Signs Your Horse Doesn’t Understand What You’re Asking

How to Tell if Your Horse Doesn’t Get What You’re Asking Them to Do

Oftentimes, we may mistake a horse’s lack of knowledge for them being stubborn. This miscommunication can lead to both horse and handler becoming more and more frustrated. It’s important to be able to recognize when your horse isn’t getting it so that you can help explain the concept to them more clearly.

What are signs your horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking them to do? Here are the most common signs a horse will display if they are confused:

  • not responding correctly
  • fighting pressure
  • frustration (tension in the body or acting out)
  • avoidant behavior

 

If a horse is having a hard time understanding a new concept or aid, chances are there was a hole somewhere in its training or in the way you are asking. It’s important that you are able to identify where the missing information is and then go back and effectively teach your horse. In this article, I will break down these signs of confusion in your horse and what you can do in specific situations to help them understand.

Sign Your Horse is Confused #1: Not Responding Correctly

While this point may seem a bit obvious, you’d be surprised how many times equestrians will blame their horse for being stubborn or stupid for not responding a certain way…even if the horse has never been adequately trained to respond the right way or if the rider is asking for a completely different thing. 

One simple common example I see of this is a rider getting mad at their horse for backing up when they are asking them to go forward. Most times in this example, the horse isn’t responding correctly because the rider is asking the wrong way. The rider will have their hands up with pressure on the reins and will be kicking the horse. While they think they’re asking the horse to go forward, they’re really telling the horse to go backward.

A personal example I have experienced of a horse not responding correctly simply because they were never taught how was when I was working on lateral movements with a friend’s horse. I wanted the horse to move their shoulders one way when I applied pressure with my leg. Instead of moving away from the pressure of the leg, they would just back up or walk off. I realized the horse didn’t understand what I was asking it to do. I got off and introduced the concept to them through groundwork before getting back on and asking again. This time, the horse responded correctly.

What to Do:

If your horse isn’t responding correctly, the first thing you should do is evaluate yourself and see if you’re making a mistake in the way you’re asking them. If you’ve ruled that out, the next thing you need to do is try to connect the dots and see where there is a hole or lack of understanding in the horse’s training.

Once I have identified where the hole is in the training, I’ll usually start back with groundwork. Groundwork is the foundation of horse training that enables you to introduce and explain new concepts to your horse in a way they will understand (body language.) If you’re looking for easy groundwork exercises that can give your horse an overall knowledge of under saddle work, check out my article 5 Best Groundwork Exercises For Your Horse.

Sign Your Horse is Confused #2: Fighting Pressure

A horse that doesn’t understand how to respond to certain pressure with try to fight the pressure being applied.

Horses are prey animals; this means that their natural instinct is to flee or fight against any pressure they may face. In the wild, pressure can look like a predator quickly approaching, so the horse has to get out of there as quickly as possible. In domestication, pressure often constricts the horse and can make them feel trapped. This can look like tying your horse up, picking up your horse’s feet, and even asking them to steer one way or the other.

While fighting pressure is a horse’s natural instinct, they must be taught how to correctly respond to pressure not only to make them easier to handle but also for their own safety. A horse that is properly taught how to yield and give to pressure on its feet will not only pick up their hooves for you when you want to pick them out, but it’ll also be more likely to stand still and wait for help if it gets its leg caught in something. A horse that has been taught to give to the pressure of a lead rope will be able to stand quietly, while a horse that hasn’t been taught could seriously hurt itself trying to fight and get away when tied.

What to Do:

Teach your horse how to yield to pressure. When taught correctly, a horse will naturally move to release the pressure. Horses will learn how to respond correctly by the release of pressure.

For example: ask your horse to lower its head. If your horse has never been taught this, when you go to apply downward pressure on the lead rope, the horse may instinctually toss its head up to fight the pressure. As you hold the pressure and gradually increase if the horse doesn’t respond, the horse will eventually dip its nose down to release the pressure. As soon as they do this, stop applying the downward pressure and reward your horse.

To learn more about teaching your horse to yield to pressure, check out my article Teaching a Horse to Yield to Pressure: Easy Exercises.

Sign Your Horse is Confused #3: Frustration

Do you remember ever being in school and getting very frustrated trying to learn a new subject? You were probably frustrated because you Just. Didn’t. Get. It. Well, horses get frustrated for the same reason!

Different horses communicate frustration differently. It’s important to recognize the signs of frustration in your horse because if it’s not addressed, it can lead to horses acting out by bucking, rearing, kicking out, etc. 

Common signs of frustration in horses include tension in the body, specifically in the muzzle, neck, or hind end, pinned ears, swishing of the tail, chomping at the bit, shaking of the head, and even acting out in aggressive behaviors.

What to Do:

If your horse is getting frustrated with what you’re asking, chances are you haven’t spent enough time introducing the concept to your horse. Having high expectations when doing something brand new with your horse can lead to both of you getting more and more frustrated! Start off by setting small goals with your horse so as not to have unrealistic expectations.

Go slow with your training. If your horse is getting frustrated with something, step away from the task and go back to something more simple you know your horse can do. You may have to dismount and even go back to groundwork if your horse is having a hard time. 

One of the best things you can do with a frustrated horse is to reward even the smallest try. When it comes to frustration, knowing you’re at least moving in the right direction or thinking the right way can make all the difference in your willingness. This applies to your horse as well!

Sign Your Horse is Confused #4: Avoidant Behavior

If a horse finds a particular situation uncomfortable or unfamiliar, they may try to avoid it altogether. This can look like your horse trying to turn their head and pull the other way, bolt away, or even refuse to look in the direction you’re asking. They may even try to avoid pressure. 

One example I can think of for this is introducing one of my horses to the horse trailer for the first time. The first time I asked the horse to step up into the trailer, she tried to turn her head and walk in the other direction. 

Another good example of this trying to get your horse to walk through water. If a horse doesn’t like going through water, the horse may try to avoid it by jumping over the water, trying to go around it, or simply refusing to go through it.

What to Do:

If your horse is showing avoidant behavior, you need to do what you can to give them confidence. There are different ways you can do this. A good place to start is always with groundwork; introducing your horse to something on the ground first will make them more confident when you’re in the saddle. Groundwork will also help your horse have more trust in you, which will give them more confidence when you ask them to do something new.

Horses also learn by repetition; by doing something consistently over and over again, your horse will eventually gain more and more confidence. Lastly,  for your horse to feel more confident, you need to be confident! Working with an instructor can help tremendously in this area.

To learn more about how you can help your horse become more confident, visit my article Making Your Horse More Confident: Ultimate Guide.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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