Jodine'sĀ Blog

Thoughts, reflections, stories and insights on leadership and life.

Empower Your Partnership by Asking Why

horse psych Feb 29, 2024

The horse industry is inundated with a plethora of different ways we can work with our horses. Unfortunately the primary focus is most often on how to do something, not why we do it. Everywhere we look we are offered lessons on “How to” fix whatever problem we may be having. While developing our skills, both on the ground or in the saddle, is an essential part of being a complete horse person it is not the only part. When we learn what to do but forget to ask why we do it we give our power away. We are then constantly in need of someone else to tell us how to be with our horses. This diminishes our capacity as leaders and our ability to stay present with our horses.

By developing some of the areas of horsemanship that are not so commonly discussed we can shift our perspective. We can move from having problems with our horses to consciously communicating with them. In bringing our awareness to these areas we create space for more presence, connection and transformation within our horse/human relationship. Our attention will then shift from solving problems to inspiring learning. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Every horse lover needs to learn to look at their partnership from the perspective of a lead mare. First and foremost our job is to be 100% invested in the safety and survival of each member of our herd. Within this safety and survival I’m not just talking about physical wellbeing. This includes emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing too. 

I’m all about a solution so let’s get to a quick perception shift. This will get you on your way to being the lead mare your horse needs you to be. There are many ways to work with a horse. I can’t even begin to count all the different methods just in the natural horsemanship industry. Each trainer has their way of doing it, their “how to” when it comes to being a good partner. But for you to be a lead mare in your own right you need to understand why. Why is this lesson important on this day, in this moment, for this horse? Why is this horse reacting this way? Why I am reacting this way? And finally there is a big what. What will be the underlying message this horse takes away from this lesson? 

I’ll give you an example using a time that I helped a client with a very large, 4 year old, Warmblood gelding. The temperature had dropped significantly and he hadn’t been worked in a few days. She led him into the ring and he was very fresh. Two horses right beside the ring were playing, bucking and galloping along the fence line. Our original plan had been for her to get on and ride but we decided to spend some time on ground work first. Why? Because he was leaping around and rearing as she led him. The most important lesson in this moment was him learning to control his body even if he was feeling frisky. So the lesson for the day became about him controlling his body while being led, as well as lunged at the walk and trot. After some time, and some exploring options on his part, he was able to do this successfully. 

So why was this lesson important on this day, for this horse? His behavior affected the safety of the horse/human herd. It was dangerous to his owner in that moment. If it became a habit it had the potential to threaten other humans in the future, and if he behaved that way with certain humans his own safety could also be at risk. Why was he behaving this way? He was fresh and having a hard time controlling himself. He wanted to express himself in the same way with his human friend that he would in his field with other horses. His behavior wasn’t malicious, but it could possibly cause harm to another. Some other horses may have played with him, while others may have put him in his place. We chose to let him know that we weren’t comfortable with that behavior in our presence. 

And the underlying message this horse takes away from this lesson? He learned what behavior his owner was and was not comfortable with. He learned that even though he felt like playing he was actually capable of controlling his body. He learned that escalating the behavior did not intimidate his owner. He learned that it actually was more comfortable for him when he settled into quiet work. He also learned that although he did not get to play in that moment he did get turned out with his friend, who likes to play with him, immediately after his lesson. 

The truth is there are many different ways these underlying messages could have been learned. “How” we taught it to him was flexible. There are a variety of methods that could have inspired the same or similar learning. We used what works best for us. However, the important lesson was that he was able to be treated like a conscious, sentient being that is capable of connecting on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. 

Here are a few of the check points I take into consideration during all my horse/human interactions:

Am I strengthening his/her nervous system or just triggering it? Lessening anxiety or exacerbating it?  


Although some activation in the nervous system will help achieve tasks, too much activation shuts down the horse’s ability to think. In this state of high activation, the horse goes into survival mode, responding instinctively and no longer learning.


It is important to remember that much of what we ask horses to participate in, in our human world, goes against their survival instincts. This means things that we see as part of life may cause horses stress. More importantly, if horses reach a state of high activation, the likelihood of them learning and processing information is extremely low. If we continue to apply pressure when they are in this heightened state of awareness, we confirm their belief that this is a potentially dangerous situation.” From my book If Your Horse Could Talk


The great news is that we can work with our horses to strengthen the capacity of their nervous system. When we do this their ability to remain calm and open to learning and direction improves in situations that may have been quite stressful at one time.


Is he learning skills that will help keep him safe in the human world, no matter who is handling him?

This is something I am very passionate about. It’s easy to fall into only teaching our horse how he needs to behave to make us happy, to avoid working in the areas that make us uncomfortable. However, at the end of the day if we don’t teach our horses how to behave safely around humans we are doing them a disservice. 

I have been known to ask owners who allow their horses to walk all over them and push them around “because he loves me” the following question. If you dropped down dead tomorrow can you 100% guarantee that this horse will never be handled by anyone who may be uncomfortable with this behaviour? And is the behaviour something that may cause the horse to be treated harshly by anyone? 

Horses don’t equate setting or respecting boundaries with love. You can still have a loving, close relationship with your horse while teaching him what will keep him safe in the human world.

Creating connection or programming cues?

While it’s important to teach our horses to respond to certain aids and cues, it is not the most important thing. This comes back to the difference between “how” and “why”. Most of us are teaching these cues so that we can communicate with them more easily. Why do we want to communicate? So we can connect with them. I believe that desire for connection is the driving force behind every horse/human interaction.  We are teaching aids as a means to finding connection. 

The truth is when we are too focused on teaching certain aids/cues we start to treat our horses like machines. In turn, they become anxious about doing the right thing. When this happens we actually pull them into the human condition and they become less present in the moment. This lack of presence, in both the human and the horse, leads to disconnect. The exact opposite of what we were striving for in the first place. 

So remember to ask yourself: Do I want a machine or a partnership with a living being?

Am I building trust or breaking it?

I think this question speaks for itself. My experience has taught me that if I am aware of the above three questions I can push my horse, and myself, out of our comfort zone while fostering trust and respect. 

Here’s to wishing you happy days of endless “why’s” and successful “how’s”!

If this resonates with you, consider joining me for my upcoming online Harmonious Horsemanship Course, where we will explore the why’s is great detail!


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