Creating a two-way language with your Horse

You want your horse to listen to you, but are you listening to him? Here’a how you create a solid two-way communication with your horse, so you can build trust. A friendship with your horse, so you can feel safe and enjoy each others company.

  • Listen to what your horse tells you with his body language
  • Re-act to your horse’s message to let him know: “I heard you, and I encourage you to tell me more”
  • Address his feelings. Does he show joy, happiness and other signs of having fun? Offer more of that, so he’ll enjoy his time with you more. If he tells you: “I’m anxious, stressed, or frustrated”, make him feel safe and confident by going back to the point your horse felt calm and safe.
  • The more you listen to him, the more he’ll tell you. This establishes a great amount of trust!
  • When trust is established you can ask him to listen to you. Then he’s ready to respond better to all you ask him, because he has learned you’ll listen, if he gets worried.

Reading equine body language

It can be scary to listen to your horse. After all, most of us have learned that we need to be the leader (read: boss!). He ‘has to listen to us’! We’re not taught to listen to the language of the horse. We are taught to ignore most of his worry signals!

Miscommunication will cause horses to ‘bite out of nowhere’ because we’ve ignored (unconsciously) all his previous warnings. What would happen if you would learn to listen better?

The biggest fear of most horse owners is:

“What if my horse say ‘NO’?”

Hearing a ‘No‘ from your horse is excellent feedback and we can start developing a friendship right there. We learn what he loves, likes and… dislikes. When we can help him feel better about the things that scare him, who do you think he’ll trust? Exactly!

The more he says ‘No’ the more is there to work on. Every time is an opportunity for you to let him know: “I hear you. I listen to you.” The more you do this, the more he’ll trust you. You tell your horse you listen to him with your actions.

The more ‘No’s‘ you address, the better your relationship will become, because the less of his boundaries you overstep (unconsciously).

Signs your horse is saying ‘No’

  • He moves away from you or the object (eg moves his head slightly away from the halter, pulls his leg back when you clean his foot, steps away from the saddle or mounting block)
  • He tenses up (ears back, higher head position, tail swishing, wider opened eyes, wrinkles about the lips or nostrils)
  • He shows signs of stress or fear (flight/freeze/fight)
  • Your horse offers calming signals (looking away for instance)
  • Afterwards he can show signs of recovering from stress (licking, head lowering, blinking) and you need to figure out what happened that caused stress in the first place).

How to tell your horse you’re listening

Sometimes you can tell your horse you’re listening by being patient. When he moves his head away ever so slightly from the halter just wait. Give him time.

Maybe you’re coming on too strong, because you’re in a hurry and therefor you are stressed. He picked up on that. Allowing your horse some time to decide to be haltered will establish trust and a two-way communication..

Maybe your movements were too abrupt and he got startled. A bit. Even though it can be very subtle from the outside. These tiny bits of stress can add up, if you don’t calm your horse down in between. By the time 8 or 9 tiny stressors have happened (he’s telling you NO and you ignored it), he can ‘suddenly explode’ and buck or bite ‘out of nowhere’.

When you notice he’s stressed about something, calm him down by using positive reinforcement or counter conditioning so that he’ll feel better. If he associates the halter with aversives, change his association by offering an appetite (something pleasurable).

If he’s scared of an object simply allow him to investigate it on this own terms (distance, time) will help him build confidence. Reinforce exploration behaviour with a click and treat. The more you do this, the more he’ll learns to trust you. In the future he’ll listen to you when you ask him to walk by the scary object because he has learned you encourage him with time, patience, communication and appetitives. All the good things!

The more you listen, the more your horse will tell you

The more he’ll tell you, the better your communication will be. This is the way you built a friendship: by listening to your horse and make him feel comfortable with you and the things you’re doing together. Make being together a Win-Win.

You can develop a solid language for just the two of you. You’ll discover that he’s giving you all the answers, as long as you’re willing to listen. And listening means also acting on your horse’s message and letting him know you heard him.

Creating a solid two-way communication with your horse will help you and your horse stay safe. It will boost the confidence of your horse and deepen the bond between you two.

Bonding with an Unapproachable Equine

In training Rita the Unapproachable Mule I do exactly this. When she’s afraid, I listen and I won’t approach her. Instead I let her and encourage her to approach me. I also have given her a tool to communicate to me: “Please give me more distance” because I know she’s terrified of people.

Need help training your horse?

Are you a compassionate horse owner who wants to build a strong friendship with your horse? Would you like to understand your horse better and help your horse to understand YOU better? Get access to many online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community in our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!

Not sure? Start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. When you have a specific struggle that you want to overcome, don’t hesitate to contact me. In this assessment you’ll discover what’s holding you back from accomplishing the things you want with your horse. After our conversation you’ll know exactly what to do, in order to move forward towards your goals.

Book here

Happy Horse training!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

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Teach your horse confidence

Are you tired of your horse repeatedly spooking over the same things? Are you getting impatient that he is still scared of object X while he has seen dozens of times? Do you think you and your horse’s lives would improve if you could teach him to just ‘get over’ it? Here is what you can do.

Responsive animal

First of all I would like you to realize that your horse is a responsive animal and when he is fearful he wants to survive and get away from the scary thing. He is not testing you, he is not acting as if he’s scared or pretending. He is not, he just responds to his environment and ‘acts’ accordingly to his instincts. The same instincts that kept the species alive for thousand and thousand of years. Watch the video below of Kyra and you can see she is not pretending. She wants to run away, but she also wants to explore what scared her. If she knows it is safe she doesn’t have to run away and use energy that she might need later.

Train your horse to have confidence

With positive reinforcement you can easily teach your horse to target an object with his nose, that is called targeting.

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Targeting new objects

Once your horse knows how to target and he has experienced over and over again that he is getting something wonderful when he does, he wants to target more objects. He now knows from experience that targeting brings him good stuff: a click (the marker to pinpoint his exact behaviour that gets him the treat or another positive reinforcer) and the reinforcer itself (the treat).

Practise in different contexts

Once your horse knows and likes to target you can ask him to touch other objects too, like a plastic bag, a cone, an upside down bucket or a huge horse ball.

Click and reinforce every tiny step towards the desired behaviour. This can be literally that you have to click and reinforce every step towards the object you want him to target. Even when your horse is still 30 steps or more away from the object!_flag_training_hippologic

Tip for building confidence

When your horse wants to leave, let him! Make sure you practise this in a safe environment like an arena or his paddock, where your horse has the opportunity to run away if he needs to.

Never punish or ‘correct’ scared behaviour or force your horse to walk towards it, this just adds to his stress and he might associate you to the scary object. That is the last thing you would like to happen!

Try the 15 second rule

Most horses need a maximum of 15 seconds to examine a new, potentially dangerous object and decided that it is safe. If they think it is not safe they usually run away before the 15 seconds have passed by.

Count while your horse is exploring (looking at the object or listening to something in the distance that we don’t hear) and deciding. Once your horse has given the 15 seconds to decide what he thinks of it, the fear often metls away. For good!
Don’t be mistaken! Waiting for 15 seconds when your horse is tense feels like a really, really long time! It feels like eternity! That is why you have to count, so you know if the time is not yet up. It really helps!

I have tried this with my own horse Kyra and she usually needs 8 seconds before she trusts the unfamiliar object. Then I ask her to touch it for a click and treat. She always does! After this she is not scared anymore. I might still need to train confidence with the same object under different circumstances (time of day, maybe it sounds different when rain is hitting the object or it looks different at night or when its wet and so on) but the amount of fear has always diminished after that first positive encounter.

When your horse has done many repetitions of targeting unfamiliar objects you can also ask him to pass by and ignore the object, in order to earn a click and treat. In this way you reinforce and teach him to walk by calmly, even when he is not allowed to examine or touch the object, animal or other horse.


KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHorses are curious by nature and when you let him run away, he will feel safe and find the right distance that feels safe for him to inspect the object. Then he wants to come closer and see what it is. If you can encourage your horse with positive reinforcement to examine the new thing, his curiosity is triply rewarded. First of all because he satisfies his own need to know that it is safe, second because you reinforced him to be curious and third by giving him the freedom to run away to lower his stress. Instead of pushing him to move towards something scary while he is not yet ready to do so.


Look how fearful Kyra was for a big ball and how she settled nicely after a few minutes of clicker training. She doesn’t pretend to be fearful, she is really anxious and runs for her life. Can you imagine how stressful it would have been if I had kept her on a lead rope and forced her to come closer?



Let your horse decide if something is safe. Give him as much time as he needs! This might only be 15 seconds, but it will save you many scared hours in the future! It is up to him to decide how much time he needs. If you force him to approach the scary thing ‘in order to let him see/feel/undergo it is safe’, it can take longer to get the confidence. This is called ‘flooding’ and if you ‘flood’ your horse, you might create a bigger problem instead of solving it and building confidence in him and you as his trainer.

Success tips

  • Start with familiair objects that already evoke positive emotions in your horse, like a bucket (often associated with food)
  • Start with silent objects that don’t make noises when they are moved, pushed over or blown away
  • Build his confidence in tiny steps and let your horse decides if it is safe for him or not
  • Reinforce your horse with a click (marker) and something he desires, like a piece of carrot or some pellets
  • Keep horses that are already confident near the object close by so your horse can see that it is not so scary as he thinks it is
  • Slowly introduce bigger, newer objects or moving objects.


Click and reinforce often!

Reinforce often! Let him know what you want by bringing clarity: towards to new object results in a click and treat, but moving away from it is OK too! This is how you build confidence in your horse. Let him figure it out in his own pace at his own terms!

I spend a lot of time training ‘calmness’ and ‘relaxation’ in Kyra in new and unfamiliar circumstances. It always pays off, once Kyra is confident to touch an object she is fine with it in the future. Sometimes it takes a while, before she is totally fine with it but when she does I can count on her confidence forever! That is why it saves me time in the long run and it makes me feel safe too!

Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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