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Is the horse on board? How over-interpretation can hinder your progress

It's okay if the horse doesn't always show enthusiasm. Photo: Canva Pro

Calming signals have become a significant topic in the equestrian world over the past few years and with good reason. Understanding our horses is both useful and important for partnerships, training, riding, and safety. However, if we use calming signals as a measure of our horse's consent or acceptance, focusing on them might hinder successful training.

Read also: What to consider when buying or selling a horse?

About the author

Camilla Jacobs is the founder of HorseMama, a company offering horse understanding, bodywork/horse massage, as well as lectures and workshops. Camilla is a certified Horse in Harmony Trainer with Ute Lehmann, a veterinarian-certified equine masseuse.

Training scenarios

You are in the middle of groundwork, asking your horse to perform exercises you've done a hundred times before. But today, it seems like your horse has gone on strike. Every time you ask for something, it stops. It blinks. It yawns. It turns its head away. "Oh no," you think. "Is something wrong? Does it not want to do this today? Is it in pain? Is it okay with what I’m asking?"

Suddenly, you find yourself at a standstill.

I've seen this situation many times. We are highly focused on being good, attentive partners for our horses. We are busy reading signals and interpreting whether the horse is "on board."

Too much focus on whether the horse is on board can affect the good connection. Photo: Canva Pro

The concern about whether the horse is "on board"—whether it gives consent—can become so overwhelming that we believe we shouldn't ask anything of our horses unless they eagerly consent. This leads to a loss of connection, which is crucial for training (and everything else) to work.

The partnership must be balanced

We need to be consistent and invest time to build a partnership with our horses. A significant part of this partnership involves mutual respect and understanding. But part of a partnership with a horse is also about setting boundaries that help it integrate into the world we've invited it into.

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When we set boundaries and sometimes introduce something new, we may see the horse displaying many calming signals. This worries many people. But if we become too concerned about these signals, we fail to set necessary boundaries or freeze and lose the good connection. This happens because we are focused on seeking the horse’s consent or fearing we are doing something wrong.

Is 100% consent necessary?

We want our horses to enjoy training and find it pleasant and motivating. But do we need 100% consent from a horse for good training?

No. We can train the horse even if it is not always fully on board. We can do this by stopping the over-interpretation of calming signals and viewing training as a conversation from which both we and the horses learn.

In reality, everything we do with our horses is part of a long conversation, not just something that happens today during training. What we do today lays the foundation for what happens tomorrow. If we require the horse’s consent for training, things go wrong.

Your own energy can help hinder the flow of training. Photo: Canva Pro

Horses don’t always show enthusiasm

One moment we might see enthusiastic consent. The horse loves our idea and how we present it. The next moment, the horse might withdraw consent because we got greedy. We asked for more than the horse could physically handle or we expressed ourselves unclearly.

Understanding signals is crucial for achieving flow in training. But we must not focus so much on signals and consent that we stall. Often, due to incorrect or lacking focus, we let the energy drop, causing the horse to stall as well.

Balancing Focus on Consent

If you find it challenging to keep your horse moving forward, consider if you are overly focused on seeking consent. It's fine to train based on the horse being on board with the idea. We just shouldn’t stop our energy and think it’s the horse’s fault or that we have overstepped.

We need to be consistent and invest time to build a partnership with our horses. Photo: Canva Pro

Partial consent is also a form of consent

The horse isn't always 100% on board, but it often stays in the "game" and engages even without full consent. My experience shows that many horses are okay with training without 100% consent. They "say" they're not fully on board, but it's okay if we proceed cautiously. Knowing the signals is essential, but to step out of our comfort zone and grow, we sometimes need to act without full consent.

With some horses, this requires significant empathy and persuasion. We must proceed slowly and give the horse a chance to learn to trust us. Next time we train, the horse might be less skeptical and more willing to give us a chance. And maybe one day, it will enthusiastically consent to join the game.

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If you experience abnormal behavior or a sudden change in behavior, always have a professional check the horse.

How we behave when our horse reluctantly accepts what we offer determines how willing they are to commit to the partnership in the future.

Read also: Reasons why your horse should do pilates

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