From a Reader: “Anna, you articulate the dance between horse and human so very succinctly. I wish it were easier to “just be” with horses, but it’s a constant struggle to eliminate formerly learned patterns of behavior. I started to learn about horses with a woman that spoke of partnership with horses and that has always been my focus, but some of the tools I learned over time were contradictory to partnership. Is it possible to lead in partnership? It is a fine line between leadership and domination.”
Great question. It can seem hard to find a workable balance, the middle path between extremes. It’s why I write more about ideas than hard-set techniques.
To begin, trainers all use pretty words, promising the perfect horse. No one brags about using brute force and intimidation and when you look at the frozen eyes of the horse, maybe it looks good compared to the challenges you have with your horse. If you are frustrated or embarrassed by your horse, or just stuck, the idea of showing them who’s boss is almost appealing. We are predators after all and we’ve been
fighting training animals for so long it’s like muscle memory in our DNA. Horses do respond to fear-based training and if you don’t read body language (calming signals), it can almost pass for okay. Who hasn’t seen a high-spirited filly panicked on a lead rope or a puppy who has unpacked a sofa, and had a fleeting thought about military school? But scared straight is a tag line, a sales pitch. And when it comes to horses, we may have watched too many cop shows and westerns.
Most trainers avoid talking about the small print: working with horses takes time. It’s easier to sell a Get-Trained-Quick approach and riders want it to be true. It’s a fantasy. Even if you had all the money in the world, a good relationship with a horse won’t happen in a year. It will be an ongoing process for the life of a horse. We love the old campaigner and are frustrated with the youngster, but they are the same horse. We have to adjust to each year of change in that horse’s life, which is way more complicated than colt starting. Then add to that complicated equation, some horses, (like two of yours, dear reader) act as if it’s all abuse whether it is or not. It’s as if they are still living in the past, which once we understand some brain science about the power of memory and the lack of critical frontal-lobe thinking in horses, is truer than not. The memory of their start in training is always in play.
As for the horseperson who wants to do better but wrestles with old tools, most of us have learned techniques that are based on intimidation, most long-time horsepeople started that way. Evolving takes energy and commitment. And way longer than we want to acknowledge. Any rescue horse will tell you that it’s hard to relearn new things when you’ve been brought up differently.
I believe some part of this quandary is about language. Leadership was a word we liked at one point, but has it been hijacked? Is leadership a “dog whistle” word for fear-based training or showing a horse who’s boss, in the same way that the word partnership is a code word for non-violent training? If you believe in domination, then everything else looks like weakness. If you believe in giving the horse confidence and training affirmatively, old-school equine pros look like bullying predators. Humans are the most divisive herd animals ever. No wonder we confuse horses.
Can I take a moment here for a personal rant? I’ll try to use my indoor voice. The most common thing people tell me is that as they are trying out a more affirmative approach, railbirds are giving advice to get louder, larger, and more aggressive. And yes, some of the railbirds critical of your horsemanship are roosting in your own head, but just as loud. Like Romans at the Colosseum, cheering for more violence, they want you to make that horse respect you. We’ve all seen it; we’ve all lived it. I want to let loose an unladylike yell shrill enough to scare humans, “HOW DO YOU THINK THE HORSE GOT THIS WAY IN THE FIRST PLACE??!!” But I don’t. Picking fights doesn’t work when trying to win the hearts and minds of humans any more than it does horses.
Has anyone even checked with the horses? We plan their lives as if they had all the intelligence and awareness of a dirt bike. They’ve been trying to tell us that fear-based training doesn’t work for a flight animal. It seems like simple logic to them, but they would also try to show us that herd dynamics aren’t about domination but rather cooperation. Herd animals don’t generally seek conflict and that’s a cue we should respect. This is where partnership rules; it takes two voices to partner and also to lead, so first, we let go of our plans and listen to horses. We stop talking about them and start talking to them.
Instead, I suggest we all mount up and ride into their camp at night and rustle back the word leadership. Then, let’s brand it ours again.
- Horse aggression or resistance is frequently pain. Leadership is listening beyond behavior.
- Anxiety is expressed in calming signals. Leadership is understanding that frightened horses can’t learn calmness.
- We don’t always get our way. Leadership means negotiation.
- Asking a question, followed by correction is contradictory. Leadership is shown in consistent kindness.
- Humans are as flawed as horses. Leadership is forgiving yourself and trying again.
- Fear and domination go hand in hand. Leadership is mentoring safety for all.
- Never punishing because violence betrays trust. Leadership means getting along.
- You are the animal with choice. It can be a dance or a street fight. Leadership chooses the high ground: Peace.
- Horses mimic behavior. Leadership is being the change we want to see.
- It takes the time it takes. Leadership is patient.
- Constant correction is uninspiring and soul-killing. Leadership is saying yes. Simply, yes.
- Trust your skills and intuition and worth. Leadership is carried with confidence.
- The ideal expression of the art of partnering with a horse should always be lightness and beauty. Leadership means you go first. You lead the dance.
- Finally, trust the horse to understand the caring advice of someone who only wants the best. Leadership is love for our horses.
Now patiently watch the world change, one horse at a time, as other human animals grow to envy your leadership. Actions will always speak louder than words.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.