Willingness is a term that is bandied around quite a lot in the horse world. It’s really common for people to describe their horse as “being willing” or that they want a relationship that brings out the willingness in their horse.
We all understand what willingness is in human terms. We know the feelings we feel when we are willing and we are not willing to do something. The resistance and resentment we feel when have to do something against our will can’t be hidden and can’t be ignored by us. Contrast those feelings with the absence of trouble and resentment we experience when asked to do something that we are perfectly willing to do. When we think of it in those terms there is probably not a horse person on the planet that does not desire to have a willing horse. Clearly, a willingness in a horse is the only pathway to achieving peak potential in both the relationship and performance we work so hard to accomplish.
But how is it possible to know if a horse is willing or simply obedient? If we are striving for willingness in our horses, it is important to know what it looks and feels like. For a lot of horse people, obedience is the ultimate achievement and is sometimes considered synonymous with willingness. But I believe this is worshipping false idols because many times obedience is simply compliance derived from a sense of futility to argue. Obedience is often drilled into a horse when their choices are removed. On the other hand, willingness comes from a place of comfort inside a horse that stems from clarity and softness. For an in-depth explanation of the concepts of clarity and softness, I suggest reading my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.
So down to business, how can we distinguish between when a horse is simply being obedient and when it is being willing?
From everything I have said up to date, it must seem obvious that relaxed emotions and minimum resistance will always accompany willingness. Alternatively, hard thoughts, resistance, and tension are associated when we have obedience without willingness.
You might think that it is possible to be obedient and not exhibit resistance and troubled emotions, but you have to remember that a horse’s thought and his actions are intimately linked. Horses are not like people. They can’t feel one way and act another way. They can’t have troubled insides and pretend everything is wonderful on the outside. It’s not who they are.
However, many horses do have the capacity to resign themselves to their lot in life and even with stress levels that would put a human in hospital some horses can do pretty much everything they have been trained to do and still feel horrible about it. That’s what makes them so trainable. So the way to tell if a horse is willing or not is not by their ability to do what we ask of them. Instead, check for troubled feelings, resistance, lateness, hard thoughts, distracted mind etc when we ask them to change what they are doing. A troubled, but an obedient horse will show signs of upset when we ask them for a change of thought, but a willing horse will not be unduly concerned about being asked to let go of one thought and adopt another. It doesn’t matter what we ask of our horse, but it is the switch from a horse having one idea and being asked to let go of that idea and take on board a different idea when we ask, that reveals a horse’s true inner feelings.
I often demonstrate this principle at clinics by a very simple exercise that rarely fails to illustrate the difference between obedience and willingness. Try it yourself. Have your horse with a halter and lead rope. Hold the lead rope in your hand close to the horse’s chin (just 2 or 3 cm). Then politely and quietly ask your horse to walk forward while you stand just in front facing him and walking backward – like you were leading by bringing him towards you as you walk backward. When your horse is coming forward freely, politely ask him to back up by quietly applying a feel to the hand holding the lead rope under the chin. Don’t be abrupt; just be smooth so he has time to prepare for the change of thought.
If the change from your horse walking forward to backward weighs nothing in your hand, has little or no resistance, no postural change in your horse, no lateness or drag in his response, no flinging of his head or swishing of his tail etc. then you can be sure your horse is exhibiting willingness and feelings of okay-ness to be with you and to work with you.
However, if there are outward signs of resistance and bad feelings then you have more work to do to make your horse feel more comfortable and extinguish the trouble inside.
We can only make things better for our horses and us by seeing where the trouble lies and acknowledging we need to do more to bring out the willingness. Without a willing horse, we will never see what they are capable of offering and achieving and we will have to be comfortable with the knowledge that half an effort and a mediocre relationship is good enough.
Photo: This shows the position I use of asking a horse to walk forward toward me before I ask him to walk back away from me.