Leadership is crucial when it comes to the relationship between you and your horse. Establishing yourself as a leader will help you create a trusting, respectful and long-lasting relationship with your horse. Being a leader for your horse means you are providing consistent guidance and direction to ensure their wellbeing, helping them understand boundaries, and creating a secure, safe environment for them to enjoy. It also means understanding your horse’s needs, and being able to respond appropriately in all situations.
The Nature of Horses
The horse’s nature stems from being a herd/prey animal. In the wild, horses live in herds and follow a leader who they know has the herd’s best interest in mind. It is her role to find food and water and lead the herd away from danger.
When you take a horse out of the herd, you must step into the role of herd leader for your horse. If not, he or she may very well take on that role and become the leader you don’t necessarily want.
A good example of this happened to me when our first Arabian colt was born. All was well until about the 6-month mark which is when I noticed his behaviour starting to become increasingly playful, especially towards humans. As time went on, his behaviour turned from playful to wilful, the nips turned to bites and handling him became downright unpleasant.
Our plans for the colt were to start him as an endurance horse, so he needed to be calm, confident, and safe to handle. Part of his training was to incorporate some light showing into his training schedule; the idea being to expose him to travel, new places, other horses, and crowds to build his confidence. By the time he was old enough to begin his endurance career he would be well used to traveling to new places and being around other horses.
In preparation for his show training, the colt was housed in his own grassy yard with a lovely spacious shelter and some of his pals either side for company. However, being separated did nothing to improve his behaviour towards humans, in fact, it went from bad to worse, and handling him turned into an adrenaline sport.
It was time to call for some expert advice.
The first question the trainer asked me was “how is he turned out?” After I outlined the colt’s living arrangements, he gave me some simple advice – “Put him back in the herd, let the herd teach him some manners – he needs to learn some consequences for his disrespectful behaviour, and he needs to learn herd language.” Apparently, by taking him out of the herd, he was no longer getting the discipline he needed to learn how to behave respectfully.
So, on the expert’s advice, I released the colt back into the herd, whereupon, he started tormenting the mares. But they were having none of it and let him know in no uncertain terms. No mucking around, no second chance. When he turned his attention to his mother – who just happened to be the herd leader- it was the same instant response. She pinned her ears and lunged at him with her eyes wild and her teeth bared. She wasn’t having a bar of his bad behaviour either! She then chased him until he turned to face her cowering, with his tail between his legs, neck stretched out and frantically clapping his gums at her. No more cheeky bravado – luckily for him! But what she did next really surprised me.
She put him in the ‘naughty corner’ – a spot about 100 yards away from the herd, and there he stayed until she was satisfied he’d learned his lesson. And when she did finally let him re-join the herd he had a very different attitude. There was no more nipping, no more tormenting the mares, just a nice quiet, respectful boy who knew his place in the herd. And just to keep him on his toes, every now and then, one of the mares would pin her ears and let him know who was boss.
The colt learned there were consequences for inappropriate behaviour and I learned the importance of taking on the role of leader whenever I took him out of the herd. His ‘naughty’ behaviour was just him doing what comes naturally. In the wild he would have been using play to assert his dominance over another colt. But because I hadn’t been an effective leader, he was gaining the upper hand. Had his behaviour not been checked when it was, his play would have certainly turned dangerous – for humans at least!
Leadership is about safety
Leadership is not about being a control freak or managing your horse’s every move, it’s about safety. When we work towards building a connection with our horses we can teach them to follow and feel for us, sense us and listen to us. We can teach them to turn to us for reassurance and a sense of comfort and safety. If a situation occurs that causes them to spook or makes them want to run, we are able to calm and relax them before they go into full flight – they can listen to us. But there also needs to be a balance. Like the example of my horse Shilo in my previous post, you want your horse to feel and sense you, to listen to you and follow you, but still be sensitive to the world around him too. You still want your horse to be able to think and make decisions for himself. The horse still needs to be a horse.
For safety reasons, it’s important that your horse feels connected and responsive to you more than to their instincts for self-preservation, or their herd mates or their environment. If it’s the other way round, then that becomes a dangerous situation. We become irrelevant and can end up getting hurt.
As a leader, you are responsible for providing safety, direction, and guidance. Once you have established yourself as leader, your horse will always look to you for safety and guidance.
Leadership is about building trust
The most effective leaders can read, understand, and adjust their approach accordingly in order to best communicate with their horses. They can recognize subtle changes in body language that indicate where the horse’s focus or attention may be directed. Leaders have a clear vision for themselves and their horse; they know what behaviours they want from their horse and work towards achieving this through patience and gentle encouragement rather than heavy-handedness. It is also essential for leaders to remain consistent and clear in their communication – both verbal commands as well as non-verbal communication such as body language – without confusing or overwhelming the horse with too much input.
Leaders prioritize building relationships over obedience because this ultimately results in safer, more enjoyable riding experiences for both horse and rider alike. They take time getting to know their horses; understanding each individual’s unique personality traits and working within those parameters while gently teaching them how they want them to behave – allowing them to make mistakes but providing guidance on how they should move forward instead of punishing them for missteps.
Ultimately, successful leadership relies on mutual respect between horse and rider – often referred to as ‘horsemanship’. In essence this involves:
- cultivating an atmosphere of trust through positive reinforcement-based techniques that reward desired behaviour rather than punish undesired behaviour,
- understanding when your horse needs physical rest or mental stimulation,
- offering praise frequently throughout rides,
- increasing your knowledge about natural equine behaviour,
- developing an open line of communication,
- managing stress levels before rides begin,
- listening attentively during rides so you can better understand your own actions as well as those of your horse,
- and being mindful of cues that may go unnoticed by other riders such as small irregularities in breathing patterns or changes in posture and movement that may indicate discomfort – essentially becoming attuned enough with your horse’s body language so you can anticipate potential issues before they occur rather than react after the fact.
When we develop effective leadership skills we can confidently lead our horses safely through various scenarios while creating meaningful connections along the way.
What happens if we don’t take on the role of herd leader?
Not taking on the role of a leader for your horse can lead to problems such as disrespect, disobedience, and unsafe behaviours such as biting, or barging into your personal space, or even spooking. Without clear direction from you, your horse may not understand boundaries or rules, leading them to engage in dangerous activities such as in the case of my colt. Additionally, without a sense of security and structure from their leader, horses may become anxious or stressed, leading to behavioral issues such as rearing, bucking, or bolting.
Being a leader for your horse is essential for creating and maintaining a trusting relationship between you both. Establishing yourself as the leader requires consistent direction, understanding of their needs, and responding appropriately in all situations. By taking on the role of a herd leader, providing structure and security to your horse, you can create an environment of trust, respect, and safety. With the right guidance and leadership, you can ensure that your horse enjoys a happy, healthy life with you as their leader.
If you found this post interesting and would like to learn more about how I can help you connect more deeply with your horse, please feel free to get in touch either by booking an obligation free chat which you can do by clicking this link or send me an email so I can answer all your questions.
In the meantime happy horse whispering!