We spend a lot of our time saying yes to people. Agreeing with them and seeking common direction. We are social by nature and we want to be able to get along and accommodate one another. So wherever possible we seek agreement, we offer to do things with and for one another and we co-operate. As a species this is one of our best qualities.
It has an outcome that affects our relationship with our horses, though – being inclined to agree and get along with one another means that most of us find it quite hard to disagree, it feels like a confrontational thing to do. Who wants to feel like a negative person?
But our horses really need us to be able to say no. They need our relationship to be absolutely black and white, with total clarity about every line and boundary. Most of the way they learn from us will be when they ask us “can I do this?” In many cases we will answer “no.” They need us to be able to do that consistently, clearly and calmly.
That does not mean that we don’t ask them in the way that helps as much as possible, but if a horse has much desire to find the right answer, they will start trying things and until they hit on the right thing, we have to keep saying “no.” As soon as they hit on the right thing, or on something that we can shape towards the right thing, then we can give them a really clear “yes” and reward them with a break and scratches or whatever other rewards we want to give our horses. But without “no” that “yes” doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning – as Martin Black is fond of saying, “it takes pressure for relief to be effective, it takes relief for pressure to be effective.” Horses want a clear, black and white, communication. Grey areas mean uncertainty and uncertainty is frightening to them. “No” is the way we can guide our horse to “yes.”
Horses also need that consistency from us – every time we interact with them, they will always keep asking “has this rule changed” and all they really want is for us to give them a reassuring “no.”