Follow the Leader (or Not)
Horses feel most settled when they are submitted to a fair and consistent leader. When they don’t have to call the shots, they also don’t need to worry as much about what might threaten their well-being.
When you communicate to your horse what is acceptable and unacceptable, you establish yourself as his leader.
Most domesticated horses, because they were bred to be more passive, want a leader — not want to be in charge themselves. By showing them that you can give them structure, they will settle peacefully into your relational dynamic. They find comfort in existing within a more predictable world, and they appreciate knowing you’re strong enough to make decisions on their behalf during times of trouble.
Wanted: A Better Bond
Your leadership should be couched in empathy for your horses and consideration of their complete well-being. This means that being attentive to their needs and to experiences in the world around them.
In the following narrative of Bonding 101, I will discuss how
you can be your horse’s kind leader by being curious and redirecting.
There are two parts to our leadership conversation:
- Applying Curiosity: Identifying your problems and figuring out how best to solve them
- Redirecting Efforts: Deciding when to change a problem, rather than try to solve it
Read on to solidify your place as a trustworthy leader to your horse and improve the bond between you.
The first step towards being your horse’s leader is having a well-developed sense of curiosity. Go in with an open and curious mind in every encounter, instead of making assumptions about how our horse should think and behave like:
- He should be in good health
- He should be feeling good
- He should have a positive attitude
- He should be calm
- He should act glad to see me
Yet, each horse is its own living, breathing being with feelings, history, fears, pet peeves, and preferences.
By approaching our horses with open minds and curiosity, we bypass assumptions — and the disappointment that comes when they’re disproven.
The vast majority of horse owners have the best of intentions. They want to be kind leaders to their horses, but sometimes it’s hard to know how.
A kind leader:
- Craves knowledge and experience
- Observes instead of judges
- Assesses what works and what doesn’t
- Resists the urge to take problems personally
- Seeks to understand and support versus dictate and dominate
If I notice my horse acting anxious, tense, or in pain, my first thought is a question: “Why?”
Try to see the situation from your horse’s perspective. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Focus on how you can make his life better by increasing his confidence in your leadership.
The Value of Delay
Consider all time with a horse as a precious bonding opportunity. Having a plan and goals is helpful, of course. But don’t cling to your plan if you can’t accomplish what you intended as quickly as you hoped.
Delays can be a really good thing. Horses blossom with time — not in a single weekend, day, or hour. Horses grow, learn, and improve as they trust us. Delays lower the pressure and allow our horses to offer more of themselves to us.
As goal-oriented people, we often miss out on the value of delays.
After all, we can’t train a horse to do something in one day and expect them to retain it forever. Our best training takes consistency and repetition. We must allow our horses the mental space to process what they’ve been taught.
Time is valuable — including “down time.”
Spending a session walking around the arena or grazing your horse is not going to set him back in his training. Sometimes that’s all the horse — or person — can handle that day. That’s okay.
Good leaders don’t rush, intimidate, or pressure others into submission. Rather, they invest their time to figure out what their horse actually needs to learn right now, or what our horse actually needs from us at the moment. This is how we set them up for success.
By showing our horses patience and understanding, via curiosity, you’ll be able to build on everything you’ve taught them in the past
without confusion or conflict as you develop a more ‘stable’ partnership.
The best leaders identify why horses are misbehaving or misunderstanding, then react with redirection instead of punishment.
Remember, horses are not like us.
They aren’t as complex in their emotions, and they don’t intentionally do things to spite us, or just to be ornery. Horses are not vindictive, and they are not schemers. Most of the time, their actions are motivated by food, fear, pain, or a sense of belonging.
That final point — horses’ need for belonging — is very powerful in our partnership.
As your horse’s leader, you take care of his food, make sure any discomfort is dealt with, create a predictable structure, and be welcoming with our behavior.
We want to reward them when they do well and redirect their behavior when they don’t do what we’ve asked.
In most cases, redirection takes the form of applying and releasing pressure.
When your horse behaves in an acceptable way (within your boundaries), he is invited to “belong” in your herd. This is the reward. Your horse’s behavior is his choice, and he can choose to come nearer to you in partnership.
Leadership Dimensions Reviewed
The problem with much of today’s horse world is that
leadership is often confused with pure dominance.
Looking for opportunities for improvement (curiosity coupled with observation skills) and the redirection of frustrations into achievements, is a kind leader’s life-long challenge. Enjoy your progress and wins, even when slow and unplanned.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- Bonding 101: How to Set Healthy Boundaries for Your Horse
- Bonding 101: How To Approach Your Horse for Success
- Bonding 101: How to Make the Most of Your Horse Time
- 3 Reasons Horseback Riding is Fun (And Worth It)
- 60 Questions to Ask When Buying Your Dream Horse