Do You Go to Battle if Your Horse Doesn’t Listen?


The following is an excerpt from a blog I came across recently in which the writer was offering suggestions for how to handle a a horse who won’t stop.

“Don’t treat him gently, thinking you can avoid the problem or dare to think he’s doing it because he’s frightened! He’s doing it because he’s a bully. Treat him like we should treat all bullies. Stand up to him. …

All the time you’re doing this your legs should be kicking. Forget about looking refined. This is war! You are up there to prove a point. You have made a decision to crack this habit and you need to kick on through it.”

The post ends with this statement:

“Remember that brute force will never work but for all problems there is always a solution. WE just haven’t found it yet.”

Well, I agree with the blog writer on one point – brute force will never work.  But it seems that her idea of brute force and mine are very different.

There are 3 things with which I disagree with the writer:

  1. “He’s doing it because he’s a bully.”  A horse’s main priority is his safety.  When he feels threatened or even suspects the potential for danger, his first defence is flight.  If he feels he can’t run away, then he’ll fight.   Mental stress as well as physical pain have the same effect.  If your horse doesn’t understand, feels pain or stress of any kind, he will be provoked into defensive behaviour like bolting, bucking, rearing, striking, kicking out, etc.
  2. “Your legs should be kicking.”  Kicking a horse makes no sense to me.  First of all, it makes your seat unstable, creates tension in your body and causes you to pull on the reins. Second, it does not give any clear signal to your horse of what it is you want him to do.  Good riding requires the rider to have an independent seat and quiet hands as well as the ability to give clear aids at the right time. This requires suppleness and balance so that you have the ability to feel your horse.
  3. “This is war!”  I want to have a partnership with my horse not be at ‘war’ with him (or any horse).  The foundation of the training scale is relaxation.  My goal is to eliminate resistance by helping my horse to be calm, relaxed and free of tension.  Kicking with the mindset of ‘winning the battle’ is counter productive.  It creates tension in both the rider and the horse.

The bottom line is this, if your horse is doing something you don’t want him to do or isn’t doing something you do want him to do, it isn’t because he is stubborn, stupid or bad in any way.  It is because he:

  • doesn’t understand
  • is frightened or in pain
  • it just doesn’t make sense to him
  • isn’t physically or mentally able to do what you are asking of him.

A good rider – a good horse person – who has empathy for the horse – will take the time to figure out what is getting in the way and fix it.  Even if that means changing something about themselves.

Your Turn!

What do you do when your horse does something you don’t want or doesn’t do something when you ask?

What other great questions or suggestions do you have? Please leave me a comment and share this post so others can benefit. Enjoy your journey!


16 thoughts on “Do You Go to Battle if Your Horse Doesn’t Listen?

  1. ‘Forget about looking refined’… Uh oh! Red lights going off! Every moment of riding you should be striving for beauty and refinement. I can’t imagine dancers or athletes ever being told to compromise form.

    If I’m not getting the results I want I do some investigation. Is there a physical or mental reason why? Maybe I need to take a few steps back in training? Can I break it down into easier pieces? Is there something I’m doing, or something in the environment that is causing the response?

    • Oh yes. The goal in riding is to enhance the natural grace and fluid movements of the horse. That can only be accomplished with softness, suppleness, balance and strength of the correct muscles – for the horse and the rider. In this way, we honour the horse.

  2. Your “bottom line” paragraph should be engraved on every tack room wall! If you’re slowly and patiently trying to reach an understanding partnership with your, maybe “difficult” horse, so many people, “knowledgeable” or not want to boss you and your horse around and scare you both into submission. Partnership every time – so well said!!

  3. Treating your horse like a bully sounds like a good way to build frustration in the rider – and the horse. When a horse is being “bad,” the source of the issue can often be traced back to the rider, whether she is aware of causing the problem or not. As riders, it’s our job to make sure we’re providing a positive experience for our horses each time we get on, and viewing our horse as a bully is counter-productive. We should never be in a “battle” with our horse, but rather approach each challenge as an opportunity to learn as a team.

    • Very well said! So many trainers and riders are all too quick to blame the horse. My question is ‘why should the horse do anything we ask him to do?’ Even if you practice ‘natural horsemanship’, carrying a rider on his back is not natural – and goes against all the horse’s natural instincts. Thank you for honouring the horse.

  4. Handle a horse who wont “stop” by kicking him? A kick is going to make him stop? I don’t know who wrote the original article – but I would be very scared for his/her students and the horses they ride.

    • I don’t see how it would build confidence in either the rider or the horse. Unfortunately, this mindset of ‘overpowering’ and ‘show him you’re the boss’ is still promoted by many trainers. Good news is that more and more people are promoting less aggressive methods of training that really do have more empathy for the horse and understanding what helps him to do what we want him to do. Honour the horse.

  5. “Go to war”???? I don’t want that woman anywhere near my horse.
    What I do is re-assess the situation. Why is this horse not listening? Sometimes it’s ME…am I asking in a clear, consistent way? Certainly there are horses that are lazy, and really do not want to do what you are asking. However, escalating it into a battle is merely turning it into a battle of wills…and you are fighting with someone who is stronger, faster, and has nothing else to do but argue. By ‘warring’, one destroys the trust one should have been building in the first place.
    I’d go back several steps in the horse’s ‘training’. Find out what he IS willing to do, work on that, break the higher level task into smaller bits, reward often and have patience.

    As for kicking to make him stop….there’s a woman in my area who does what she terms “spur stop riding’. It’s western equitation, so I don’t know any more about it, but she teaches the horse to STOP when spurred.

    • Great points! I wish more people would look to themselves as being part of the problem rather than putting the blame on the horse. It really is amazing that these magnificent, powerful animals carry us on their backs when it is so unnatural for them to do so. They deserve to be honoured rather than bullied.

  6. I don’t agree. There are horses who are bullies. They are bullies because they have lost their respect for you. My horse is like that, and Im having a royal difficult time fixing it. He does things to frighten me when I ask him for something, for instance on the lunge, when I ask him to move off, he will rear and strike at me. Why? Because in his head he is the dominant one in our relationship. He is not confused, he is not in pain and he is not fearing for his safety; he merely will not do what I, as the “submissive” is trying to tell him. I dont agree with the kicking thing though. I would rather get off and make the horse move his feet where I want it to go. On another blog someone suggested that you keep a lunging line with you, and when the horse acts up in defiance, you get off and you start lunging him. Its also a way of moving his feet. In a way it is war, it is a war for your dominance. War does not need to be done aggressively, but you have to fight to get your respect. Same way as in a herd, if a horse’s dominance is challenged, he will fight for it by kicking or biting etc; same way you as human have to fight for your dominance if a horse is challenging you. An example is that if my horse rears at me and strike, I give him a smack with the lunge whip, and I really make him move after that. It shows that I will not tolerate such threats from him and that he is better off listening to me. I’m in no way abusing him, but sometimes they have to feel if they aren’t willing to listen.

    • Interesting… What do you think makes a horse lose respect for you? I mean it’s a very difficult thing to put ourselves in another’s position, especially when it’s an animal with a completely different social/communication framework than our own… But what’s your best guess?

      • In my case, the problem is that I am a very soft handler. I think because it is his nature to test me every second of the day, that even small subconscious things that I do, for instance by moving out of his way in stead of having him be the one to move, he takes these things as victories for him, or he sees it as me being submissive towards him. This gives him confidence to take things up a notch every time. To be honest, it scares me to death when he rears and strikes at me, so much that I cannot respond fast enough to correct the bad behaviour. When I see hooves in the air, I take a step back to avoid getting hurt, which is another submissive behaviour in horse-terms. This means that whenever I ask him to do anything nicely, i.e. trot on etc, he is basically laughing at me and getting irritated when I am persistent, because who the hell do I think I am as the submissive to try and tell him what to do.

      • Oh dear! What a difficult situation for you but I can’t tell if you’re joking or not when you say your horse is laughing at you. 🙂

        I think the notions of dominance and submission in horses have been very much misused and frankly, misunderstood in the horse industry. What scientists observe about horses in their natural state is much different from what many trainers would have you believe. As prey, herd, animals, teamwork, communication and mutual respect are essential for their survival. They are ‘wired’ for it. They in fact, don’t take many risks with each other because even a minor injury could mean death in the wild. Of course, our breeding practises could have introduced more aggressive character traits into our domestic horses but that’s another story… They are still essentially the same.

        I have a horse, very similar to what you describe so I can certainly sympathize. It takes a great deal of patience and empathy paired with confidence and leadership to establish the mutual trust and respect that you both need and desire.

        Best wishes to you and your horse.

    • Antone, thanks for sharing your story. You are not alone with the types of experiences you are having with your horse. I suspect that some of your horse’s behaviour is being caused by confusion. The confusion comes from the inconsistencies horse’s see in the body language the read in humans. This happens because we are not fully aware of – nor how our horses interpret – our body movements, energy and alignment to the horse. Horse’s are ‘listening’ to us all the time. Unfortunately, what they are ‘hearing’ (seeing) is confusing and often conflicting information.

      The horse’s behaviour is his communication. It is the human partner who needs to do more ‘listening’ to the horse to determine the true, root cause of the horse’s behaviour.

      You might also find this post I wrote specifically about lunging helpful.

      I have also recently made some videos about lunging. The first one of the series is now available on YouTube.

      Honour the horse and enjoy your journey together.


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