scott and zeus

Peace in your Leadership

Your horse might sometimes be calm and relaxed with you…and at other times he seems distracted or frightened.

How about this for an example: When he’s at home in his pasture with his buddies he’s content when you’re with him. But you haul him off to a clinic and now he’s a nervous wreck.

Why is this? The answer is that your horse is sometimes finding peace in your presence but not finding peace in your leadership.

Let’s examine this in detail. Three categories of pressure can affect your horse. These are herd pressure, physical pressure and predator pressure. When he is free of those pressures he stands calm with a relaxed head and soft eyes. He might lie down in the grass and go to sleep. He might also enjoy your company. The peace your horse is experiencing might be happening when he’s with you, but not necessarily because of you. Your horse does not have to consider you a herd leader to hang out and enjoy your company.

amazing horse country goofing around

Goofing around can be great training!

Sometimes your leadership agreement with your horse can be lacking or unclear. “What? Not me!” you say. In truth, the vast majority of folks can use a little polishing of that leadership agreement. I even need to revisit that from time to time with some of my horses as they grow up or herd dynamics change. The major factor is – and let’s face it – they’re generally with a different herd (their pasture buddies) for more than 90% of their lives. So we have to ensure our leadership agreement is functioning – and strong – when we take them from their pasture herd.

An Important Thought

I need to clear up a couple of misnomers. First, making or forcing your horse to do something does NOT grant us leadership status. Second, if we punish him for being ‘bad’, a ‘behavior issue’ or ‘not obeying’, this also does nothing in his eyes to establish leadership. We are simply teaching him that we are an unpredictable predator capable of causing him distress. We don’t want that. As a leader, we desire that our followers believe we can guide and support them, particularly when they’re struggling.

 

What then, is the leader of the herd (aka YOU) supposed to do? Well, it’s the job of the leader in the herd to decide what is safe and what is not, when to run from and when to ignore pressure, when to eat and when to sleep. If your horse does not believe this of you, there are typically some obvious signs. He walks ahead or behind you when being led. He’s fussy. He’ll turn left when you’re thinking turn right. When riding he might ‘do his own thing’ or ‘not want to do something’. He might even take off on you – whether you’re on his back or not.  In more extreme cases a horse might bite or kick at you.

amazing horse country platform obstacle courseJust to reemphasize: if any of the things I noted above are happening – your horse does NOT have a behavior issue. Humans use a variety of terms – ‘behavior issue’ is one of them – when personifying horses. We personify horses when we don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing and need to explain it somehow. We resort to explaining their actions as if they were humans – simply because it’s something we can relate to.  Our horse’s behavior is completely correct, however. He is behaving exactly the way any horse would that is frightened, knows they are the leader of the herd or confused about/challenging leadership. If we’re not stepping into the leadership role in a very clear, understandable way for him, it’s natural for him to assume that position and take care of matters on his own. Again – he doesn’t have a behavior problem – we have a leadership issue. If you are a proven leader he will follow you and trust in your decisions of what is safe or what to be scared of.

Luckily this is an easy fix. We start each one of our clinics at Amazing Horse Country by ensuring all of our participants are the herd leader in their horse’s eyes. We do this by communicating clearly in their language – not through pain or punishment. In a few minutes, we see fear, fussy, pushy – all those unwanted things – disappear. Your horse will be super calm with a low head. He might even close his eyes and yawn. Why? Because by assuming the leadership role, you take the stresses off his plate.  It’s now your job as the herd leader to manage those stresses.

It’s a great start.  But it’s only just the beginning.  Now you have to prove you deserve the position.

Trust on the Front Line

Trust is an easy word to throw around. Sure you can trust someone. But can you trust them always? Or only when things are going good? What is it that builds a trust that goes one step beyond? The answer is:  experiences. It’s being in a sticky spot, a dangerous place, when someone who has committed to you has pulled you free of that. It’s when your relationship is put to the test and that person comes through for you over and over again.

Granted, these types of front line trust don’t happen every day. They’re special, deep and meaningful.  We remember them.  We tell stories about them.  The most fantastic part of this: in our style of horse training, we create them.

This Front Line Trust is built by repetitive successful experiences – and it’s critical. It’s why we use the obstacle course extensively at Amazing Horse Country. First, you earn the herd leader position. Now you have to prove to your horse you qualify for that position.  Through comprehensive and thorough work on the obstacles or trail course, your horse learns to trust you time and time again. This builds a deep and meaningful trust based on experience.

 

When your horse views you as the leader – you are now shouldered with the responsibility of deciding what is safe, when to run and when to relax. When you have shown time and again that your decisions result in his safety and success, you will earn Front Line Trust.  

Here is the big difference. Your horse will seek you for answers on potentially ‘scary’ situations. And if your answer is “we don’t have to worry about this” – then he likely won’t. We regularly see fear change to curiosity on the obstacle course when this happens.

Conversely, if the horse does not have a solid belief that you are a trustworthy leader, then there is no reason to expect he’ll believe you when you are calm but he thinks he’s going to die.  This is where your horse takes off on you or ‘refuses’ to do something. And he’s absolutely right to do that. He’s a prey animal that, unless he trusts in a higher authority, will do what he has to do to save himself.  For a horse, any unknown is potentially fatal.  It’s really common sense when we consider prey animal thinking and herd mentality.

Peace in your leadership is demonstrated when the horse learns to trust your decisions in pressure situations. Not only is this vitally important, it’s easy to train for. In our clinics the first step is establishing leadership, the second is to develop that under pressure – every obstacle on the course is a pressure of some sort for the horse, so we use these to build his confidence.  Not only confidence in himself but in you. You can take this new leadership agreement to whatever discipline you ride in or off to the mountains on a pack trip. For many folks this is a make-or-break deal for trail riding – they want a horse they can trust. When your horse truly defers to your leadership out of an established trust, what happens in a ‘scary’ situation is now your choice.

Just think about how big that is.

Scott Phillips – November 2017

This entry was posted in Horsemanship, Scott, Trail Riding and tagged , , , on by .

About Scott Phillips

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and operating Amazing Horse Country. He is the proud owner of eight horses that he affectionately refers to as his "kids". Scott has integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

15 thoughts on “Peace in your Leadership

  1. Astrid Selimos

    Great article, thank you enjoyed reading it- shows me I have some work to do, not so much when on halter or riding but free range when food is involved, should be nice to hear your take on that issue.

    Reply
  2. Astrid Selimos

    Great article I enjoyed reading it- showed that I still have some work to do not so much when on halter or riding as free range when food is involved- would be great to get your take on that issue!

    Reply
  3. Ashley

    I am really enjoying all your articles, everyone I read I can relate to. I believe this is a very important read that I now need to take back and put into place. I feel as though before he enjoyed being with me but did not see me as a leader. I do see a change but also now understand I need to put alot more work into showing kelton he can trust me as a leader.

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      That’s a great point. Many (dare I say, most?) horses that enjoy their time with humans (and vice versa) do not have a clear leadership agreement. And in many cases, it’s not a problem. That is, as long as the horse is doing what they’re comfortable with. But without that clarity of ‘who is who’ in the herd, and proven trust (what I refer to as ‘front-line’ trust), when the horse is not comfortable they’ll follow another horse OR take care of themselves without a thought of you. Clearly we want the opposite – when the horse is not comfortable, they seek you.

      Reply
  4. Brittney

    This is an interesting point. I never considered being a good leader and being a good leader on a good day two different things. But it is extremely true for my mare and I. On trails where there is no question as to where we are going she is wonderful. In an open field it is questionable how the ride will go. I often wonder if it’s because she doesn’t trust me in the “openness” or if it’s because my goal as a leader is unclear. I look forward to reading more about this.

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Great thoughts. There can be a few different reasons for the change. The one you keyed in on was, “…there is no question as to where we are going…”. In that case, she doesn’t need to follow you, she can just go where the trail leads (or another horse). The horse will follow you to the extent of her trust in you; and that extent is based on the pressure in the moment. For example, if I’m working with a new horse the first thing we do is establish a herd order. But being the leader by no means the horse has to follow me. It simply means that I’m now in a position to earn his trust. We do that by introducing him to different levels of pressure and showing him that I’m the answer, always. If pressure could be measured on a 0 – 10 scale, let’s say your trail ride is a 3/10. Your horse has no problem with that, so she’ll respond to a rein, move off a leg, etc. But the open pasture might be a 7/10. She’s only comfortable with a 6, and struggles to follow you with anything beyond that. You opened a can of worms there LOL!

      Reply
  5. Becky Gardipee

    Love this! I am guilty of getting upset when Jinx isn’t doing something I expect her to do. I need to step back take a breath and change my approach. I need to calm down and have more patience. Great article!

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Thanks! If something isn’t working…what will? Everything we ask of our horse is related to another thing and can be broken down into smaller pieces. When we think of it that way, we can always ‘rewind’ to something the horse can do successfully, and build back up from there.

      Reply
  6. Donna

    This is what Centaur and I are working on at the moment. His trust in me. I think we are making progress. It is a work in progress as is everything with our relationship with horses. Lol

    Reply
  7. Donna

    Also, the reason I keep returning to Scott is because he never blames the horse for bad behaviour. He seeks out the reason without harming the horse in any way. It seems everything boils down to having a relaxed horse at all times. Something to strive for.

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Good point. What I really hope people take away is a fundamental principle of leadership: leaders don’t assign blame. They accept responsibility. I’d say you need a mentally calm focused horse at all times. If you’re working a cow or barrel racing, the horse is physically anything but relaxed, but we desire that they retain a focus and a degree of mental peace no matter what they’re doing.

      Reply
  8. Sylvia Penner

    This is a good one that is so hard to accomplish as humans because of our nature to react to what we think of as bad behavior with anger or aggression. Even though we know the right way to handle any situation doesn’t mean human nature won’t kick in. This is one of many things I have to change in myself and try to turn the horses’ undesirable behavior into a training opportunity by redirecting their energy to do something positive and let go of tension.

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Great statement. The horse has one asset we can capitalize on, if we’re wise: They’re born followers. If we response with ‘anger and aggression’, they can certainly follow/mimic that. The best example was with Sandy at the last clinic. She reared and struck out a bit at me. My response: exhale and release any tension in my body. Reason: leading by example. If I want that behavior to change, I need to offer her – by doing it myself – an alternative. And you’re right: we’re ego-based animals. We take those actions as offensive to us. The best way to practice this in a horsemanship context – practice it outside of the horse world. Someone bumps into you and spills coffee on you. Someone yells at you on the phone. Someone texts you something that can easily be taken the wrong way. Perfect opportunities to practice positive leadership.

      Reply
  9. Jeanne DesRochers

    We need to work on our leadership under pressure, and to stay calm and focused. I feel that under pressure situations that he takes over leadership and I let him, need to work on that.

    Reply
  10. Kara Sallows

    I like the emphasis in this article about the idea that it is not usually the horses issue, but the persons issue instead, that if there is something wrong it is because we are the ones not being clear in what we are asking, we are presenting our emotions or frustration or worry and they pick up on it, etc. They are such amazing animals and always do their best to do what you are asking. If something is wrong, I need to remember to look inward to myself, not to jump to the idea that it is my mare with the problem.

    Thanks!

    Reply

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