So much is lost when we focus more on telling a horse what to do than what he’s trying to convey. The joy that comes from making a connection can’t be fully expressed in words. There’s that ah-ha moment in young horse training when human and horse understand.
It’s surreal and often sudden. You’ll never find this place if you don’t learn to listen. Often the simplest things can mean the difference between an amazing rapport and grudging compliance – or dangerous resistance.
Young horses usually misbehave because they don’t understand what you want. If you give them a chance to be a part of the conversation, most will get excited about figuring out how to please you. When you’re both in synch – able to predict the others’ needs or thoughts before they are spoken or shown, it’s an incredible feeling that will change the way you approach every young horse you meet in the future.
That doesn’t mean blindly following a horse’s lead or caving the moment they push back. True rapport comes from a partnership where you are willing to listen to what your horse is trying to tell you, but are also able (and courageous enough) to know when it’s right to stand your ground.
There’s been an interesting development in recent decades masquerading under the moniker “natural horsemanship” encouraging people (especially novices – very sad) to establish themselves as the “alpha” by aggressively asserting demands on a horse. This often backfires (particularly with true alphas but also timid horses) with either violent responses or lost trust.
Most horses enjoy the opportunity to relax with a leader they believe will keep them safe. You can’t earn that kind of respect and trust by being a dictator. Wild horse watching convictions aside, if you carefully observe the interactions of a domesticated herd, most embrace an alpha that’s kind, confident and often only aggressive when they see another herd member being treated unfairly, or getting cocky and demanding in ways that undermine herd harmony.
Frankly, in my experience, most don’t want (nor ask for) the leader designation – they’re appointed.
I had a farm herd of 10 – 20 horses running on about 30 acres for a number of years. The lead mare (it was almost always a gal) changed almost as much (sometimes more) than the seasons. I even had a yearling filly assume this position. Each former delegate seemed to enjoy the break, although took their turn periodically.
This whole idea of equine domination by intimidation seems wrong-minded, particularly given how most lead mares assume the position in a farm herd.
Sure, there are the violent, domineering, selfish horses that demand they drink first, eat first, have a single shelter area to themselves (until a true alpha says no with non-aggressive confidence) and be first, but most of the time, this behavior is fear-based. They’re not leaders. These horses are masking huge insecurities with bravado.
I’ve found the same holds true with people who subscribe to a philosophy that that best way to reach a horse’s mind is to forcefully control his body.
These people have considerable monetary successes to brag about (and huge marketing machines to promote their status claims). They are adept and artful at getting horses to do what they want.
The problem is what they don’t tell you: even with a domineering approach (not my preference), they’re adjusting what they do based on what they’re reading from the horse in real time. There’s also the issue of the horse checking out.
It’s very sad to see so many novices and even experienced horsemen get blindly focused on formula to the point of spoiling the horse (or getting hurt as the horse acts out to be heard amidst rigid and rote demands).
The systems created around these trainers’ experiences and the associated products have worked well for a good number of people (not so sure what the horses would say). Not too many, though, are dealing with Thoroughbreds – nor alphas.
Working with hot breeds (Arabians are even more challenging with their sensitivity and smarts) gives you a very different perspective on how to really reach a horse in a way that convinces them to want to help you get where you’re trying to go.
That said, keeping your young horse in the conversation, no matter what breed or mix he may be, will give you a much richer experience and a more able partner willing to give you more than you imagined. If you’re lucky enough to be working with a horse that doesn’t have issues associated with prior handling, you’ll be building the foundation for all future reactions to the challenges this equine encounters.
Done right, your ability to listen and customize your approach will create a horse that loves training, a bond beyond what you could have envisioned and an equine ready and able to protect you from your stupid mistakes in ways you never would have considered to ask for (or demand).
Listen to what your horse is trying to say. If you think young horse training is all about telling a horse what to do, you’re missing the joy of making a connection. Your equine will teach you amazing things if you’re willing to pay attention. The bond you build will give you tales to tell that last a lifetime.