Leadership & Horsemanship
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Is it possible that solid leadership can improve your horse/human connection and partnership?
When we start learning to be with and train horses, the term “leader” always comes up, yet I believe that that term is REALLY confusing!
I find that many people (including myself years ago) don’t really understand what being a leader actually means in the horse world. Certain people think that being a leader refers to being super strong, demanding, and assertive with horses, basically an authoritarian style. This is totally wrong, but it’s understandable that people would think this way. Even if you look in the dictionary, you’ll find synonyms for a “leader” such as: command, authority, power, etc. … which are all very misleading when it comes to horsemanship.
In actuality, being a leader, and creating a partnership with your horse is about being a compassionate, benevolent leader. I’ve written in previous blog installments about horses’ needs: safety and then relaxation/comfort. Sometimes being a leader means being assertive but always with understanding and compassion …. similar to many people's idea of tough love. When things are going well, the goal in leadership means being very soft in your requests (and escalations), whether asking for attention … or movement … or relaxation, etc.
Part of compassionate leadership is always being aware that each horse has her/his own innate personality and background and should always be addressed with that in mind. It’s so important to understand where each individual horse is coming from and then work with him/her based on that horse’s particular needs/requirements.
Let me digress and tell you a bit about my horses who are total opposites in terms of personality and history followed by how I work with them keeping their differences in mind:
My Firenzé girl is innately quite introverted and had been very apprehensive about anything new. In the beginning, if she was concerned about something, she felt no need to investigate…. she would go immediately to "tail in the air" and “I’ve got to get out of here”, flight mode. Firenzé’s a thoroughbred; I had adopted her from a woman who had bred her to race. Firenzé had been trained for racing, but did not do well once she actually raced, so was off-the-track fairly early on in her life. I believe given her personality that she was scared out of her mind at the track, both in training and racing. Prior to her coming into my life, and after her racing period … a few people tried to handle Firenzé. Other than a short period with one young girl who had apparently gotten along with her, she had not found a human that had understood her.
So now on to my GiGi girl. As introverted as Firenzé is, GiGi is conversely equally extroverted. She mostly loves new things; she can be bored easily. GiGi learns very quickly and is always looking for answers. Her mental processing is very quick, and her timing is very sharp as well. If she were in a herd, she would probably be very high up in the hierarchy. GiGi’s was born on my farm and very sadly lost her mother (which broke my heart) two hours after she was born.
To be a compassionate leader for both of my girls I need to work with them each very differently and recognize their psychological makeup and know what drives them.
I feel that GiGi is instinctively a leader and feels the need to “challenge” me to see if maybe she can now be the leader. This makes sense in a herd environment because on any given day, the horse one up in the hierarchy could be sick or injured or become too old to hold his/her position in the herd.
When GiGi challenges me by communicating that she doesn’t “want” to do something; or gets in my space; or plays dominance games with me, I just have to be firm, hold my ground, and/or be assertive … all depending on the situation. Afterwards we’re always friends; there’s lots of mutually confirming body language. With GiGi, there’s licking and chewing, soft ears, and soft eyes … and with me I offer soft eyes, a relaxed body/energy plus a verbal “voila” and/or “goooooood”, as well as rubbing/scratching which may turn in to mutual grooming.
As I mentioned earlier, GiGi learns very quickly and hence can become uninspired if we stay on one topic for too long. I need to keep things moving. However having said this, I recognize that there are times she has moments of being unsure and needs to be supported and given encouragement.
While GiGi has an ingrained leadership urge, Firenzé is the opposite. I feel that she has absolutely no desire to move up her status. She does, however need to regularly make sure that I’m the best leader possible. In herd dynamics, a leader is supposed to keep the herd safe. Firenzé needs to “test” me on an ongoing basis to make sure that I can still keep her safe. Her “testing” may include similar things to GiGi’s “challenging” behavior but Firenzé is waiting to see how I handle myself and is comforted when I confirm my boundaries as well as reinforce requests that I have of her.
Firenzé is generally not confident and not always sure of what’s being asked of her. She needs me to help her in a soft way with encouragement, reassurance, and more precise direction…. so as not to discourage her “tries”. It’s helpful for her to receive continuous validation when she’s on the right track; It’s important that I let her clearly know with verbal and body language confirmations when she’s en route to what I’m asking. Conversely, I need to communicate when she’s misunderstood what I was asking in a calm but clear and concise way with absolutely no blame placed on her.
Rewarding or validating Firenzé does not always involve a touch or rub. She appreciates when I DON’T touch her until she’s invited me to do so. When she invites me with a muzzle touch, it usually means we’re going to do mutual wither rubbing (no 😆 I don’t have withers per se, but my neck suffices 😉) or she’ll guide me in the direction of where she’d like to be rubbed.
Even though we don’t always have touching, in fly season she always appreciates the long string at the end of my stick being softly lobbed around/across her body and legs to ward off and swish away flies (as another horse’s tail would do).
Being a good leader is critical to the horse/human partnership. Your horse needs to believe that you can provide safety and comfort for him/her. To be viewed by your horse as a leader that he/she can trust means that you need to understand your horse’s personality* and behavior and address your horse in a way that’s appropriate for the individual. The examples with my horses above are just illustrations of how to partner and be a benevolent leader for different horse psychologies and personalities. My horses are at opposite ends of the spectrum, so I thought they would be good examples from which to draw. Again, every horse is different; my clients’ horses tend to fall somewhere around or in-between my horses’ personalities.
Besides doing your best to understand where your horse is coming from, it’s also essential to learn to read what your horse is telling you. Being able to do this helps your horse believe that the two of you can connect and will help your leadership status by leaps and bounds. To be a true leader for your partnership together, it’s key to learn your horse’s language: understanding ear position; noticing eyes and body language; paying attention to his/her breathing; as well as being able to recognize the difference between tension/worry versus relaxation. Your horse is an individual and presents uniquely in different situations due to his/her inborn traits and background. To improve your leadership, try to pay attention and learn your horse’s true nature.
To read your horse also means learning to recognize the difference between when your horse is in an “I can’t” or an “I won’t” mode. This can be very difficult but it’s critical to get better and better at this skill as each of those conditions requires a very different response from you. When your horse communicates “I can’t”: it might mean pain … or your horse doesn’t understand … or your horse is frightened. Whereas, “I won’t” requires some clarity, persistence, and/or (compassionate) assertiveness from you.
To be a leader with your horse and ultimately become partners, it’s important to be a benevolent leader that recognizes when your horse is trying and reward that try. This is ever so critical when your horse is being taught something new. The release and positive body language as well as a verbal cue need to be timed perfectly when the behavior that’s desired is just slightly attempted, (almost when it’s just a thought in your horse’s brain). This will confirm for your horse that you recognized his/her “try” and that he/she is on the right track.
A good leader also recognizes when something in the partnership is not working and has the confidence and humility to take a look at him/herself. Try to find a mindset of “hmm… what am I doing wrong” or “hmm…why aren’t I communicating in a way that my horse can understand” or “hmm … what’s wrong with my body language” or “hmm … was my pressure or release timing not quite right”. Our horses are great mirrors for us; if we listen and think, we quite often find the answers for which we were searching.
Remember that Every successful partnership begins with trust and communication.........
AND mutual trust is borne out of solid leadership.
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by Kyle Van Splinter
*For more information on horse personalities you might want to check out:
the book, Is Your Horse a Rock Star? Understanding Your Horse's Personality (by Dessa Hockley), which identifies and combines eight personality traits to define 16 horse personalities and offers ways to address each type.
the Parelli’s program is a well know example whereby the human Myers-Briggs personality categorization is utilized to distinguish and read horse personalities. They call their concept: “Horsenality”