Training Theories  -  November 2007                                                    Back to Articles
Do Horses Test Us?

How often do you hear someone explain a horse's bad behaviour as "he's testing you!"

The implication of the statement "he's testing you" is that your horse is checking to see if you are up to the task of
controlling him, and that you have to prove yourself worthy. The term "test" in itself insinuates that you are either
going to pass or fail, dependent on your actions. It creates a sense of urgency to come up with the right answer to
correct your horse's behaviour to stay on top.

The great thing about this statement is that it makes the rider unaccountable for the actions of the horse. The
undesirable behaviour is simply because he has decided to test his rider. The solution is also usually as simple; the
horse needs to be punished in some form in order to show you are "boss". Trainers will rationalize this by pointing
out that in the wild, horses must test their leaders in order to ensure that a strong leader is in charge; otherwise they
will be putting the herd's safety at risk. They rationalize the use of force by explaining that this is how it is done in
the wild, therefore it is what the horse understands.

On the surface this seems like a rational argument, but let's consider it further; a wild herd is made up of many
horses, with a pecking order within the herd. Do these horses really "test" the leaders on a daily basis? That seems
unlikely. It is more likely that they test the strength of their leaders only when they see the quality of leadership
falling.

Let's first assume that the "testing" theory is accurate. This implies that all horses WANT to be leaders. This seems
highly unlikely given the facts we know about horses; in the "wild" they live in herds (so not independent in spirit),
and when riding, most horses prefer to follow or at least be alongside another horse. The Testing theory also
implies that horses have hidden agendas and that they think beyond their experiences, but this also seems unlikely
as horses just don't seem to be creative in other areas that would support this type of thinking. Lastly the Testing
Theory implies that horses are, to a certain extent, our enemies, and that they are trying to outsmart us. If horses
really were our enemies, I think that they could be quite persuasive just by using their brute strength and significant
size!

Now let's toss aside the idea that horses test us without provocation and assume that horses only test leadership if
they either see some failing in their current leadership. This makes sense from a survival point of view, as the horses
must be alert to a weak leader in order to ensure their own safety. This theory also makes sense in that we all know
how quickly horses learn from negative experience; if the horse has learned that in the past a poor human leader
causes it pain/frustration, but that a good leader makes things pleasant/fun, then the horse will look for signs of a
poor human leader, and in seeing these signs will have increased anxiety which may come across as poor
behaviour. Lastly, we know that people are able to create strong bonds with horses, and that horses are able to be
trained to listen to very minimal aids, something that wouldn't seem possible if the horse was constantly looking for
ways to test its handler.
One of the most common situations where people assume their horse is "Testing" them is the barn/herd sour horse. Your
horse rears/spins when you want to go on a trail ride? Well then he is testing you! Right?!? What is far more likely is that:

1) The horse does not feel like you are able to keep it safe in that environment and it wishes to stay near the other horses
that it feels can keep it safe.
2) The horse finds trail riding unpleasant. Perhaps the last time(s) you went, you rode for too long, or over ground that
made the horse feel sore or overly tired.

But if I beat him that once, and now he is fine, doesn't that mean this type of training works, and that he really was testing
me?                 
      No!

Physical punishment of the horse will likely make it go down the trail, as the horse will feel more afraid of you; the
immediate pain, than it does of the trail; the possible future pain. The problem with this solution is that you have done
nothing to repair the level of trust you have (or don't have) with your horse, so this same type of issue is going to happen
again and again, although perhaps in different situations, and the horse may feel he needs to escalate his communication to
you. You may also find that one day the horse just "snaps" and does something seemingly out of the blue like rearing over
backwards, as he has gotten so anxious about something, but is afraid to tell you as you will likely just beat him!
I have found that most of the issues that people label as "testing" fall into specific categories:

1) Anxiety/fear
2) Telling
3) Asking
4) Frustration

ANXIETY/FEAR: This can come in many forms, but usually the horse provides subtle signals of increasing anxiety
that are unnoticed by the handler, until the horse's signals become increasingly obvious such as rearing, kicking, and
bolting. A horse that does not trust his rider's ability may get anxious when asked to go on a trail ride without other
horses, and may try to turn back to its zone of safety. If the rider continues to try to force the horse down the trail
without reducing its anxiety, the horse may resort to rearing or bolting.

ASKING: The horse would like to suggest a better option/easier way that it thinks is an available option. This
would be the horse that pulls towards the grass to see if it can have some grazing time. This could also be the horse
who you think "knows" that it is supposed to react in a certain way to a given command, but instead offers you a
different/easier movement. This is the horse ASKING you if this response is also correct.

TELLING: The horse is trying to tell you that it is confused, in pain, or unable to continue. An example of this would
be a horse that is going along fine "on the bridle" but then starts to pull on the reins. The horse isn't testing the rider's
resolve to hold them on the bridle, ¦it is telling the rider that its neck and back is getting cramped and sore and must
stretch. Another common example is the horse whose behaviour subtle changes when worked such as not standing
while being mounted, spooking in corners when it never used to, Quite often this can be a sign of ill fitting tack, a
dental issue, or an unsoundness that is making riding less pleasant for the horse, but the horse has a limited ways in
which it can let its rider know.

FRUSTRATION: The lesson horse who responds wonderfully for the advanced riders, but who will hardly walk
for a beginner is often accused of testing his riders to see if they will make him go. Poor lesson horses! What people
forget is that beginners are usually off balance and do not move with the horse so they restrict the horse and make
being ridden less pleasant. They are also often unclear or abrupt with their aids which can frustrate the horse and
make them want to tune out the novice rider. Lesson horses are smart enough that they can usually determine the
level of rider before the rider has even mounted, and in knowing that their upcoming ride is unlikely to be pleasant,
with show less cooperative behaviour.

So the next time your horse offers you some bad behaviour you would previously have labelled as "Testing",
consider instead that the horse is just trying to communicate with you. You will find two things happen when you
think this way; firstly this behaviour you previously thought was negative will become a way you can learn more
about your horse and increase your bond with him, and secondly you will discover that you will have to challenge
yourself to really think about what is going on with your horse and you will find you grow exponentially as a horse
person!