Do you know where you’re headed? Do you know where you want to go? Do you know what you want to do when you get there? Do you know how you want to get there? Do you know how fast you want to move?
All of these things are what the horse looks for in a leader. They want the comfort of knowing that there is someone looking after them, who knows where they’re going. If you observe the behaviour of a herd of horses you will see only one or two horses moving the rest of the herd. Typically the top mare will be leading out in front (she knows where they’re going, how fast they need to move and when they need to move) and the top stallion will be at the back, herding the stragglers and the ones stepping out of line.
We are actually quite similar to horses in that way. We like having someone to tell us what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how fast to do it. We find comfort in feeling that we are not entirely responsible for our actions, because we are being told what to do by our chosen leaders. You might try to deny it, but if you are an average human then chances are that you are much more comfortable following the crowd or a leader than stepping out of the crowd and being a leader.
This places us in a bit of a conundrum when it comes to now having to be our horses’ leader. We know intellectually that that is the role we must take, but often our insecurity and discomfort within the role of leadership shines through our attempts to actually be the leader. Our body language, especially when we are learning, is self-conscious, unsure and often withdrawn. What often happens when we are in this inferior and withdrawn state is that our aids to the horse are unclear.
Our body language will sometimes contradict what we are asking the horse to do, such as looking in a direction different to the one you are actually wanting the horse to move in. The horse is naturally going to read your body language, so your body is saying to move in one direction, but the aids are saying something different. The confusion of the horse can very easily be misinterpreted as bad behaviour. So to make matters worse, we punish the horse for “not listening” – when in fact we are the ones being unclear and even contradictory in our communication to the horse.
When I first started learning about horsemanship my teacher emphasized over-emphasizing my aids (especially in ground work. She reminded me to not only lead the horse with a contact in the lead rope in the direction that I wanted him to move in, but to also look in that direction, turn my body to face that direction (even my feet). She even suggested to point in that direction. I felt like an idiot at the time, but you can be sure that I was in no way being ambiguous to the horse. When I had myself set up right, the rest was focused on different ways to ask the horse to move, and learning how to follow through.
What’s important to note is that there is a difference between making sure that our body language is clear and being rude. If we walk up to a horse we don’t know and immediately try to make it clear to them that we own them, they might not appreciate us very much. There is a certain degree of politeness that will serve us well. However, don’t confuse politeness with taking a submissive or weak stance – we can have manners while at the same time maintaining safe boundaries with our horse.
Next time your horse is not doing what you want, make sure that you check yourself first. Are you feeling uncertain, insecure, anxious? Those feelings will shine through your behaviour if you’re not careful (and yes, if you are feeling these things then you can fake it till you make it! Be sure to be aware of your body language!). Something as simple as not knowing where you want to go, or which exercise you want to do, can be seen by your horse. They are incredibly perceptive – make sure to have a plan. I don’t mean that you need to plan every step of your session with your horse, flexibility is just as important as having a clear vision. Read your horse’s body language, interpret their behaviour, their level of competence in completing the exercise, physical flexibility and their mental/emotional response to your aids to determine which exercise would be beneficial for you to take them through next.
Always, always, always check yourself before blaming the horse. Most of the time we can make huge changes in our horses by making little changes in ourselves.