As humans, our responsibility in the partnership with our horses is to be an effective leader. Being effective means being clear, fair, kind, patient and proactive. It is about the proactive element of leadership that this writing will address and it is where many of us fail our horses.
Here is an example from a recent experience. We have a horse that trailers very well. He loads up, travels and exits the trailer by backing out without issue. That is, until recently. Recently he has begun to, periodically and without apparent provocation, race backward, sometimes pulling the lead rope out of his handler’s hands and tossing his head upward as he does so. Last week he did this when we traveled to a local public arena. In the process, he banged his head hard enough to scrape a fair amount of hair off of his forehead and gave himself a nasty welt. He also knocked himself a little loopy and bit his tongue too. Once we caught him (he didn’t stagger too far off) we treated the scrape and welt, gave him some cool water to relieve the tongue bite and proceeded with our day. Once done with the ride we loaded back up without issue and headed home. Well, at home he raced backing out of the trailer again!
This is where we made the mistake. We were not proactive about addressing the problem. When he first displayed this behavior the very first time, we should have corrected the issue clearly and consistently. We didn’t. We let it slide assuming it was a one-time occurrence. The last time it happened we did correct it. He was asked to load up stand and relax and then exit the trailer by backing up one step at a time. Step-stop-breath-step-repeat. We did this several times until we got a consistent exit several times. Then he got rewarded. The next day trailer loading and unloading was the entire lesson. The following day after the normal work out, we focused on trailer loading and unloading. The “lesson” was over when he loaded and unloaded a few times calmly. The next test will be to travel to the local public arena and try it there.
Lesson learned by the humans: Be proactive in problem-solving. If it looks like a behavior may possibly lead to or develop into an issue, FIX IT RIGHT THEN! Do not wait. Waiting teaches the horse that the behavior is acceptable. Being acceptable allows the behavior to be expanded upon and limits tested. Big mistake. We as horse-people cannot let a behavior that is slightly annoying today grow until it is truly annoying or downright dangerous. Yet, so many of us do because we are not proactive in our horsemanship. We have to respect the size, power, and craftiness of our horses. We have to always be in the “safety first” mindset. We have to set standards, expectations, and boundaries with our horses and be consistent in the application of them when making corrections. We need to routinely test our horses for improper or unacceptable behavior! As so many notable trainers and clinicians say “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” And always be proactive and consistent!
The market is filled with horses who have issues that humans allowed to become part of the horse’s reality. Many of the “big name” trainers/clinicians out there make their living fixing the problems other people have created and then selling techniques to fix said problems. So often it is because the human was not proactive – for a variety of reasons – that the horse is having issues. If you run into a behavior that you are unfamiliar with (ie: don’t know how to fix), redirect the horse’s efforts/ energy into something positive. Reward the positive behavior and then DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Find out approaches to fix the specific issue and then go practice it with your horse before (see, this is proactive) it presents itself again. Reward the right answer vigorously! If the behavior pops up again, correct it quickly and effectively and then reward the correct behavior. Our job is to support the horse through effective leadership. Failing to be an effective leader and failing to be proactive is really the human failing the horse and creating issues that should not be issues in the first place. Be proactive, be aware, and be an effective leader for the well-being of your horse and many happy miles together as a team!
Thanks for reading!
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