By Andrea Datz
It’s a lovely idea to give my horse his voice, to take his thoughts, emotions and opinions into consideration. I will never forget the first time I made a conscious choice to connect with my horses and do things together without pulling, pushing, driving, or bribing. I quickly learned how little intrinsic motivation they had to do things with me. They declined my invitations more often than they accepted them.
I can still remember wondering what on earth I was doing when Mystic didn’t want to be caught and so I walked away. I honored her choice and at the same time honored my own instincts, my own desire to do things differently. Of course, every fiber of my being rebelled as I walked away, what if I had just taught her that she didn’t need to be caught? Ever? Talk about self-doubt!
So, I know from first-hand experience, it’s not easy to know what to do when my chosen equine partner says, “No thank you, I’d rather not.” Now what? I have a lifetime of training that tells me I’m teaching him he doesn’t have to be caught, that I’m letting him get away with something, he’ll become dangerous if I don’t tow the line, that my horses should be ready, willing and able to do what I want, when I want, for as long as I want. And so I had to ask myself, what I am teaching my horses if I walk away when they prefer not to interact? What’s really going to happen?
And that led to asking myself, ‘Why?’ And I’ve asked that question of absolutely everything I’ve done with horses. Why is it so important to catch my horse even if he doesn’t want to be caught? Why should I increase pressure when he doesn’t respond quickly enough to my request? Why do I have to get him to walk, trot and canter in both directions? Why do I have to teach my horse to back up? Why? Why is any of that stuff important? Is it important to my horse? Is it important to his wellbeing? Or is it only important to the attainment of my goals, or so that I can have fun? Am I defining my success by my ability to get my horse to do something?
And the most important question that surfaced: are my goals the same as my horse’s goals?
Huh? How would I even know? Can horses and humans have shared goals?
Why yes, we sure can, though I have found that the journey toward shared goals and mutually beneficial relationships – to genuine collaboration – doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever been taught before!
Now, my goal is to do more than just listen to my horse’s opinion. I want my horses to feel they are allowed to stand in their own sovereignty. They are their own being with intrinsic value; value that lies in simply being and that has nothing to do with what they do for me, or don’t do for me. The horses consistently show me a desire to interact with me. In fact, the more time I invest in spending with them, the more they seem to want to interact and be curious about what I’m offering.
What do horses desire?
Many years ago, I spoke with the animal communicator I work with and asked her to visit with each of my horses to discover what their goals are and what they see as their life purpose. Imagine my surprise when each and every horse shared a purpose that included partnering with humans in some fashion! Even horses who had suffered abuse at the hands of humans still saw themselves as having a purpose with humans.
Horses and humans chose to partner with each other hundreds of years ago. Honoring this choice as mutual has been an important part of my own journey to discover how to partner with them in ways that feel good for both of us.
When I was asked to write this article, I got excited about telling Rio’s story: How I learned to recognize when he was saying ‘no’ to what I was asking him to do, and what I did about that. I’ve been contemplating for a while now; how do I write this story? What feels important, and what would I like to say… When I sat down to write, I realized that if I were writing a story about another human being, I would ask their permission before sharing their story with others. Talk about a face palm moment!
And so I reached out to Rio and asked him how he would feel about me sharing his story. He relayed the message back to me that his story is still unfolding, he hasn’t said ‘yes’ yet and he’d rather not live in the past. Fair enough. Then I thought of Sundance. I have so many images of Sundance and his progress since he came here, he’d be perfect! Reaching out to Sundance I ask him – is it okay if I share your story? I feel this sense of pursed lip concentration, he’s thinking about it, but I get the sense he wants context for this telling. He’s not interested in a ‘poor Sundance’ story. I have to take a moment to consider this, what kind of story do I want to tell, what kind of story do the horses want me tell?
As I ask for input from the horses, collectively I receive images of so many that have crossed my path over more than 25 years. They want me to tell the story of our collaboration and how it changed me. The story of how I came to learn how to listen, to recognize what they are telling me, and find my path through the morass of conflicting information and opinions out there, especially those opinions and information that are in direct conflict with what my heart and my horses ask of me.
But I don’t really want to tell my whole life story either, so I’m simply going to talk about what it means to my horses and I to be in relationship – to collaborate. Ultimately it means I am in direct communication with my horses every step of our journey together. What that means is, during every interaction I do my utmost to remain fully present, in my body, with all my senses engaged. My sensory system is designed the same way a horse’s sensory system is designed, so once I tap into my natural ability to perceive and receive on a level as subtle as horses do, then we can really communicate.
Am I really allowed to say no?
I’ve observed a pattern. When a horse is used to not being heard, not having their thoughts and opinions honored, and then their human starts to listen, they tend to test us. They test by saying ‘no’ a lot. They seem to be attempting to discover if we are going to listen and honor their opinion all the time, some of the time, only occasionally, or just that one time. Is this new us a novelty that’s going to vanish tomorrow, or have we really changed? Some horses will test our convictions by seriously escalating and challenging us. How far can they go in expressing themselves before we’ll resort to our old ways? This can be a dicey time in a newly forming relationship, particularly if a horse has been traumatized in the past and now feels safe enough to unleash all the pent up energy and opinions that have been squashed over the years!
I still struggle with this phase of remaking this horse/human relationship where the horses seem to say ‘no’ more often than they say ‘yes’ – they are filled with opinions and ideas that are not always conducive to getting things done. All of my life’s training with horses tells me I am only successful when I can get things done with my horse, that in fact, my horse will be the better for it when I get them to do things my way. This lifetime of training is also the primary source of my own internal conflict. It never sat well with me, this idea of escalating pressure to achieve my goal. I always wanted a 50/50 partnership and was told time and again that that was not possible. So, how do I ‘get things done’ when my horse is filled with opinions? How do I reconcile when my horse says ‘no’?
The truth is I don’t get things done, in the traditional horsemanship sense of the words. Instead, my interactions encompass my own internal and external self-awareness, as well as my horse, and the environment we share. In this way, we engage in a dialogue that is completely improvised and organic. Within the context of this kind of relationship there really isn’t a time when my horse says ‘no,’ but rather, there is a simple flow of exchanges wherein we make genuine efforts to discover how to connect and move together.
Sometimes they aren’t interested in interacting and that’s okay. They have a whole full, rich life that has nothing to do with the prescribed time I decided to come and do something with them. My idealized interactions don’t always come to fruition. No relationship is perfect. We do occasionally butt heads on things, but I think that’s a normal part of any close relationship. The horses don’t hold it against me and I don’t hold it against them. It’s part and parcel of how we discover what it means to really do things together.
Full commitment to choice
I’ll never forget, early on in my learning to dance Tango, I had a partner at a social dance tell me to relax, that there are no mistakes in Tango. The only real mistake a partner can make, is not committing fully to their partner and the dance. Her statement was a revelation and something I carry into each of my interactions with the horses.
If I want them to say ‘yes’ to collaborating in motion with me, then I must commit fully. No doubts, no wishy-washy requests. My efforts are not always graceful and their response is not always graceful. But it’s how we learn to find each other. So, I commit fully to whatever course of action I take, while remaining open to listening and honoring my horse’s opinion. I initiate something, they respond in some way, I adapt to their response.
As I get more comfortable with allowing my horses to express themselves in our relationships, whole worlds of insight open up. Perhaps the most important revelation has been that my horses rarely actually say ‘no.’ No is kind of arbitrary and final, and with horses it’s usually more nuanced than that. What they are actually doing – when they don’t do what I’m asking – is giving me feedback. They are communicating. Sometimes they are letting me know something about myself that I need to attend to. Maybe I’m not breathing, or I’m carrying a lot of tension in my shoulders, or I’ve failed to go forward with them when they try to go.
Maybe I’m tired and they are trying to get me to slow down and just be with them, to take care of myself. Sometimes they are communicating that what I’m asking them to do is too difficult, confusing, or they can’t do it physically, emotionally or mentally. Sometimes they have memories of past experiences with other humans, or with me, stirring and muddying the waters. Sometimes they just don’t know how to connect with people, and they remain aloof until I find an inroad. I honestly can’t think of a single occasion where a horse said ‘no’ to a request I made, without having a valid reason.
Whenever I spend time with horses, I’m always considering: How can I make it easier for a horse to do the thing I have in mind? If a horse is consistently saying ‘no’ to my ideas, there is always a reason. Honoring the fact they said ‘no’ is one aspect of the conversation, but perhaps more important (in my mind), is figuring out why they are saying ‘no’. I have yet to find a horse that genuinely has no interest in interacting with people. If they are reluctant, there is a reason. If I can discover the reason and help them resolve their issue, I’ve gone a long way towards building a lasting bond of trust with that horse! And I am giving them enough support to say ‘yes’ in the future.
Why do horses say no?
And so I find myself pondering the original question I was asked when approached to write this article: What do I do when my horses say no? That is certainly a question worth pondering, when our aim is to be in relationship with our horses in ways that honor them as the sentient, intelligent beings they are. But, as I write, I find myself thinking that maybe the question I should be asking is, Why do horses say ‘no’? Or better yet, How could I get my horses to say ‘yes’ more often? That’s really at the heart of my own explorations these days. What creates intrinsic motivation in a horse so that they are saying ‘yes’ to doing things with me?
My work involves rehabilitation; so I get paid to work with horses that have serious lameness, health, or mental/emotional challenges. As you might imagine, those horses don’t trust easily. Most have been pushed to work through pain or discomfort, or been traumatized by their early training. Consequently, I make it a top priority, early on in developing a relationship with any horse, to figure out how to give a horse his voice while wearing a halter and lead. I may need that tactile feedback down the road to help the horse with body awareness, or a particular movement that helps them back into balance. It’s also the most efficient way for me to discover how a horse has been trained and handled and how they really feel about being tethered to a human!
It’s a unique challenge to place a piece of equipment on a horse that implies control, implies they have no choice, and then give them choices. What I want to discover is what is it in me that makes me irresistible to each horse? How do I need to move? How do I need to carry myself? Breathe? What do I need to be doing to capture their attention and make myself interesting enough that they want to do what I want to do? And how do I do all that, without taking advantage of the fact that we are tethered to one another? There’s something about being tethered to a horse I’m committed to not controlling, that is seriously powerful – touch amplifies communication, connection and intimacy. Horses innately enjoy moving with others. How can I restore their sense of enjoyment in moving with a human?
Within the context of a conversation where we are tethered to each other I inevitably find things that make it challenging for this horse to say ‘yes’. He might have soundness issues, or problems with his balance. Most of the horses that cross my path have been abused or mishandled in some way, and may not even know how to connect with a human being, or more likely have no motivation to connect with a human being. It could also be more basic; perhaps they are stiff and have a hard time turning left – a little bodywork might be just the trick.
Horses most often say ‘no’ when we’re asking them to do something that is too hard, or we’re confusing them. By tethering myself to my horse with a halter and lead and touch, whatever the impediment to connection and communication is, it will come quickly to light. Then I can decide how best to support him through what’s challenging him; bodywork, liberty work, spending quiet time, going for walks, physical therapy and so on – there are endless options, I’m only limited by my creativity!
It’s been a fascinating challenge to put a halter on a horse with a firm commitment not to pull on their head, or drive them from behind to “motivate” them to move. No food rewards either! I wanted to understand what motivates a horse intrinsically (internally) to follow a human?
Tethered to a mirror
In the last several years, I have learned more about myself by tethering myself to a horse and not resorting to using that equipment to my advantage. Talk about frustration! To stand at the end of the line while my horse stands there, looking like they could care less. Or to be carted off as they wander the space checking out everything but me.
What have I learned? First and foremost, that horses notice absolutely everything! One of the more profound lessons is that they can feel what I’m feeling. Which means that if I’m standing there looking back at them and doubting that they’ll follow me, or wondering if they’ll follow me, or feeling some kind of inner conflict about “making” them do something they don’t want to do, they are going to feel that and stand there, or wander off until I resolve that for myself. It’s an interesting thing to find a place where you feel no inner conflict or doubt about what you’re doing, and then still don’t resort to pulling on that lead rope!
For me, being tethered to my horse while maintaining a commitment never to use that tether to my advantage, to listen deeply for that moment when they accept my invitation, and then respond from moment-to-moment so that we are quite literally doing something together, is endlessly fascinating. I’ve learned more about myself and more about what horses find interesting and motivating than I ever would have if I’d stuck to traditional training methods, or even if I’d been working at liberty (unhaltered, off-lead).
At liberty my horse can escape from me altogether if I do something they don’t like. With a halter and lead, I have to go with them, or resort to creating some kind of physical boundary. If I’m not going to pull on their head, then I have no choice but to go with them when I do something that challenges them. There is no room for disengagement here from each other. How do we come back together and face the challenges inherent in being physically attached to each other?
I think it’s a worthy thing to spend time on, this exploration into what it takes to be in relationship that’s intimate, physically connected, touching each other. Intimacy can be a challenging thing for both human and horse. But if we can find our way through those initial barriers then intimate connection is incredibly supportive and mutually empowering. And practically speaking, if I devote the time to this practice of being tethered to one another, then when it comes time to do something where we have no choice but to be tethered to each other, the trust is there. I would hate to have to sort out that intimacy piece during an emergency!
Learning to share movement and ideas with horses that get them saying ‘yes’ again, taught me that the first thing I have to do is deal with my inner turmoil, get clear with myself about my relationship with horses, and show up without any internal conflict or angst. Then I have to get a handle on how I move and how I carry myself. My posture, my ability to keep my balance, and my ability to move with confidence and grace are all things horses notice, and seem to care about, in someone they are going to follow. Within that, I had to discover at a deep level – where and how I initiate my own movement, and what energetic quality is involved in the movement I generate? Horses are so keyed into things like posture, balance, movement and energy, that if I don’t bring up enough energy in myself, they simply have no motivation to follow my idea. They get bored and wander off.
There are many nuanced and varied reasons for a horse to appear to be saying ‘no.’ In my experience it’s more often: ‘I can’t,’ or I don’t understand,’ or ‘I can’t hear you,’ it’s a simple communication that can be resolved into an enthusiastic ‘yes’ once I discover the source of confusion or difficulty.
My advice to anyone exploring this path of giving your horse a voice, is to keep going. Trust your instincts and listen to your intuition. Your horses are communicating everything you need to know to help them say ‘yes’ to just about anything you have in mind! Don’t get discouraged and don’t take the apparent ‘no’ as something personal. Horses are the best teachers out there! They’ll change you in ways you can’t imagine… if you commit to the dance.
Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners
37 thoughts on “Giving Horses Their Voice – What if they say No??”
I am wondering what her horse’s opinion is with using a bit for riding? It really amazes me that people like Andrea that are doing so much good with horses yet still put a bit into their mouths.
That’s such a good question about the bits. You know, each of the horses that’s come my way has had a different opinion on bits. They are all unique and have their distinct preferences. We work together and they tell me what they prefer and that’s what I use. Some definitely prefer the bit and others definitely don’t. Bits get a bad rap, but I think that’s because most of us aren’t taught how to make good use of one.
For example, Jack has some serious issues in his body related a wreck he had many years ago. He has weakness in his right hind leg that translates into the rest of his body as something I would describe as scoliosis if he were a human being. He quite happily takes a bit to help with his physical therapy because the tactile stimulation the bit provides helps him access the parts of his body he normally tunes out, allowing him to strengthen them.
But here’s the thing. I don’t ever pull on the bit. I don’t use the bit as a tool to punish my horses or control them. In my rehab world the bit is a tool to enhance the communication from my spine to his spine, providing direct, tactile feedback to his entire nervous system to help him access his core with great precision.
I spend an enormous amount of time helping horses heal from bit related misuse and trauma. We completely renegotiate its meaning so that it becomes almost a sacred act to incorporate this degree of intimacy into our relationship. The bit is never about control, it’s never about inflicting pain because I never use it that way.
In my experience, listening to horses means honoring what works for them even if it’s something that everyone else “out there” thinks is a bad thing. We’re rebels that way 😉
Thank you for your question.
With all due respect,
The entire purpose of a bit is to ELIMINATE the horse’s ability to say “no.” Bits use pain or the fear of pain to coerce compliance.
The idea that clinging to this barbaric conventional approach somehow makes one a “rebel” is patently absurd. “Sacred act?” “Intimacy?” Nonsense.
If you’re not using the bit for control, then just what is it for??
“…enhance the communication from my spine to his spine, providing direct, tactile feedback to his entire nervous system to help him access his core with great precision.”
You can call it “enhanced interrogation” if it makes you feel better about yourself, but to the person you’re inflicting it on, it’s still just plain old torture.
All a bit communicates is who’s in charge.
It’s just like putting you in a wrist-lock. Do what I ask and it will be no more than awkward and uncomfortable. Resist and you get pain — pain which I can claim you inflicted on yourself by resisting.
Either you respect the horse as a sovereign, autonomous being with the right to self-determination, OR you use a bit.
You can’t have it both ways.
It’s a deal-breaker.
Engaging in olympic calibre semantic gymnastics, is just putting a verbal coat of new-age paint over some nasty old word rust.
It’s way past time for the bit to take it’s place in the trash-bin of history, along with the “rule of thumb” for beating your wife.
Sorry if that’s blunt. I call ’em like I see ’em.
Please read “Metal in the Mouth” by Robt. Cook, DVM, and re-examine your position on bits.
I sure appreciate your passion for horses and their welfare. And I understand where you’re coming from. Most people are taught to use the bit specifically for the purpose of inflicting pain to control a horse. It is absolutely a tool that can cause harm and sadly often does.
Trust me, I’ve read every study out there on bits – both pro and con. And I’ve had my fair share of conflict around whether or not to use them. When Dr. Cook’s research first came out I jumped on the chance to get a bitless bridle for my mare. She hated it! She much preferred the bit because, for her, the pressure on her tongue and bars was less bothersome than the pressure of the nose band. In fact I’m hearing people are doing studies showing that pressure on the nose may be just as painful as pressure on the bars so really, for me, it’s a question of not doing anything by way of controlling my horse from their head or from pressure in any way!
And I agree with you. A bit can easily be used to take away a horse’s voice. It can easily be used as a method of torture and I totally understand why so many people feel they should be relegated to the trash bin.
But if I take this stance that bits are out of the question then I’m limiting the choices I offer my horse. Because I literally offer my horses the choice – do they want to interact at all? How do they want to interact? Do they prefer liberty? Halter and lead? Bit and bridle? It’s up to them, not me. Some of the horses here dive for the bit and seem to really want it. Others turn their head away and clearly say no. I honor their choice, every time!
I feel much like you do about bits about knotted rope halters that are designed to rest on the nerve bundles on the face and work off of the threat of pain. I threw all of my knotted rope halters away after I found out what those knots did. But I’ve since had people tell me their horse – if given the choice – will chose the knotted halter over the flat halter. So who am I to judge. I’ll trust what my horses request over what anyone else is trying to sell me. Every single time.
I spend a great deal of careful time and attention developing a way to communicate with the horses through touch and movement so that we are quite literally moving together. In that context the bit or any other piece of equipment becomes one more way we are connected to one another, one more avenue for clear communication – I do not use the bit to force the horse to stop or turn or make something happen. And that is the trick – when you have any piece of equipment attaching you to the horse can you resist the temptation to use it as a means of control? Because at the end of the day anything can become a means of control or torture. The key is to make sure that whatever we do it is mutually agreed upon.
So, to be clear – I don’t pull on the bit, I don’t put the horse in a ‘wrist lock’ – IF I ride – because the horse has invited me to do so – I ride in balance and do my utmost to be easy to carry. Before I ever get on the need for control is long since gone and the horse has long since shared with me what they prefer in terms of the tools the establish our physical connection.
No one will ever convince to listen to another human being or a study over what my horse asks for. And that’s what I love about listening to my horses and honoring their input – I can and do feel good about what I do because it’s mutually agreed upon. Period.
If bits don’t work for you or your horses then by all means – toss them in the bin with my knotted rope halters because if you feel one ounce of internal conflict about what you are doing with your horse they’ll feel it and it’s unnerving for them. So you go with your convictions and I’ll go with what my horses tell me works for them and our horses will benefit either way.
Thanks for chiming into the conversation!
I find this conversation SO interesting – from so many angles. I think first though, I would make a distinction between the horse who has already been trained to the bit and one who has never been ridden, or had more than a halter on his face – maybe not even a halter! WHAT would that horse choose? Maybe that horse would prefer a neck loop and nothing on its face at all.
Of course, a horse has healthy teeth pulled for the sole purpose of creating a gap for the bit, so that’s another reason to avoid using a bit with a young, or non-domesticated horse. I can’t see that any horse with his natural teeth would choose to have a bit in his mouth for longer than a couple seconds of exploration!
On the other hand, I can see how a horse that has always been ridden with a bit and opens his mouth willingly for the bit, might prefer that – like having the security of understood communication. Maybe that horse doesn’t want to learn anything different. Maybe more freedom doesn’t feel good to that horse. Hey, some women LIKE to wear bras! Personally I can’t conceive of a horse wanting to wear a tight girth all day, every day. But that’s what women choose. There are reams of information and data showing how/why bras are unhealthy, yet many/most women choose to keep wearing them.
Of course, once a woman goes without a bra for a month or so, THEN she is loathe to put one back on. But not always. And there are times when she wants to wear a bra just to feel that little bit extra ‘secure’. So really, choosing to wear an uncomfortable, possibly torturous device – for a variety of consciously-chosen reasons – is not so inconceivable.
I work/play with all my horses unhaltered in a 10-acre field – that’s my definition of ‘liberty’. But when I first got my Andalusian mare Zorra, at the age of 9, she asked me to put a halter on her. She needed that piece of equipment to feel secure. She didn’t feel comfortable, nor safe, with that much freedom. After a few months, she felt completely comfortable without one.
And the halters are interesting too – ALL of my horses choose the rope halter over the flat halter. I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s lighter – it’s the closest option we have to having nothing on their face. BUT I also don’t pull on the halter. I use hand and voice signals and in urgent situations, I wave a tree branch at their behind, I don’t pull on their face. When Zorra chooses to go riding in the park, she chooses the rope halter over the bitless bridle. And when I say choose – they walk straight up to the one they want and either bop it with their nose, put their nose in it, or stand patiently in front of the hand holding that halter, and wait for me to put it on. If they don’t want to go out, or don’t want to wear a halter, they don’t come near them at all.
My horse Montaro hated halters after he had his head tied for a trailer ride, so I’ve been taking him out with just a neck loop. But after our first venture onto the road (which can get busy and may have ignorant drivers on it), the second time, he told me to put the rope halter on him as well – just in case. So he made the choice to ask me to have MORE control over him if an asshole truck driver guns it at his midsection, because he doesn’t trust himself to be able to handle his response – yet. But he does trust me to take control in situations like that and asked for the stronger control device, knowing the neck loop would not be strong enough to cut through his primal panic response. So. When I see a vehicle coming, I clip the lead to the halter. When it passes, I clip it back to the neck loop.
So again, although I have not encountered it, I can see this same dynamic at work with a horse who feels safe with a bit, or isn’t ready for greater freedom/control, etc etc. I’m sure there are many reasons (including past events) that could be at work here.
But for new or wild horses, hell no!! I agree with Adam and there is NO reason to put a bit in any animal’s mouth. Nor to pull healthy teeth for human convenience – just barbaric. Really, bits should be made illegal and phased out within 1 generation. Because relying on a human to control themselves to the degree needed to not inflict pain with a bit– hello! Maybe 1 in 10 million are actually capable of that. And the rest will abuse the device.
You make some excellent points in what you wrote. You know every horse is such an individual. And you are right, it’s usually horses who’ve been trained to a bit who request a bit. I have a horse I started, I was there when he was born. Kastani never much cared for a bit. Back in those days (nearly 20 years ago now), it was just accepted that a horse would end up in a bit. So I struggled away with him and ultimately ended up letting him go to a woman who wanted nothing more than to trail ride. After 8 years he came back to us. She brought him back with a hackamore and said that’s what he preferred to be ridden in. Since he’s come back he’s made it clear that he actually prefers the flat halter. Who am I to argue. He lets me know much the way you describe, he puts his nose into the thing he wants and if I insist on asking he just turns his nose away when presented with something he’s not interested in. Out of curiosity I’ve offered him numerous bitless contraptions. He will usually take them on – almost like he’s curious – but he’s rejected them all in favor of the halter.
Now Jack has always been ridden in a bridle and he has serious physical challenges from a debilitating injury many years ago. There is something about the bit that helps him use his body in a way that supports him building the muscles that support his weak areas. He will dive for the bit when he feels he needs some physical therapy. And he will let me know in no uncertain terms when he’s had enough or if he does not need his physical therapy.
For other horses it does seem to be their comfort zone. For others they’ll start out seemingly accepting of the bit and then refuse it. They let me know in no uncertain terms that the bit has been used to take their voice and they are done. Interestingly, Huey, who was badly abused with a bit, will sometimes come to me when I’m say – finishing up with Jack – and ask to have the bridle put on. He wants to just stand there and hold it in his mouth. He sometimes wants to go for a walk in it. It’s almost like he’s testing to see if I’m going to try to control him with it. After a while he’ll let me know he’s done and won’t want to explore that again for quite a while, sometimes months.
There are a number of studies that show the damage bits do when they are used incorrectly. But I think it’s important to realize that not everyone who makes use of a bit is a monster. Used correctly (which means not for control, steering, brakes or coercion) they can be useful to the horse. Check out Hilary Clayton’s research where she took a look at the effects of the hands on the bit’s action and how that impacts the horse’s mouth. She noted that in her studies she found the amount of pressure applied via some bitless options was equal to the amount of pressure a bit applies and that the bony parts of the horse’s face are just as sensitive as the bars. In fact, if a rider is tactful with their hands such that the horse does not feel the need to brace or protect themselves from the bit (ie the tongue is relaxed) then the tongue handles any pressure that should arise much more readily than the bars. I certainly feel that in my horses who prefer the bit- they have a soft, relaxed tongue and soft, relaxed jaw. No one is pulling or putting pressure anywhere.
Here’s a link to an article discussing Hilary’s research: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/28979/researcher-evaluates-bit-rein-interaction-with-equine-mouth
I also agree with you that the number of people who are skilled with a bit are probably fewer than those who are not. That’s one of the many reasons I shifted my focus away from rehab and toward education – because if we are going to ride a horse we owe it to them to develop our own skill such that we don’t need to balance on the horse’s face or use their head to control them, or their center of gravity or, or, or…. it is possible to learn to move with horses in a way that is unobtrusive and does not rely on control or pain or bribery. It can be done.
I don’t know where my path with the horses will lead but it’s a path they are choosing for me and I’m a willing follower. Perhaps down the road a piece I’ll find more horses who are not accustomed to the bit, who don’t want to wear one, and if so that’s great. Meanwhile, I’ve got a farm full of traditionally trained horses who know their own minds. I’m good with whatever they choose.
As long as my horses keep showing up and telling me what we’re doing is working for them. That’s all that matters to me.
Thanks for sharing all these stories, I just love the one about Huey. He’s going back to the point of trauma and creating new visceral experiences and a new story for himself. Just fabulous.
And yes, some of those bitless bridles are as bad (if not worse) than a light bit – talk about a vise grip! Basically, as long as we’re talking about ‘control’ any options will not benefit the horse. But if we’re talking about choice, and what allows the horse to say NO. Or, not now, or, not today, then we’re on the right track.
Anything that results in a ‘look what I can make my horse do!’ display, is cringe-worthy for me. But things that show an enlivened, empowered horse choosing to do some fun activity with their human, I enjoy. But as your stories show, there’s usually a whole lotta healing along the pathway to that place, for most domestic horses.
I couldn’t agree more. And I am generally coming from the place of interacting with domesticated horses who have been abused or crippled by traditional horsemanship methods. They consistently show me that they prefer to resolve that trauma and find a new relationship with the tools that traumatized them rather than live the rest of their lives carrying that trauma.
Rehab work and bodywork has exposed me to the worst of the worst so rest assured that if I am employing a bit it is because there is a specific purpose that relates to the horse’s well being. I was inspired by this conversation to write a blog post about Jack and how important I find it to really listen to my horses and honor their requests. Jack blossomed with the help of a bit when nothing else worked and believe me, I tried a lot of other things first!
Just read that article and the story of Jack is very powerful. For others that want to read it, the article is here:
Thank you Adam for your reply. I couldn’t have said it better, actually didn’t know what to say to Audrey’s answer, hence my silence. I am so glad you spoke up.
Years ago I was in touch with Anna Twinney in Colorado, animal communicator/horse advocate/trainer. She too uses bits and I asked her why she used them. Basically she said the horse that she was using the bit on told her he like the bit!
Thank you for calling a spade a spade.
I find it fascinating that even if a horse requests a bit it’s still deemed inhumane by some.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I have to meet people where they are at. I spent years advocating for horses by calling humans out and telling them what they were doing wrong. Not only did it not make me any friends, it also didn’t cause anyone to change what they were doing. I didn’t end up helping many horses.
Now, I acknowledge that a great many people still use bits and still restrain horses. My personal journey involves discovering if there is a way to utilize traditional tools in a way that does not take the horse’ s voice away. In this way I can meet people where they are in their journey and quietly, softly, respectfully help them discover on their own, if this is really the best way. I’ve had a lot more people change their ways taking this approach.
The beauty of truly listening to my horses is that no one can shame me into believing I’m a horrible person because I have the approval of my horses and that’s all that matters to me.
Susan and Adam, more power to you. Keep crusading and you’re under no obligation to agree with me or read what I write. But you won’t change my mind by trying to shame me or scare me into changing. I’ll continue to do as my horses request thanks.
Now if you’d like to know how I go about determining if a horse would prefer a bit I’d be happy to engage in that conversation. Otherwise I have nothing more to add to this conversation.
I almost completely disagree with most of what you said, but your main point is acknowledged: a bit helps me to eliminate the horse’s power to say “no.” The bit somewhat ensures I will have a choice, and even have ultimate decision power, in our time together if I am on her back.
I have a mustang I have trained. I have taken Anna Twinney’s ROTH clinic gentling a wild horse and worked with wild and domestic horses, Most are “wild” in that they are all prey animals be they born in the wild or among humans. I always “ask” my horse politely. I honor her feelings when possible, but part of our deal is I AM the leader, and sometimes I go against what she wants. I do my best to convince her to come along because I am not changing my mind, and let’s just do this together, please. I smile at her with certainty in my face like, “I love you, I hear you, but I am not changing my plan. Please comply.”
She almost always does. Ir’s very cool. And she likes the bit; they seem to like metal. I keep slack in my reins and ONLY use them to signal if my other cues aren’t clear or are not being acknowledged. AS SOON AS I get any response, slack is back.
My safety is paramount. Without me, my horse is in trouble. I support her. I make sure she is safe and has a place to call home with other horses. She lives in pasture. She has a fabulous life. She teaches me something every day. She is always honest. I do not feel guilty about asking her to comply. I do not feel guilty about getting big when I need to. I am always compassionate, and I am fair. But I am in charge just as she is in charge in her herd. It is not wrong for me to have the power of a bit particularly since I know how to use it and prefer to.
At the very least a bit gives me some insurance if my horse loses her mind and I am on her back. I seldom have ever needed to use it harshly, but it has been a lifesaver at times. I am okay with having an emergency brake if I am crazy enough to get on the back of a large powerful prey animal named a horse.
Bits and things have to do with what do you want to do with your horse? What are you doing TODAY? Every day is not the same. Some days I am a herd mate and just hang out with her. Some days I ride her and I need her to be in compliance. I am still kind and always ask politely, and I always take into account how she is feeling about things. But I need to have total authority if I am to survive the experience of being on her back.
Horses can be great friends, great family. My journey has been similar in many respects and my best friends are my horses. I say my because I will not let anyone else have them and they would not survive on their own for long.
Perhaps its the other way around, I am theirs?
Thank you for sharing Richard,
Yes, I feel the same. My horses are my family and I belong to them. 🙂
LOVED your video Richard! Thanks so much for sharing it – what a great time y’all were having and loved the expressions between the horses and also with you 🙂
Jini, I’m so glad you mentioned the video! Somehow I didn’t catch that when I read the comments earlier so I never watched it. Richard – that’s awesome! Isn’t it just amazing to stand among so many horses when they are romping and racing around? What a beautiful bunch of horses and what a beautiful place they live. Thank you for sharing that!
I love this.so clear, and well written.
Thank you for sharing your voice, and theirs.
We are the change…the shift..the creators of evolution, of exlporing, and writers of infinite possiblity.
Thank you. It’s so gratifying to find others who share this way of thinking!
I really appreciate all that you’ve shared here about your journey with horses. How to be irresistible to a horse is a great question. Asking it puts us closer to them and their experience as it shifts our perspective from our human-centered one. As an equine bodyworker, I am continually paying attention to subtle communications as I say hello, begin to touch them, continue to touch them, explore touching an area that may be uncomfortable. Your thoughtful post has given me some more questions to be asking. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Bodywork is certainly a wonderful avenue to learning how to listen on very deep levels. Enjoy your journey!
Andrea, thank you for another thought-provoking article! One thought that came to mind was: I have realized that sometimes the horse appears to say no but really is just relating from a distance. They are better at that than I am. I know you know this 🙂
What truly has helped me and my partner Merlin – who had been abused and did not want to relate when he came to live with me – is a concept I got from Klaus Hempfl: just be like your six-year old self. Full of wonder, just be. It helped us and now Merlin does want to be close, and can be groomed and tacked without a halter. The horse that could not be touched on his butt or back legs. I am so grateful for all the lessons they give us. I look forward to your next writing. Thanks again!
Hello Corine! So nice to hear from you!
Yes, often they aren’t saying “no” they just prefer some space. It’s interesting, this process of learning to listen. How do we distinguish between a request for some time and space to process something on their own and a request/desire for some physical support via touch, shared movement or connection through a piece of equipment?
I love what you shared about the lesson you learned from Klaus! I couldn’t agree more! Maybe I should write another article on that topic! So often, in our efforts to do right by our horses we end up very serious and technical. That can feel like pressure or criticism to a horse or anyone who’s in the position of following someone’s lead. It is really crucial to do our best to remain light hearted and joyful about what we’re doing – not by faking it – but by genuinely embracing the delight our 6 year old self would experience in exploring something with a friend.
Look forward to hearing more about your own explorations Corine!
This was such an interesting article….thank you for going where nobody (even natural horsemanship gurus) will go: allowing horses to say “no”.
I have a lovely curious ‘young’ 21 year old Paso Fino gelding, we have been together for about 5 years now. He is very sociable and loves meeting new people, especially kids and dogs. He loves to explore new trails and it a true pleasure to ride. I have done some Parelli-style groundwork with him, which has been helpful for our communication. BUT, he does not like to be touched, even by me. You can imagine how hard it is to physically and emotionally care for a horse who prefers to not be brushed or have his feet picked out. The only time I have ever seen him stand loose to be brushed was when a young girl brushed him during a visit….her energy and gentle brushing were obviously acceptable to him.
I consulted an animal communicator and she said Shaku has very sensitive skin, so much so that he feels/senses a hand within a few inches of his skin and sometimes thas too much. She said he would like to work on this with me, and so with time (years) and with more respect on my part to his desires this has improved a bit. I try not to touch him with a purpose (like “I HAVE to brush you because you are so dirty and look neglected to others, and what will they think of me!”) whenever possible, and when I do I try to be gentle, calm, and infuse him with my love for him when I do brush him….it doesn’t always work. I try to give him the choice to move away and not have me follow to force the touching/brushing, but this is not always possible….if we are going for a ride for example.
So we have a deal where for the essential health-related tasks I reward him with food. I let him free feed on hay while I trim his feet (he is on a 24/7 slow feed system so free hay is a real treat for him!). And I give him alfalfa cubes for picking up his feet for cleaning. This food reward has helped immensely. He will also usually let me gently brush most of his body with the softest brush I can find (after he’s sniffed it to make sure it’s soft!), and the further from his neck and head and the slower/smoother/gentler I go the more relaxed he is. He loves to stand close and share space and body heat with me, but a touch on his neck will often cause him to move away.
This article really resonated because while I let him say no sometimes, I wonder what would happen if I let him say no all the time to being touched. It’s an experiment I’d like to try, but I cannot neglect his feet so it could never be 100% freewill.
My last comment on the bitless conversation above, and on what listening to a horse sometimes means: I think the horse will tell you what he/she prefers… When I did my consultation with an animal communicator, I asked her to tell Shaku that I was getting a bitless bridle for him, and to ask if the saddle fit him ok. She replied that Shaku was very excited about the bitless bridle, and that while his saddle fit just fine he would like me to ride him bareback sometimes. His behaviour with a bit in his mouth, and without a bit in his mouth is noticeably different. Bitless is better, the biggest change being that he no longer constantly tries to pull the reins out of my hands (even though I rode with no contact, he still didn’t like the bit). Conversely, my friend had a consultation with the same communicator about her horse. While she is more traditionally minded she did not ask about what her horse thinks of the bit. But she did ask about something that was very distressing to her: the necessity of putting a chain over her horse’s noseband on the halter when leading her horse out for walks, to prevent her very strong and dominant horse from pulling away from her and running off when she got excited. Her horse’s answer to this shocked both of us: Anna (her horse) liked having the chain because when she got over excited on our walks it helped to ground her and bring her back to a calmer place. What we saw as cruel and barbaric seems to be appreciated by Anna… I know many people will still feel the chain is unacceptable, but that’s what listening to the horse entails….it’s not always what even the most well-meaning humans think is best.
Thank you for this amazing article and the follow up comments on horses’ choices when it comes to bits.
By the way Kirsten, here’s what happened to me with this same situation, “but I cannot neglect his feet so it could never be 100% freewill.”:
Very interesting, thank you Jini, that gives me lots to think about.
I kind of feel like Shaku and I have made a deal for now, where he’s happy to lift his feet for me for a food reward, as long as I let it go when he wants it back….it only took me a few years to figure out that would be a fair trade!
Very nice. Every horse is different, has different ideas and likes different things. I love that you’re listening deeply to him and figuring out what works for both of you 🙂
Hello – I am new to this site and already feel home. I couldn’t tell you how I found you, except that I have been expressing to my guardian angels that I am ready for the next chapter of my journey to emerge. I was drawn to Andrea’s article: I don’t live with horses however in February my husband and I adopted Georgia who is nearblind. We’re all learning to live, love and thrive together…she is teaching us so much. I had her in my mind during your whole article.
I see that Kesia and Jini are in Blaine, WA. Where does Andrea reside? I live on Bainbridge Island in the summers. Surprise, AZ in winters. My recent past 3+ years have been dedicated to preserving the survival and safety of our native Wild horses living on U.S.Public lands. The battle is raging in congress as I write. There are those who would eradicate all of them; the possibility of horse slaughter is on our horizon. I have accomplished what it is I know how to do, and now my eyes and heart are returning to hands on partnerships with horses. My vision is to adopt one wild mustang, gentle him/her for haltering, foot care, and trailering, with the idea that they are easier to adopt out to good forever homes. At the same time, I am looking for an equine partner to continue my work as an equine-assisted life coach. I am certified as an advanced instructor with Linda Kohanov’s group, Eponaquest, and have spent 3 summers learning how to gentle a green high sensitive 6 yr old while at liberty and at choice. I am hungry to continue my learning of how to be with horses. I know they will each find me when the time is right.
Thank you, Andrea, for all that you BE and DO. Kesia and Jini, you both are bright shining lights, and are co-creating a healing space for horse and human souls. Our planet needs you!
Thank you for your kind words. I reside in Grand Junction Colorado, to answer your question. I wish you so much joy on your adventures with horses!
Hi Sandra, so glad you’ve found us! Jini and I are actually in Canada – she’s in the south-west of BC and I’m in the north-west.
Do you work with the Cloud Foundation? Those docs have been the majority of my education about BLM horses in the US. Incredibly educational but also very heart wrenching seeing how they are managed. No such large herds up here, but many feral and unmanaged horses and one small group of genetically distinct horses that may prove that horses were here long before the Spanish brought what are now the Mustangs….But I digress…
Your journey so far (and what’s stretching out ahead of you) sounds pretty amazing. There of many of us here who have come together with that same hunger, to go deeper into relationship with horses and to go beyond what even alternative trainers tell us. I really hope you get some of what you’re looking for here. Sometimes the discussions that unfold between readers, too, are so mind-bogglingly in-depth and illuminating (if I do say so myself)…
Thank you for your response. Yes, I am currently the Director of Volunteer Programs for the Cloud Foundation. You might be interested in seeing our latest effort to engage volunteers to work with the BLM in the on range management of wild horses and burros. The key to,population control is using a reversible birth control on the mares. You can learn more in the Resource Guide which is your basic how-to manual. http://www.whbvresourcecenter.org
Please pass this on to wild horse advocates you may know in the U.S. Volunteers are proving vital to the survival of the species.
And I’m learning a ton reading all the comments… guess I don’t need to buy any books for awhile!!!
Sandra that is so cool! I’ve bookmarked your link to dive into when it isn’t an hour and a half past farm-girl bedtime 🙂
Reversible birth control! Do they stop cycling? Does it affect their social structures at all if they don’t produce foals? I’m intrigued…
Pingback: The Great Bit Debate | Integrative Horsemanship
Really enjoyed everyone’s comments, especially looking at the different perspectives on bits. Coming from a background of hrseshowing, I tend to be like the ex smoker…but I do understand about horses that have had bits in the past needling them for comfort. When I brought my daughters hunter/ jumper home after we committed to no more riding and being turned out, he kept himself in a 12×12 space for a couple of days. I’ve had so much of the similar experience with him testing to see if he really had a choice and he is just starting to believe in me, it’s been 3 years. The lessons continue to unfold and they of course mostly are about me!
Thank you for chiming in Katherine.
It is so important to take into account what a horse has known and not just change everything up right off the bat. It’s so stressful to go from a confined and controlled situation into something where there is total freedom. Good for you for listening to this new horse and giving him the opportunity to do what he needed to to feel safe. Yea, so many lessons about ourselves when we go down this road. 🙂 Keep on going – we just have to trust our own instincts and what each individual horse is telling us over outside input or opinions.
Thanks also for sharing the timeline with us – 3 years! I guess we also need to think of it like prison inmates – after having a tightly controlled, confined life, transitioning to freedom (so many choices!!) can be very stressful and overwhelming. Also reminds me of the elephants – they chain them when they are babies (and not strong enough to break the chain) so they give up and learn to submit. Then when they are adults, all they need to do is put the chain around their leg and they stay put. Learned helplessness is a super strong paradigm to break out of – for ALL us earthlings!
Wow, wonderfull article and whole discussion! I have some thoughts which I’d love to share because I’m confused…
Quite often I have a worry that my horses don’t want to be with me – to ride, play, or do the hooves 😉 This makes me feel less worthy and my self confidence is going down. I know it is an issue in my life – self doubt, feeling forever not good enough. My dog was doing the same. He is 10 y.o. now and only few months ago I started to accept him as he is – with all his troubles and noughty behaviour. And this started the change. Maybe he still doesn’t behave perfectly, but I don’t have this terrible feeling abouth myself anymore. I love our walks now. I love him, just the way he is. It’s funny I can’t do it to myslef! I can’t accept and love myself the way I am – maybe my horses want to show me that too? What do you think? It’s such a common pattern with them… You say to let them decide and I always have the answer “no”. There is always some resistance in them. I can do a lot with them, but I can feel the resisitance – if I take the halter, my horse would go away. I can ride with the halter and my horse will be safe but if I take it off – would he let me ride him the way I chose? The answer is I’m afraid “no” and that put me in a place of feeling not good enough again… The question is why on earth I have 3 horses who don’t want to be with me?! Hehe, I know they want to teach me smth, otherwise they wouldn’t be present in my life, right?
I asked my friend trainer to ride one of my horse Farys because I’m afraid of getting on him. He behaves quite nicely, I mean he is obedient but not seem to love it too much. Or maybe I only imagine that and my horse is only lazy or dominant and doesn’t want to be ridden BECAUSE? Hm… Maybe not? Maybe he wants me to find peace and trust in me first? Because I started to be afraid while riding. Only my horse Bart is safe for me. When I get on any other horse… I’m afraid. I ride for 20 years or so. And now I’m afraid of getting on my own horse, gush… Why do I have a horse I’m afraid of?!
The second pattern that is very common for us is that when I feel better, smth nice happened (got promotion at work or sell my painting, have an extra money – and money issue is always a problem…) one of my animal friend will get sick. And I will be on debt again. Believe me, ALWAYS. My cat stop eating and needs blood tests, my dog will catch an allergy and need injections, my horse cut his leg which needs stitches (like today, tadaaa) and more and more. Sometimes very serious illness apears, sometimes less serious but always it is something that shows me I can’t control anything. It can’t be good, NEVER. Because when it IS good, something bad WILL happen. And it does happen. It’s like the never ending story. Do you see some idea behind all of that? I looked at this page today to seek some answers and found this article – after my horse cut his leg today, vet consumed hundreds of złoty and my animal comunicator friend told me that my animals are getting sick because I want to punish myself for feeling goood… Gush… So what is the idea behind my animals telling “no”? Getting sick? What do you think?….
Sending much love to you all 🙂
Hmmmm… there’s so much going on here Zuzanna I don’t really know how to respond. It sounds like there is a whole mix of issues, beliefs and past traumas operating here, so I don’t think there’s any easy or quick answers. Your account reminds me of a Healing Journey – where there are LAYERS of stuff that need to be understood (insight/awareness) and then shifted/healed and it is a process. Not just one thing, and not a quick fix.
So if I were in your shoes, I would forget about my horses and just work on myself. Book sessions with mind/body healing practitioners (hypnotherapy, EFT, matrix reimprinting, craniosacral – Level 2 or higher – spiritual/energy healing, BodyTalk, etc). Start some kind of meditative practice. I feel Dance Yoga (5Rhythms) would be very good for you. Attend EAL workshops and/or healing, growth, personal development workshops. There’s so much good, helpful stuff out there! You’ve talked about these issues for a while now, so I don’t think you can heal/shift this yourself – get help. There is so much great stuff happening nowadays AND it’s fun, it’s meaningful, it’s the most important thing you can do to get the relationship you want with your animals.
This is the next workshop I’m going to:
Big love and hugs 🙂