We all know that horses are prey animals. Other animals eat them. As a prey animal, their perception of every interaction is focused on survival. Things that move and make noise can cause a horse to flee. Things that bind or restrict can cause a horse to fight. Things that offer pressure without a clear and distinct release can cause a horse to freeze up. The list goes on and on. The horse wants to survive and it is our duty as their human to provide clear, fair and kind leadership that offers rewards for the right answers.
Most horse behavior issues are—when you look at it from the horse’s perspective—not based in disrespect but based on the need to survive and the fear that such a need brings. By changing our perspective, we can change how we approach, teach and lead. Think about that for just a moment or two. If you were asked to do something that you feel puts your survival in jeopardy, how would you feel? How would you react? Now add to the mix an unrelenting pressure which elevates your fear of survival. Now how would you react? Odds are you would run, buck, bolt, fight or flee, just like a horse would.
Now think about the same request that you feel puts your life in jeopardy but add in instruction, given in small, easy to process steps. Every time you honestly attempt that step, you are rewarded and all the asking stops, giving you time to process the “right answer.” Each step is presented in the same way, with clarity, patience, reward, and rest. Soon you are not so scared of the request and you feel that your life is no longer in jeopardy. You also feel that the person asking you will not let you get hurt or fail. This builds trust, which leads to increased confidence, which leads to improved performance. Think about that for a moment too.
Sure, there are some horse behaviors that come from disrespect. Usually, these started out as a fear-based behavior that was not fairly corrected when it was a small issue and it has been allowed to grow into a behavior that is deemed “bad” or “disrespectful.” Our duty as the human and leader in the partnership is to set clear boundaries and realistic expectations.
We should lead through clear communication, patience, reward, empathy, and adaptability. We should listen to the horse, as they will tell us through all amazing signals, what they feel. Our job is to consider their emotional state and guide them to the answer. The faster we learn to reward and praise an honest effort consistently, the faster the horse will give us its trust and its try. Our job is to break our request down into easy-to-use parts and then praise each effort made by the horse to understand and attempt those parts. If we do this consistently and can keep in mind how our horses perceive each new encounter, new skill, and new learning opportunity, (they have to survive it before they can succeed in it), we can be better partners and leaders for them.
How do we help change our perception and that of our horse? Well, that is where leadership comes into play. First, we have to be VERY CLEAR in our minds, body, and energy as to what exactly we are asking. Then we need to think about the sequence of the request and really look at all the parts if the request. For this article, let us use the backup request as an example.
First, we have to help the horse understand how to react correctly and calmly to the request (we like doing this from the ground through a series of exercises that create a weight shift, an elevation of the shoulder and some energy in motion). Once each part is clearly understood and the horse can perform each part with calmness and confidence, we can begin to string together all the parts into one smooth motion. Remember to really reward each good effort with a releasing of the request and a nice rest (we add lots of rubbing and occasionally a treat to this mix). We “slow our roll” and take the time it takes, because each horse is different. We reward honest efforts. We build trust. This leads to the horse’s perception changing, and surprisingly, our does too.
It is all about perception. Perception shapes our reality and that of our horses. The “brave horse” is one who trusts and one who believes it can survive an experience by placing its trust in its human partner. Think about that as you head out to the pasture to get your horse.
Thanks for reading.
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