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Refining Your Leadership —
by Emily Johnson
A horse that is certain in the relationship with their human, has the confidence to then do many extraordinary tasks. (Photo by Fuse Photographic)
A horse that is certain in the relationship with their human, has the confidence to then do many extraordinary tasks. (Photo by Fuse Photographic)

Wanted: A special, understanding human to share brisk mornings, sunny afternoons and quiet evenings. If you can talk my language, I am sure we can ride off into the sunset together. Signed, A. Horse.

Now primed with a greater insight into your horse companion, you are ready for the next step toward partnership. I am confident that the diligent study of the way of the horse can only benefit you in your horsemanship goals. You can find that information in my last column, Horse Behavior and Psychology (Part II).

My hope is that you are beginning to consider your horse with a greater understanding of his nature and that you may soon experience the sweetness that lies within a harmonious relationship, grounded in communication and understanding.

The predominant goal in horsemanship is to foster partnership with the horse. I define partnership as the connectedness resulting from a relationship built on mutual trust, respect and understanding. Emanating from this partnership, all other training tasks or goals may be accomplished. I can assure you that if you put relationship with your horse before the need to complete tasks, the tasks will most often take care of themselves.

A horse that is confident in his partnership with his human leader is a horse that can calmly load into a trailer, willingly cross water, correctly pick up canter leads, steadily walk down the trail, exuberantly soar over jumps or confidently track a cow.

The next step is to take a look at one additional and very important component of the relationship -- you.

It is difficult to relate to another animal until you understand yourself—and that means taking stock of what qualities you need to work on to make yourself more appealing to an equine friend. It is imperative that you come to recognize the qualities and characteristics that enable a connected understanding with the horse and promote those qualities in yourself.

To create a partnership with your horse that reveals trust, confidence, respect and responsiveness, you have the following essential responsibilities. You must familiarize yourself with the language and nature of the horse, as presented in the previous weeks’ articles.

You must also be open to improving yourself and developing a strong leadership so that your horse may derive safety and comfort from your company. In short, tell him who’s boss and he’ll love you for it.

There are many issues that can stand in the way of a healthy, prosperous horse/human relationship. These obstacles can vary by person and horse. This is why I recommend pairing yourself with a credible horsemanship instructor who can help you identify the specific areas of strength and weakness in your relationship with your horse.

But for the purposes of this article I want to address two issues that I witness time and time again, that hinder the ability to establish effective leadership resulting in consistent partnership.

The first barrier happens when we evaluate the horse in human terms and understanding, rather than in the context of the nature and language of the prey animal. Refer to my past articles on horse psychology and behavior as a resource as you refine your own leadership. I also strongly encourage a periodic return to that information as you are learning to think in the new context of prey animal language. These occasional reminders will help keep you firmly established in the expression of the horse.

In last week’s article we looked at how the horse communicates using progressive stages of pressure. In short, a horse will warn, then threaten, and then follow through in their actions. This final stage of communication can often result in very firm behavior such as biting or kicking.

Because this is their instinctual language of leadership, it is our responsibility to mimic their behavior as we communicate with them.

I have heard my clients express the belief many times that it is cruel, mean, or unfair to firm up with a horse and that by doing so, they are concerned that their horse will not like them. I submit that the injustice is done not when we get firm with them using their instinctive language, but rather when out of fear of doing so, we interact with them in a way that is unnatural to their nature and behaviors.

Remember that due to their vulnerability as a prey species horses crave and seek out assertive leadership. If you do not provide leadership they can understand and recognize they will find it outside of the relationship.

Yet most people don’t know how to be assertive in a healthy way—and that’s the second barrier I see.

Generally speaking, men demonstrate a greater comfort with being assertive (sometimes teetering on aggressive) and need to work on becoming softer and lighter with the horse. In contrast, most woman naturally offer gentleness (sometimes teetering on timidity and passiveness), but in most cases need to become more assertive in order to meet the innate need of the horse for safety provided by leadership.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. What is important, however, is that you recognize that neither extreme aggression nor passivity is the answer.

One of the grandest attributes of equine leadership is the ability to be assertive. In observing a herd of horses, you will notice the lead horse carries himself with assertion, from which his herd derives safety and comfort.

You will also observe that the herd respects and is drawn to the horse that demonstrates a ‘say what you mean, and mean what you say’ attitude. This is true in our interactions with horses as well. The horse can feel a greater connection and a stronger desire to be with you when you show him you are willing to take control and assert yourself as the leader - - a prey animal needs this to feel safe and secure.

A healthy assertion has a lot of friendly intent behind it, while still communicating a ‘do what I say’ request. It is the ability to get firm without getting mean or mad.

I want to emphasize that it is never appropriate to get aggressive with a horse or to act out of a place of overt emotion, such as anger or impatience. This lack of control on our part only results in the horse’s loss of trust and respect and can confirm to him that we really are predators to be feared. It is fine to experience those emotions, but you must commit to your horse that you will take some time away to process through those feelings, before returning to him.

I am well aware that developing yourself into a clear minded, assertive leader is not a simple undertaking. Some of you may have spent a lifetime living out of habits or patterns that are the opposite of assertion and leadership. With that in mind, I want to offer some tips and tools that will help you develop into an assertive, but fair leader.

A reliable way to keep emotions under control when getting firm is to consistently use the progressive stages of pressure. Doing so helps you be effective in your communication and keeps you from getting too firm, too quickly with your horse.

Out of many years of studying the language of the horse in the purity of the natural herd setting, I have observed four qualities that I believe to be present in all communication and interaction between horses. My belief in the usefulness of these qualities has been solidified by my own interactions with an array of horses, as well as through the coaching of many students in their horsemanship endeavors.

To have your horse consider you a credible leader, your communication must be clear, consistent, committed and congruent.

While those qualities could be represented in countless ways, let me offer a few examples that demonstrate each of these attributes to aid in your understanding.

Clear
Simply flailing your arms to get the horse to move away from the gate does not convey a clear message to the horse.
Simply flailing your arms to get the horse to move away from the gate does not convey a clear message to the horse.

Example: Say a horse is standing in front of the gate you need to pass through. You approach the horse waving your arms toward the horse. In these instances, I have observed that a few things can happen. The first is that the horse moves minimally or worse yet, does not move at all from the person’s request. The second is that the horse moves, but moves in a way opposite from what the person intended. The last thing that can happen is the horse moves away, but in a frightened and panicked state. None of these results suggest that an effective communication took place between the horse and the human. Why did the human’s attempt at leadership in this scenario not result in a movement from the horse that suggested understanding?

The person’s initial request for movement lacked clarity to the horse. The horse saw arms flapping his direction but could not decipher if the request was for forward, backward or sideways movement, because the communicated intent was not clear.

Set it up so their is a clear message behind your intent. In this picture, a rhythmic pressure is applied behind the horse to encourage the horse to move forward, away from the gate. The clarity of the request allowed the horse to understand what was desired and she calmly and responsively yields her space.
Set it up so their is a clear message behind your intent. In this picture, a rhythmic pressure is applied behind the horse to encourage the horse to move forward, away from the gate. The clarity of the request allowed the horse to understand what was desired and she calmly and responsively yields her space.

Exercise: Suppose instead you approach the horse knowing you want him to move forward in order to clear the gate. You have a clear picture in your mind. To accomplish this you might rhythmically raise your hand or swing the halter toward his rump showing him that the way out of the pressure is to move forward. Once the horse has moved sufficiently forward you would then cease the energy, giving the horse a release from the pressure to thank him for his compliance.

The first example did not bring about the best results because the horse was not set up to best understand what flapping arms meant. The second interaction heeded more successful results because the initial request had a greater clarity, out of which a positive communication was possible.

Consistent
This horse was crowding my space as I was conversing with a friend. I am haphazardly swatting at my horse to ask him to move back and give me more room. This demonstrates an uncommitted approach to handling this situation.
This horse was crowding my space as I was conversing with a friend. I am haphazardly swatting at my horse to ask him to move back and give me more room. This demonstrates an uncommitted approach to handling this situation.

Example: You are standing with your horse talking to a friend or listening to your instructor and your horse keeps crowding your space. You ask the horse to back out of your space once, maybe even twice, but then get absorbed in conversation and fail to notice or care that your horse has infringed on your space once again. It feels like an annoyance to have to remind your horse again, so you allow the horse to encroach on your space. The horse learns that if he is persistent enough he can become the leader of the relationship by determining where his feet go. What is missing in this communication of leadership?

This encounter with the horse did not further his trust in you as his leader because it lacked the quality of consistency.

I turn my attention toward the horse and send some firm pressure down the leadrope causing my horse momentary discomfort. This would also convey a committed message. Once he yielded his space I would release the pressure caused by the rope and my body to thank the horse for yielding his space.
I turn my attention toward the horse and send some firm pressure down the leadrope causing my horse momentary discomfort. This would also convey a committed message. Once he yielded his space I would release the pressure caused by the rope and my body to thank the horse for yielding his space.

Exercise: Rather, you should correct the horse’s movement utilizing progressive stages of pressure as many times as necessary, until the horse takes your leadership seriously and maintains his position. Every time the horse steps into your space, respond accordingly using progressive stages of pressure to ask him out of your space. The more determined he is to walk into your space uninvited, the more determined your asking him to move back should be. Do not cease the conversation until he clearly understands that his job is to maintain his position until he hears from you otherwise.

Committed

Example: Picture the same scenario as above. You are enjoying a conversation with your friend or listening to your instructor when your horse comes into your space. Not wanting to miss a part of the conversation you haphazardly make a motion behind you with your hand or leadrope wanting your horse to step back. He ignores the request and instead takes a step closer. This time you make an annoyed, but pathetic shoofly motion toward him. Your horse moves minimally, if at all. What is wrong with this picture of leadership?

Your request to the horse did not have a committed intention behind it. The horse will not take your leadership seriously until he knows you are willingly to, “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.”

Exercise: In contrast, when the horse first moved into your space, you could either send some stern energy down the rope or take a firm step backwards into his space while flapping your arms, reminding him that he is only welcome into your space when invited. If the horse persists in encroaching on your space, you would increase the pressure of your requests, causing it to become increasingly uncomfortable for the horse to walk on top of you. Through this response, the horse feels a greater commitment from you and therefore responds out of respect for your leadership.

Congruent
A mixed message is being sent to this horse. While the persons arms are telling the horse to move out and away, her feet are moving backwards inviting the horse to come into her space. This is not a congruent message.
A mixed message is being sent to this horse. While the persons arms are telling the horse to move out and away, her feet are moving backwards inviting the horse to come into her space. This is not a congruent message.

Example: I see the need for this attribute most often when a student is asking the horse to move out of their space off into a circle. The desired movement of the horse is out and away. The human suggests this with their hands, but simultaneously takes steps backwards with their feet. The horse either does not leave or comes toward them instead of moving away. Why?

This person’s communication was not congruent. Their arms applied pressure that implied “go”, but their feet stepped backward, taking the pressure off, suggesting, “come”.

Exercise: Horses move away from pressure. In order to be taken seriously, our requests need to feel congruent. Instead of taking steps backwards, walk forward into the horse’s space, while motioning with your arms to send the horse out and away. That sends a whole body message, which the horse is apt to understand.

A more congruent approach is to ensure that the entire body - hands, feet and energetic intent are representing the same message. Notice how strongly forward movement is conveyed through my congruent body language.
A more congruent approach is to ensure that the entire body - hands, feet and energetic intent are representing the same message. Notice how strongly forward movement is conveyed through my congruent body language.

At this time I want to direct you to the pictures of the horse-to-horse interactions in last week’s column (another link to Horse Psychology and Behavior: Part II). As you view them, observe how pressure is put on in progressive stages, and notice how the horse exhibits the qualities of being clear, consistent, committed and congruent through their body language.

Learning to think like a horse, perfecting your progressive stages of pressure and integrating the characteristics of being clear, consistent, committed and congruent into your interactions with horses will aid you in your development into an assertive and equitable leader. Your horse will like and respect you for it.

I want to applaud you for coming this far and being willing to engage in these topics. Know that just by doing so you are far ahead of many horse owners who never come to learn the ways of the horse. Your desire to understand them in a way that allows you to think like a horse and to improve yourself is a true gift to the horse, and ultimately, to yourself.

I’m confident that you will find many gems for yourself, both in and outside of horsemanship, as you develop into the kind of leader your horse longs to be with.

This article was featured on MyHorse.com