Earlier this week, I wrote a mini post on Instagram about the importance of asking for and receiving consent from the horse before mounting on her back to ride. Too often we force ourselves upon horses who do not want to be ridden, expecting complete control over their bodies. We are under the impression that riding and controlling the body of another is our right; we label the horse as “naughty” or “bad” when she speaks up, protests, and/or attempts to tell us that she doesn’t want us on her. We shut down her vocalization, appalled that she has somehow “disrespected” us by denying us our “right” to control and use her body for our own enjoyment. Sometimes we even feel wronged when she resists our commands/cues, feeling very justified in our use of pressure and even pain to make her submit to riding despite her feelings. It’s her “job” we think… we deserve her body and her cooperation.
It all feels so clearly backwards and ironic to me now… but I remember that feeling of justification. I remember feeling entitled to my anger when the horse didn’t do what I asked. It had been ground into me by trainers and other fellow humans that if a horse didn’t want me to get on and make all the decisions about what she could and could not do with her own body, it was a personal attack to me and my power. I deserved to ride – the horse was just “taking advantage” (If you flip these words around and hear them from the horse’s point of view, they ironically make a whole lot more sense). I believed this… I DID feel like I was being taken advantage of if the horse fought me while riding. I understand very well the mindset of traditional equestrianism, and I don’t judge myself for my past actions – I didn’t realize how my actions effected the horse. I simply believed a lot of the pressures other equestrians put on me.
However I feel very differently now… I see much more clearly, and I have arrived at a place where I never want to ride a horse who doesn’t want to be ridden again. Riding is such an intimate act – it’s needs to be honored every single time. It can just be taken – it must be given. Both horse and human must want to participate, and is why I will not ride a horse without her consent anymore.
That leads us to the question – how can we ask a horse if she consents? How do we know when it is and is not okay to ride?
So many broken horses just allow us to do anything we want to them without protest; how do we know if they really enjoy and want to carry us?
Today I am going to explain how the horses and I go about creating communication that allows me to ask my horse friends if they would like to ride or not.
It can be difficult to read whether traditionally broken horses actually want you to ride or simply feel like they cannot express their true opinions. This is why I give “broke” horses time to come back into their own with me before I bring riding into the equation. India is a really good example. When I first brought India, an absolutely stunning, black Friesian cross mare with a heart of gold, into the herd, she had such an open heart but lots of wounds from the past as well. In the pasture, she felt happy, brave, and free, but if you walked with her into the arena, she changed. She was alert, nervous, and looked at me like “what are you going to do”… you could tell that if you asked anything of her, she would quickly try her best to please. If I wanted to ride, likely would have lined up to the mounting block perfectly, stood still, and let me ride her in anyway I wanted to avoid the pressure or punishment. I never wanted her to feel this way with me. I never wanted her to feel she didn’t have a choice, and so we dedicated the next year not to riding nor training nor any of the traditional activities you might begin with your new “perfectly broke” horse – we spent the next year freeing and empowering India.
We changed India’s opinion on arenas so she trusted that no matter where she was, I would not use pressure, fear, or intimidation to make her do things. We built trust together. We helped her to see that she could make her own decisions and didn’t need to fear expressing herself when she was around me. *A key to building up trust with her during this time was not asking to ride* – never asking anything of her that I knew she did not want yet would give to me just because she had been forced into it before. This is such a crucial aspect of “unbreaking” that really changes everything for the horse – it can completely transform her thoughts of you.
I am so happy to say that India has no problems expressing her opinions now! She is very open and unafraid to talk to me and even say “no”. I trust that she will express honestly with me because she has no fear of me or my reactions. We have a very close and loving relationship now, and none of it is based on fear or intimidation. I know that when she says “yes”, she means it. This is a huge success in my mind – one I feel proud of. I am so proud of India for how much she has grown back into herself and her own power. It was an honor to support her during this time of transformation.
I like to think of this process as “unbreaking” the horse – restoring her spirit and building her back up so she can be who she really is. It is my goal to support horses on this journey of theirs in anyway I can. Once the horse feels “unbroken”, then authentic creation between horse and human can unfold and magic happens. ️
For instance, I had told India that if she never wanted to ride again, that it was okay with me and I would respect her wishes for her own body. I thought it was likely she wouldn’t ever want to ride, and I felt okay with that. One day however, I was sitting on the fence, India came up to me, looked me in the eyes, and with purpose, offered her back to me to ride. I was amazed. I asked her if she was sure, and then I slowly got on. She gave me a “horsey smile” (a very happy and relaxed horse expression) and I thanked her so so much for the honor. I just sat on her back that day (bridleless of course… this was just in the pasture – she had only been ridden with bits before) but it was really a beautiful experience. The next day, she offered her back again, and the day after that as well. It was really incredible.
I like to establish a cue with all my girls that they understand as me asking “would you like to ride?” It’s the first thing I teach them before I start riding training.
So how can we start establishing this cue with the horses in our lives?
Step 1 – Firstly, the horse must trust that she can express her honest opinions to us. This is by far the most important step and the one that is sometimes the most difficult to adopt because it means listening to the horse, even when she says “no”. Coming from the horse world, we aren’t very conditioned to do that. I certainly wasn’t, and it will change many things in your relationship with your horse – some that may even be hard to face (such as a horse saying “no” to riding). However, if you can adopt this and really listen to your horse, in the long run you will create the most rewarding, beautiful relationship and experiences together. You will know that everything you do together is mutual – the horse really means to yes when she says yes! That… is an incredible feeling. Once your horse feels liberated enough to express her true thoughts to you, then you can move forward to step 2…
Step 2 – We need to establish with the horse that if she does X, we are going to take that as a cue to get on her back. This way, she knows how to cue us and how not to cue us when she does and does not want to ride. I like to establish that if I am sitting on the fence and one of the horses lines up and puts her back (not her face) in front of me that this is a sign that I can get on. This doesn’t mean anything unless we have communicated with the horse what lining up to the fence means, so step two is all about establishing this. The horse needs to really understand that if she offers us her back, we are going to take it as a “yes” to getting on. This way, she can really choose one way or another.
Sit on the fence or stand on a mounting block and wait for the horse to approach. If she lines up her back, we make it feel as though we are going to get on (but we don’t actually mount yet – we just want her to see that this action makes us think it is time). If she moves or pulls her back away, immediately stop. This way she can see that if she moves her back, we will listen and the riding ends. The goal is not to mount here, it is to show the horse clearly that if she lines up her back, we will take it as a sign to get on, and if she moves or pulls it away or never offers it in the first place, we will stop trying to get on or never even attempt (such as when she puts her head in our laps but never lines up her back – in this case we wont even look like we are trying to get on).
Step 3 – It is vital here that there are absolutely no negative consequences if the horse says no to riding or shifts away. We must accept what she says no matter what. Even feeling disappointment or frustration from us can taint the experience for the horse, so I find it is best when establishing this cue with horses to have no expectation to actually get on their back. This takes the pressure off of us as well. J All we are trying to do is communicate this new cue. (Remember, this is a cue that the horse gives us! It’s pretty cool)
Step 4 – Think of sitting on the fence or getting on the mounting block as a question, not a demand or even a cue. We can even ask aloud, “would you like to ride today?” with a smile on our faces. J It is the horse’s turn to cue us here. We offer the question, she gets to cue us to either get on her back or step off the mounting block and reunite with her to play on the ground.
It is important that we only ask the question once or twice; we cannot keep asking and asking in hopes that the answer will change. If we do, we risk putting pressure on the horse until she finally just submits and reluctantly says “okay”. We want to respect her original answer. It may take a bit until she offers her back, but trust me, it is so so worth it when you know it came from her, not from pressure. Because we want to keep things truthful, we only ask once.
Step 5 – If the horse says no, play still needs to continue as normal.
Just as we don’t want to coax them back or put any pressure on getting them to line up, if they say no, we need to hop off the fence and we start our ground play again! We don’t want there to be any punishment associated with saying no – even the negative consequence of play ending when you get off the fence. If we want honest answers, we can’t get mad, or make them do it anyway, or end the play – we must move on, as pleased with them as ever. J We have to make sure when we get off the mounting block or fence that we go right back into the play or whatever we were doing before we asked. If we can carry on with no hard feelings, we make a really safe place for horses to say both no and yes authentically!
This is how I go about asking if a horse would like to ride or not and this is why sometimes when I least expect it, my girls will offer their back to me, ready to ride, and know exactly what they are doing! This has transformed our relationship to riding and I am so grateful. Put in this extra effort to really listen to the horse, and you may be rewarded 10 fold when they give you the gift of riding in harmony. This is how I was able to start riding my babe Leah with absolutely no tack on, even on our first ever ride! (her first time ever having a human on her back also happened to be bridleless)
Here I am linking a video of my first ever ride with Leah, where I use this communication to ask if she would like to try riding. Because she was 100% new to riding or the idea of getting on, we varied this process a little, but in essence, it’s the same theory. She is not at all afraid to say no or yes – she has always openly expressed herself and has never been broken in any way. Amazingly, she almost always says yes <3 and it is such a gift.
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* photos by DAG Photography