How Horses Say No (Are You Listening?)

an unhappy horse tensed nostrils and ears back
An unhappy horse - note the tension in the nostrils and around the eye and the angle of the ears at the poll.

Over the last few months, I've been working to re-start my 12-year old mare Lilly for riding. She used to throw her previous owner and I couldn't even get a saddle pad near her when I first bought her last February, so we went alllll the way back to square one with clicker training. She's making tremendous progress, although I know a lot of more "traditional" horse folks think I'm taking a ridiculously slow approach ("Aren't you riding her yet?" they want to know).

The reason my training process with Lilly is taking time (aside from all the other time constraints on my life, le sigh) is because I've been paying very close attention to her thresholds for certain activities. For example, I'm teaching her to stand still as I apply increasing amounts of pressure to her back. But as I do that, I'm watching for her signal that she is no longer OK with what's going on. We work at liberty, so she has full freedom to walk away if she's done (a clear "no" signal). But before she gets to that point, I've been watching her facial expressions and body language: is she wrinkling her nostrils? Are her eyes tense? Is she tensing up anywhere else? As soon as her body language starts to tell me "no" and before she walks away, I try to release everything, take a step back and give her a break. This preserves her trust in me, and ensures that we can keep moving forward with training without having to take steps backwards because I pushed her too far.

I didn't always work like this. I was the kid that prided myself on sitting my sour, bucking pony without falling off. I didn't have the knowledge then to realize that the bucking was my pony's last resort to trying to get me to finally listen.

And let's be honest - a lot of us are very familiar with all the LOUD (in horse language) ways that horses tell us, "no, way, pal, I am not into what's going on right now". Everything from running away, to pinning their ears, to kicking, to bucking.

But the thing is, a lot of these LOUD communications that come from horses are often preceded by much quieter ones that go ignored because so many equestrians simply don't know to look for the more subtle signs:

- Wrinkled nostrils

- Tense eyes

- Tense ears pulled back at the poll (not just swiveled backward as in "listening" ears)

- Tense and lifted head and neck

- Rapid tail swishing back and forth

- Foot stomping

how horses say no visuals

It's very easy to miss some of these if you're really focused on what you're doing or in your own head, and not stopping to taking a look at your horse's demeanor. But I've learned that taking the time to pause and take account of your horse's reactions can not only prevent an escalation of behavior within a training session, but can create an overall stronger bond of trust. Lilly knows that I won't push her past her threshold - and now every session, she's eager to work and earn her treats by responding to my cues. And each session, we continue to make more progress.

The key is learning to pay attention and read your horse's body language on a day-to-day basis. Know how she looks when she's happy and content. Know the faces she makes when she's annoyed by another horse or not complying to your demands or cues. By taking note of how our horses display their moods, we can learn to interpret their more nuanced body language before any issues or power struggles arise. Ultimately, if we learn to listen to our horse's whispers, they won't feel the need to yell.

Want to read more about equine body language? I recommend:

Horse Behavior Exposed by Abigail Hogg, David & Charles 2009; p 24 - 27

How To Think Like a Horse by Cherry Hill, Storey Publishing, p 108 - 121

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