It’s a good question and one we were asked recently. There is no quick, simple test. It’s really knowing the horse and level of training it has received. With a horse new to you, there isn’t enough information to always be able to tell if the reluctance to perform a task is fear or just a test to see who’s in charge. But, here’s a few questions you can ask if you aren’t sure that might give the answer.
1. If you get off the horse and someone else mounts, does the problem go away?
2. Has the horse been quietly going past the scary place until now?
3. Is this a young and inexperienced horse or a seasoned mount with a lot of experience?
4. If you can see the horse’s face and eyes, do you see fear and concern or do you see a bit of a mean look?
5. Is the horse afraid of just one object or is he suddenly uncomfortable with everything? One object sounds more like fear while an unwillingness to do anything is most likely a test.
A horse that usually crosses water that develops an unexpected fear of a small creek is most likely not afraid. It’s more likely he decided to see who is in charge. The same for a horse that loads well in a trailer that one morning refuses to load in the very trailer he has ridden in a dozen times before.
A horse that is genuinely scared needs to be handled differently than one that is acting stubborn. Fear needs to be overcome with some patience and hopefully gaining trust in your choices and leadership. A horse that is testing you needs to find out really fast exactly who is in charge. While you want to use the least amount of force necessary, it needs to be addressed promptly and in a way that firmly leaves no doubt.
A quick spur or slap of the reins may be all it takes. We had a gelding many years ago that you only needed to break off a small limb from a tree. Even a small child could take him anywhere just holding a small branch. You never had to touch him with it, he understood. Although spurs or reins could convince him, nothing was as effective as twirling a small limb.
With many horses, making them work is a good reminder. Trotting in a small circle, riding on the slope of a pond, heading into the rocks, or nearly anything that makes the horse focus on the placement of his feet. It gives less time to think over who is the leader and when the work stops, he is ready for a break doing something with you that doesn’t take quite as much effort.
Lastly, if you don’t know the horse, don’t exceed your limitations. Get someone who knows how to handle the horse to help you. Learning how to gain respect with a horse is not the same thing as adjusting the attitude of a rogue or mean-spirited one.