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

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11 Comments

  1. Dee

    Beautiful❤️

    Reply
  2. Jackie

    Could you please define “play” and give an example of doing so with the horse? Thank you so much in advance!

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Bender

    Wow, I nearly cried when reading your article and watching the video. It touched me really deep. I feel the same but tend to fall back in old patterns maybe because I have a somewhat “difficult” horse who is a mixture of easily scared and what most horse people would declare as “dominant”.
    I’d love if you would write a book :)!!

    Reply
  4. Lindze @goddessonhorseback

    How amazing & absolutely wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Post Mosie! Thank you for sharing your knowledge & experience with us all. Being with our horses is so much more than the glorified control of riding them. I often get asked from people when they find out that I have a horse, “Do you ride all the time?!” & I used to feel odd responding with the answer they aren’t expecting which is, “I ride, but my relationship with my horse is different thsn most horse owners. I focus on building trust, and its more of a ‘partnership’ thsn a dictatorship. Listening to her needs & communication exchange is my goal”. –and they usually give a strange look..or the ones who get it, have an ‘ah-hah’ moment. But you’re right, something so beautiful happens when this kind of language & understanding is exchanged. It is magical!!! Xoxo & Neighmaste, Goddess!

    Reply
  5. Michelle

    This is a wonderful post. I am sure like you said it will be hard for so many who pay so much money to buy and then board and or keep their horses …to except and give this choice. I too have come to a place of not wanting to ride a horse that doesn’t want to be ridden. Bullet is a horse who does not want to be ridden (I think probably because of pain…which is likely the majority of the reasons most horses say no) and through Liberty work he has regained his voice and expressed this so clearly. Our relationship has become so much more then riding and he has embraced Liberty work as his strong suit & he gets so much joy from it. I doubt if he will ever choose to be ridden again…and it makes me sad (if I am being honest) but I am ok with it. Dreamer has come into my life and is a horse that likes his adventures out…sometimes ridden sometimes just the two of us walking together. I think people should definitely take this into consideration when choosing to spend the rest of their life with a horse. Not all horses are ok with being ridden and I think the majority would choose to never be ridden…especially those who have been forced to do so. I think your example is wonderful…yet people still need to embrace that no might always be the answer. Thanks for a beautiful blog. Hopefully when we start treating horses as sentinent beings from the start …there will be no unbreaking nessacary and the horse/human dynamic will be harmonious. ✌🏼️❤️🐴

    Reply
  6. Jan

    Very informative!

    Reply
  7. Verna

    Hello you!

    This is the first time I read a post from you and I have never in my whole life and during my almost 20 years with horses read anything about horses that made me feel so light and relieved. This was the best horsey read I have ever read. I study animal behaviour and training in university and have an equine degree. My mission in my life time is to help horses as much as I possibly can. This was the first post 100% from the future of the human kind in my history. Thank you for bringing the future in whole to my reach. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Trish

    Dejavu. I am new to Liberty and felt before I do anything I should start with getting permission from my horse to ride. In the corral she comes up alongside but when I ask for her back, her backend pulls away. I am not certain if she doesn’t understand or is saying no.

    Reply
  9. Claudia

    I stopped riding my boy in January because he was telling me over and over again that he didn’t want to be ridden and I’d just had enough of forcing him into submission and listening to trainers who tell me to show him who‘s boss. We have been doing positive reinforcement training for 13 months now. I initially thought that I’d retrain him for riding this way but I only want to ride him again if he wants to be ridden. I loved reading your post. I really like the concept of “unbreaking” the horse! Thanks for sharing this!

    Reply
  10. Donna

    So beautiful and inspiring. My horse is very nervous and herd bound. I have started doing just ground work and spending time with him not riding. Hoping to build trust. Thanks for your posts. Very helpful!

    Reply
  11. Alyssa Farrelly

    I love your blog so much I’m sure you know this by now lol. I write down a lot of your lessons in my journal now however off this post I was wondering how or if you reward the horse for offering her back to you? In the video I can see you give Leah scratches as a reward but what about a horse who doesn’t enjoy scratches? Should it be vocal praise? Should you continue to use the click and food reward method or how should it be done? Alia offered her back to me one night really out of the blue and unexpected I didn’t get on her or even attemp to I just thanked her and that’s what lead us to learning how to line up to the mounting block using clicker training and a cue however I don’t know if that’s what I should be doing. I’ve never put pressure on her back as to insinuate that I was going to get on I just rub over her back and things. I’m curious of your thoughts on this because idk I feel me using a cue to ask is me asking her and not her asking me does that make sense? She is very vocal and strong in her yes’ and no’s however I just feel me asking her if I’m allowed on her back and rewarding her for when she lines up is not genuine. I really hope this is making sense here lol I’m not really sure how to word it but I hope you get what I’m trying to say. Instagram @liberty_n_horsemanship

    Reply

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