Getting our horses on board

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For this mare, this is what it looked and felt like when she decided she was all in. When I initially walked into the pen with her she wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. It only took a few minutes of helping her get a sense of who I am for her to come on board.

Nothing inspires me more than interacting with horses and other people. Between the farrier, Dr. Madalyn Ward, lots of collaboration with horses, and fellow ‘students of the horse’, these last few weeks, my wheels are seriously turning. So much fodder for blogs! Yay!

But this week I really want to focus on the power of taking our time so that a horse is able to come on board with our idea. If you follow my work, you’ll know how important it is to me that my horses feel they have a voice, that they have a choice about what happens to them, and they guide how it happens to them. That does not mean that I turn everything over to the horse and never ask them to do anything with me or for me. Sometimes it even means asking them to trust me enough to do something they don’t think they want to do…

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This little mare had a lot to say. I asked her questions, she responded in answer. She guided me to the areas of her body that are painful and because I responded appropriately to her input she allowed me to help her. It takes a lot of trust for a horse to let you touch their lower jaw. She’s in because I took the time to build trust and show her what’s in it for her if she works with me.

Horses understand how to respond to input appropriately. They respond to one another as they interact. Whatever they do or do not do is a response to input from another horse, their own body, the environment, me. What they do is not at all random, or without purpose. That means that if I want to give my horses choices, I have to offer them some to begin with. If I don’t ask them anything they won’t offer anything. Period.



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It also means that their response is in answer to my question. Just because they don’t respond by giving themselves over and doing exactly what I want all at once, does not mean I should stop asking questions. Just because my horse initially walks away when I approach does not necessarily mean he doesn’t want to do anything at all. I mean think about it, how do you feel if someone comes along that wants you to do something with them but they won’t tell you what, or for how long? Would you enthusiastically go along, or would you maybe ask a few questions first? That’s what are horses are doing when they walk away, they are letting us know they feel unsure, or that our enthusiasm is a bit too much, or our sneakiness (I see that halter you have hiding behind your back) is not appreciated. He’s responding to me, now it’s my job to respond back, in ways appropriate to carrying on a ‘conversation’.

You might recall these images of Sundance last week.

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He frequently walks away when we approach with a halter. I know him well enough now to know that in part, that comes from him being a bit stuck in the past. Something confirmed by Dr. Madalyn Ward when she came to work on him last week. I get it. He had a rough go and he may always be skeptical. If I follow along and spend time breathing, silently sharing my heart and my intention, he pauses and checks in every few strides. I don’t compulsively reach for him every time he stops. I believe in his ability to say yes, and I believe in his willingness to hang in and continue the conversation. I show him I trust him by waiting until I feel him come on board.

When a horse is ready, when they come on board, it’s an easily recognizable shift, once you learn to see it, you can’t unsee it. Just because he stopped walking away doesn’t necessarily mean he’s okay with me haltering him yet. I wait for him to breathe. I wait until the knot in my own throat, the butterflies in my stomach dissipate. I’m feeling him. Yet another way horses communicate. They radiate their emotional state so that it’s palpable.


Sometimes Gandalf comes in really hot. It’s not aggression. He sends a wave of fear out ahead of him that hits you like a brick wall. It’s all I can do to step forward in the face of that wave and breathe. What I love about this image is that he found a place of peace standing near me. He slowed himself down.

When he’s ready, Sundance turns his head toward me, puts his nose on the halter, and leans in when I touch his neck. Every horse is different. Every ‘conversation’ unique to the horse and human partnership. What I just described with Sundance likely isn’t what’s going to happen with you and your horse. There is no formula. We must learn to be like horses and respond appropriately to stimuli from them.

One of the questions I’m most often asked is ‘how do I give my horse a voice when it comes to something I have to do?’ Like trim their feet, deworm, vaccinate, have a lameness exam done, work on their teeth. It does take some time and due diligence to develop rapport with a horse. If I’m working with my own horses trust is built through consistently listening to them, within the context of every interaction we have. But, I can also build enough rapport to really help a horse in just a few minutes of developing a dialogue so there is enough trust to negotiate the more difficult ‘conversations’. ‘Conversations that might require a horse to make a passage through discomfort.

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I’d never met this mare before this day. I took a few minutes in the beginning to help her understand how I communicate and for me to learn how she communicates. Touching the lower jaw is a big deal. Libby was all in at this point because I responded appropriately to her communications.

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Dr. Ward working with Huey. This is a big deal. Huey has a lot going on around his head that is painful and he gets easily scared. Madalyn recognized that right away. She could tell by how he responded when she approached that he was nervous. She showed him that she could hear him by responding appropriately to his feedback. Because she took her time and worked with him he came on board.

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He came on board to such an extent that she was able to work inside his mouth!

There is absolutely no reason to fight with a horse about anything. There is no need to force our will upon them. Take the time to communicate with clarity in a language they understand and they happily come on board. When they do, they guide us to exactly what they need. Even those difficult conversations that require a passage through discomfort.

A few more examples of horses and humans working together from this last week.

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2 thoughts on “Getting our horses on board

  1. Wonderful blog… Thanks Andrea… very timely… so much recognition with Marcello’s comunications these last 2 years and his ultimate move and getting him on board…..the van… literally. My continuous attempts to ‘ be Friends’ of course mixed with my own feelings of stress I only now can clearly see
    … nows that we moved to another barn.

    Liked by 1 person

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