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Utah’s horse world – Six quick tips to improve your horse-handling leadership

Expert horseman and hall of fame cowboy Joe Ruiz on 'Debbie'
Expert horseman and hall of fame cowboy Joe Ruiz on 'Debbie'
photo by Sarah Robertson

Last week’s article talked about the importance of establishing trust and respect with our horses, and about the very essential element of consistent leadership.

While we understand that all horses require a calm, reliable and competent leader at all times, how precisely can we become that leader?

Here are six easy tips that are simple and practical to apply every time we step into the round pen with a horse, helping to establish that trustworthy leadership;

1. Be present.
Don’t hang onto tense feelings or apprehension from yesterday. Don’t focus on your goal of tomorrow’s competition or next month’s epic trail ride.
The only thing that matters is that you’re paying attention to this horse right here, right now. Look at his body language. Is he relaxed or tense? Is he watching you? Is he watching you with alert curiosity and respect, or does he appear apprehensive and on-guard? Is he responsive or reactive? Does he appear comfortable and willing?
There are a lot of very important factors that come from your present, in-the-moment observations and assessments that have to guide your training agenda on every given day.

2. Don’t be a predator.
It’s a common human short-coming to confuse leadership with aggression, and aggression frequently mimics predatory behavior.
Remember that your efforts to convey an unquestionable degree of leadership have to make sense from the horse’s perspective.
In order for this to make sense to you, you have to understand how horses think and thus spend sufficient time observing horses as they interact with and lead one another. Direct your horse from a place of trustworthy, confidence-inducing leadership.

3. Be consistent.
In all you do, make sure that your directives to the horse are consistent, clear, brief and very easy to understand (again, from an equine perspective).
Consistency equates to honesty from the horse’s viewpoint. People who are inconsistent are less than honest and not trustworthy. If you do things one way on Monday and change your instructions on Wednesday, you’ll confuse the horse.
If you’re not trustworthy, you’re not worthy of being her leader.

4. Speak the horse’s language.
No matter how brilliant or talented, your horse will never be able to speak English. If you’re going to communicate, it’s imperative that you learn how to speak correctly (i.e. physically) with the horse.
Learn to control your body language and be aware at all times of what you’re conveying to your horse, and why.
Physical control isn’t tension; it’s simply the ability to know what your legs, hands, the angle of your torso and other natural bodily aids are saying to your horse. You still have to remain dynamic and fluid.
Learning this awareness comes from interaction with and supervision by, a very seasoned and thoroughly proficient professional, correct practice and more practice.
Only by communicating with the horse often, and doing so correctly, can you hope to become adept at speaking the horse’s language.

5. Relax with confidence.
Those who succeed in a position of leadership are alert enough to keep the herd safe, yet calm and confident enough to help them feel secure.
You can’t be so laid back and obtuse that a mountain lion could pounce into the pen and eat an entire horse before you’d react, but at the same time you can’t be so jittery that you’ll push everyone into stampede mode if a leaf blows across the ground.
If you lack confidence in your own abilities, you can’t possibly expect your horses to put their trust in you.
Get help from a respected local trainer who can help you develop the skills, correct habits and intelligent observations that you’ll need to convey confident leadership.
You have to be able to calmly assess each situation and clearly explain to your herd, with an entirely appropriate level of urgency based on each specific circumstance, what they need to do to stay alive and get their next meal.
Staying alive and grazing is pretty much what it’s all about in horse world.

6. Set yourself up for success.
Organize your equipment ahead of time and work initially in an area that’s small enough to control the horse from the ground.
Accomplished horsemen like trainer Joe Ruiz always advocate starting horses and establishing your relationship (even with a seasoned horse) in a round pen.
A round pen that is small enough for you to reach the horse with a sturdy but not-too-long lunge whip (approx. 4’ long with a 3’-4’ string) is usually good.
You can even ride at a walk, maybe a little trot, in a smaller round pen. Don’t canter a horse under saddle in a small space; it’s too hard on them physically. You don’t even want to ask for much canter unsaddled in a small area; save that for a larger pen.
Leaders are able to control the direction and speed of their herd members without force or unreasonable intimidation.
Working in a smaller area until your horse learns to trust in you and willingly accept your leadership is helpful in setting the stage for successful interaction.

Seeking more ideas for improving your horse-handling skills and building a foundation of effective leadership? Take time to schedule lessons with expert horseman and hall of fame cowboy Joe Ruiz in Taylorsville, attend a Cliff Tipton clinic at Flying T Acres out west in Erda, check out the clinics and events scheduled by Shamus Haws, or ride with Bob Toomer in Grantsville, UT.

We’re lucky to have some real honest to goodness horsemen across the Wasatch front. Do yourself (and your horses) a favor and seek out their guidance!