I have already posted an article on non confrontational leadership – and have had lots of questions about other ways to show your horse you are a leader without having to be aggressive, offend your horse – or remove his dignity.
Sometimes these questions are because of their horse: some horses take it very personally when you take over, and get offended when you try to move them around – that’s when the bubble mindset is very helpful (see previous article on this). Getting big with these horses can often trigger big arguments that don’t end well for horse or human.
Sometimes these questions are because of the human: one person I met has spent a work life in social care, offering choices to patients and clients and to not do this with her horse felt alien, went against her nature – but she didn’t know how to set things up to offer her horse choices that would lead to good outcomes.
One game I have recently started playing, and I have heard of other horse people playing this game with great results (I do not claim to have invented the game, I am just sharing it here!) is one I call “That’s MY space!”
Frank was a lovely chunky cob – who had no interest in seeing his human as a leader. He would allow himself to be caught using the catching game, go along with games – but Sarah felt he was “reactive” and not mentally connecting with her even when she was riding, and this was challenging her confidence.
When I arrived, he had nipped her when she had been stroking him – and was showing lovely grumpy face and ears along with other behaviours typically labelled “dominant”.
We were in a half acre field, with one other horse, and Frank was very interested in grazing, so I decided it was a good time and place to play the “That’s MY space!” game.
Using the Bubble mindset, I asked Sarah to come with me – and we simply walked (with purpose) across and “claimed” the piece of grass Frank was grazing. He moved when we were about 5 feet away from him, and went to another piece of grass about 20 feet away. Now, while I was positive he would move, I was ready to increase my body size and movement to help make my point – and Sarah had a rope she could have spun to add some energy to our bubble – however he moved right away. No stress or strain – just a move.
We waited a minute or two – then went and said “That’s MY space!” where he was. He moved away. We did this slow process, with a few minute’s wait at each point for about 7 or 8 moves. Interestingly the other horse, after watching us, came over to hang out with us – he was obviously looking for a leader and had decided we were good enough. After one more move, Frank also came to hang out – but it felt like a half hearted decision rather than a true acceptance that we were good leaders. Sarah and I chatted a while, then both horses noticed some movement and went to the corner of the field to see what was happening – then wandered off again.
So now we played the game again – now we knew Frank was moving from our bubbles, and was finding the game acceptable, we could up the ante. This time, we claimed the space, waited only until Frank found another piece of grass to eat or place to be before moving to claim THAT space. The idea was that if he accepted our leadership, he could hang out next to us and SHARE our grass…
For this game, whether Frank grazed or not was not the point – the point was that when he was mentally disconnected from us, we would head over and claim the space — if he was grazing but “with us” we would leave him alone…….
This time we walked with more purpose – and the third time we moved Frank on, he reacted by kicking up his heels and cantering away – surprising Sarah as usually Frank is what I describe as an “energy conserving” horse moving as little as possible. For the next few moves he went off energetically, cantering, and tossing his head. The other horse, seeing this, came and hid behind us – and Frank came over to try to get him to join in (occasionally before when we had moved Frank, he had moved the other horse and we had taken that outlet away from him). Franks came over – and I protected Barney by making it clear to Frank that Barney was now inside the herd bubble. Frank threw a little tantrum at this – stamping his feet, kicking up and tossing his head. And running away. Barney then followed Sarah and I as we continued to claim any area where Frank stopped and grazed or rested. Now and gain Frank would turn and look at us — when he did that, and was “mentally with us” Sarah and I would relax and turn away from him, chatting to each other — taking the pressure off him. When he disconnected from us and moved off to graze again, we would start the game again.
After another 5 or 6 moves – Frank turned, faced us and sighed. As Sarah and I stood and chatted, Barney and Frank both stood there, hanging out with us, heads low, licking, chewing and sighing. After about ten minutes Frank cocked a leg – and continued to stand there, happy to be with us – not even thinking of grazing which to me suggested he wsa thinking about things. After about ten minutes — which included a lot of licking and chewing and couple of bouts of yawning, he lowered his head and grazed, as part of our herd. Relaxed and happy to be connected with us in this new relationship.
Frank had mentally accepted us as the herd leaders. And was happy to be part of this herd.
So this is the “That’s MY space!” game: it can be played in a small field or an arena. A round pen is a bit small for this as ideally your horse needs to feel he has a true option of moving away from you – and it is key that your movements are polite and persistent, and a simple taking of territory, not an active “moving of the horse” and your horse has the choice of accepting your leadership – or moving away. And the key is to claim the space until your horse is mentally connected to you….that is the goal.
A non confrontational, choice-based leadership game.
Another game that develops leadership is the “It’s none of your business” game. This is a very subtle game of focus, and is best done with a horse who has already agreed to be haltered and “wants” to be with you – you can achieve this by playing the “It’s MY space!” game.
Once haltered, stand a few feet away (so your horse is outside your bubble) in front of your horse
Very politely, using the lead rope and your halter, ask your horse to look at you, or at least in your direction. If they look away, just politely ask them to look at you again and say to them “It’s none of your business”. Stay soft and polite, however your horse moves. If your horse moves forward, ask them to back up to the original place. If they move to the side – replace them at the original spot. When they lift their head and look to the right – lift your lead rope and ask them to look at you. Be soft, polite – and persistent. When I played this game with Maya, who was very worried about the horses either side of the roped off lane she had to walk from her field to the yard, and tended to panic and run through her human.
By taking her lead rope, facing her – and playing the “It’s none of your business” game for about ten minutes – she paid less and less attention to what was going on around her, focused more and more on me – lowered her head and eventually blew out and sighed, licking and chewing – handing over leadership to me. After that we were able to continue the journey from field to yard and using this game, her human was able to do it from then on.
The “It’s none of your business” game, you can establish that the safe place to focus is on you – and that your horse can trust you to take care of everything else
Of course, if you play this game, you have to follow through – so make sure you also play the “I’ll keep you safe” game (where you make sure that you are between your horse and any scary thing or other horse that might bother them) as well!
So – these are two games I played this weekend -what are some of the games you play with your horse?
Yours, in confidence