It is easy to get lost in all the vast sea of opinions in regard to how to best communicate with your horse. We all want the same result, a horse that is respectful, responsive and a joy to be around. Partnership training, regardless of the method or style is reliant upon the fact that horses instinctively seek leadership. It is absolutely essential that you are aware of this instinct, and the nature of the horse you are interacting with. Your success and more importantly your safety rely upon this knowledge.
If you have seen enough movies you may have been lead to believe it is the stallion that leads the herd. They are protectors, responsible for keeping away intruders and predators. Stallions “own” the herd, but they are not the leaders. It is the "Alpha" Mare that provides leadership and security within the herd. She leads them to food and safety,she disciplines the unruly youngsters; she decides the route of travel when emergency arises. The alpha mare isn’t necessarily the strongest mare. Leadership within the herd isn’t as much about physical strength and domination as it is about good decision making.
When a mare has proven herself as the alpha, her herd becomes dependent upon her for survival. Being disobedient or disrespectful may result in rejection from the herd. Horses instinctively seek protection from the alpha mare and the safety of the herd. Being alone in the wild means being venerable to predators.
There is another important role in the herd that is referred to by many natural horsemanship trainers as the passive leader. “Horses Never Lie” a book by Mark Rashid gives insight into passive leadership and how to incorporate this attitude into your training. He explains that in observing the horses within a herd you will notice that while they definitely respond and seem to respect the "alpha", they don't spend very much time in that particular horse's company. In fact, the majority of horses in a herd will go out of their way to avoid the "alpha".
While the alpha mare is the leader essential to the survival of the herd she is not the only one with ability to lead. There are small bands within established herds, the second in command is the "passive" or "chosen" leader. This horse doesn't try to gain followers, but goes quietly about its business, avoids fights, conserves energy by observing a social situation before taking action, and is consistent in its behavior. These horses end up being followed by a peaceful band that interacts respectfully, going out of their way to be polite and fair with each other.
Now to the point :) We have established the fact that horses need leadership, and we understand the two prominent leadership positions we can assimilate in working with our horses. So, which one are you? Which one should you be? Horses are individuals with personalities as different from one to the other as the humans beside them.
When I was studying to become a trainer, I was broken down and evaluated just as I learned to do to my horses. I had strengths and weaknesses, personality traits and patterns of habit that could aid or impede my progress. I am by nature a quiet, compassionate trainer. I’m not shy or timid, but I’m not necessarily aggressive or assertive either. In the beginning I didn’t see this as a problem. I was good at working with nervous horses, frightened horses, the ones that just needed a little patience and compassion.
What’s wrong with just being a passive leader? Well, nothing in and of it self is wrong with that. I’m still good with those types of horses. It will always be easier for me to work with horses that respond to what comes naturally to me. However, I learned very quickly that while passive leadership has its place, it is not effective in training aggressive, bullies that are persistent in challenging your leadership. It was only a few weeks before my teachers robbed me of my beloved comfort zone. They took away my sensitive, timid partners, and replaced them with nasty stallion like geldings, and defiant, sometimes violent mares.
They made me cry, they pushed me into walls, they ran me over, bit me, pinned their ears and scoffed at my “gentle nature” I had to learn to lead before I could expect these horses to follow. Not every horse is a gentle giant. I am not suggesting you become an aggressive, dominant brute. I am suggesting you learn to assert yourself and demand to be acknowledged and respected. Only when you have earned respect from your horse will she say, “I’m ready to get along, I’m ready to listen, I’m ready to follow".
One of my instructors used to have me role play as “Helga” the 200 pound German matriarch. I was stoic and firm. I marched along side my bullies, expecting nothing less than obedience as we walked to the arena. If they overstepped the line or invaded my space, I walked them ten steps backward. Teaching the horse and myself, that I was not to be walked on.
Eventually, when you are truly acknowledged as the leader your role can be a more passive one, even with horses that are by nature more aggressive. The key is being consistent in your expectations, rewards and consequence. Do not allow disrespect of any kind when dealing with a bully. DO NOT allow a bully to circle you, DO NOT allow a bully to put his head over yours. DO NOT brush off nippy behavior. If a bully senses weakness in their leader, the leadership will be challenged. Everything you do must remain calm and consistent. Even when correcting the disobedient horse, be swift to act, steadfast and certain. Never act out of anger or frustration.
In order to be effective leaders we must be flexible. Knowing when to assert ourselves and when to be quiet. Some times we have to be firm before we can be gentle. When you are a fair and just leader, your horse will not resent your authority. You can shape your horses behavior, teaching it what to do rather than what not to do. You can apply pressure with your horse trusting release will come when they assume the shape you desire. It is very rewarding to gain a horses respect, especially when it is a respect born out of trust rather than fear. Horses are happy when they know what to expect, they want to know their boundaries and expectations. They want to feel safe and comfortable. The best thing you can do for your horse and for yourself is to become a leader worthy of following.