Many schools of equestrian thought keep returning to one simple concept as we deal with our horses. This concept is that in order to succeed in any equine training the human must gain and maintain the leadership role. In essence this is a true statement but only when the proper definition of leadership is applied.
Leadership is born of respect. Domination is born of fear. The difference between respect and fear is vast and when such a difference is not clear in the horse/human equation battles ensue and no one really wins.
Clearly horses possess an intellect that thinking horse people respect and understand. Those that are interested in earning respect from their equine partners constantly question their role and approach to each and every training question. Horses can, in fact, teach their human counterparts as much, if not more, than the human can teach the horse. Individual horses bring unique abilities and personalities and all must be assessed to obtain a successful partnership.
Herd dynamics can help humans better understand the equine mind and behaviors but our training approaches must move beyond these fundamental instincts. Bringing horses into a human world can enrich both but both must make concessions in order to learn from the other. Horses must move past such primitive instinct driven behaviors and expand their vocabulary in order to carry a rider and work side by side with a biped that does not seem to have much horse sense. Humans need to set aside their own expectations and really listen to all that the horse has to say – horses do indeed speak just not verbally – but wise and intellectual trainers are very aware of this and greatly respect this aspect of the horse.
How do we learn to listen to our horses? We must ask questions and make requests of the horse in the manner most easily understood by the horse – this involves body positioning and maintaining personal space for the safety of both human and horse. We make a request and we wait for a response. If the response is not what was expected we try again. The human must never use fear as a reason for the horse to respond – if things do not go well we, the human, must stop and reassess. Often while taking time to re-evaluate the horse will offer the solution – but we must be aware.
The only reason for hurried and dominating sorts of training methods has to do with human frailty – either fear of physical harm or more often fear of deflated egos. In order to develop true trust we must be patient, kind and cognizant of the horse as a thinking, emotional creature that means us no harm, despite their size and strength horses are generous of heart and willing to give to us a great deal for little more than a bit of carrot and a soft caress.
Far too many horses become distorted in their thinking because the humans that have influenced their behavior have dominated the horse. These distortions are varied and range from a complete shut down, both emotionally and intellectually, to wild and dangerous behaviors. When horses with behavioral distortions are delivered into new hands for re-training they are often subjected to even more dominating training methods as a way to control their unwanted behaviors – this of course leads to more distortion, more defensive activities and further diminishes the horse as a sentient being.
The simplest proof that leadership is not the same as dominance can be demonstrated quite easily – set your horse loose – try to catch her by giving chase – any luck? Set your horse loose and wait until he comes to you. The second choice leaves you relaxed, calm and with horse in hand in a matter of minutes – the first leaves you out of breath, fists clenched and the horse – might as well be at the opposite end of the earth.