Leadership: same as dominance? and the importance of confidence
It's about 2.5 years ago now that I started seriously training my horse (and myself) after being forced into doing other things than riding (because of an injury). As a kid I had always read the Heartland series (Lauren Brooke) and dreamed of doing a join-up and having my horse follow me, or being able to ride bareback and bridleless. The first attempts at this were horrible, because I had no idea what I was doing. After all this time of learning and recently reading (even more) into the subject, there were a few things I realised about the relationship with your horse and the effect you have on each other, and I wanted to share my experiences and thoughts. Who knows, it might just help you along in your training and bond, the same way it did for me and my horse.
First off I want to start with a quote of an author, trainer and instructor, that struck me deeply:
'The golden rule of both horsemanship and the law has always been: never engage in an argument and push it to the point where someone has to win or lose - unless you are 100 percent sure you will win. Since horses are stronger than us and their primeval instinct for survival can be unpredictable, it is better never to enter an argument at all. If it does happen that you get your way, you may in the meantime lose friendship and trust. In all senses of the word, such victories can be costly. . . I believe we all need to remind ourselves again and again that horses have no way of speaking out except through body language and behavioural patterns. It is rare that I come accross a horse who actively intends to be difficult or naughty. The word 'no' is generally used by horses only as a small cri de coeur (an impassioned outcry). Some, of course, may use that word more than others and the reason could be anything from a badly fitting saddle to sore shins or rider posture. 'No' is a very protective response for horses who find their riders have asked too much too soon, feel their balance threathened, or are genuinely afraid of the unfamiliar. How sad therefore that some riders respond to this language by immediate punishment and the assumption that the horse has 'made up his mind' to disobey. When to ask, and how to ask, has to be the foundation of good schooling, yet too often these factors are overlooked in the rider's hurry to achieve.' (Sylvia Loch - Dressage in lightness)
In this case the author is talking specifically about dressage, but of course the message goes much further than that, it's about the horse and you, and how you interact, no matter the discipline or kind of work you do.
Now imagine, that you were standing in front of a line, and behind that line you are sure you are going to die, and there is someone standing next to you trying to convince you to step over it. Ask yourself who you would rather follow, someone who tries to push you over it, or someone who tells you it's okay and asks you to come with them and trust them?
That is the difference between leadership, and dominance. When you are working with your horse, do you tell, or ask? Why does your horse listen to you, because he is afraid of or unhappy with the consequences if he doesn't, or because he likes to be with you and trusts you to keep him safe and well, whatever you ask?
We have probably all once learned of the natural reactions of a horse. First, a horse will try to flee from anything that seems dangerous to him. If that isn't working out, he will fight it with all he has. Only at the last moment, when every effort to 'save' himself has turned out to be fruitless, a horse will give up, accept his fate and turn into himself, waiting to die. This is called the freeze reaction.
Now, say we were standing before a tarp your horse has never seen before. For all he knows, if he steps on it, he could fall through it, or it could bite his leg off. You walk towards it, your horse follows for two steps, then spooks and bolts backwards. Your first instinct is to hold on tight to the leadrope and keep your horse with you. Think again, what is that going to accomplish? At that moment, you aren't the trusted leader, you have become the thing that is making it impossible for him to get himself to safety. The next step, do you allow your horse to walk back a bit and slowly coach him back to the tarp, or do you slap him on his hindquarters to make sure he understands that he isn't supposed to bolt backwards? In the first scenario, your horse will eventually walk over that tarp, possibly having bolted a few more times, but then you convince him it's okay. In the second, the horse will freak and forget about the danger of the tarp. You are trying to make him walk to his death, and hurting him in the process, you are the danger now. He is going to fight you. Depending on the type of horse, he will keep fighting until you get tired and quit, or you will eventually 'win' and get him to walk over it. It might be a temporary victory, but did you really win? Does your horse trust you more? Will he walk over it quietly next time? Did you force obedience, being the 'dominant one', or have your horse follow the quiet, trustworthy and fearless leader you try to be for him?
Next, the importance of confidence. If you have done some 'scary work', or desensitizing, with a very spooky horse, you might have noticed that the horse will learn to trust you and follow you over obstacles after a while. Then you get up on him, and suddenly he balks and refuses. When you try to ride away from the barn alone, your horse tries to turn and run back. This is where confidence comes in. The horse might have learned to follow you, but he hasn't learned to tackle obstacles on his own. The moment you get up on his back, you are safe and sound up there, but the horse will be the one that gets eaten first. You can imagine a horse being forced into and through (scary) situations will not build confidence. Even if you don't use force with your horse, ever, he might trust you with his life, but up on his back you will not be there leading him. When you send him towards the very much feared tarp, he still has to step over it alone, and he won't without his confidence. A horse without confidence will never be a safe mount or a pleasure to ride, as you'll be too busy worrying about him running with you.
This is why being the leader isn't everything, and why force and dominance doesn't work. Once in a while, your horse has to be his own leader, make his own decisions and keep himself (and you) safe. Either blind trust or fearful obedience doesn't make for a safe and trustworthy horse. Be your horse's partner and friend, be the leader when you have to, and let him be the leader when he has to. That is what working together truly means, where you listen closely to each other, communicate quietly, and take turns of walking in front.
Listen to your horse and he might just return the favour!
Last edited by Jierda; 05-23-2012 at 10:07 AM.