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Partnership with the Rider

By: Galadriel Billington

5:09PM Apr 11, 2004

A horse is a herd animal. Wild horses rely mainly on flight and safety in numbers. The highest-ranking horse in the herd, the boss mare, keeps the peace and takes charge in an emergency.

Horses have a herd hierarchy; the horse who is most assertive becomes the leader. Most horses are happy to be a "follower," so as long as the rest of the horses are willing to trust and rely on that leader, there is peace in the herd. The horses work out a rank order; the most assertive horse is the leader, and then a 2nd highest ranked, and so on.

However, there must be a leader in any situation. In any grouping of horses, someone must be in charge; someone must be assertive (self-confident, bold) enough that the other horses will follow his lead. If the boss mare is absent, the herd will need to follow the 2nd ranked; if the 2nd ranked is unavailable, they will follow the 3rd ranked, and so on. If there is a group with no leader, a horse will step forward and take that position.

There are people who try to have a human-to-human relationship with the horse; to be his friend and equal. Unfortunately, a horse is not a human. Even in a horse and rider "group," the horse needs one of the two to be the leader. If the rider refuses to take that position, then the horse must. His instinct prevents him from being equal partners with anyone.

In a human to horse relationship, for safety the person must be the leader. We need the horse to respond to our directives; if we are going to handle him, ride him, lead him from place to place, he must be willing to respond to our supervision. If we want him to do what we tell him to do--whether riding or handling, or just interacting--we MUST have his respect.

When a person does not establish leadership, the horse begins to lose respect for the person. The horse will assume the leadership role, and will begin to ignore the person's requests. Bad manners develop on the ground; bad habits develop in the saddle. The horse does not respect the rider, and therefore he does not feel that he should respect the rider's commands, either. It is not possible to have an equal partnership with a horse, and still expect obedience from him. He will follow a leader but not a subordinate; if you try to be his equal, he will make you his subordinate.

In these situations, it is essential that the rider understand the relationship as it has developed, and take steps to re-gain the leadership position. Here again a misunderstanding of the horse's nature can lead to difficulty. You do NOT have to be aggressive to assume the leadership role. The leader must be trustworthy, and aggression causes fear, not trust.

We can't be full partners, but we don't have to be domineering or cruel, either. We can be pleasant, self-confident, and firm. Expect the horse to respond when you ask something of him, but don't be brutal about it. Set up situations where you both "win": put him in positions where obedience comes naturally, and avoid known fights if you can. The more time you spend earning his respect, the more he will believe that you deserve respect. Instead of thinking of the dominant horse as a bully, think of a person whose advice you would take on almost anything; someone that you like and respect, but not fear. A good friend--a friend who is the leader in your friendship.

It is important to remember that horses in nature are very physically demonstrative in their relationships. Body language means a great deal, and a person's attitude is reflected in body language. If you behave as if you believe that your horse will obey you...he very likely will. If you are hesitant or tentative, he will come to the conclusion that you do not believe that you are leader-material, and ignore your requests. If you try to treat your requests as if they are negotiable, he will not negotiate; he will just take over. A horse's keen perception of body language, seen on the ground or felt in the saddle, contributes greatly to the idea that horses can "sense" tension or can "read your mind" about what movements you are going to ask for.

You can enjoy a delightful relationship with your horse without a full partnership. You can be a trustworthy, pleasant leader. You can keep him out of danger; you can ensure that his life is pleasant. You can be strong enough that he turns to you when he is frightened (a good relationship with your horse can do wonders for spooking). You can find the things that he enjoys, and make sure that these are include in your routines. If he likes to swim, you can ride him toward the water; if he likes to gallop, you can ask him to gallop; if he enjoys treats, you can give him treats--but you must not let him take the initiative, you must only do such things when you can demonstrate that it is your idea. If he takes the lead and you follow him, he has become the boss mare in your relationship.

What to do when your horse is already the boss mare...
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.