The Benefits of “No”

Galahad is DONE (1)Galahad and I had a really great time the other day in the jump arena. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing—some ground poles were still in place from the jumping class, it was a relatively cool day, and there were no other appointments on my schedule.

I asked him to walk on a loose lead over the poles one at a time. That was scary, he said, but he could manage it.

I asked him to sidepass over one of them, but he declined; too scary. Now, this is a “trick” that this horse learned when he was three, so it wasn’t new to him, and he’s been in this arena many times before. I doubted that “scary” was his real reason (see below). He said he would paw at it. He would sidepass in front of it (so he could keep an eye on it, one supposes), but otherwise it was too scary.

Then I asked him to walk over a set of three poles arranged a few feet apart; he said that was WAY too scary. But he offered something else: What he could do, he said, was walk between them, up one way and back the other. This was entirely his idea, since I was still mentally focused on motion over them and wasn’t guiding him at all.

I love his creative “solutions.” It’s just one more example of his overall willingness and desire to work with me.

I didn’t press the issue—I just wanted him to have a good time. After a while I let him prance and dance off the lead, and gave him lots of treats. He went back to the pasture reluctantly; I love that he’d rather be with me than with his buddies (and no, it’s not just the treats!).

Some of my natural horsemanship friends are questioning me about “letting Galahad get away with” refusing a request. “That’s not how you do it. You need to apply increasing pressure until he does what you’re asking, then release!”

That’s the received wisdom, and it’s an effective way of training a horse. Clear communication with your horse, in that school of thought, includes communicating that there are unpleasant consequences for saying no. If that kind of training is done well, it produces a horse that quickly complies with whatever you ask. The horse trusts the handler, if it’s done well, because the communication is “fair” and there is no misunderstanding.

I’m good at those techniques. They resonate with me. I was raised that way by my dad, who insisted on instant obedience—or else. There was never any confusion in my mind about whether or not to obey because I didn’t dare to question him. There was always that “or else” hanging in the air between us, right up until the day he died.

Problem is, those techniques don’t lead to the kind of relationship I want with my horses. Sure, there are times that he must obey me, like when the vet or the trimmer comes to work on him. But for the most part, I want Galahad to be able to tell me what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and I want to be OK with that.

Liberty trainer Farah DeJohnette has a blog post on this subject—you can read it here. She explains the rationale very well and suggests some questions to ask when a horse says no:

I want horses to tell me No. I want them to tell me what they like and what they don’t like. I want to be able to accommodate their desires because I am going to request that they accommodate mine. If a horse is traumatized, the No is the best way to build that trust back up in humans.

These are the a few of the questions I ask when I see a “No” in a horse:

I ask myself, why is that No there?

Why did you feel like you had to say No?

Are you uncomfortable?

Are you afraid?

Are you Confused?

Are you unsure?

Are you used to being over pressured?

It may be none of the above. It could be simpler or more complex.

A lot of the time, I believe that Galahad refuses a task (especially when it’s something he’s been taught) because of the last reason she gives—pressure. In his early life, Galahad was pressured into performing. I know I’ve done that to him at times, especially in the beginning when I didn’t understand natural horsemanship very well. Galahad has never reacted well to pressure. He shuts down; even though he may perform the task, there’s “nobody home” behind those eyes.

Here’s a little video clip that will show you exactly what I mean. I had been asking him to do some simple groundwork routines because I wanted to polish up his manners on the lead line, and I was using the standard natural horsemanship techniques. He did what I asked, but nothing more. Once I actually noticed his mental/emotional state (I’m kinda slow on the uptake sometimes), I thought I’d take off the halter and ask him to touch the mounting block with his foot. Usually, he enjoys that and will get pretty enthusiastic about it.

That day? Not so much. Take a look: He’s DONE. As a video, it’s kind of funny, but it gives you an idea of just what a horse that’s accustomed to too much pressure can look like. It’s taken me a year to get past this issue with Galahad—that afternoon was the first time I had seen him this way in a VERY long time, and I don’t want to see it again, ever.

At this stage in his training, I’m perfectly happy for him to say “no.” As we progress and his willingness increases, I’ll be able to make requests without him shutting down, because he will have come to trust me enough.

Meanwhile, I have an increasingly happy horse who loves my company and is happy to do more and more playful activities with me. That’s plenty for us to go on!