“I know I am supposed to be my horse’s leader. But every time I try to take charge it ends up in a massive argument – and we end up fighting! How can be a leader without fighting all the time?”
I also had a great question from someone with an LBE who is challenging her riding leadership – so this post is in response to her as well
Leadership – we read and hear about it all the time with respect to horsemanship – and most of us think we know what it means. I thought I did: it’s about having the horse move his feet, and not you moving yours; It’s about the horse not pushing his shoulder into your space; it’s about the horse seeing you as the leader, rather than looking to another horse for leadership…many things.
And there are many ways to establish this leadership – join up, playing games….
Yes I was quite happy with my definition of leadership and what it meant for me, my horses and the horses I met until one particular horse came along.
This horse, let’s call him Paddy came to me as a left brain extrovert (a playful “move the feet” type of horse), quite extreme – always been confident so confident that when as a youngster he was put out in a herd to “teach him some manners” he actually took over the herds and, according to his owner, became even more dominant and pushy!
So he was sent off to be started – -seemed to enjoy the process, enjoyed being started and ridden out and was given back to his owner with the words “this horse doesn’t have a right brained bone in his body” and instructions to get on and ride him, and put some hours on him.
I had this horse to put some riding hours on him as his owner was busy and was looking forward to having Paddy to lead my hacking courses – -lots of opportunity for adding hours to him and having some fun.
Interesting things happened though, when he arrived- he was, as expected, very pushy very dominant and when I responded as I had been advised, by matching his energy and making him move his feet, things just seemed to get worse. In fact he would reach a stage where he would just shoulder through and almost not see the human
I checked with his owner – and she said yes, this was what he did – he would be dominant and pushy and you just had to be AS big and pushy back to get through to him – although she did say he had run a couple of humans over at times – which was why he could not be allowed to be this dominant.
Interesting. Obviously I needed to establish leadership, respect – whatever you like to call it. But I was not at ALL happy with how I was being advised to do it.
Although I could get his compliance by playing energetically, it felt far too forceful and I was not happy with how long it took to get his relaxation, and how much I felt I was having to “make” him do things. This was not a horse I wanted to ride.
Luckily for me, a friend was coming to stay with a horse – and everyone, even (or should that be especially?) a coach, benefits from having someone else watching and observing….
We went to the field where they were (with many other horses) and took them out, with a plan of walking then round the larger lower field, and possibly riding them there later that morning.
Paddy came over and offered to be haltered, then off all four of us went, horses and humans, walking round the field, stopping to graze now and then. Everything seemed to be going well. The two horses didn’t seem that attached to each other, and from all outward appearances you would have said everything was going fine.
Then, down at the bottom of this field, I asked Paddy to touch his nose to a tyre jump.
You would have thought I had just asked him to touch a lion, he went up and back and sideways all at the same time, and then came THROUGH me – it was as if he was blind and didn’t even know I was there.
Well, this was interesting.
Of course, I realised that Paddy had been “collecting stamps” all the way round the field – and I had missed it!
My priority now was to get back to where he felt safe – so we headed straight back up the field closer to the gate of his grazing field until he was able to “see” me again, which I took as a sign that we were back inside his comfort zone again.
Once here, we stopped and I turned to face him. He put his head up and started walked towards me, in what I had previously interpreted as his dominant way. I lifted the hand holding the lead rope, and tapped the ground near his feet with my stick – he lowered his head and backed up a few steps. Previously asking him to back up using the rope had resulted in head tossing and a tendency for him to go up – -so this was interesting.
I realised that Paddy was doing what I now know many LBE horses do: he was pushing himself through his OWN thresholds: he was getting worried, gritting his teeth, not letting anything show on the outside and pushing himself on – -until that last bit of pressure which then triggered his fight or flight over-reaction. He did have unconfident moments, these were what led to his apparently dominant behaviour (after all, if he was truly confident he wouldn’t need to react that extremely) – and it was my job to become a good enough leader that he would trust ME to take care of things, and therefore be confident whatever we were doing.
So, I started a programme of building non confrontational leadership.
First, I stayed where we were and just asked him to stay where he was. Every time he moved a foot – I asked him to put it back. I asked politely, softly – and persistently.
For example, he stepped forwards to come to me – I lifted the rope and tapped the ground by his foot until it moved back. Any other action he did – I just ignored and did not allow my focus to change. I kept my energy low – and his stayed low too. In my head I was thinking “your only job is to stand there….nothing else is your business….all you have to do is stand right there”
This “discussion” went on for about 45 minutes – then he lowered his head, sighed and licked and chewed. I finally had that “mental yield” I had been looking for.
That was the end of that day’s session
The next day when Paddy saw me at the gate he cantered over to me and put his head in the halter. Now for the next stage of the non confrontational leadership programme: building his trust in me.
I wanted to prove to him that I could be trusted to take care of him, that he could relax when he was with me, so I asked him to walk behind me as I walked around the field.
At first he tried to over take me – so I used my carrot stick and string in front of me like a windscreen wiper – if he came ahead of me, he ran into it – and he realised that quite quickly.
The important part of the session was when one of the other horses decided to come and see what we were doing. Paddy’s first reaction was to run away from this more dominant horse – but before he could do it, I put myself between the two of them and *I* was the one who sent the other horse away. This happened a few times – and when a horse who Paddy would normally dominate approached, I took care of that too. In my head I was thinking “this is none of your business, Paddy, it’s MY job to keep you safe and move the horses around – let ME do this”
We did this for about half an hour – until we could walk through the middle of the horse herd and Paddy didn’t think of doing anything – he just stayed relaxed and trusted me to do the moving around and keep him safe. In fact, he seemed quite impressed that I was moving all the other horses around.
That day was the start of a big shift in Paddy’s mindset: after that it was as if he realised that I was there for him.
From this day on, he would canter to me, look for me – but, more importantly, he would listen to me. If he was unsure of what we were doing, he would look to me for leadership instead of bulling his way through his threshold.
This was most obvious when I was loading him to move him. His previous habit of going on the lorry or trailer, and having to be “blocked” to stay on – and pushing through that block and running through his owner to get off – well, instead of that I asked him on, he went on then looked at me and “asked” to come off –
A very different horse
One particular incident when I was loading sticks in my mind: A piece of the roof of a nearby building blew off and landed on the top of the lorry: Paddy spooked, spun and RAN off the lorry – but, and here’s the key: he ran AROUND me. Not over me. In his moment of fright, he managed himself to make sure he didn’t run me over.
Now THAT’s a horse I want to be around. A horse I would be happy to ride.
A horse who recognises his leader.
And it was all done with no confrontation, no argument. Just quiet, persistent conversation and respecting his point of view. After all, if I am truly listening, then he doesn’t need to shout.
I realise this is a very specific situation – but I hope the principles of a horse who pushes himself through his own thresholds, who doesn’t “see” the human – and of establishing non confrontational leadership give you some ideas of where to go next in your relationships with your horses
What ideas do YOU have for establishing non confrontational leadership with your horses?
Yours, in confidence