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Utah’s horse world–Leadership is the foundation of all effective horse handling

On the ground or under saddle, horses need their human to be the leader.
On the ground or under saddle, horses need their human to be the leader.
photo by Wendy Onstott (with Sarah and the late Lance Psy)

Everyone wants to have a great relationship with their horses. We want them to love us, to enjoy being with us, to be cooperative and willing, feeling happy, safe and secure.

That is a terrific and truly attainable goal but first, first and foremost, our horses must respect us. And in order for them to respect us, they have to be able to trust in our consistent leadership.

Now here’s where human beings get into trouble on both sides of the training fence. We tend to anthropomorphize and imagine that horses think and feel like people. They do not. They think, feel, react and behave like horses.

So, whether your natural fallacy is to fall into the ultra touchy-feely, soft and caring camp that envisions your horse dreaming of cuddle time with you anytime you leave the barn, or if you’re in the militant school of thought that harbors bitterness toward the horse that plots revenge and schemes of ways to disturb your plans, you’re wrong. That’s not how the horse brain works.

Horses may have individual personalities, relatively unique learning styles and assorted individual traits that you’d do well to consider when you work with them, but the number one and entirely consistent fact remains that horses, all horses, need leadership.

To require a leader is built into the unalterable core of their being. It’s hard-wired into their psyche. There’s no getting around it. Either you’re the leader, a pasture mate is the leader, the stall neighbor is the leader, or your horse has to become the leader. Get it? There’s always a leader.

If you have a horse or wish to work with horses in any capacity, it’s in your best interests to be the leader.

What’s involved in being a leader? Pay attention, because we have to define leadership in horse terms. Leaders are decisive and direct. Watch horses in a herd. It will probably take about 4 seconds to figure out which one’s in charge.

Leaders warn, then (if necessary) mete out one swift and purposeful directive, and then they’re done.

Leaders are consistent. Leaders are quiet, confident and fair. Leaders are reliable, trustworthy and dependable in terms of providing safety and meeting the basic needs of their underlings to the best of their abilities.

Let’s also consider what leaders are NOT. They’re not unduly aggressive, unreasonably harsh, temperamental or reactive. Leaders are gentle when it’s warranted but never weak. They’re not nervous or timid. Leaders don’t strike without first warning, and they only strike if a warning is ignored. Leaders are never vague or inconsistent or unfair.

Watch leaders in a herd. It’s important to spend ample time observing horses in an environment where they can interact naturally with one another if you want to truly comprehend the innate tendencies and instincts of horse behavior.

As you engage with the horse, your timing is essential. The number one cause of problems between horses and humans is the little leniencies that are allowed to flourish without timely and adequate correction.

Emulate and learn from proven, respected leaders with plenty of experience. The only way to develop correct timing is to work directly with a seasoned and proven horseman. It takes decades and thousands of hours in the saddle to develop the skills required to be able to ride and train well, and even longer to build the ability to teach others. And not everyone can teach; that in of itself is a unique ability.

You’re wasting your time, your money and endangering yourself and your horse if opting to work with anyone who isn’t adequately experienced, honest, competent and smart. There are a lot of self-promoting wannabe trainers out there who’ll take your cash. Be skeptical of anyone who pounces on you with a list of 'look what I've done' accomplishments; true horsemen are humble and the reliable word-of-mouth advertising that sings their praises never comes from their own face. Be careful. Be aware.

Do your homework and seek out someone with whom you’ll build nothing but the best habits. If you’re not creating good habits, you’re creating bad ones. With everything we do and all we ask our horses to do, we are constantly building and reinforcing habits.

You absolutely have to spend a minimum of one year with a skilled horseman before you will even start to understand the skills and timing that are mandatory for effective leadership and safe horse handling. Thereafter, even if can't or don't want to keep paying for upper-level expertise, you'd be wise to regularly use the services of an affordable and reliable ground person to help keep your own abilities on track.

Working alone (unless you've been doing this, and doing it well, for 30+ years), it's too easy to let your riding position slip, to let your horses get a bit pushy, or just to lose focus on those all-important habits that lend themselves to safety and progress. If you think you can’t afford to pay for assistance, you’re making a costly mistake.

If you refuse to invest in a correct foundational education, you will pay one way or another. Either you’ll pay for a horse to replace the one you’re going to ruin, you’ll pay for medical bills after you get hurt by the horse you can’t handle, or, at the very least, you’ll pay the price with emotional duress, discouragement and frustration.

Head off big problems by paying attention to the little signs that indicate your horse cannot trust in you as his leader. Avoid bigger problems by getting a foundation of dependable training and the help you'll need to become the best and most effective leader possible.

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