Horses crave it and thrive on it; they worship the ground the herd leader walks on. Horses can recognize leadership traits in both horses and people and they cannot be fooled– either you act like a leader at all times, or you aren’t one.
As herd animals, horses instinctively recognize authority, given the hierarchy that exists in the herd. There is never a void of leadership in a horse herd. If the leader of the herd were suddenly struck dead by lightning, another horse would immediately step up and take over as the leader. In the absence of a human leader, the horse takes over, even though the human may be better equipped to make the decisions.
In the presence of a strong leader horses feel safe, secure and at peace. They don’t have to think or worry; all the decisions are made by the leader, there is always someone watching out for danger and they know they will be alerted if flight is necessary. Horses want to be close to their leader and will happily go anywhere with her.
It should come as no great surprise then to discover that many “problems” with horses are actually caused by a lack of leadership and authority on the part of the owners. Herd-bound, barn-sour, spooking, disobedience, poor ground manners, bucking, rearing, balking, refusals are all faults we may attribute to the horse when in fact, they are more likely attributable to the human.
How does a horse recognize leadership and authority in humans? The same way they do in horses: confidence, demeanor, calmness, follow-through, fairness, consistency, clarity, courage, awareness, trust, honesty. A lack of authority is easily spotted in an individual’s posture and actions (or lack thereof).
Unfortunately, not everyone who has horses has the leadership skills to convince the horse that they are the leader of their herd of two. You don’t necessarily have to be the best leader, you just have to be better than your horse. Fortunately, leadership skills can be taught and learned, as evidenced by the huge quantity of books and seminars on the subject. I think true leaders are born not made. The rest of us have to work on it.
On a daily basis, in clinics and in taping the TV show, I work with people to help them establish more authority over their horses and to get their horses to accept them as the leader. It always amazes me how quickly a so-called problem horse can turn into a perfect angel when the human starts acting like a leader. Two episodes of Horse Master stand out in my mind that dramatically illustrate this point.
In episode 109, “Master and Commander,” (watch at TV.JulieGoodnight.com) I worked with a very frustrated woman with a well-trained horse that had gone from being a perfect little reiner to a perfect little brat who pretty much refused to do anything. The horse had learned to push his owner’s emotional buttons (something horses are very good at and love to do) and over time he had reduced her to a tearful, frustrated mess, paralyzed with fear. Mind you, this is a well-trained horse and an experienced rider who couldn’t get her horse to go anywhere or do anything except buck and dive to the middle of the arena.
It was a challenge to get the rider to step up to the plate, take charge, look confident (even though she didn’t feel that way) and follow through on what she asked the horse to do, in spite of his threats. At first the horse was confused by her new-found courage, but in short order, he accepted her authority and started acting like the well-trained horse he was.
I’ll never forget the horse in episode 401, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” (we love to use songs and movies as titles for our shows). He was a big warm-blood– a perfect gentleman when being ridden but an obnoxious, pushy, disrespectful, walk-all-over-you horse in-hand. For the owner, just leading him from point A to point B was a huge battle during which she was lucky if she didn’t get stepped on, knocked down or dragged. The horse treated her as if she was an annoyance on the end of the rope; she seemed to be invisible to him. I thought he might be a handful for me too, but he proved me wrong in about 30 seconds!
When I took hold of the horse and gave one sharp snap of the rope to correct him when he moved without my authorization, he looked at me with both eyes and both ears and immediately took stock. Right away he realized I was a force to be reckoned with and suddenly he had manners coming out his ears. His owner stared in disbelief at the deference the horse showed me and how much effort he made to stay in my good graces. This horse knew his manners well but he was a strong and dominant horse and he needed a handler that had better leadership skills than he did. He wasn’t much of a challenge for me after all; getting the owner to step into the leadership role would be my challenge.
Michelle did a fabulous job of gathering up her courage, taking charge and gaining her horse’s regard. She went from a passive victim of his disrespect to a calm and confident leader in short order. Once she stood up tall, acted confident and took control of the horse (instead of letting him walk all over her) he gave her the respect and regard she deserved.
Time and again I’ve seen this kind of abrupt turnaround on a horse when the owner starts acting like a leader instead of a follower. In my experience, we are often too quick to blame the horse for problems when in fact, it is usually the person that needs to change. Has this been your experience too?
Perhaps horses can make us better people. It is no wonder that horses are such an effective tool in mental health growth and learning — be it for victims of abuse, wounded warriors or corporate leaders. Horses can offer you a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on; they can build your confidence and take it right away; they can make you aware of your actions and body language and how you are perceived by others; they can help you learn to trust others and be honest with yourself. They can humble you when you are cocky and they always make me laugh. Have you seen a horse help a someone become a better person?
After more than half a century spent with horses, I am more in awe of their generosity and willingness with every passing year. What an incredible honor it is to have a horse look up to you and want to be with you. There is nothing more satisfying. But nothing worthwhile ever comes easily– with horses you have to earn it!
Enjoy the ride,
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