Leadership with Horses | Alexander and Bucephalus, drawn by Victor Adam
Leadership,  Training

Leading Horses From the Inside Out

Many people have different ideas about what our relationship with horses should look like. While some horse people still advocate for “being the boss” and establishing dominance, others have shifted away from this idea, and aim to act more as a friend rather than a boss, building trust through soft and sensitive requests.

There are interesting merits and limitations to both of these approaches. But what most people miss is that while there are many methods of training and working with horses, what makes us good leaders and partners for horses is not just about what training methods we specifically use, but the way we use those methods. And what drives the way we do things is ourselves and who we are as people – and this is where we need to change in order to become the best partners and leaders we can be.

It’s just as much about us, as about training methods

Just like in our human relationships, if two people ask us something using the same words, but in very different ways and with very different tones, we may give them very different levels of attention and respect. In a similar way, no matter what training method we use, how much horses will want to respect, listen to and follow us depends on how well we prove ourselves to be worthy of their trust and respect.

We know the horse is our mirror – horses respond to and behave around us according to who they read us to be. They see beyond who we are on the outside to our real strengths, insecurities and tendencies and treat us accordingly. So, to become better leaders and partners for the horses we work with and develop their genuine trust and respect, we must develop ourselves, including our competence, confidence, kindness, and respect for both the horse and ourselves.

Our role with horses

Because we bring horses into human environments and activities, it makes sense that we should be their trusted guides as we understand these environments in more depth. We know what is dangerous and what is safe, what is acceptable and not acceptable for their own safety and ours, where they should and should not go, and so on. It is our responsibility to ensure their wellbeing. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure their unique needs as equines are met – from their physical needs for appropriate feed, movement, and veterinary/farrier care, to their emotional needs, such as for social contact and feeling safety and comfort, and their mental needs for relaxation, and engaging in interesting activities. Meeting these needs also requires us to be a trustworthy and competent decision maker they can turn to.

To me, this is leadership. This includes also being a work partner, friend, advisor, and teacher in order for us to meet horses’ shifting needs. We do well to be flexible, and whether we are a friend or leader, the foundation of all these roles is, unsurprisingly, trust and respect. This means we have a responsibility to make ourselves leaders and partners worthy of their trust and respect – and this we can do by building our own competence, confidence, kindness, and respect.

Why Competence is important

Developing our technical skills riding, handling, and training is of central importance to developing our competence working with horses. As we work through the necessary study and years of practice, we also need to always consider what the underlying issues or needs are that cause the horse to behave as it does. Then, we need to learn to respond in a way that resolves the issue or meets this need to bring out the best in the horse. This is part and parcel of building our own competence, along with our technical competencies in riding and handling. When we build our competence, we can respond in ways the horse understands and responds well to, and so build his trust by demonstrating our awareness of his needs and ability to address them considerately.

For example, is the horse afraid of something and so isn’t responding to our request? In this case, we need to resolve his fears through consistent, step-by-step work and build confidence. Is the horse trying to test our boundaries by pushing into our space, because he needs to know whether we are a reliable leader, and that we stand firm in our self and our objectives? In this case, it’s important to make very clear what behaviours we accept, and demonstrate our competence as a decision maker by acting calmly, decidedly, not allowing ourselves to be pushed around or cowed, and focusing on the task at hand. 

Or, is the horse in pain? Does his stomach or back hurt, or are his muscles too stiff for him to do what we are asking? If so, what is causing this, and how do we fix it? Does he understand what we’re asking? For similar behaviours, there could be several possible causes, and it’s important that we investigate this carefully in order to know how to best help resolve the issue.

Why Confidence is important

Alongside building this competence, we need to build our confidence in ourselves so we can act with decisiveness, sureness, and calmness no matter what the situation. This is a great comfort to horses. They want to know the person they look to for decision making and interpreting their surroundings is confident in their assessments and decisions. This builds trust, especially when the outcomes of those decisions are good, which builds the horse’s constructive experiences. Then, the horse can learn to relax over time, knowing he will be shown the way forward if he is in doubt. 

Why Kindness is important

Kindness is fundamental to earning trust and respect, both from people and horses. Kindness does not always mean being soft or mild – it means to demonstrate consideration, empathy, and kindness for what the horse or other needs. It means to appreciate the horse’s efforts, consider deeply how he is wired as a species, and act with his best interests at heart. This doesn’tjustmean, for example, caressing the horse to communicate that you appreciate his response, or speaking gently all the time. It also means, among many things, to treat him fairly, to not nag him, to not be condescending, to say “yes” and “no” to his behaviour when appropriate, and to provide the education and environment that best serve him.

Why Self-respect is important

It is of such crucial importance to develop high levels of respect for the nature of the horse, and for ourselves. When we lack respect for either, we either do a disservice to the horse, or to ourselves. In the latter, we will be open to accepting disrespectful behaviour that doesn’t benefit us or the horse, and may lead to dangerous behaviour. 

Respecting the nature of the horse means to always endeavour to understand and serve them and their needs better, and treat them as a horse and not merely as a means to our own fulfillment. Their physical, emotional, and mental needs and capabilities must always be considered.

Respecting ourselves is absolutely key to being seen as worthy of respect. If you don’t even respect yourself, others pick up on this and intuit that perhaps they shouldn’t either. The same is true with horses. To gain the respect of horses, and particularly strong-minded horses – yes, you need to be competent, yes, you need to be confident – but you absolutely also must have the respect for yourself that you want them to reflect back to you. When you have self-respect, you simply will not allow disrespectful behaviour to continue, will take action to realign it and show the horse how to properly behave.

In Summary

As we develop our technical skills with horses through years of study and practice, we cannot forget this piece. We can easily notice that even though many may equally apply themselves to mastering a discipline or training method, some riders develop much more feel than others. They may have learned and practiced the same thing for the same amount of time, but what separates excellent trainers and riders is how they apply the training, and in the end it is who they are and develop themselves to bethat determines how skillful they become.

After we work with horses for some time, we might begin to notice issues we experience repeatedly with horses. Examining these carefully in order to more fully understand ourselves, and grow from this, is one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of working with horses. We become better people, as we commit ourselves to becoming better horse people in this way. This, in turn helps us become the best leaders and partners for horses we can be.

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