Control, Dominance & Partnership

Pretty much everyone I know who has wanted to do some form of horsemanship has come up against the question of how to get the horse to do what they want. I know I spent a looooong time in this partial uncertainty of how to develop a partnership with my horse, without dominating or controlling him. When I first started learning about horsemanship it was very much within the category of “natural horsemanship” – which was all about becoming the leader through being willing to follow through in your ‘asks’. I learned how to stand my ground and push past the point of only ever wanting to be nice to my horse. However, part of the nature in which I was working with my horse at that time sacrificed partnership and friendship for obedience, and that was part of why I changed my approach to working with horses.IMG_4578

I’m not saying that all natural horsemanship is the same – what I have learned is that any kind of approach or philosophy can be abused or twisted – it’s always about who we are within what we are doing that will determine the nature and outcomes of our approach. Every philosophy and discipline has those rare Master Horsepeople – this alone indicates that the discipline/philosophy is not the only determining factor of how good someone is with horses or how well they do.

When I first started learning about horsemanship, all I wanted to do was to be my horse’s friend. I didn’t want to “make” him do anything. I just wanted to stand in the shade with him and bask in his presence. However, I also wanted to be able to ride off into the sunset – on purpose. My purpose, not his. It took time for me to recognise that while we are both independent individuals, I stand within the position of visionary / goal setter / leader in our partnership. If I left that up to him, we’d just be out grazing in the field all day.

What I also came to realise is that in developing a partnership, we may both need to face some resistance within ourselves. Neither of us might always feel like working on something, so there is that element of sometimes having to almost force myself or the horse into doing something together. What also made a difference for me was that within everything I do with my horse, my main objective must include the betterment of the horse in one way or another – either physical strengthening or emotional and mental strengthening and stimulation.

What I saw developing over time was that within our partnership, we were both enjoying our time together more and more. I was helping my horse to feel proud, strong and confident in himself, and he was allowing me to enjoy that journey with him.

I do not dominate him, yet I am firm within what I ask. If I see he is struggling to understand, I will not force him to complete the task – I will find a different way to show him the exercise. If he is refusing my requests, I will not blame him for being naughty – I will first check myself to see if my communication is clear, and then I will check if there is anything going on with him that might be causing his behaviour. I do not control his actions, I guide him with the goal of creating a dance of harmony together.

All of this took me years to develop within myself. I made many mistakes in order to find this path, and I am sure I will make many more on our journey together. I know that no matter what, I will always embrace learning and growth.

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The Simplicity of Who I am

I recently moved my horse to our new home. I had no idea if he would box well (or at all) – so I was a bit nervous on the day that I was going to move him. Interestingly enough, my uncertainty was strong enough to show in my behaviour and in how I was working with Chubb. 20170828_114131

Naturally he picked up on this, and by the time we got to the box he had already decided that he’s not going in there. He didn’t fight me, he simply planted his feet and would not move forward into the box. In that moment I thought “Oh no, it’s happening, the worst possible thing that could have happened in this moment. What if I never get him into the stupid box?”

Now I don’t have a lot of experience in boxing horses, because I hardly ever transport them. Chubb came from our neighbours, so no box was required (therefore I didn’t know how he would load). I was doubting myself big time, and it was like I forgot in that moment everything I had learned about horsemanship. I almost went to a place of not knowing what to do, of losing hope and just giving up – but I didn’t. After some puttering around and some ineffective attempts to get him in the box I took a moment to pause and re-evaluate the situation.

I knew that Chubb is not a naughty character, he is confident and tries hard to listen when we are learning or doing something new. I knew that, while I may not have done a lot of trailer loading, I have done plenty exercises that involve moving the horse into or through a small area confidently and calmly. I recognised that I had messed us around a bit with my lack of confidence earlier, but that it was reparable. I took a deep breath, calmed myself down, and started the slow (but much faster than my previous approaches!) process of getting him up the ramp, one step at a time (literally).

20 minutes later Chubb was in the box.

What changed? Not the horse. Not the circumstances. Just me. I changed who I was. I changed the thoughts I had been entertaining previously. I changed how I was feeling. I changed how I was approaching and perceiving the situation. Maybe it sounds complicated, but it was really very simple. There is no magic combination of things to do, it’s all about what we are participating in and creating within ourselves. That is what our horses see, it is what shows in our behaviour, body language, voice and presence.