Horsemanship and riding often revolve around us being in control of the horse. Although that has become the status quo, there are quite a few problems with it. If we are always focused on being in control then it makes it much harder for us to listen to our horses. However, the much bigger problem is that we have created a double standard for our horses. We expect them to constantly give up control while we maintain a tight grip on it. Does that sound fair?
More than not being fair, that doesn’t create a healthy relationship between horse and rider. We put the horses in a position where they do not have a voice. We might say that we are giving them choices, but if we are always in total control they don’t actually have a choice. They must do whatever we say and any kind of disagreement is going to be viewed as disobedience.
If we truly want a partnership with our horses then we have to find a way to give the horse a voice. This means that at some level we have to give up control and tell our horse it is okay to make decisions. For some horses that can be a very scary thing because they have been taught for so long that they don’t have a choice. People will use that as an excuse to maintain control because their horse doesn’t want to be in control. In reality that is just a symptom of the psychological issues the horse has developed over time.
So how would we go about giving the horse control without putting us in a dangerous situation? This is normally the first thing that pops up when I start talking about giving up control with people. Most of us recognize how big and powerful and potentially dangerous horses can be. The first step in giving up control is for us to feel safe. We will never be able to truly be okay with not being in control if we don’t feel safe with the horse.
For this reason I recommend starting out in an enclosed environment such as a round pen. Letting the horse loose in a round pen gives them space to move around without being on top of you and puts you in a position of power should you need it. That perceived control of the situation can give us confidence and make us feel safe enough to allow the horse to have a voice.
Once your horse is loose in the round pen I would recommend standing in the middle and just observing. Let your horse decide what he wants to do and resist the urge to interrupt him no matter how bored you might be. If you’ve never stood just watching your horse be this is a great exercise to get a better understanding of how horses behave.
Once you are comfortable loose in the round pen you might begin walking with your horse in the round pen. Maybe you drape a hand over his withers and follow his movement wherever he goes. This is a good way to insert yourself into your horses environment without immediately interrupting and taking over. Eventually you could take this out of the round pen with a halter and lead rope swung over the horse’s back just to prevent any potentially dangerous situation.
By now you are probably wondering what the point of all of this would be. A lot of you might be thinking this would only serve to create a disrespectful and disobedient horse. In fact I have found quite the opposite to be true. I have found that when we give horses permission to make their own decisions and be themselves they are much more willing and responsive to our ideas. When horses know they have a choice it takes away a lot of the fear a horse can have when being asked something.
Put yourself in the horse’s shoes for a minute. If you are there interacting with another being and you know that you are going to have to do whatever that being says you could easily become worried. In fact as soon as the other being began to ask you something you would probably already be tense wondering what it was. Horses have to deal with that a lot. They never know what’s coming and often can’t trust the person asking. How many times have you seen people ask horses to do things that are too difficult or too dangerous? Even better, how many times have you seen people ask horses to do something and then immediately decide they didn’t want the horse to do that so they then get mad at the horse? That could lead to a lot of fear and distrust.
This is why it is so important to make sure our horses not only have a voice, but know that they have a voice. We want our horses to happily volunteer to go along with us. We want our horses to be able to listen to our requests in a relaxed manner. If they don’t, they aren’t going to be able to do what we ask in a relaxed manner.
By giving up our control we show our horses that they can have a voice. Moreover it teaches us to be better and kinder leaders. Giving up control shows us what our horses are subjected to and allows us to evolve. The basis of any partnership with a horse starts with them giving up control. If we are going to ask them to give up control than surely we need to give up control as well.