As we ride and train many of us try to establish a bond with our horse. There are many ways that we can develop the relationship needed to safely enjoy our equine partners.
It is important to take into consideration the social structure of a horse community. The horses’ natural society is one of mutual dependence. They rely on the sight, hearing and sense of smell of every horse in the group. They rely most on the lead horse to be capable of ensuring the safety of the herd. The lead horse will notice when another horse is alarmed and make a decision whether there is a real threat. The lead horse is more aware, more self confidant and mentally tougher than all the other horses in his band. He may not always want to be the lead horse; he is just unwilling to let a less observant horse be in charge. There is a great deal of responsibility that comes with being the lead horse. He is burdened with the security of the whole herd. He is the horse that will place himself in danger to ensure his herd’s survival. The lead horse will be prone to fight and less likely to run than the weaker horses in his company.
When we interact with a horse the process to establish leadership will occur. Too often we are not aware of the subtle challenges our horse presents us with. It does not take long before our horse knows that either we are not aware enough to be in charge so he decides he will be, or he knows that you will now be in charge of herd security and he is relieved to let you.
Leadership is initially established by causing or preventing the movement of another horse. It is maintained by noticing what and how your horse responds to. When you notice and acknowledge a response your horse will know you noticed. He needs to know that you are aware enough to be a lead horse
Since the survival of the herd depends on having the right leader a horse will not just give you authority. You must earn it from him or her as the case may be. This is where we can run into difficulty. Horses have a very subtle physical language. Everything they do means something to another horse. The way they stand, how they hold their head and ears, every gesture is a possible challenge for, or an acknowledgement of, leadership. The more subtle the challenge we notice and respond to the faster we will earn the respect we need to be the lead horse. If we miss the subtle challenges they will get more blatant. If we only answer the more obvious challenges we run the risk of bullying our horse. We do not need to physically overpower a horse to establish we are a better leader. The less we can do the better, as he knows that we are not abusing our authority by getting physical without cause.
When you notice small challenges you need to acknowledge them. You must meet the intensity of the challenge and exceed it slightly but do not punish your horse for it. He is just making sure that you are still the best horse for the top job. When your horse backs down from the challenge it is up to you to now get even softer than he is. When your horse takes from you, you will take it back. When he gives to you, you give back. There can be no grey area; you are both stronger and softer than he is depending on what the situation calls for. As a responsible leader you must let him dictate the intensity with which you meet the challenge. The punishment must suit the crime. As a lead horse you should not need to extend challenges to other members of your herd.
It is not about being dominant it is about being a more proficient leader. If I am too dominant my horse will fear me. If I am too soft my horse will think I am not strong enough to protect him from danger or perceived danger. We should encourage a mutually supporting relationship. As a competent leader I must take his opinion into consideration before making an executive decision. Horses are much more sensitive and aware than we as humans are capable of being. We need to give the perception that we notice everything. To do this we need to pay more attention to what our horse is saying. If he is nervous we need to notice that first then try to figure out why so we can help him relax. He needs to know we noticed.
Since we want to be respected for being the best horse we need to be more patient, more encouraging, more aware, more supportive, more consistent and more disciplined than the horses we handle. If your horse doubts you he will challenge you. It is this process that ensures the best horse is always in charge.
When trying to become the lead horse think about what dominance means to you. Does your horse follow you because you make him? Your horse should never be submissive rather he should be willing to follow you because you are a worthy leader.
© 2004 Will Clinging