Yes, I know, it sounds counterintuitive to allow your horse to have a say in his or her training, but communication should go both ways between a horse and rider. For example, my horse recently was recalcitrant and skittish while tacking up and entering the arena. When I mounted, I realized that his hocks were quite sore. Had I paid attention to his body language and mood, I might have guessed that he was in pain earlier and, instead of insisting upon tacking him up, dragging him to the arena, and mounting despite his objections, I could have simply longed him to see where he was hurting.
Uncharacteristic Misbehavior = Communication?
One goal most equestrians share is to train a horse not just to obey, but to want to work. So, it follows logically that the horse’s needs and moods should be taken into account during training. If a normally enthusiastic, exuberant horse suddenly is reluctant to work, he could just be testing boundaries, but he could also be conveying a message, such as, “I’m tired,” “I hurt,” “I wasn’t fed this morning,” or even, “I have an nasty new stablemate and fighting with him all day has put me in a rotten mood.”
A horse owner must walk a delicate line between listening to a horse and rewarding misbehavior when an obedient horse suddenly acts up. If a horse learns that he can get away with being obnoxious and will be rewarded for it, he could become completely unmanageable. However, if you’ve done a good job of training your horse and rewarding her for good behavior, she should see working hard as pleasant and likely to lead to rewards. It’s unlikely that a well-trained horse who enjoys her job will suddenly start misbehaving and avoiding work for no reason.
What to Do?
If you suspect that your horse is misbehaving because something is wrong, look for the underlying problem. Does he or she have a soundness issue? Does he flinch when touched? Is she resisting the bit because her teeth need to be floated? Look for recent changes in your horse’s environment and schedule. Some horses resist any disruption of the routine to which they are accustomed. If your horse lives at a boarding facility, ask the staff if anything unusual happened today, and if they have noticed anything different about your horse recently. Double-check your tack and see if something is pinching or rubbing where it shouldn’t.
If you’re stumped and your horse still doesn’t want to work, just try something different for one day, like groundwork or a trail ride, and try going back to your normal routine next time. If the problem occurs repeatedly and you still believe that your horse is telling you something, not just being naughty, consult a veterinarian and/or a trainer.
In conclusion, horses are complex, emotional animals with many moods. Before presuming that a particular unusual, unwanted behavior is simply disobedience, consider whether or not your horse might be communicating through the only method available to it.