The Leadership Mindset
As horsemen, we should all strive to be the leaders of our “herds.” At the barest minimum, establishing leadership increases our safety in handling these large and sometimes unpredictable animals. Beyond basic safety issues, becoming a horse’s leader is the foundation of building a solid partnership with the horse. Leadership is a mindset, and needs to be mindfully cultivated in our interactions with our horses until it becomes second nature.
What Leadership Means to a Horse
In the human world, leadership has some particular connotations. Consider what you think of when you hear or see the word as a human, probably related to the workplace, or to politics. In the equine world, the leader fills a very specific role; ensuring the safety of the herd.
As a prey animal, the horse’s constant first priority is safety. For the sake of his ability to relax at all, he is going to attempt to socially outsource this priority to a herdmate. However, if no other herdmate proves himself able to support the horse’s own safety, the horse will take that focus himself.
Within the herd hierarchy, the leader is constantly “tested” by subordinate horses to determine continued fitness for the leadership role. This is the subordinate horse’s way of making sure that he is still outsourcing his safety to the right individual. If the leader can’t maintain dominance over the lower-ranked herd members, how can he maintain dominance over, say, a hungry mountain lion?
Why Being the Leader is Important as Your Horse’s Human
Horses in a domestic situation have things a bit differently; the odds of needing to defend against a hungry mountain lion are significantly less in the average lesson barn than in the wilds of Montana. But, all of the internal wiring that nature has given the horse is still there. The horse is still going to prioritize his individual safety, seek to outsource that to a leader who can establish and maintain dominance within the social group, or fulfill that leadership role himself if he cannot identify those equine leadership qualities in another.
As a human in a horse’s herd, it is crucial to understand these facts about equine psychology. We have the ability to mentally step out of our internal wiring, more or less, and into the horse’s. The horse cannot mentally shed his wiring and try to understand the human social perspective.
How to Establish Yourself as Your Horse’s Leader
Becoming your horse’s leader is a simple task in concept, if not necessarily in practice. Remember, your horse is hard wired to seek and follow a leader. However, if you are starting from a relationship that is more strained, it may take more time and persistence on your part to prove to the horse that you are leadership material.
The most basic way of establishing leadership credibility with a horse is to move his feet. A horseman in a leadership position can move ask a horse to move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right. The response to this “ask” is relaxed and willing movement, rather than pinned ears, grumpiness, and resistance.
A good exercise is to start in the stall or barn aisle. Will your horse calmly and willingly yield his space to you, keeping out of your way on his own as you pass with buckets or wheelbarrow? Excellent! Will he step over, but only if you make the point of asking him with a touch or a press? Pretty good, but can be improved. Does he grimace, lean, push back, or threaten by putting his rump to you? Definitely needs better leadership.
Consistent, Quality Time
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my years of studying horses and horsemanship is that horses are being trained every second we interact with them, not just in the arena or when we go to the barn with a teaching agenda. Every little interaction we have with these animals teaches them something, good or ill, about how to be with us. It is unfair to demand a perfect training session in the arena, when our expectations in the shedrow are sloppy or inconsistent. It is far more realistic to expect a horse that is respectful of your leadership in the barn and on the ground to continue to recognize that leadership in the arena. Every moment is a training opportunity.
Ask, suggest, encourage. This recipe, applied with steady and unwavering consistency, is the best way to establish respect without creating fear. Start out assuming that your horse has ESP, understands what you want, and wants to do it for you. You’ll be amazed how simple focused intention on what you want from your horse will be understood and responded to. If the horse doesn’t respond to ESP, raise your energy, perhaps apply a light physical aid, to clarify what you want. If no response there, raise the energy further. Consistent and clear escalation of aid is an art form itself, and perhaps its own post topic.
The Power of Mindset and Intention
I promise that this is less “woo-woo” than the heading makes it sound. Because horses communicate predominately through body language and movement, they have the amazing ability to read their humans. For many people, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Our mindset and intentions prime our very posture and bearing to send a message to the world, a message that the horse can read, interpret, and respond to.
If you go to the barn carrying a rushed, hurrying mindset, you will be sharp in your movements and attitude, and make your horse edgy. If you approach the horse with a blunt, pushy attitude, your horse is going to react to that, too.
The proper mindset, what I call the Leadership Mindset, is one of relaxed alertness, calm consistency, and empathetic understanding. A mindset with these features will automatically prime your body language to communicate all of these things to the horse. When a horse meets someone working within the Leadership Mindset, he already knows what to expect. Consistency, no nonsense, clarity, and fair dealing.