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What Is Leadership To A Horse

Posted by lwright, 16 April 2012 · 81 views

Over the years I have witnessed a variety of approaches in horsemanship to matters such as leadership, control and persuasion with regards to horses.  Establishing yourself as the leader in this partnership is essential because someone needs to direct, ask and decide the parameters in terms of what is acceptable behaviour when it comes to an equine/human relationship.  Often a horse has been purchased for a specific purpose and therefore specific objectives will need to be set in order to train the horse accordingly.  Getting them to “sign up” and agree to what is required of them helps considerably if they see you as the leader.
We all have differing perspectives on what we deem acceptable behaviour from our horses.  Some people appear quite happy to be dragged around or barged by their horses whilst I have seen others strike their horses for displaying natural equine behaviour such as joyfully going to nip another horse’s bottom!  Over the years I have accepted that we may all have slightly different parameters when it comes to what’s acceptable.  After all lots of personality types can make effective leaders.  However, good leadership in horses is based on some consistent and basic principals regardless of whether we are autocratic or more persuasive and democratic in our approach.
On one hand we have the leader who says “do what I say or I will hurt you” to the other extreme where the leader is so wishy washy and inconsistent that the horse never knows the parameters or what is expected of them which can lead to all kinds of problems.  Neither of these approaches is acceptable or effective in gaining your horses respect or trust.
How do horses view leadership?  
In their world the “boss” isn’t the one who shouts the loudest, strikes when cross or gives unconditional love and spends hours grooming.  In the wild horses very quickly establish a pecking order.  They know who the leader is and where they are in the pecking order.  It is absolutely essential to their survival.  They will respect and look to that leader for direction, guidance and security.  Horses also have an ability to synchronise with each other (again essential to their survival) so if one spots a potential predator the others follow suit and react accordingly.
When horses meet they blow down their noses as each other and usually one will give a squeal and one of them will be moved and therefore establishing the one who did the moving as higher in the pecking order.   Leadership in horse terms comes down to a very basic principle – Who moves whose feet?  It’s a question I keep in my head when I am working under saddle or on the ground with any horse.  In both scenarios and at all times the rider/trainer should have control over the horses pace and direction.  If this isn’t the case, the likelihood is that the horse is leading you.
If you have a horse that crowds your personal space, barges or drags you when being led then the chances are they probably don’t respect you as a leader and going back to some basic groundwork will certainly help.  


Click on this link for examples of groundwork exercises;

Ensuring the horses attention is on you, lead them over ground poles and back them up.  If they have no respect for your personal space, using the appropriate pressure, you need to back them out of your space.   Backing a horse up is something that most of us overlook as we obsess more about getting our horses “going forwards” but unless we can back a horse up we won’t have complete control over their feet.  Very often if a horse doesn’t want to do something (and we haven’t got control of backing them up), they will back up to evade going forwards or doing what is asked.  Taking the time to establish some basic ground rules makes a world of difference and will go a long way to earning a horse’s respect.
Trust is another essential ingredient in leadership.  Trust is something that both parties will gain in each other over time but trust from a horse’s perspective can only be established if the trainer is fair, consistent and are able to control emotion.
Fairness and consistency are essential to gaining trust.  If we are inconsistent with our training, it will breed confusion and will result in behavioural problems – Horses need things in Black and White – Yes or No.  They do not understand “this is ok when these conditions apply but if this, this, and this, are present, then it’s not ok”.  They need to understand that “when you do this – they do that” and they know to do that until you give a different aid or signal.  Being consistent about encouraging wanted behaviour and discouraging unwanted behaviour is crucial.  It needs to be simple.  Yes and No – Black and White.
A good leader must be fair.  As trainers we need to understand horse psychology and how their instincts play a part in how they respond and learn.  Fairness is also about allowing them to make mistakes as it is fundamental to their learning process.  As trainers we positively re-enforce the behaviour we want (releasing the pressure for example) and negatively re-enforcing the behaviour we don’t want.   We are fair when we are able to see things from a horse’s point of view.  We are being fair when we can ask “what have I just done that has given me that behaviour” or “what is it that my horse is unsure of?”  When we do this we can ask the question in a different way and we move away from the belief that our horse is “trying to show us up” or being difficult without just cause.  Horses don’t have motives, agendas and are completely incapable of plotting revenge (scientific fact).   Horses respond and react.  It’s about being able to see things from their perspective and to consider how much of what we ask of them goes against their every instinct but it’s that fact that we can play to their instincts that makes them trainable.   From expecting them to load into a confined space (the horse is a flight animal that certainly doesn’t want to be trapped in a confined space), to being calm on a cold and blustery day (wind distorts their hearing) to being ridden by a nervous rider and being expected to take charge, be brave and go forwards calmly!  Horses’ acceptance of what we ask of them and their stoicism never ceases to amaze me.  Regardless of our abilities, every person who sits on a horse’s back impedes them to a greater or lesser extent.  There are a few talented and intuitive people who get close to total harmonisation.  
Horses are highly emotional animals and they synchronise their emotion and energy with people and other horses.  Being able to control our emotions is another quality that is required if we are to be effective leaders and trainers.  Scientific studies have proved that if the owner/handler’s heart is raised, the horse’s heart rate will be elevated too and visa versa.  This ability to synchronise is part of their survival kit.   Being nervous, getting angry, lashing out, beating or shouting at a horse is counterproductive because this gets their adrenaline up, the flight side of their brain is on high alert and their ability to learn decreases.  Also a frightened and stressed horse is a potentially dangerous animal.
Understanding the psychology of the horse means that we are able to evaluate why certain things work and why certain things are counterproductive.  Understanding what leadership means to a horse, means that I don’t think he sees me as a worthy leader just because I prepare his meals and make him a nice bed and groom him regularly.  When working with horses they are three questions I always have in my mind:
Who has just moved whose feet? (Have I just moved his feet or has he just moved me?)
If he doesn’t respond to what I’ve asked of him – What do I need to change in myself to get him to give me the response I’m after?
Is his behaviour different today than yesterday?  How could my feelings/emotions /energy be affecting him?

Happy leading!!!




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