Trust and respect are built with balanced, calm leadership. There are many layers of each to develop in the relationship between horse and human.
Trust and respect are built with balanced, calm leadership. There are many layers of each to develop in the relationship between horse and human.
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 Our body language, especially when we are learning, is self-conscious, unsure and often withdrawn. What often happens when we are in this inferior and withdrawn state is that our aids to the horse are unclear.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.
When I first got into contact with horses on a daily basis, I was already walking a process of Self-Investigation – analysing who I am and where I can improve myself to make my daily life and living more effective and enjoyable. For me, spending time with horses was a ‘hobby’, something I did for fun to ‘take my mind off things’. Yet, soon enough, it became very clear that working with horses and spending time with them was not the kind of ‘break’ I was looking for. Quite the opposite happened actually. My buttons were continuously being pushed and no matter how much I just wanted to ‘relax’ and enjoy myself around the horses and specifically the horse I ended up having as my companion, I found myself in an almost constant state of inner conflict. I really wanted to get to know my horse and have a fun relationship, but he was bullying me and I ended up feeling anxious just being around him. When I had first met him at the farm he was at before coming to live with us, he seemed like a sweet and grounded horse. But when it came to daily interaction, a whole new dynamic came to the surface. In the first few weeks, I’d need to keep his halter on in the stable while grooming him because he was quite irritable and was all too happy to bite and nip to express his opinions of whatever I was doing. With the assistance of others, I was able to set boundaries and stabilise myself through addressing my fear-based relationship with him.
When I was a child, I got my share of beatings which left a very deep impression on me and affected my entire life (and is something I am still working through). Now, having this BIG animal with massive strength and power around me, scared me to no end. Just seeing him, his grumpy expression and the intensity of his movements – whether directed towards me or not – would trigger all sorts of memories and bring me back to my childhood scared and insecure self. When I was a child, all I could do to cope with the situation was to draw back inside myself and wait it out in a state of total fear and petrification.
My experience of myself around my horse was absolutely awful. I had a choice to make: I could either stop participating with horses, or I could change and empower myself – teach and give myself the tools I did not have as a child, to find a constructive way to work with another being who is angry and expresses it physically – without getting hurt and diminishing myself in the process.
This has proven to be a very challenging task. Every fibre of my being has been set up, since childhood, to avoid conflict at any and all costs, especially situations where things could get physical. It was very difficult to give up my primary coping mechanism I had developed in conflict situations. I had to constantly remind myself that I was no longer a child and powerless – I was an adult now and I did not have to be a victim of the situation. I was very scared to change, because all I knew was that ‘avoidance’ would keep me safe. So every day I made the deliberate effort to change, to be present, here and work with my horse regardless of the anxiety inside me. I was shown to take notice of my posture and body language, as any emotional instability would translate into a particular body posture, which would draw out a particular response from the horse. Horses are herd animals as well as prey animals, their survival and well-being depends on effective leadership, someone who knows what they are doing. If you are scared, fearful, and go into states of self-diminishment – it is logical to the horse to get rid of you or at least to make sure that you ‘know your place’ in the hierarchy, with all the consequences that come with it.
Not only are horses very perceptive of the state of being of their fellow herd members, they are also perceptive of the state of being of any human or animal who comes into their environment. In the wild, a predator who’s just had a nice meal and is fully satisfied can stroll past a herd of horses and the horses will peacefully graze on because they already had picked up on this state of being from miles away. If that same animal however had approached them in a state of hunting, they would have run off the moment they noticed the presence of the predator. Much of their behaviour is determined by ‘where everyone else is’. It became very clear that as I changed, my horse would change too. So it happened that my horse became the mirror reflection of me and my state of being – challenging me, pushing me, checking where I am at and responding accordingly.
Unfortunately, many people do not consider this aspect when working with a horse, or any other animal for that matter. If a horse is being unruly, then more control and force is used. Someone in my position can easily move from being a victim to being a perpetrator – doing unto the horse exactly what was done unto me. Horses, in their kind and forgiving nature, will put up with this behaviour until they have either had enough (at which point they get sold or sent to the slaughter house) or until they collapse under physical and/or emotional strain.
To have a willing, trusting and cooperative relationship with your horse, Self-Mastery is absolutely essential. This means constant evaluation and assessment of yourself and your horse. Never assume that your horse is simply being an ‘irrational animal’. These great creatures are very advanced in processing information from their environments – to call them stupid would be a deflection of our own inability to see beyond our own limited perspectives.
For some strange reason, we humans tend to not spend much time or effort in understanding the world, people, animals and system around us. We function very much (generally speaking) as ‘direct-line thinkers’ and project how we see and understand the world onto everything and everyone around us. Unfortunately, this can have some very unpleasant consequences for the people, animals and earth that are at our mercy.
We open up a chocolate bar, eat it and are left with a wrapper. What can one do with a wrapper? Not much, really. Toss it in the trash and never think of it again. In such a simple action, we miss the impact that we have on the world around us – we do not ask the question: where does the wrapper end up? Out of sight, out of mind. I would like to show in this post how this direct line thinking can influence our ability to develop effective communication and understanding with horses – because, sadly, there are so few people who make the effort to really change the way they think.
A common example of direct line thinking when dealing with horses is: if the horse doesn’t do what you want, hit him until he does.
Horse needs to run faster? Hit him harder.
Horse spooks at something and wants to bolt? Hit him to get his attention.
These things are common – so common that they are often regarded as acceptable treatment of “your personal property”.
We humans tend to take the shortest route from A to B – and when things don’t go our way we tend to respond with anger. We blame the things around us for not doing what they’re supposed to. We blame our horses for being stupid, or silly, or naughty. What do we keep missing? What are we not seeing?
Take a step back and take a wide view of these scenarios. What do you see? Let me tell you what I see:
I see horses trying to communicate their feelings to their humans in hundreds of small and different ways. I see humans ignoring their horse’s messages.
I see horses who see no other way to get their point across other than resorting to extreme behaviour. I see humans punishing their horses for their desperate attempts at communication.
I see a myriad of small and large messages that horses try to express in the only ways they know how. I see no one acknowledging these messages.
Horses are always telling us things, they are always giving us information. We are the ones who must change our way of thinking and interpreting behaviour to understand the horse – not the other way around. Horses do not have our capacity for adaptation – they cannot change the way they think and behave independently in order to accommodate our shortcomings. We are the ones who are responsible for ensuring that there is a clear line of communication – and this means having a dialogue (where information goes both ways) and not a monologue (where only one party is speaking).
Most of us are not naturally skilled at interpreting the nuances of horse behaviour – it is something that must be shown to us, it must be learned by us. There are very few people who have been able to learn directly, and only, from horses. Taking on the responsibility of working with or caring for horses requires that we develop ourselves in such a way that we can start understanding the horse – because without understanding communication will be ineffective.
Allow me to paint you a picture: When I first started working with Buddy a couple years ago, I did not yet have the understanding or ability to interpret his behaviour accurately (his attempts to communicate). I therefore interpreted his responses to me as being naughty and defiant. I reached a point (thankfully it didn’t take very long at all!) where I realised that I needed help – I couldn’t go on having these arguments with him – more importantly, I didn’t want to do things in that way. So I called up my friend and very skilled teacher, Patsy Devine of Triple H Horsemanship Center, and I asked her to come out and give me a hand. Well let me tell you, Patsy saw an entirely different picture to what I thought I had been seeing. She saw an incredibly intelligent, willing and gentle soul who just needed a slightly different approach to what I had been attempting. I felt like a complete ass. I berated myself for being so arrogant, so ignorant. I like to think that moment was the real beginning of my journey into horsemanship. From that moment on I committed myself to being more aware, more observant, more understanding and most importantly: more patient. This shift within me started changing so much. Before then I was practicing natural horsemanship, but after that moment I started living it. Of course I didn’t change all of my bad habits all at once, it was the start of a process that I intend to walk for the rest of my days. I am committed to always be a student, to always be open to learn more, see more and be humble. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t met Patsy, for which I am so, so, so grateful.
It’s OK for us to admit we’ve been wrong. It’s OK for us to admit we’ve made mistakes. We owe it to the animals on this planet to own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for being better to them and for them.