Does your horse invade your personal space, push you around, toss his head or nip you? These are all signs of disrespect, signs your horse does not see you as his leader.
My older horse is very well behaved, well trained and generally does what I ask him. But there are many small signs of disrespect that started me on my search about leadership. He is nippy, bulges his shoulder when I groom, makes me walk around him, and forces me to step back when holding him while talking to others. Worse of all, he is a grass snatcher on the trail.
It all got me thinking, what are the traits of a good leader? Leaders instill trust and respect, are visionary, confident and committed. They are knowledgeable but respect other’s expertise; leaders make decisions but change direction if circumstances warrant.
How do these apply to the horse? Be visionary, have a plan, deciding what you want to do, each time you have contact with your horse. Instill trust in everyday interactions, earning respect. If you find yourself in dangerous or scary situations, be the leader: make decisions to safely get out of the situation rather than freaking out yourself.
Ray Hunt, an early proponent of natural horsemanship, taught that if you want to control your horse’s mind you need to control his feet. In a herd, the dominant horse makes the other horses move, which is one way they show they are the leader. Thus controlling your horse’s feet makes you a leader in his mind. Does he invade your space and you step back rather than making him step away? If so, he is making you move your feet, thus in his mind he is in charge.
How did I improve my leadership skills? I started with groundwork on a line then moved to the round pen. A horse that respects you will back up, walk forward and step side to side willingly. In the round pen there are additional ways you can work on leadership as you move your horse around in all directions, control his speed and have him come to you. I used “horse” language with my body language, creating pressure by standing tall with energy to move the horse’s feet and the removal of pressure: sloping shoulders, cocked hip, and lowering my energy, to teach him that he did what I wanted. There are many books and websites explaining these principles in greater detail. I am continually working on focus, consistency, and good timing of my cues whenever I am with my horse on the ground or in the saddle.
Having friends point out my horse’s subtle signals of disrespect has been a big help as I did not recognize many of them myself as they had become a part of our relationship. Now, I show my leadership immediately by moving my horse’s feet. Timing and consistency are everything. The change in our relationship has been considerable making the time we spend together and our rides more enjoyable.
(Heather Gentles has written this entry based on her work with the 2011 Goals Group and a Fun Day she hosted on Leadership with her horse Raffi. Her goals include stopping Raffi's 'grass-snatching' habit, as well as having an article and photos published as she develops her equine journalism skills. Thanks for sharing, Heather!)