1. Assume that he knows what to do.
Even though your horse may have done something before, he may not understand it in a different context, situation or environment. Because his brain has a “preservation first” focus, may be distracted and unable to process what he’s being asked to do at that moment.
He is also unable to generalise his training. If he has done something in one environment, he may not be able to do it in a different location (e.g. loading on the trailer at home but not at a busy horse show).
Training your horse in different locations and situations will help him be able to perform the behaviour more consistently. Be patient. Give him time to process. Ask again in a different way. Go back to something more simple.
2. Get upset with him for being distracted by or spooking at something that’s “not there”.
There is no reality, only perception. Horse’s perceive the world through their senses differently to humans. Horses see, hear and smell things that we miss. They are more sensitive to movement, have poorer depth perception, and take longer to adjust to changes in light than we do. They hear things we don’t, but aren’t as good at locating the source of the sound as humans are.
That “preservation first” focus of his brain causes him to react to a perceived danger. So, just because we don’t notice something, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.
3. Tell him to stand still when he feels tense.
As flight animals, when horses feel unsafe they need to escape by moving away from a perceived threat. Preventing or punishing him for the behaviour can make the situation worse. Help your horse feel safer by moving him from what concerns him.
Learning to recognise the most subtle signs of fear means you can de-escalate and prevent triggering escape behaviours and earn your horse’s trust.
4. Pat him as a reward.
It is commonly believed that horse’s have “thick skin” but the outermost layer (epidermis) is thinner than human skin. That means horses have less protection for the sensitive nerve endings.
Your horse much prefers a nice scratch on the withers over a pat (especially those great loud walloping smacks!). Investigate other areas where your horse enjoys being scratched ‒ areas where he or another horse can’t reach. Scratching him there will really build your relationship.
5. Raise your voice.
Your tone of voice, rather than the words you use, make a big difference to your horse. Using a loud voice or shouting at your horse only confuses and frightens him. Horses respond better, learn faster, and develop more trust when they are told (regularly) what they are doing right rather than what they have done wrong.
6. Use gadgets to stop unwanted behaviours.
Your horse’s behaviour is his communication, so trying to stop the behaviour by using a device (i.e. flash noseband to stop him opening his mouth; a stronger bit to stop him from getting quick; tying him up to teach him patience) does not address the root cause of the problem. When you figure out the cause and eliminate it, then the behaviour, in most cases, resolves itself. If the behaviour remains once the cause is removed, then the behaviour has been learned and can be unlearned through patient training.
7. Focus on being the leader, boss or alpha.
Many training methods are based on the outdated theory and misunderstanding of herd dynamics and a dominance theory. More recent studies of feral horses have shown that rather than having a consistent hierarchy, relationships form between individuals. And there is very little conflict between individuals because it wastes energy that is needed for fleeing from danger.
8. Blame his unwanted behaviour on being disrespectful.
Again, these beliefs are based on that outdated dominance theory related to horse dynamics. Your horse’s brain simply doesn’t work that way. His number one priority is his own safety. Most unwanted behaviour happens because he’s afraid or in pain. Become educated about the real cause of the behaviour and then take steps to resolve the issue without punishment.
9. Get up in his personal space.
While a Google search on “respecting horse’s personal space” brings over 62 million results, they are all about teaching your horse to respect your personal space. But respect works both ways.
The most important space to respect around your horse is the bubble around his neck and head. Avoid pushing or pulling his head; or sending “pushing” energy from your body (e.g. shoulders, hips, hands, core) into that area.
10. Kiss his nose or hug his head.
Newsflash: Many horses do not enjoy having their noses kissed or their heads hugged (see #9). If your horse lifts his head, stands stoically or turns away from you when you kiss or pat his face, he’s telling you he doesn’t like it. He would, however, appreciate a good scratch on his withers (or another area of his body), just like the mutual grooming he enjoys with another horse.