Leadership Percentages and Confused Horses

Pause here. Look in his eye. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. If we’re going to agree with scientists that horses are sentient beings, with feelings not unlike our own, when will we start treating them that way?

In riding lessons, I ask math questions a lot. Not real math, of course. It’s more a theoretical sort of math, like “what percent of your horse is forward” or “rate this trot on a scale from one to ten.” It’s short-hand to quantify where we are compared to where we started and where we’d like to be.

The usual way I hear short-hand math talked about in the barn is to quantify leadership. Like most horse things, there is a long continuum of opinion. Some demand their horse submits to 100% human leadership. Equine slavery, I’m thrilled to say, is not tolerated here. It’s easy to deplore. We shake our heads and tsk-tsk our tongues. But 100% cheerful compliance would be great.

We want a partnership with our horses. And once we really agree to that, the confusion and weird math begins. Should it be a 50-50 balance? Does the human get the deciding vote, 51-49? Or because you have a goal with your horse, 60-40? Or maybe you missed the vote entirely and you just go along for the ride, 90-10, to his favor.

Definition of leadership: The ability to provide another sentient the feeling of safety. In this case, a horse.

Humans are extremists. Sometimes, in an attempt to evolve and not dominate horses, we just chatter away kindly. We over-cue, carefully introducing their halter for the millionth time and the horse might even politely sniff it. Maybe he thinks he should because we act like it’s a brand-new thing each time. We chatter about cleaning his feet and might even think he’s listening, when the truth is that it’s the same order of hooves every time. A horse would have to be brain-damaged to not learn that pattern and obligingly pick up his foot.

In other words, we think we’re training things that they know inside-out. It’s like reading a grade school primer in college. Boring at best. Worst is they think we aren’t all that bright. What would it take to teach up to his level?

I think horses kindly recognize human chatter as a calming signal. Meaning it calms us to chatter away. Maybe they assess what percentage of their rider is stressed out and roles reverse.

Definition of chatter: The rattle and bang of constant noise. Legs and seat and hands and voice that just never stop flapping and nicking and correcting. As annoying as flies buzzing, landing, circling, and buzzing some more. It’s the crazy-making babbel that any self-respecting horse would shut out to save his sanity.

About this time, since we don’t want to dominate or chatter away, we decide to listen. No, really listen. We learn their calming signals and their unique detailed preferences. The more we listen, the more they share, affirmed that humans are pulling it together. It’s thrilling to have a corner of understanding that didn’t start in a human brain, but instead is something you learned from a horse. Listening is pure joy.

We listen to our horses so hard, with such focus and patience… that our horses hear crickets. Silence from us. They revert to doubting our intelligence and worry that they are the only sentients in the room. Horses might wonder if, between the scream of domination and the silence of listening, humans are void of the ability to have a simple conversation.

Definition of a conversation: Cues that might be body language or movement, or intention –eye contact along with a thought. The least important part is verbal. The most important part is that there are two sides conversing.

The focus is to shape a response on both sides. You give a cue for walking and pause. He considers the request and walks. You release your cue and breathe normally and follow the flow of his walk. In the beginning, it feels stilted like an Intro to French class. (Bonjour, comment vas-tu? Bon, Merci et vous?) But don’t get impatient and talk over each other.

Any positive training conversation starts with rewarding a good basic response. Behavioral science calls it ‘successive approximation’ implying an approximate answer, not the correct one.

In other words, one of you giving your best hints until the other guesses the right answer, like a game of equine charades. Creativity! A language between two species is born! Hear the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You get it.

How to quantify that kind of leadership conversation? 50-50 feels too flat and dull.

I think it might be an 80-20 percentage, but not static. The idea-and-response flip sides between the human and the horse in an instant. It’s a flash of intention and a spark of response. A cool breeze of release followed by quicksilver inspiration. So fluid that he finishes the thought before you fully articulate it. And his response was lighter and more beautiful than you imagined. It’s a dance that switches leader and follower every few strides.

If a rider complains about a lack of response in their horse, guessing that they only have 20% their horse’s attention, I think a better question might be what percentage of their attention is on their horse? Do we think it’s his job to hang in suspended animation until our next command? Isn’t that how domination works?

Why do humans limit an animal’s response by talking down to them? What if a better name for an unresponsive horse is a bored horse?

The art of communication with horses means evolving a language of successive approximation to a place of happy response on both sides. It takes a quiet and quick listening mind on the part of the human, along the same amount of physical self-awareness that a horse has. That’s the hard part. It would always be easier for a human to dominate or be passive.

Pause here. Look in his eye again. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. The question isn’t if he’ll meet our expectations. It’s what will we need to do meet his.

(Next week: How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist.)

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Leadership Percentages and Confused Horses”

  1. Anna, you seem to always make me stop and think about my relationship with my horse. And that’s a good thing! 🙂

    You’ve pushed me to think of interactions with my horse as conversations…and that has begun influencing my relationship with each of our horses…and maybe with humans, too…

    Here’s my latest blog post where I share a little of that: http://josephjpote.com/2017/08/a-light-ask/

  2. I think some mares (mine, of course) have a distinct idea about human conversation. Hers is, if she’s not distracted by something more important, such as who’s about to come through the barn door, she will do the learned routine such as lifting her feet for picking without any verbal prompting from me. I always give her the chance to voluntarily comply, but there are times that no matter how many repetitions of the physical “lift your foot” cue I give, it will not be lifted until I quietly but firmly say “foot!”. Similar chain of events for removing her halter when turning her out to pasture. She knows the drill. Put your head down and the human will remove the halter. Except on those occasional days when she is literally quivering with excitement to run back out to her herd. She knows she’s not leaving until the halter comes off, but stares fixedly out to pasture until I again say quietly but firmly, “head down!”. I doubt I will ever figure out how she can be so distractible about things that are so commonplace in a horse’s world. Oh, human, I somehow just forgot you were there!

  3. As usual, your blog is informative and through provoking. I did enjoy the comparative pictures you suggested relative to horse and human feelings (and thoughts?). I also agree with about 95% (there’s those numbers) of what you offered. The one thing I wish would have been mentioned within this important topic is that there is a GENETIC imperative in a herd, which operates on “big horse, little horse” status. I agree that status can change (for different reasons), what does not change is that if the senior status horse feels threatened, it will look for a way to escape the danger and the horse with the lesser status HAS AN OBLICATION to make sure they do NOT block the escape route of the senior status horse. If they neglect that responsibility, when the danger is past, the senior horse will “school” them in their responsibilities. When it is a horse and a human in those two roles, if the human has taken (or allowed) themselves to be consigned to lesser horse status, and is too slow to pick up on danger cues or move out of the way, the senior horses “escape” route from the perceived danger, could be right over the top of the lesser horse (human). That usually results in some time of significant injury to the human. The horse didn’t intend it, in the above described case, it is the human who is WRONG in their behavior, but that isn’t going to matter much from a hospital bed or when hobbling on crutches. My point is, if you are working with a numbers scale and are within a bodies length of a horse, I would never recommend 49/51 as adequate protection. Be friends, by all means, in the best possible way of an outstanding parent being friends with their children, but when push comes to shove (sometimes literally), you want to be the parent and you want your child to obey you and not run over you on their way to getting in the car and driving drunk.

  4. Very timely. Yesterday I had a wonderful ride. We didn’t go anywhere new or see anything exciting, just the same old path around the soybean field out back but when the doe bounced out of the woods ahead of us and went leaping along the path with that white tail flagged before bouncing back into the woods I didn’t feel so much as a tremor from my mare. She simply raised her head as if to say ‘will you look at that’. Time was she would’ve tried to high tail it out of the reach of that horse eating deer. It leads me to think that maybe, just maybe she’s trusting me not to put her in the path of any danger. I gotta tell you, it’s a great feeling and just made my day!

  5. On a trail ride a few months ago my horse’s extreme forwardness alarmed me. I felt overwhelmed and dismounted. One of my friends asked permission to ride my horse. To be more aware of what I felt. We swapped horses but I led hers while she rode my mare. There was a third woman with us as well. At the end of the ride my friend explained what she felt from Reecie. Wendy’s words “She’s so full of joy she doesn’t know what to do with it.” And later Wendy said, “Rise to meet your expectations and you’ll find she’s already there.”
    My next rides were about trying to feel joy WITH my mare. What a difference!
    I love what you’re saying in this post – I’ve already experienced it.

  6. Anna, as a ‘former’ (is there ever really such a thing as former horse person? They become part of our souls) horse person who is now training dogs, your blogs are so cross-species appropriate. As I read them I see how they can go along with my current training with my dogs and students dogs. This one is spot on with the changes I am working hard to make in my training methods (and even with day to day interactions) with my dogs. Be quiet and listen to what they are saying and where they are emotionally. Thank you!!!!

    • I do think we are forever dog people and horse people and its a rare occasion to find one without the other. I am fascinated by comparing the similarities and differences. (I think treats work differently for horses than dogs, but that’s another story.) My information about Calming Signals is dog-based from Turid Rugaas. As she told me, she started with horses and moved to dogs, but was glad it was being applied in the horse world. One more vote for this circular connection. Thanks Linda.

  7. Hi Anna…wonderful ✌
    Having been involved with high level dressage training & competition for many years, not anymore though as with my 69 yrs of age I do not fancy competing. But I am still involved in training & coaching a few riders. Not many as my style of coaching has changed somewhere from being very dominant at first (well who hasn’ t when starting early 1980s) to being very “we are doing this together”.
    And especially with my own horse now 11yr old gelding Marcello, this process has taken a little longer than with the students and their horses.
    How funny isn ‘t it?!
    But anyway I feel that when for example going for a walk (I hardly ride him these days) Marcello remains a short distance behind me and I then explain to him that we are in this walk together, keeping an eye on our surroundings together so we can spot a lion together and then decide together whether there is a real danger or not, this has had an extraordinarily calming effect on our walks together.

    So whether this is 51-49 or 80-20 I do not know. It does not feel 50-50. Perhaps it feels like being equal sometimes. Equal as in being a sentient being, I guess. And perhaps because there is an almost constant flow of interaction…back & forth… .up & down …to the left & the right.
    Sometimes the awareness stretching wider as wide…at other moments being in a coccoon together.

    I am musing…how does this feel to you, Anna?
    Thank you so much for sharing your writings?

    • The idea that popped into my head was maybe the two of you were 100/100. Maybe that is the mathematical equation for equality? It sounds nice either way… only sorry I wasn’t raised this way with horses. Thanks, Geerteke.

  8. I so enjoy reading your posts, each and every time they inspire me to go out and experience my horses with new eyes and ears. And this doesn’t always mean on their back but sometimes just taking the time to observe and be with them.
    Every one such an individual, and each having a different relationship with me. “My” horses are definitely more attuned to me and recently having worked with a horse of ours who doesn’t especially care for me, it is so apparent to me that the relationship we have with our horses is the one of the most important factors in our shared experience, just as it is with the other sentient beings in our lives.
    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom!

    • I agree. It isn’t the riding and the training, those are the tip of the iceberg. I’m interested in that huge thing just under the surface. That’s what matters most. Thanks, Jane. And give that horse who doesn’t especially care for you a scratch from me.

  9. Anna, you have zeroed in on a topic that several close friend/trainer friends and I have been discussing lately. I think you put the topic into a very helpful perspective and I will be re-reading your article in the days to come, allowing your words to integrate into my way of being with the horses. FYI I will be attending the clinic you are doing with Andrea Datz later this month and very much look forward to it! Thank you :))

    • Well, it’s just about the most interesting thing about horses, that middle place. It’s where they live all the time and we can barely find it. Thanks Martha, and I look forward to meeting you soon.

  10. I loved this post! I have never really thought of leadership and listening in percentages, and it made me stop and think. The idea of using a rating scale for the purpose of seeing improvement is something I think I am going to borrow. I often say that the more I listen, the more my horses share. it was so much fun to read something similar here. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

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