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Does Your Horse Like You?

Recently at one of my clinics, a rider told me that three different trainers told him flat-out that his horse did not like him. He was hoping that the clinic would help him understand if the horse would ever come to like him or if he should get a different horse. I was hoping that the clinic would help me understand why a trainer (let alone three of them) would say something like that to anyone, let alone their client.

We know horses are very emotional animals, and we know them to also be very relationship oriented. The question is, what does your horse think of you? And what are the signs that tell you? People say all the time, “I want my horse to like me and I want my horse to trust me!” All the “want” in the world won’t make this happen. Learning to read the signs from your horse that indicate his emotional state—and asking yourself what you are doing that is causing this reaction—will get you where you need to be.

What horses want the most is security and comfort. They love things that make them feel safe, like clear rules and expectations, consistency and strong leadership. They love to rest, they love to be praised for a job well done and they love it when you take all the pressure off of them.  Horses don’t like you or dislike you randomly. They react to how you make them feel—safe and content or anxious and uncomfortable. Analyzing the mistakes you make and the reactions of your horse will help you find the answers and bring your relationship with your horse to a whole new level.

Do Horses Like People?
In the case of the owner who was told that his horse did not like him, I personally found that to be ridiculous, but I gradually came to understand what was going on. It wasn’t a matter of who the horse “liked” and “disliked,” it was a matter of riding skill and how the horse reacted to the rider’s mistakes.

It was a young Quarter Horse gelding, only 3 years old and working very well under saddle. He had been trained and ridden a by several different pro-riders since he was a 2-year-old. This is a great start for a horse, and it certainly showed in this horse’s performance at the clinic. He was cool as a cucumber and keeping up with much older and more experienced horses. The reason why this guy thought his horse did not like him was that the horse was showing some signs of frustration when he rode—but not when the trainers rode him.

When a young horse is ridden primarily by pro-riders, that level of rider becomes the norm for that horse. They are highly sensitive, fast-learning animals—and they come to know the patterns, routines and idiosyncrasies of the rider fast. Of course, the pro-rider is generally very balanced, using light aids, and very consistent in her cues and expectations of the horse—giving praise and rest when earned, and correcting the horse fairly when needed. The pro-rider that is very accustomed to riding green horses also knows what to expect and knows how to avoid problems. This consistency and confidence of the rider is palpable to the horse and results in a confident and compliant horse.

I learned a long time ago that when starting colts it’s a good idea to have more than one person ride the horse, so that the young horse comes to understand that there will be different riders, who cue and ride differently. When a horse is only ever ridden by one person as a youngster, and that one person is a highly qualified rider, the horse rightfully may come to believe that all riders will be exactly this way. Then at some point, when the new rider comes along and cues differently, holds the reins tighter, and gives conflicting and confusing signals, the horse is shocked and frustrated.

Signs to Look for in Your Horse
Horses are all quite different in their temperaments, so their reactions to a new and/or lesser skilled rider may range from mild frustration to downright anger and revolt. Some horses have a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. These horses tend to be less tolerant of the rider’s mistakes. Like people, some horses have the patience of a saint, while others, not so much.

When a trained horse becomes frustrated with the rider, the signs may be as subtle as a shake of his head or tensing/hollowing of his body, or as blatant as swishing the tail, kicking out or flat out refusing to do what the rider asks. As his frustration with a lesser skilled rider grows, he may start shutting down, refusing to move forward, diving toward the gate or center of the arena, or running right through the bridle—no steering, no brakes. These are all signs that the horse is frustrated with the rider and feels like he is being treated unfairly.

This nice QH gelding did not dislike his owner—he just wished he rode as well as the trainers. The horse never acted out badly, he was just happy when the trainers rode—and a little frustrated when the novice owner rode. When the rider made a mistake—like pulling back on the reins when he wanted the horse to go forward—the horse would get understandably frustrated and shake his head or swish his tail in irritation. This does not mean the horse did not “like” the person; it meant he needed to learn to ride better and own his mistakes.

Fortunately for us, horses don’t stand around the water cooler and decide which humans they like and dislike, or who did what to whom. They live in the present moment and they react to your actions (good or bad). They learn to trust you—or not—based on your actions, not whether they like you. They get frustrated or irritated—or they become content and relaxed—based on what you do. That’s why most of the time when we are having problems with trained horses, we have to examine our own actions—not blame the horse.

As the clinic progressed, I worked with all the riders to develop a balanced seat and to ride with all their aids—not just their hands. In fact, we worked on controlling speed and direction without using the reins, cueing lightly and consistently and having proper position in the saddle and moving fluidly with the horse, having clear and reasonable expectations of your horse and following through with consistency. The young gelding worked very well for his proud owner, and at the end of the clinic I asked the rider, “Do you still think your horse doesn’t like you?” Seeing the huge smile on his face as he kissed his horse smack on the lips, told me all I needed to know. Maybe it was my imagination, but in this moment I thought I saw a twinkle in the horse’s eye that said, “Thank you (for fixing my rider).”

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  1. Loved this article. I can hear my old trainer saying if you want the horse to go better you must ride better. Sounds simple enough. It took my mare and I a few months to trust each other. It goes both ways.

  2. My trainer I can still hear say there are no bad horses just bad riders. Also another gem if you want the horse to go better you have to ride better. Lol. It took my mare and me a few months to trust each other. It goes both ways.

  3. Loved this article. I have a saddlebred gelding that is wonderful. I purchased him site unseen. For my 2.5 y/o GD. My farrier got him from a client… took them some time to catch him almost didn’t get him. They dropped him off and I introduced myself (breathing into his nostrils). We bonded really well. I have only had a few times in the past 4 yrs of owning him that he didn’t want to be caught. I beleive he had been handled roughly d/t some of his responses over the yrs. Behaviors mostly diminished, but every so often u will see a look and have to remind him he is ok. I had never had a problem until this summer when I started letting some young girls come ride the horses. The girl riding him was 10 at the time and pretty green, but with some work improving. She had started loping him in a small pasture with her older sister on my other horse helping her… long story short started having some issues with bucking really more of a crow hop. I thought it could have been the saddle at first, but one day they came to visit while I was feeding and when they walked out with me to get the horses as soon as my gelding seen her he took off. So I patiently waited… he regrouped and I caught him w/i minute. Long winded story, but it made me think that maybe his behavior was related to his frustration with her inexperience???

    • I’ve had my horse now 4 3 wks an the ppl l got her from starved her the last 3 wks they had her an now all she seems 2 care about is feed l thought she was starting 2 connect an bond with me but really ldk she’s very wishy washy 1 min she’s fine an the next she’s got an attitude an when it’s time 2 b feed she acts totally different 1 day she wants me 2 pet an luv on her an the next she’s flipping her ears back an acting like a total butt ldk what 2 do does anyone have any suggestions or help 4 me if so plz tell me

  4. Hi Julie; I read this article with much interest because I have a 3 year old filly that went to the trainers for 2 months and is now home. The trouble I’m having is very similar to your article. When riding my filly she keeps trying to go back into the round pen. I have 5 acres that I ride her in, but she won’t go in a straight line, instead she keeps trying to turn back around. Sometimes she really fights me when I try and get her to go the opposite way. I hate to pull on her mouth and try to be gentle. I want to be able to take her trail riding but am not so sure she is ready. I don’t want to take her back to the trainer, I think they are rough with her. I just don’t know how to get her going in the right direction so we can enjoy our rides. I’m far from a professional but not a total novice. I also have trouble with the saddle and whether its cinched up to tight. I don’t know if you can help or not but anything would be appreciated.

  5. Enjoyed this article! One of my horses I purchased as a 4yr old, from a man who had started him by riding in the mountains (he was a hunting outfitter/guide). In other words, fairly green, but a very steady, savvy back country horse. Since he was so level headed, I would sometimes allow novice riders take him with me on easy trail rides.
    But after I did a great deal more training on the ground and in the saddle, he was less and less tolerant of novice riders. He expected more of them!! I can have intermediate riders take him with me on the trails, since he is so good he basically packs them, but only upper intermediates or above in the arena!

  6. I just joined the free membership to see what kind of information you provide and whether it would help me. I’ve read other articles by you and found your information very helpful. This was an interesting article. I have had my horse almost six months. He shows signs of poor saddle and bridle fit (scarring (white hairs) from the D ring & cinch as well as scarring from a curb chain. He also has windpuffs on his hind legs. He’s a 13yr. old, stocky, Qtr horse, that I think knows a lot, but has had some bad riding/care. I am his 6th owner. He’s very grumpy. I feel like he is a foster child, never knowing how long he will be kept. He pins his ears when saddling and at first when riding. He does not want to go forward or canter but is actually getting better the more I work with him. The ear pinning is getting better both when riding & saddling, but it still bugs me. I’m wondering if eventually he’ll realize he has a permanent home and that the more I ride him we’ll become a better team and he’ll be happier. I take lessons once a week and am taking him to AZ this winter so we can be together, I live in WA.

  7. Nice article Julie. My mare behaved in a similar manner when I first started riding her because I was green. I however, understood that she wanted me to catch up to her. Now that I’m not so green our rides are far less frustrating- for her!

  8. Excellent article. A friend hears me say “operator error” when she complain’s about her mare😄

  9. Hi Julie,
    Really enjoyed this post. I had come across this question in another blog I read. Made me wonder if my horse likes me. I’ve concluded that she does when she hears my car and meets me at the gate. We ride out and she seems eager to go and happy to be on our way. It’s good to have these possibilities in mind if she does start swishing her tail or in some way acting like she’s upset with me, then I can take steps to fix it. Thanks again for a fun post. 🙂

  10. Loved this article. Mad me tear up. (only a little bit) Julie you are very articulate and intuitive. I have been following you for a while and admire how you get to the heart of problem and fix it or at least have a fix for horse and rider. Hope I can get to your MA clinic May 5-6, 2018.

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