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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Horse Behaviour is Communication

A woman riding a horse in a bitless bridle
Suzy and Rumpy Having a Conversation

Horse behaviour is a means of communication, and all behaviour has a functional element. 'Challenging' behaviour can be described as communicating unmet needs. When horses behave in a way that challenges us, we need to question why they're behaving in this way. If we consider the origins of the behaviour and what the message behind it might be, it may help us understand the meaning of it and avoid attaching labels or being judgemental.

It can be difficult to find effective strategies to address a horse's behaviour while managing the effect of that challenging behaviour on us. As humans we can have intense emotional responses when things ‘go wrong’ which clouds our ability to think clearly. We might feel anger, resentment, ineffectiveness, and frustration. Sometimes we can take it personally, thinking the horse is doing it deliberately to give us a tough time. We may react in a negative way toward the horse. As soon as our stress levels rise, it becomes difficult to think calmly and clearly about a situation.

When a horse is unwilling to participate in or cooperate with what we are asking or the situation at hand, we can see them as being 'resistant' and/or 'unmotivated'.  However, we need to examine the possibility that the behaviours are the horse’s way of expressing an unmet need or a communication of not understanding. Finding out what this unmet need is may help us respond to the behaviour in a more positive and productive way, resulting in a better outcome for both us and the horse. Or if we determine that the horse does not understand, then we have an opportunity to introduce them to the concept calmly and patiently.

Ideally, we want to separate the behaviours of concern from the horse, and just look at them objectively. Here are three ways to help us understand behaviour:

1.       The internal approach views the behaviour as originating from the horse and can include such things as temperament, emotional state, level of training, breed, character.

2.       The external approach views the behaviour as being a result of the environment. Examples are noise, novelty of a new location, other horses, and new people.

3.       The interactional approach considers the interaction of both internal and external factors, the interactions between us, the horse, others, and the environment.


One good question we can ask ourselves is ‘what’s the function of the behaviour, what does the horse gain by expressing it’? This can help us see the situation through the horses’ eyes and understand their point of view. Primarily we want to bring awareness to our own tendencies to label horses as being bad, difficult, naughty or any other of the numerous names I’ve heard people call horses. When we slip into this labelling way of thinking we disempower the horse, ourselves, and our ability at look at the situation in an open and constructive way. I know that at times it can be difficult to retain our cool when horses seem to be pushing our buttons. But the thing to keep in mind is that it’s not deliberate, it’s not personal, it’s not about us. It’s just another species communicating with us in a way that’s different to how other people do.

At the end of the day, if we can’t keep a cool head, the best thing is to walk away and chill for a while or try another day. If our stress levels rise and we feel triggered, we may later regret the interaction with the horse and set both our training and our relationship with them back.

The goal is to accept what’s happening and open ourselves to helping the horse instead of trying to ‘fix them’ or make them do something. The horses pick up on this intention, they know when we’re on their side. This perspective helps us deal with challenging behaviours more effectively and makes the time spent with horses far more pleasurable for both us and them.


Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.Dip.Couns.

Happy Horses Bitless

Considerate Horsemanship


Ph: 0401 249 263



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