Horses: Subtle Hornswogglers?

Your horse is by nature a generous, cooperative soul. But he does prefer to have his own way, and he’ll use subtlety to get it?if you let him. | H&R photo by Cappy Jackson

One of my favorite books on basic horsemanship is Mary Wanless’ 1987 classic The Natural Rider. My copy–worn, annotated, festooned with sticky-notes–is beginning to fall apart. Perhaps my favorite insight from it is this:

“Although [the horse] is remarkably generous, cooperative, and forgiving, he still likes to have his own way; he uses subtlety to get what he wants, and he wins most battles by ignoring the rider rather than fighting her.”

I love this quote because it gives horses credit where they genuinely deserve it–they are incredibly generous and willing–but it also warns us about one of their craftiest moves: working to get their way, a fraction at a time, if we don’t pay attention and keep them honest.

It’s kind of funny, actually, when you think of it. Horses attempt to train us exactly the way we should be training them: gradually, incrementally, in small bits. Almost so you don’t know it’s happening.

For example, your horse might start to lean into your hand, just a little, when you ask him to soften through the jaw. You let it go; he continues to up the ante. Eventually, he’s pulling on the bit?nosediving, even?every time he doesn’t want to do something you’ve asked.

And you’re thinking, How did this happen?

Now it’s a problem you have to deal with. Before it would have been a simple oh-no-you-don’t.

The bottom line is to stay tuned in as you ride. Be aware and keep your horse honest in all his responses, large and small. That’s easier on both of you than having to correct an out-and-out disobedience–or cure a chronic problem–later on.

(Note: If cutting corners in the arena is your horse’s favorite “cheat,” be sure to see “No More Cheating” by trainer Pete Kyle in the March issue of


. And for more of Mary Wanless’ horsemanship wisdom, see her latest book,

The New Ride With Your Mind Clinic.)

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