photo by Patti Klein

“…and I whispered to the horse; trust no man in whose eye you don’t see yourself reflected as an equal”. Don Vincenzo Giobbe circa 1700

Whenever I go to a competition or clinic, even at the upper levels, I see so many upset horses both on the ground and under saddle. They are often accompanied by frightened riders and handlers, and they represent a danger to themselves and to the horses and humans around them.

I am consistently dismayed by this, for it has always made sense to me to prepare a horse for the competitive/public environment with its random and unexpected challenges. I feel it is imperative to develop a bond of trust between myself and my horses for our mutual well-being before taking them out in public (or having the public: like vets, farriers, dentists, fellow boarders, etc. come to them), and that process begins with confidence exercises on the ground. If your horse is not looking to you as both a safe place, and for cues about how to respond to a situation, then he is going to take action on his own. And that usually means leaving as fast as possible—with or without you.

Anytime you’re working with a horse, it is of vital importance to remember that the uppermost thing in a horse’s mind is survival. Whenever horses come into contact with another horse or a human, the first question in their mind is not who is “boss”, but rather who is the protector and who is the protected. This was made clear to me when I audited a Ray Hunt natural horsemanship clinic back in the ’90’s.

I arrived at the facility early in the morning, and as I entered the arena, I was startled to see complete pandemonium as over twenty young horses in the Colt Starting Class galloped at liberty around the indoor arena in a state of anxiety and chaos. They were wearing saddles, but their heads were bare. This boiling pot was continually stirred by horses being added to the mix at random intervals as they arrived on the grounds.

I climbed to the highest row of seats so I could get a good overview. As my eye adjusted to the commotion, I began to notice that the horses were pairing up. One horse would select another, and if the chosen horse accepted the offer, they would break off from the confusion and seek a spot near the rail. The chosen horse would stand next to the wall and relax. The horse who did the choosing would stand between the chosen one and the chaos, protecting them from harm.

Once a place was staked out, the swirling herd would avoid the pair, unless another horse challenged for that territory. In that situation, the protector defended their space. The horse on the rail stayed very still unless told to move by the protector, and then obedience was instantaneous. They gave their complete attention to the defending horses. They would also soften their muscles and lose the fearful posture of high head and tense back. Their focus, trust, and obedience were now freely given to this one horse with whom they felt safe. Because they felt that their survival was at stake, they acted immediately when directed by their companion. It was not because this other horse had forced them into submission. I saw several horses refuse offers. I also observed one bossy mare whose overtures were aggressive, and her offers to pair up were consistently refused. If she “captured” a timid horse, then that horse would always sneak away when her attention was diverted.

I watched, fascinated, as eventually most of the horses sorted themselves into stationary pairs occupying safe places, with only a few individuals left milling around in the middle of the arena. The bossy mare was one of the unchosen. When their owners were directed to come in and halter the horses, it was interesting to see which horses transferred their trust and allegiance to their humans, and which struggled to stay with their new equine partners.

I had an epiphany:

In the horse’s mind, it is an automatic agreement/contract that the individual in the protector role becomes the leader. The obedience, trust, and focus of the one being protected is then freely and gratefully given. The protector becomes responsible for keeping a safety watch. The protected relaxes.

So how does this epiphany translate to our relationship with our horses?

Domesticated horses live in our world. As a result, it is up to us to explain the rules of survival and the resulting peace of mind and safety within this world to them in terms they can understand.

Every living being wants the peace and contentment that comes from knowing they are in a safe place and are fulfilling their purpose in life. Every creature thrives when they are given positive feedback acknowledging a task well done. Every being welcomes the security that comes from knowing that when they are frightened or anxious, their emotion will be acknowledged, the source will be sought, and steps will be taken to bring about a peaceful resolution of the situation.


Understanding creates confidence. Confusion creates anxiety. Horses need to trust that if you are “signing a contract” as being in the leadership role, you will be alert to potential dangers, and that you will take the time to find out what that individual horse considers to be a threat. They need to know that you will remain calm and grounded yourself, that you will reach out energetically to connect with them when they are not in control of their emotional or physical bodies, and that you will reassure them and take the time to explain when they do not understand a situation. Horses that are punished for reacting with fear to something they don’t comprehend will only learn to distrust you, and the world even more.

Trust and Respect

Respect comes from trust.

Trust is a result of consistency.

To form a true partnership, this respect and trust must be mutual. It is essential that we honor the dignity inherent in every being. Each side needs to be able to trust that the other is doing the very best they can in any given situation.

Every single time we interact with a horse, we are teaching him. We are either teaching him that he can trust us or that he cannot. That we will be consistent in our actions or that we will not. That we will listen to his side of the story or that the relationship will be only one sided. That we will offer him a state of calm confidence to resonate to rather than ourselves resonating to his fear.


In the wild, horses’ lives depend on the honesty of herd members. Domesticated equines still have this genetic programming. They do not see any “masks” that we may put on for the benefit of other people or because that is what we have been taught to do. Instead, they zero in on our true feelings, intentions, and thoughts as well as our actions. They respond only to reality, not illusions.

For example, show grounds are rampant with fear. So many of the horses aren’t sure what is expected of them, and many carry riders who are terrified for any number of reasons. These riders may fear failure, letting someone down, getting hurt, forgetting their test—but the horses don’t know that. They only feel that the person on their back is filled with anxiety, and they look all around them for the source in order to carry themselves and their riders safely away from it. Now both beings are tense and anxious, and a vicious cycle is born. Only the human can break it. In my many years of dealing with fear/anxiety in various situations, I’ve found that if I’m just honest and tell the horse out loud why I’m feeling anxious, and then ask for their help (being specific as to what is needed), they usually give it!

Horses can be amazingly patient with us if they know we are trying to do our best. On the other hand, if we have learned a kinder way to do something and then decide to go back to an old and more demanding way, they can be very clear in letting us know that the old way will no longer be accepted.

Learning Styles

Like humans, horses have varying degrees of intelligence, enthusiasm, and retention of lessons learned. They also have different learning styles. No one method will work with all horses. It is vital to understand the “why” behind any techniques you may be studying so that you can adapt the “how” to any circumstance. The first horse you taught a particular skill may have needed five repetitions to grasp the concept. The next horse might “get it” on the first explanation and feel angry about further drilling. He might form the opinion that you aren’t smart enough to recognize when he understands, and then he might start thinking that it’s more fun to outsmart you than to cooperate. Constant moment-by-moment awareness of your horse is of the utmost importance.

Understanding and Awareness of Communication

Horses are always attempting to communicate with us. It is up to us to understand them. We are supposed to have the larger brain—why should we expect them to learn “human” if we refuse to learn “horse”? Constant two-way communication is essential to any good and functional relationship. Oneness cannot be achieved without it.

Remember that often what we see as resistant behavior in horses is simply their only way of asking us questions. In difficult situations they most often ask whether we will respond with consistent constructive help, or will we abandon them. Here are some examples of frequent questions horses are asking when they “act up”:

  • Can you show me how to balance my body when I am not in control of it?
  • Can you help me find calmness when I am emotionally out of control?
  • Can I trust you to be aware of me and all that is going on around us even when someone else is talking to you or you are otherwise distracted?
  • Will you be consistent in your demands of me, or will you randomly decide to be lax or extra demanding?
  • Will you give me the time and space to think through a request or new lesson?
  • Will you listen when show you I can retain the information, or will you mindlessly drill me into boredom?
  • Will you be as focused and calm around me as you require me to be around you?
  • Will you listen when I use my body language to request that you please calm down and give me some space, or to say that I’d rather you do or ask for something in a different way?
  • Will you notice and encourage me to have initiative when I offer something I’ve been thinking about or working on, or will you punish me for being “disobedient” because you did not ask for what I offered?
  • Will you notice when I go inward to process new information and give me the time I need to integrate the new information?

Keep in mind that your horse can and wants to be a very willing partner. Remember your early days in school, when it was sometimes very difficult to understand why you needed to learn certain information? Then one day it suddenly became clear why and how those skills could be useful? Your horse also needs to know why he should, for example, learn to move only one step at a time in any direction, or to cross his legs and keep crossing them while moving forward, which doesn’t make any sense to him at all in terms of survival and being able to run quickly at a moment’s notice.

Explain verbally what his lesson will be for that day, and why you are teaching it to him. Take him out on a trail and show him how a new skill helps to negotiate obstacles, or create those situations in your ring with poles, etc. Always put lessons in perspective for him, and he will do anything you ask. Any limitations are only in your own imagination—engage your creative ability to be able to communicate what you desire to each horse and to reward their every effort in the right direction.

In Summary

Once this agreement/contract is acknowledged and mutual trust is being developed, once your horse begins to understand that you will indeed be honest with him, then you can have a discussion about how these roles can morph depending on the situation. I have always explained to my horses that when in a human environment, I am the Protector Leader, and when out in the wild, I desire and honor their input—as well as the occasional reversal of our roles. Because of this, horses have saved my life multiple times.

Most importantly, have fun with your explorations and enjoy the process!