It is regularly noted by clients, students and others just observing me work with horses, that the animals I handle seem to ‘obey’ , or ‘listen to’ , or ‘respect’ me within a few short moments of our introduction. Another common statement is something to the affect of “horses seem to love Troy more then they love their owners.” Now I am not mentioning this just to brag, well not ‘just’, but to illustrate something I feel is of vital importance to owning and working with horses; a trait called by many modern clinicians ‘Leadership’. I personally prefer ‘Connection’, but for many, any difference in these two terms is too subtle to get right away, so let’s use ‘Leadership’ for the moment.
Most of us have seen one or more horsemanship clinicians demonstrate their ability to work with a green horse they have not met until a few moments before the clinic begins. They stand calmly in the middle of the arena or round pen as the horse is sent in and promptly starts moving nervously around them, sometimes even running in a near panic, head up, nostrils flared, huffing and snorting; the very image of wild, untamed equine. The clinician then starts talking to the audience as he or she begins moving in relation to the horse, sometimes explaining what they are doing, sometimes speaking about things actually quite unrelated to what is happening between them and the horse. After a little while, the horse seems to flip a switch and suddenly it is calmer, quieter and less afraid. A short time later, the horse either approaches the clinician or vice versa, but either way, a connection appears to be forming and not long after that, the horse is allowing itself to be handled or is following the human around quietly. I have done this very thing with ‘problem’ horses I have just met and had their owners exclaim “That was magic!”
What appears to be almost magical in nature is really just the evolved response of the horse to a calm, stable, confident leadership presence. These clinicians have learned the ability to influence the horses they work with through subtle use of body language, which is the first and more important level of communication for horses. They have, in short, learned to be a good leader. They then combined this innate connection to the horse with years of technical training experience to turn out light, obedient, brave riding horses, the very thing the people paying for clinics are seeking. These people go to clinics hoping to learn the tricks used by the clinician so they too can turn around their resistant, rebellious, scared, untrustworthy horse. Whether they are aware of it at the time or not, they want to learn ‘leadership’.
This quality of leadership is what great riders have and all riders seek. It is very hard to learn and even harder to teach because it is so difficult to quantify. So many factors combine to create it and often those who have it don’t actually understand why they have it. It starts with the most basic interactions with the horse, like how you catch and lead it from the pasture, continues with your ground work, your grooming regiment, schooling under saddle, etc. It is formed by everything you do and everything you don’t do with your horse. Some tend toward it naturally, others struggle with it their entire equestrian career.
No amount of technical knowledge of riding will avail you if you lack the ability to create a willing partnership with your horse. Yes, a rider can control a horse through physical force, using the bit, crop and spur as weapons. While this is technically riding a horse and for some quite satisfactory, it is not the Equestrian Art as I understand it. Nor is it artful to drill a horse into reacting robotically to a cue, responding to a demand out of habit. It is not artful to pull on the right rein and expect the horse to turn right. The Art is combining all the aids, as subtly as possible, asking the horse to bend throughout its body, carry itself in balance and drive forward and by doing so, the right turn is created. The Art of riding is a partnership where the senior partner quietly and gently influences the posture, balance, and drive of the junior partner to achieve movement in a given direction, at a given speed, in balance. While the connection required to achieve this certainly requires a great deal of technical knowledge and riding ability, it starts and ends with the mental and emotional connection or what we have been calling Leadership.
So how do we start learning to be good leaders? It begins by realizing that every second we are in the presence of horses we are affecting them. Even when we are not touching them or leading them or even looking at them, we are influencing the state of the herd. I am sure we can all think of someone who by their very presence sets us on edge. The way they speak or the gestures they use, the way they sit or eat or just carry themselves, just gets on our nerves. Now imagine the horse, more sensitive hearing and sight, vastly greater sensitivity to the unspoken cues of body language and six times your reflexes. If you are ‘that’ person for them when you are in their sphere of awareness, you are making them uncomfortable just being there. Horses seek comfort, security and safety. I believe they view the three of these things as one. If you make them uncomfortable then you they are going to feel unsafe and insecure. In this state they are never going to willingly accept your leadership, though obviously they can still be made to follow, but this is far from the same thing.
What is it we do that might upset the herd equilibrium that exists between us and our horses? Much of it is common sense if one simply stops to think about it. What is likely to put a herd creature on edge? Sudden or unexpected movement and sounds are right at the top of the list. If you have watched any horsemanship instructional videos late at night, you might have noticed how hard it is to stay awake through them, even if the topics being covered are of particular interest to you. This is because skilled horseman, almost to the man/women, speak softly and regularly, as well as gesture and move in very deliberate ways. If you have not noticed this before, go watch one again. This way of being is either natural for them or the way they have trained themselves to be for so long as to have become there natural state of being. When we are near our horses we must cultivate a predictability in our movements and a steady tone in our voices. Sudden, jerky movement or increased volume or pitch of our voices damage the calm of our horses, even if we don’t detect it at the time. This means not putting ourselves into situations where we might need to jump aside. This means regulating our emotional state to keep our movements and voices even and not unexpected. It does not mean whispering or moving in slow motion. In fact, most horse like someone creeping up on them about as much as they like someone running at them, that is to say, not at all.
Controlling our emotions can be a tricky ‘chicken and egg’ situation. For a horse to relax and become a calm, safe thing to be around, we have to suppress completely our own fear and nervousness which is not all that easy to do around horses that are not already calm and relaxed. This is why the situation of ‘green on green‘ is so often disastrous. The inexperienced horse owner trying to handle the inexperienced horse often results in a spiral out of control; scared horse make owner nervous, nervous owner scares horse… It is obviously better if the young horse is started by an experienced trainer while the novice rider works with a already trained horse.
The three emotions that are most likely to get you into trouble are Fear, Frustration which manifests most often as anger, and Embarrassment. Learn to master these and a huge percentage of the problems you will have with horses will disappear.
Okay, so we have learned to modulate our movement and voices and control our emotions. Wasn’t that simple? Well of course not, but knowing we need to work on these issues allows us to turn to more technical, quantifiable facts about controlling the horse’s movement through body language.
The Herd Dynamic
In a herd of horses, the leader decides when and where the herd will eat, which direction and how fast the herd will move and which herd members get to approach and which will be forced to stand off. They enforce order and settle serious disputes but the remainder of the herd hierarchy is determined by interaction between the other herd members. Horses have evolved in such a way as to create an interesting dichotomy in each horse’s nature. They are ‘hard wired’ to both instantly obey an order given by the herd leader, while at the same time to test the leadership suitability of the horses above them in the herd. This is not to say the every horse seeks to be the leader. In my experience I have found quite the contrary to be true, as most horses are quite comfortable letting another make the life and death decisions and leave them alone to eat and play. But here’s the rub, they are only comfortable with this situation IF the leader has been proven suitable, capable and worthy of following.
A commonly expressed view is as follows: “You must be the leader of ‘your herd’.” In other words, you must always be perceived as higher in rank than the horse; true enough, but the problem then becomes how to achieve this. We are often told, “Just watch how horses interact in the pasture and you will understand how leadership is attained.” I have come to believe that this view, as it is understood by a large majority of people who express it, is flawed. It would be more correct to say “Watch how horse interact in the WILD to begin to understand how leadership is determined.” Often, with horses living together in the pasture, the most aggressive horse will enforce its will on the other horses, demanding to be fed first, choosing who gets to stand with whom, etc. It will do this simply by threatening the other horses with violent aggression time and time again. This horse is the boss of the pasture to be sure, but is often NOT a leader in any way, in other words it chases, but is not trusted or willingly followed. What changes the herd dynamic in the pasture from what it is in the wild is very simple, fences. In the wild, a horse who is constantly aggressive, pushing its will on other horses to get what his wants through threat, will either be ostracized by the other herd members or driven off. Fences prevent the other horses from just leaving the bully horse by itself. Yes, aggression is sometimes a part of determining the hierarchy of the herd in the wild, but generally it is much more subtle than this and the leader inspires the rest of the herd to follow more than it forces it. Herd leadership is more about calm, inherent confidence than it is about brute strength or aggression. This is why while stallions will fight for breeding privileges, it is most often a mare who decided where the herd will go, when they will stop, when they will eat, etc. In this way, a horse owner can use aggression to chase a horse away, and in some cases this is needed, however aggression will not cause a horse to willing follow you.
The enforcement of authority of one horse over another is manifested by the higher horse making the lower horse move. To do this they either Push, Drive or Draw the other horse into following and they will generally do it in that order. The Push is literally moving the other horse by a nudge with the head or nose, or a bump with body; the horse that allows itself to be Pushed shows itself likely to be subordinate and invites the Drive. The Drive is at the same time more forceful and more implied. It is done with posture and threat and might be as subtle as a look with the ears laid back, or a lowering of the head toward the vertical and arching the neck, or as overt as a threat to bite or kick. Once the subordinate horse starts moving away, often the higher horse will give chase for a while to make it clear who is in charge. If the two horses involved are similar in their perceived ranking this can sometimes involve an actual altercation where both horses will not just threaten, but actually bite or kick to establish who is in charge. Rarely, this can cause serious injury. Now no horse wants to be driven from the safety of the herd, therefore repeated Drives away, i.e. not allowing the horse to rejoin the herd, will start to make a horse concerned and instill a strong desire to placate the one driving so as to be allowed to return to the herd. Lowering of the head, working the mouth and tongue can be signs of a horse displaying its subservience and asking to be accepted back. When satisfied things have been settled, the lead horse will often move parallel to subordinate horse then turn away slightly dropping all threat, this Draws the other horse toward it and allows it to fall behind and follow. Barring a future challenge of authority, the subordinate horses will automatically follow the lead from that time on.
All very interesting, but what does it mean for us? What it means is we must be aware of all this when we are interacting with our horse to avoid inadvertently giving our horses the impression that we are not worthy to lead, or worse, inviting a challenge for authority. How many of us have been carrying on a conversation at the barn and had our horse start nudging us or rubbing on us and our response is to smile and comment on how much our horse loves us? Well, hate to break the news but that kind of contact is not love, but a subtle test of herd position. The horse being led from the pasture that keeps stopping and dropping its head to eat – test. The horse that walks away when you approach with the halter – test. These are just a few indicators that our horse is far from certain we deserve to be in charge, but is not an overt challenge yet. If we are lucky they will just decide we are even in rank, which is far from ideal, but still better than being directly challenged for authority. In truth, a direct challenge seldom happens; what tends to happen more is the horse loses respect for us and therefore confidence in us as leader. So instead of automatically acquiescing to our authority, they decide on a case by case basis whether or not they want to follow our lead in any given situation. This is the horse that is fine on one end of the arena but won’t go to the corner over there; the horse that walks up to trailer, but then decides it is not in its best interest to step in; the horse that happily goes where you tell it to on the ride, but when spooked turns and runs back for the barn. There are many more examples, some overt and some very subtle, where having the horse doubt our leadership is a problem. Those clinicians I was discussing in the beginning cannot afford the slightest hint of doubt, so everything they do, no matter how subtle, is calculated to reinforce their absolute leadership and in turn gain the horse’s trust and respect.
What about play or simple affection? Play is a certainly a part of horse interaction. In young horses is the first step in deciding where they stand in the herd. I do not mean to suggest horses are duplicitous creatures that always have ulterior motives when they interact; it is not a thought process as we might think of it in humans. I am saying that even in play or when showing affection to their owners, how we react to them still effects how they view our position in relationship to them. I am not suggesting you must always be focused on ‘working’ the horse. What i am saying is everything we do is affecting and teaching the horse and we must keep this in the back of our mind at all times, if we want to maintain the unquestioned leadership position that makes for a calm, brave, obedient and willing mount.
To achieve the kind of automatic acquiescence to our will, as the herd leader in the wild engenders, we must be aware of our actions or lack of action and how they tap into the instinctive response to leadership all horses are born with. In the video below you can seem a session where I am working with a nervous and excitable young mare. She had not previously been handled by anyone who ever inspired trust, so you can see how this state comes to her instinctively as the session progresses.
Working From The Ground
So what can we do to reinforce our authority over our horses? The short answer to this question is “affect your horse’s movement.” Decide when and where it will eat. Decide how it follows you, how close to you it can get, when it is okay to touch you and when it is not. Basically, always knowing what you want the horse to do and asking for it. Some call it ‘respecting space’ and that is part of it to be sure, but it is more; it is also providing calm, confident direction. Showing that you are moving mindfully and are paying attention; this adds a sense of security and safety to the emotional state of the horse when it no longer feels it has to be on the look out for potential dangers because its herd leader is doing that.
Before we can talk in any detail about how we go about gaining influence over the horses, there are some terms we need to have a common understanding of. I will be using these terms further along and it will save confusion if you understand them before that time.
Drive Line: The line from the whither down through the shoulder to the front legs. Approaching a horse from the side, directly on the drive line is your best chance for having it remain in place. Pressure directed behind the drive line will send the horse forward. Pressure directed forward of the drive line will send the horse away and back causing it to turn away from you.
Swapping Eyes: When the horse changes its position in such a way as to switch from looking at you with the right eye to looking at it with the left, or vise versa.
Pressure: Applying force or more often ‘implying’ force to cause the horse to move. When I talk about applying pressure I always mean starting and the lowest amount of force and gradually increasing it until responded to and then it should be instantly reduced. Always begin at a lower level than was needed to achieve the same response the time before.
Body Life: Effecting the horse’s reaction to your presence by either standing tall, eyes up and talking long, definite strides, i.e. increasing Body Life, or by rounding your shoulders, directing your eyes down and shortening your steps, i.e. decreasing Body Life.
Hip Disengagement: Drawing the head of the horse toward you while it is in motion and at the same time ‘sending’ the hind end out and away from you and in doing so bringing the horse to face you. The front feet stop and the hind feet travel out and away, inside foot crossing over outside.
Now let me add this little disclaimer as well. Any interaction with horses involves risk and ground work for authority has its own inherent risks as it involves to one degree or another; threatening an animal twenty times your strength and with six times your reflexes can have unwanted results. Describing the techniques for doing this in a written document is imperfect at best. Horses in real fear for their safety or horses that have already decided they are above humans in the herd, can strike out or bite or in some other way harm the unwary or unprepared. Please use common sense and don’t let things get out of hand or to a point that you risk injury. While I will give some details in what follows, I cannot teach all the nuances of these concepts without demonstrating them in person, so if you have any doubt about any part of it, do not attempt it.
Catching Your Horse
I find it a very positive indicator of my training methods that all the horses in my care stand quietly to be approached and haltered, if they don’t in fact come right up to the gate to meet me when I come for them. However, when I get new horses in I sometimes have to deal with past experiences and concerns that make it so a horse is hesitant to be caught. By remembering how the drive line works, it is possible to move a horse in a given direction by picking what orientation you choose when you approach the horse. Approaching from directly perpendicular to the drive line, with your body life low, you have the best chance of successfully catching a horse right away, assuming there is not some fear issue. Approaching a few steps at a time, slowly, with small steps, shoulder round and eyes directed down or at least away from the horse, you are as none threatening as you can be. Taking only a few steps you must truly believe that you have all the time in the world, as any time constraint in your mind will cause you to push things and/or become frustrated. If the horse stands long enough for you to approach and touch its shoulder, you should gently slip the lead you have been allowing to hang loosely in your hand around its neck before you attempt to put the halter on.
If, as commonly happens, the horse starts to walk forward at your approach, change your path and walk parallel to it, staying as close to the drive line as you can and try to approximate its speed. If the horse brakes away and runs off, go back to the quiet walk and arc out away from the horse to reach the point adjacent to the drive line again. If the horse starts turning away and putting its tail to you, alter your path until the horse is pointed in the direction you want it to go, like say back toward the gate or in the direction of a corner. As you follow, try to move off to a parallel path, but if the horse tries to turn away, move from one side to the other causing the horse to swap eyes on you, timing the change of eye to coincide with the horse’s change of direction so no matter what way it turns it finds you standing on the side the eye is swapping to. It is very important that you do this movement from one eye to the other and casually as you can. If the horse slows, as it is likely to when it keeps finding you standing on the side it is trying to turn to, stop following and begin again to move parallel to the horses line of travel, at the drive line, and then start to close the distance a little at a time. Should the horse turn way, again cross to the other eye and repeat the process. Keep the pressure low and be willing to stop from time to time and let the horse come to terms with the fact that you are not going to stop driving it, eventually it will turn and face you. Now lower your eyes and step cross in front of the horse as you simultaneously move gradually closer. Should the horse turn to face you, slow and turn back across to other side and continue to approach slowly, pausing often. By closing while trying to come up on its shoulder, eventually the horse should allow you to approach. This may take quite a while, but remain calm and quiet and in time it should work with most horses. Carrying treats with you and giving the horse one AFTER it has allowed itself to be haltered is a good way to reward proper behavior; eventually it becomes unnecessary and can be discontinued once the horse is in the habit of letting you catch it. In fact, it might even start coming to you instead.
Once haltered, hold the lead loosely in your open right hand, arm hanging low, thumb forward and coil the excess lead in your left hand as you walk steadily without looking back, expecting the horse will follow. The horse should follow quietly on your right side. Keep your left hand closed on the coil of lead line, but leave the right open with your fingers curled around the rope, ready to close. Leave enough slack in the lead that the horse can walk with you without any contact on the halter as long as it keeps its distance. Should the horse attempt to turn away instead of following, close your right hand on the lead firmly, but only long enough to impede the movement away, then open and relax it again the instant the horse gives back and starts following. Try not to look back. The same routine is used if the horse stops, or drops its head to try to eat. A quick closing of the right hand and the horse is blocked as it moves way, followed by the release the moment that movement is arrested. If the horse keeps stopping, then leading may be problematic and you may have to give small tugs to get it moving again, until you begin your work on the short line, which I will address next, but do not try to pull the horse along behind you, that nearly always ends badly. Again, take you time; you have all the time in the world, believe it.
If the horse reverses the problem and attempts to walk ahead of you, rather than trying to hold back 1000lbs of muscle, try this; with the lead still held loosely in the right hand, turn left, then left again, then left again, allowing the lead to brace against your open right hand if the horse hesitates to follow right away, and viola, you are back on course with the horse behind you. Each time the horse attempts to walk ahead of you, and by ahead I mean anything close to bringing its shoulder even with yours, you simply repeat the turns to the left. It may take repeating a few times, but after several of these the horse should get tired of the circles and fall into step with you. Just like catching the horse, leading cannot have a time constraint. It will take as much time as it takes and trying to rush things will be absolutely counterproductive.
So take your horse for walks to all sorts of interesting places, keeping the right hand open except to correct ‘missteps’, but remember to release the closed hand the very instant the horse gives you what you want. Closing and holding the rein or taking up the slack on it puts you in constant contact with the horse’s head and gives it the power to apply its size to fight you and this is a fight you don’t want. In time, it should seem to the horse that you have magical powers and can block it from straying from the path you have set with a sudden application of a power that vanishes before the horse’s superior strength can be brought to bear.
By now you may have started to detect some standard concepts that reappear throughout everything we do with horses. Maintain a gentle, flexible contact with the horse that becomes firm only as needed and is immediately returned to the light, flexible connection the instant the correction has taken. We constantly guide, but never hold. We ask repeatedly for simple things and reward the moment we are given what we are asking for. By never allowing it to become a fight, the horse never learns it is stronger than we are. We use our intellect to make up for our weaker stature by applying what strength we have at just the right time and releasing it before the horse can set itself to brace against our request.
Working On The Short Line
In short line work the goal is to send the horse out in smallish circles around you. This is best done in round pen or arena or similar good footing. I like to do this with a lunging cavesson, but it can be done with a just a rope halter and lead line.
Stand facing the horse, take the lead in your left hand short enough to keep it off the ground and a crop, lunging stick, or whip in your right. With the horse facing you, step forward past the its head to your right, close down the shoulder to the drive line, then as you step back away from the horse, raise your left hand toward and forward of the horse’s inside eye. At the same time, you apply pressure with the movement of crop, behind the drive line, in the area your left leg would go if you were sitting on the horse. What you are attempting to do is drive the horse forward with the crop and not pull the horse forward with the lead. The left hand blocks the horse from turning toward you while the right sends the horse forward. Feed out the lead line as much as needed to allow the horse to circle out and away from you, but keep a light contact on the horse’s head in your relaxed and lowered left hand. You can either stand your ground and circle the horse around you, or even walk along with it, allowing the horse to move relatively straight. But whether on a circle or in straight movement, gently ask the horse to flex its head slightly toward you and bend its body away from you to match the arc of the circle you have it on. You should hold your position at or slightly behind the drive line and employ the movement of the crop to pressure the horse to maintain steady forward movement, but again, ONLY apply pressure when needed and cease the instant you have what you ask for. What gait should the horse be moving? Always start with the walk and do not think of asking for the trot until you and the horse have mastered the walk. After a few minutes of circling to the left, reach forward with your crop hand and smoothly swap the lead and crop from one hand to the other without stopping the horse. Then, closing your hand on the lead, step backward as you gently draw it across in front of you, disengaging the horse’s hip as you bring your lead hand up toward the horse’s inside eye, step back to the drive line and send the horse forward again, now in the opposite direction. Before you move back behind the drive line again and pressure at that same position where you leg would be if riding, you may need to also pressure the horses inside shoulder, forward of the drive line, to cause it to move out and away rather than closing and running over you.
Short line work is literally like a dance with you leading and the horse following your lead. It takes some practice and is much easier to learn by observing it being done. Be that as it may, the rules of light, flexible contact with the lead and an open lead hand, closing only as needed and then relaxing again still apply. Add to this the restrained use of the driving tool, again, only used as absolutely necessary to keep the horse’s movement steadily forward and to direct the shoulder away, after which the pressure is removed at once.
All of the above activities enhance your connection and leadership role with your horse, assuming you are calm and confident, achieving the desired responses from the horse in a very matter-of-fact way. Your attitude must be one of ‘fait accompli’, only taking actions that are required and absolutely only as long as required, to make a correction. If you are consistent in your actions and constant in your goals, never unfair and never betraying the trust the horse puts in you as leader, you will gain clear and unquestioned deference from your horse. This honestly earned trust and respect can then by applied to your riding with the same core rules and everything you have accomplished on the ground can be carried forward into the saddle.
Having this relationship with your horse not only makes it more obedient, but calmer and more secure as well, and therefore happier. As I mentioned before, horses seek comfort, security and safety. Achieving this is vital to proper training. Without it, complete connection will always elude us. A certainty of where it stands in the herd and complete confidence in the one responsible for its well being is a key factor to a healthy and happy horse; only a healthy and happy horse will respond fully to its training and its rider.
“Request often, be content with little, reward lavishly.” ~ François Bauche