The Leadership Mindset

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.

Backing Forward: How A Green Pony Taught Me To Rein-Back Properly and Ride Better

Backing Forward: How a Green Pony Taught Me How to Rein-Back

Most beginning riders are taught a quick and simple formula for the rein-back: legs off, steady hold on reins, and pull harder with the hands if the horse doesn’t back up off the lighter cue. Most seasoned lesson horses are familiar enough with this system that it works, and, voila, the student has learned the rein-back.

I learned this way, more or less, and the horses I owned and rode responded to these cues. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why even think to?

Then I acquired my Scout. At the time he was one of the greenest horses I had ever dealt with. A sweet disposition, but little “life experience,” and figuring out what he did know was a trial-and-error experience of finding and filling holes in his training. One of the holes I thought I discovered was in his rein-back. When I applied the aids, the only response I got from Scout was giraffe-necked bit evasion and frustration.

Luckily for both of us, the mantra of soft hands forbade my pushing the issue or forcing him backward by hand alone. So with the help of a little research and a green pony, I re-learned how to ride the rein-back. Without forward motion, you’ve got nothing. Not even backwards

Step One: Back is Forward

The first error I made was taking my leg aids away. The first part of riding the rein back is to sit deep in the tack and allow the legs to “hug” the horse. It should feel more like you are kneeling on the saddle than sitting on it. The kind of pressure applied by the legs should be the “toothpaste squeezing” variety. This was plenty to motivate Scout’s energy, no kicking or bumping or other dramatics necessary.

The upper body should sit tall, like a string is being pulled up from the crown of your head. Another visual aid that helped me was to think of my chest and torso like the sail of a ship, filling with energy that carries forward.

This should sound familiar… like asking your horse to walk on. And it should. Because that is what we are asking for. Just backwards. With just the seat and leg action, your horse will probably start walking forwards. If he doesn’t, this point is where you need to stay. The horse should understand move actively forward off of your seat and leg before the rein-back is introduced.

Step Two: The Proper Role of the Hands

So we have forward. How do we direct the forward energy in a backwards direction? By closing the front door with our hands. It isn’t a pull, but a soft hold. More akin to not following the natural motion of a walking horse’s mouth, than to any form of a pull. More advanced riders on horses heavy on the front end might (among other exercises to lighten the front end) employ a slight lifting of the rein to encourage lift and lightness in the shoulders.

Make sure to not ask for miles of rein-back, especially to start. Reward a single step at first, and reward it by following with the hands and allowing your horse to stride ahead, and rub your horse’s neck. This is among the most unnatural movements that we ask of our horses, and especially in the early stages we want to reward the smallest change and slightest try that our horses give us.

The Results and Key Takeaways

No more rein-back angst! It was like flipping a switch — my green bean pony almost instantly had a better rein-back than any lesson pony or seasoned horse I had ever ridden. We had energy, straightness, cadence, and a soft mouth. We even had the beginnings of self-carriage, moments of “that’s right.”

The first big lesson of deconstructing the rein-back is the concept of “forward.” Odds are good that if you are not riding your rein-back with “forward,” you aren’t riding ahead with “forward,” either. And without “forward,” there won’t be enough energy to ask for much else from your horse.

The second big lesson that day was that horses often already are able to do most of the things we ask of them. Our job as riders is, more often, to make it easier for the horse to do what he already knows, while carrying us.

How about you? Anyone else ever get “schooled” by a greenie?

Beat the Late Winter Blues

 

Beat the winter blues

Beat the Late Winter Blues

Here in the scenic Great Lakes region, in March we still freeze. Horses are showing the first symptoms of Spring Fever, and the footing stays too rough to do much but tiptoe them out to their paddocks and pray that they exercise good judgment. So, the majority of training and tuning up for better weather is happening in the confines of the barn. Here are five great ways to keep your horse and yourself in a learning frame of mind during a weather-induced winter break.

Insist on Excellence in Ground Manners

I am a stickler for good ground manners anyway, but nasty weather tends to breed fractious horses that are more likely to “test” the humans in their herd. Being consistent in defining your personal space is critical to instilling respect for that personal space. This reinforces the leadership hierarchy with the human in charge, which is critical for basic safety as well as a healthy horse-human relationship.¬† All of your interactions with your horse are teaching him something. A winter’s worth of not “slacking” on simple basic manners will pay dividends on the first ride of the spring.

Polish Old Skills and Teach New Ones

This idea is very related to the first one, but is more specifically targeting a skill beyond basic good manners. How subtle and smooth you can train everyday tasks to make everyone’s life easier in the barn. How good can your horse be at picking up his feet nicely? At keeping his head low enough to halter and bridle without drama? From there, you can introduce more advanced and formalized groundwork like Grooming and Showmanship training. With a little practice in the winter, you’ll have a new skill ready to compete in a new show class next season. Another great option if you have a great foundation of basic manners is to try some trick-training. All of these exercises keep the horse’s mind occupied and promote a willing, curious, and partnering mindset when we get back into the saddle.

“Spa Days”

Another great option is planning a routine spa day for your stable-dwelling partners. If the weather is too cold for a real water bath, a bit of dry shampoo can do wonders on stubborn stable stains. Beyond the cosmetic value, this is a perfect opportunity to bond with your equine partner, to engage in some non-demanding time together.

Keep Learning

I’ve recently taken up a habit of listening to podcasts while I am doing other things, including cleaning stalls, cleaning tack, and grooming horses! Take a look around the interwebz for a podcast on your particular discipline, or for particular episodes that delve into topics that interest you or will help you when the weather does break. I hate fumbling with earbud or headphone cables, so my lifesaver has been my Bluetooth “boom box.” Beyond the barn, dark winter evenings are a great opportunity to catch a training DVD or other educational media. Besides the educational value, these media can be a great source of inspiration to keep you running until spring arrives. You might also want to enroll in a spring clinic that will motivate you through the last of winter.

Keep Fit

Maintaining a basic level of physical fitness over the winter will make the transition to regular work in the spring much easier. For the rider, options for indoor exercises are basic bodyweight exercise, yoga, and Pilates for maintaining strength and balance. For the horse, at bare minimum maximize safe turnout. A horse that keeps moving through the winter months will be healthier and happier, and that much fitter to get back to ridden work when the weather clears.

Conclusion

I hope these ideas help get you through these last weeks of white stuff. The worst thing there is for a horse, physically and mentally, is to stand. These ideas are a starting point to transition to winter training-maintenance mode, and to make the shift into increasing springtime work a little easier.