It is pretty well accepted that equestrians should be the leaders in their relationships with horses. However, the term “leader” means a lot of different things to different people, making it easily misunderstood. As with governments, there are many different ways in which we can be leaders to our horses. I think when most people describe leadership in the horse world they think of a strong, fair leader that the horse should naturally want to follow. In practice I think we often see people ruling over their horses like dictators or being walked all over while they pretend to be in control. Neither of these extremes are ideal, yet they seem very common.
There isn’t a well-described version of what a good leader looks like in the horse world or how someone would achieve this. Most equestrians are muddling around somewhere between the two extremes frustrated that they don’t get it. Through this article I am hoping to bring clarity to the subject and help you understand what a leader should look like in a detailed way that you can emulate with your horses.
The first quality that any good leader needs to have is respect. I don’t mean that in the sense that many of you will read it. Respect is a bit of a loaded word, especially among natural horsemanship circles, where it is often used to describe a fear of disobeying. I mean respect like the respect you have for someone older, wiser, and kinder than you. A respect that is earned over time because you wish you could be as great as this person you respect.
This brings us to another important point – you can’t just assume leadership over a horse. It is something that has to be earned and developed over time. When natural horsemanship trainers say that you must “make sure the horse respects you,” they aren’t building the kind of respect we want. This is the equivalent of “showing the horse who is boss,” with softer words. These phrases encourage the handler to cue the horse for something and then punish until the horse abides by their rule. When the horse fails to give the correct response the next time he is asked, the handler is encouraged to punish the horse even more so that the horse will stop “testing their leadership.” You can tell I don’t really care for that phrase either. Often times the horse isn’t testing the handler’s leadership, he is trying to determine the parameters of his freedom.
The first problem here is that the horse wouldn’t even be searching for these parameters if he didn’t feel threatened. If the horse kicks out at you and you give him a big consequence he will move on. It you ask the horse for something, he doesn’t do it, and you punish him he will feel threatened. There is a big distinction between the two. There is no place for punishment in horse training. Let me repeat it again for those of you trying to think of all the reasons you might need to punish a horse: there is no place for punishment in horse training. Consequences are fine, but punishment is not because punishment is an emotional response that outlasts the action. Instead of punishing a horse for not giving the correct response you should continue to ask for the response and deal with the incorrect responses as necessary until the horse figures it out. If you don’t punish, threaten, or otherwise scare the horse he won’t feel the need to test the parameters of his freedom.
As the horse learns to respect you for your kindness and fairness he will willingly give you more and more of his freedom knowing that you won’t take advantage of it. Again, this takes time, trust, and respect. This is the leadership role that you want to develop.
In order to achieve this leadership role, you need to first respect the horse. I don’t mean fear the horse, but respect him as another living breathing being with his own will and ideas. If you fear the horse you will often respond to the horse emotionally and forcefully in subconscious self defense. If you don’t respect the horse you will have a tendency to feel entitled and respond emotionally to the horse’s lack of obedience. Once you have committed to respecting the horse you will be more understanding when he has his own opinions.
The next important part of becoming a leader is being fair. This means you must remove all emotion from your interactions with and training of the horse. When you are upset because the horse didn’t give you the response that you wanted and you lash out at him you are teaching the horse that he can’t trust you. This destroys any respect the horse may have had so you will have to start from square one. When you hesitate to correct an aggressive horse’s behavior because you “don’t want to be mean” you are telling the horse he is allowed to push you around. You can and should have rules that you enforce. Without rules for how the horse interacts with you you are putting your safety and leadership at risk. The horse is not going to respect someone who doesn’t demand it. Being fair in every instant builds the horse’s respect for you, which makes you a strong leader.
The last important piece of establishing a leadership role is having patience. As with everything else in horsemanship, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and a respect for the process to develop the leadership role you want. If you aren’t quite there yet, it’s okay. Take your time refining your skills so that you are more consistent, fair, patient, and respectful. Your horse will notice the difference!
If you try your best to be respectful, patient, and fair you will notice your relationship with your horse improving. Your strong leadership will help your horse feel safe and happy to follow you. He will go with your ideas in a softer way and be more respectful because you have proven you deserve to be the leader. This is what we should all be striving for in our role as leader to our horses.