It’s not unusual in the horse world to hear someone say, “the horse doesn’t get to say no” or something about them being “disrespectful” if they don’t want to do what they’re asked.
But there is a lot be learned when our horse tells us no, and our relationships with them will be a lot stronger if they know that it’s okay to tell us NO.
If your horse says no, think of it as an opportunity to think about WHY they said no, and make a better plan to help them choose to say yes. Horses never say no just to ruin your day. They don’t understand what you’re asking, they’re no able to do what your asking, or something has changed that you aren’t perceiving. Stop, ask why, and make a new plan to move forward.
If you let your horse say no, they’ll know you’re listening to them. Often humans are pretty oblivious to our horse’s efforts at communication, to the point that our horses often give up trying to tell us anything at all, simply reacting to our cues without any enthusiasm or engagement. When your horse says no, and you stop and let them, it’s a great way to tell your horse that they have a voice, and you’re doing your best to hear them.
We’ve all heard those stories of the horse that refused to step on the bridge and it turned out it wasn’t safe, or wouldn’t go into the woods and it was discovered that there was a bear. It’s always worth giving our horse the benefit of the doubt – they are experts at telling if something isn’t right in their environment. Most of the time it won’t be anything actually dangerous – but it might be.
Intentionally letting your horse say no will train you to start paying attention to the small signs they’re not willing, instead of missing them and carrying on until your horse is so uncomfortable that they give you a big, explosive dangerous NO. Stay safe, listen to your horse’s no.
Knowing they CAN say no, means they’re much more likely to say YES. At first, when they understand that they can say no, you might find they say it a lot – especially if they’ve previously been in a traditional or “natural” horsemanship program where they didn’t have a say and had to “obey.” But the more confident they become, the more often you’ll hear yes from them – having choice and control over their behaviour is a powerful reinforcer.
New to giving your horse choice? Try working at liberty! That makes the NO much easier to see.
There are times we can’t let them say no, in an emergency, but most of the time we can take the time to find the yes – and their trust in us on the times we do have to insist will be much greater for all the times we did let them make the choice.