrown in, his mind shut down and he resorted to instincts. 

What Listening To The Horse Revealed

So when I first got there, I led the horse out into the pasture. He tried to run over top of me on the way, so the first thing I did was show him how to pay attention and stay back at the end of the lead rope. 

More details about this exercise here: How to Get And Keep Your Horse’s Attention

When we got to the pasture, I briskly walked up to him and he jumped sideways. The whites of his eyes were showing. His neck, face, jaw, muzzle, and entire body was tight and tense. His feet were choppy and rigid. The horse’s unsureness was glaringly apparent, so my game plan became doing some things to bump up his confidence. It was not very difficult to listen to this horse. He clearly told me that he was a mental wreck. It was surprising that the owner got six rides on him without incident. What a testament to how tolerant horses really are!

At first, he had a hard time walking in a circle around me. His choppy footfall revealed that he also had a choppy mindset. So I began working to get his feet busted loose as he went to the right and the left. As his footfall became more cadenced, his body showed signs of relaxation. I was never sneaky or abrupt. I was deliberate and casual, which is how I wanted him to be. 

How Listening To The Horse Built His Confidence

Then I did some ‘mashing’ where I put a little pressure on him by asking him to accept my presence and yield his shoulders and hips. But I also kept listening to him and allowed him to draw the line and tell me how much he could handle. His confidence began to grow. The more sure he got, the less anxious he became. 

More info about mashing here: Mashing Your Horse

I continued to ask him to yield his feet like a lead horse in a herd would do. His instincts began to let down. He began to learn that he could control my actions by responding to what I made feel good. 

What Happened Next

Next I stood up on a barrel and asked the horse to come underneath me. He couldn’t do it. I listened to him telling me that he was not sure about having a human above him. So we worked on getting him more sure about that. Now, remember that this horse had been ridden six times, but had no confidence that a human above his back was not a threat to his safety. After a few minutes of making it easy to come close to my knees and difficult not to, his eyes started to mellow. He took a deep breath. His jaw relaxed. He stood there while I rubbed all over him and threw a leg over. The horse was no longer frozen in place. He was gaining confidence. 

This horse needed a few more sessions like this one before he was ready for a rider. So I told the owner to repeat this same process for the next few days to continue building his confidence. I also encouraged her to listen to the horse and let him show her areas where he was still unsure. When all these little bad unsure spots become good confident spots, then the horse will be amply prepared to be ridden.

Go here to learn more about fencing your horse: Fencing Your Horse | Does He Really Want You Up There?

Mental Disconnect

If a horse’s mind is not neutral, you’re likely wasting your time and effort trying to teach him anything. 

A horse may load in a trailer, but he’s not sure about it. So he tries to rush back out, or paws the whole time he’s in there. Listen to the horse telling you that he’s not confident about being in there. Help him become more sure.

A horse may trot figure eights, but he overbends or drifts because he is drawn to the gate or barn or buddy. You may be able to crank him around, but you don’t have his mind. Listen to what the horse is telling you. Abort the current mission and work on the magnet. Then the figure eights will be much smoother and cleaner because his mind is with you instead of somewhere else.

Any time there’s a spot when the human is thinking one thing and the horse is not sure or thinking the opposite, there is a moment of mental disconnect. Those little spots are what you work on. 

If your horse needs more work establishing the fundamentals, access the entire Virtual Clinic Masterclass here: Buckaroo Crew

Make Listening To Your Horse A Habit

Get in the habit of listening to your horse. Find any little areas where he is unsure or has physical, therefore mental, braces. Ray Hunt always said that braces lead to bucking. That is so true.

There’s another wise saying that goes, ‘No matter what level of riding we are talking about, we are all having the same problems, and all of those problems have the same simple solution: More Focus On The Basics.

If the basic fundamentals are securely established, there’s no limit to how far a horse can go. And he’ll go there with confidence and sureness.

Disclaimer: Always rule out physical issues (saddle fit, joint pain, teeth, feet, etc.) if your horse is showing signs of discomfort. 

To listen to podcasts on the topics in this article, click on this link: Ask Carson James


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.