Should your horse wait for instruction or act on his own?

I took Popcorn riding down the road today and it got me thinking about a certain comment someone once made. The comment was directed at me and was said in public…but not TO me.

The short version is something like this. I had just finished teaching about the importance of groundwork and teaching the horse to have ’emotional control’ the idea that instead of just reacting…they stop and think or wait for instructions.

This other clinician then spoke right after me and made the statement that he didn’t want his horse to wait and ask if it should run if a bear were to come running after it. Sure, he didn’t point me out, but it was pretty obvious he was tearing apart what I had said.

I thought about making the comment at the time that hopefully as his horse left the scene he (the rider) would be able to cling on…cuz if he got dumped by that horse he was going to end up as bear food!

The real story of what I want was illustrated by Popcorn today on my ride. I was enjoying the sun and looking around but I was fairly relaxed and honestly, being a little lazy as a rider. That is where a well trained horse can step in.

Popcorn politely ‘pointed’ to something I had not noticed. He simply looked in a direction with focus and, without leaving the path I had him on, he made it clear to me there was something of interest. I looked and noticed that our ride had set some horses in a far off field into a frenzy of running.

I remember growing up that the horses I rode did not have the ’emotional training’ that Popcorn does. If this same thing had happened, actually it did, then most often the horse I was riding would have become excited and thought about joining in with the frenzied running! Too bad for me as the rider!

Thankfully my horse understands both emotional control AND the idea that I will listen to what he has to say. Nope, he is not a robot…but I am also less likely to be left in the dust as he makes his own ‘natural’ decisions.


  1. […] post,, includes a photo shot from on Popcorn’s back. It was during a time when I was not actively […]

  2. Kelly Gough on May 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you for your eloquent answer. The example is actually a good one, since that is exactly where Littleman always loses his self-control. Bears, Tractor trailer trucks, Hot air balloons or Crotch rockets don’t faze my horse but thundering hooves seem more than he can resist! How can I get him to resist his instincts?

  3. Jan on April 30, 2012 at 10:27 am

    I was in a Brent Graef Clinic this last weekend and he teaches the same as you Stacy, he even used the same words, not wanting a robot, trust and ground work, you have a fellow teacher of like mind.

  4. Kathy Kopylec on April 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    I agree, I`ve been personnally thankfull for the times I `ve trail ridden alot and that parnership has come in handy when every thing from , motor bikes, mountain bikes, deer running torwards you and on a dirt road I have travel many times when someone in his monster truck came over the mountain roaring as much as that one I was trying not to be nervous for her, I was happy her thought was to stay with me!

  5. Nancy on April 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you Stacy, your story reminds me of what our Heavenly Father wants from us as well. The Bible is full of instruction for us to leave our “natural” ways behind and mature so that our thoughts, actions and character reflect Christ. 2 Timothy 1:7 “God does not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and self control.”

  6. Matt on April 29, 2012 at 2:24 am

    Well stated Stacy! You’re clearly one of the best at what you do.

  7. Lindsay on April 28, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    More fool the male presenter.

  8. johanna on April 28, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    AGREED! Love the illustration of the concept in a very common scenario-
    i do the same emotional self-control and mutual responsibility with my dogs.
    i feel we are stronger as a partnership, rather than ”each being for itself”

  9. Jane on April 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Stacy, I was wondering why you choose to not wear a helmet? Do you think it’s a good idea to wear a helmet? Have you ever known anyone that’s had a Head Injury while riding or handling horses?

  10. Molly on April 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I would absolutely agree Stacey! Awesome response! I would never for a second thinking any differently. I had an situatuation where the horse I was working with was not emotionally trained at all, and it almost come me my life due to an uncontrolable reaction. My horse ( a different one) has saved me alot of trouble by letting me know about the things I cant see or hear that she does, because of that training I am better able to keep less experienced riders safe while we are on trails. So thank you for your post Stacy!!

  11. Melinda on April 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I find this very interesting. I would much prefer my horse to refuse to go if I have asked her to walk into a bog, we have many here on Exmoor, and shes the one with her feet on the ground, but it is very difficult not to end up training her to refuse to so things if she finds she can say no. It is a difficult one, and I don’t have an answer except to ‘retrain’ her somewhere on similar soft ground I know is safe to go where I tell her, and only let her have an opinion when am somewhere new, and not too often. I do sometimes feel I can tell her the direction I want to go in and let her pick a safe line to get there, which is a really wonderful one, and feels like true teamwork. But sometimes she says no when I know its safe and refuses to think otherwise!! I think this is a compromise I need to try to get right, and I wouldn’t try letting a 4 year old have the same right to an opinion. I tried never to put her in a situation where she got away with saying no until she was well over 5 and we were working well together. Would be interested in any thoughts.

    • Stacy on May 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      I think we are close to on the same page. I am saying I want the horse to tell me what he thinks. Then I still want the chance to make a decision. For example say there was a raging fire behind you and the bog was the best choice. I don’t want to take them out of it but make it more of a conversation. Good point though!

      • Melinda on May 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm

        Thank you, Stacy. I suppose as in any situation, we need to be able to understand one another. And to trust! Although, I wonder how many horses who do end up in bogs did it because they were told and so went ahead even though they knew it would end badly (that’d be some horse, wouldn’t it?), or because they didn’t realise that they would sink. Do they think since they’ve been told all will be well? Or just accept they aren’t making the decisions so stop considering the consequences? Or make a mistake assessing the ground? Similarly, assume a horse didn’t run from a bear. Was this because they thought as they hadn’t been told to they must be safe (when under control of the rider have given up the responsibility of looking after themselves), or because they were more afraid of the consequences if they were disobedient? Or could there be another reason?

        I would think you always need an obedient horse, and it comes down to finding a way to having a horse who is working with you. I wrote wants to please you, but then wondered whether I think a horse ever wants to please you. I’m inclined to think they want an easy stress free life, and will take the path that gives them that, but don’t understand about pleasing you. I think a dog might want to please you, but not a horse. Probably a whole new subject.. although maybe not. Actually, that might be fundamental to whether a horse should feel he can be part of the decision making process. I’ve always just kind of muddled along with this, and now I’m not really sure I know exactly what I feel! For one thing, shes got to know what I want! But before that, I have…

        I have just read Christy Lensch’s reply, and yes, I want a horse who asks me if it is safe, but what if I need to ask her?! Maybe that is asking too much? I might just conclude, I can see you do need a horse who thinks! The last thing you want is a horse who never had any idea of the bog or the bear in the first place, that one definitely needs a lot of looking after!

  12. Jennifer J. Martin (Gran Jen) on April 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Hey, Stacy, how about an update on Vaquero??

  13. Christine on April 28, 2012 at 11:55 am

    I have to leave a comment here only for the safety of others who may think the other trainer is possibly right. I live in Alaska and bears are a constant concern along with moose when we trail ride. If your horse runs from a bear you incite its prey instinct and it will chase you. Your horse must hold its ground and generally we yell and holler till the bear moves off. We face the same thing with moose who mistake horses for other moose and try to approach. If your horse bolted in these situations with our trails and ground you and your horse could endure great injury. A tamer example would be a dog that charged at my horse’s back end. My horse is trained to turn and face the dog down and even move toward it until the dog backs down. Much safer than running crazy down a paved road with traffic.

  14. Barn Blessed on April 28, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Check out Erin Bolster’s interview with David Letterman on YouTube for just this scenario. Her horse followed her cues during a bear attack, while the other horses ran.

  15. Jean on April 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

    I totally agree with your opinion. I would sooner have a thinking horse connected to me than the reactive one leaving the scene without me!!

  16. Tammy Edman on April 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Well said Stacy! This happened to a friend and I once, with a bear and her cubs, She was protecting them, we never saw her but our horses did and did stop and alert us, they would not go forward. when we saw her charging us we turned and headed for the field, The bear ran so far and stopped. I tell my daughter always listen to your horse, they have better hearing and eyesight than we do. Thanks 🙂

  17. Shirley on April 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Hmmmm, if the other clinician is hypothetically so slow in reacting to the presence of a bear that he couldn’t ask his horse to turn and run, he probably isn’t connected emotionally to his horse enough to see that the horse tells him it’s there long before the rider can see it. People can be so cruel in their need for superiority. I like the way you illustrated your point- I sure do know the feeling of having a horse wanting to join the frolicking of loose horses- and the joy of having them listen to me instead.

  18. Pam on April 28, 2012 at 9:15 am

    To me it’s like comparing the difference between a new teenager driving a car and an experienced driver responding to a sudden change in road conditions (e.g., sudden ice storm, the car immediately in front of them being involved in an accident, etc…) that requires quick instant thought, rationalization and response (all at the same time none the less). Having said that, if there is a “bear” on the highway, personally i would rather be a passenger in Popcorns car!

  19. cynontheworld on April 28, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I keep telling people their animals are having a running conversation with them. If they would just pay attention life would be a lot easier.

  20. Deana on April 28, 2012 at 8:57 am

    I have been on both side of this a horse that did not have emotional control that did not end well and one who did…I prefer the latter…I always tell my students you are the pilot you make the decision!

  21. Jeannine on April 28, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I think if a horse is well trained & trusts you to have his best interest in mind, it will help if you ever need to rescue the horse from a dangerous situation. Ex. fire or trailer wreck. Hopefully the horse will look to you to tell him what to do & not go into a total panic. I once had a mare stand tangled up in a barbed wire fence waiting to be rescued, instead of panicking and getting more injuries. Keep on teaching these important lessons. And, thanks.

  22. Ivie on April 28, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Well stacy, I guess we all have are own opinions. Yours just happens to be right. 🙂

  23. Nicole on April 28, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Yeap i would like a partner that thinks before react, working on that with my horse, it is not the same relax trail with a horse to mush connecting with everything around,ggrrrrr!
    Good job

  24. Joanna on April 28, 2012 at 7:54 am

    I agree, in most situations that a horse needs to take cues from a rider, except when the rider has no idea how to react themselves, then quite likely the horses instinct is a far better tool. I’ve watched “trainers” hurt horses when simply giving them their head would have been less painful. Riders also need to be aware of horses cues and prepped for anything. A green horse can bolt at the slightest rustle, dumping an inattentive rider. When we can all ride in sync with our mounts its a beautiful thing.

  25. susan talmage on April 28, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Excellant article, it proves everything about communication that I want to have between me and my horse. I think Chloe and I are almost there, looking forward to the progress we will make in May.
    Susan Talmage

  26. Phyllis on April 28, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Someone told me recently “the horse’s reflects the personality of the person on it’s back”. It sounds like Popcorn has become loving, calm and caring.

  27. Jesse on April 28, 2012 at 7:35 am

    thank you for blogging about this today. i have a horse that is really quiet on the ground to work around, super quiet. the problem is when you are out riding him he is constantly on the look out for something to be afraid of, quite a drastic difference to the horse i work around on the ground. he not only gets scared, but very scared. almost dangerous scared. his big fear is deer. how do i help him overcome his fear. he is such a good horse, but his response to fear makes it hard for anyone to want to ride him. thanks.

  28. Beth kane on April 28, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Thank you, for all of the “natural” truth, if we love our companions,do we not come to know what they will respond by the inter connection?
    When we relax and are one with them,the smell in the air, the movement in the bush,they tell us what is going on in there world,ours is cluttered with “shoulds”.
    when we keep it honest with them we grow,with them, it is just second nature, that is the magis is in our bond.
    that was the beautiful example your 2006 ride

  29. Marijke Boelens from The Netherlands on April 28, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Thanks for sharing Stacy, it’s so important to train your horses in a way that makes it more safe for you or anybody else, to ride them. To bad that some people don’t see it that way.

  30. Sydney on April 28, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Good article! I have been dumped by the reactive horse; the herd got called into dinner without him, and when the herd ran, he went with them (after dumping me). The horse I ride most often now is a lot like Popcorn in letting me know somethings up but not doing much more than “the ear”, and honestly, I like that so much better. It’s just safer, regardless of what that other clinician said.

  31. Christy Lensch on April 28, 2012 at 7:00 am

    I agree that the horse should look to you for direction, not necessarily go running off without you (I’ve had it happen enough that I appreciate a horse that “Thinks instead of reacts”. The most important thing, to me, is to create the kind of bond with your horse that lets you relax when you want and still trust your horse not to leave you in the dust when it gets scared. I often tell people when I’m training a horse that I want to see the horse thinking about what I want instead of just picking an action and blindly reacting with fear or frustration or confusion. When the horse starts thinking about what you are asking and tries to give an appropriate response, that is the most wonderful thing in the world. Case in point: My first horse Buddy was a Mustang-Quarter Horse cross. When I first got him and he spooked at something he took off at a dead run. After owning him for a couple of years and working with him he got to the point that when something scared him he’d raise his head, look at whatever was bothering him (sometimes he’d stop) and wait for me to respond to his “question”. More often than not, he understood that I would not purposely put him in dager and trusted that when he asked me a question (is that gonna eat me,) he knew he could trust me to lead him to a fair outcome that was safe for both of us.

  32. Belinda on April 28, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Just goes to prove that all the work we put in to make them think certainly does pay off! This article should certainly make a lot of people think! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  33. Lauren Paytes on April 28, 2012 at 6:18 am

    What an awesome response to that comment.

Leave a Comment




100% Private - 0% Spam

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

No one taught you the skills you need to work through these things.

Riders often encounter self-doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, and other challenging emotions at the barn. The emotions coursing through your body can add clarity, or can make your cues indistinguishable for your horse.

Learning these skills and begin communicating clearly with your horse.

Click here to learn more.



Get the free printable guide

    Download now. Unsubscribe at anytime.