Understanding how your horse views leadership, acceptance, emotions and relationships will empower you to create that special partnership you desire.
A true partnership between horse and human is a beautiful thing. And to be part of that partnership is an honor and privilege – anyone who’s been there would agree. For thousands of years, humans have forged strong partnerships with horses to accomplish amazing things – to “pave the way for society”, as it were. For many of us today, sharing a special relationship with a horse is its own reward. Over the decades, I’ve learned that if my horsemanship is consistent with and complementary to certain key principles of natural equine behavior, I can bring out the very best in my horse, and forge a true partnership. Knowing how your horse sees leadership, acceptance, emotions and relationships is key to making that partnership.
Horse herds, domestic and feral, have a linear hierarchy, with one horse at the top of the pecking order and one at the bottom – the alpha and the omega. Even among two bonded individuals, one is dominant over the other. There’s no equality in a horse herd. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space of other individuals as well as the resources (food, water, shade, etc.).
When a herd is led by a true alpha horse with strong leadership skills, the others look up to her, obey her every command, and always try to stay on her good side for the perks it will bring. This is the frame of mind I want a horse to be in as we build a partnership together – I want her to look up to me and take comfort from being with me. Being a strong and competent leader to my horse is a big job, and I take it seriously.
The leader of the herd is responsible for guiding the other horses to food and water, maintaining discipline, and motivating the herd to flight if necessary. To be the leader my horse wants me to be is not always easy. It means I have an obligation to keep her safe at all times, to reward her and make her comfortable when she deserves it, and to enforce the rules when necessary. Horses love consistency, routines and authority because it makes them feel safe. Being a good leader to my horse and forging a strong partnership is not just about doing ground work or practicing riding skills. It’s about good horse-husbandry, the 24/7 lifestyle you give your horse, and paying attention to your horse’s needs above your own.
Horses are instinctively drawn to the herd – behaviorists call it “gregarious behavior” (one of seven categories of instinctive behaviors in horses). Often maligned by horse people, gregarious (or herd-bound) behavior is quite natural and is one of the most defining characteristics of the horse, second only to the flight response. Your horse feels dependent on the herd for her survival; there’s no natural situation in which a horse would live alone. There’s safety in numbers when it comes to these prey animals.
In a natural setting, horses control the membership of a given herd. They don’t choose the herd as much as the herd chooses its members. Horses will always seek acceptance into a herd; any herd is better than being alone. No matter how mean and ugly the horses in the new herd are, that lonesome horse will beg for acceptance by acting contrite, respectful and humble. Eventually, the horse is granted provisional membership in the herd, but he will tread lightly so as not to make waves. The terrifying memory of being herd-less is still fresh in his mind.
To me, a horse is at her best when she’s seeking acceptance into my herd. If I can provide the same level of comfort and security to my horse that she gets from the herd, she will yearn to be with me. It’s not hard to foster this eager-to-please attitude in a horse, since it is literally instinctive behavior. Combining my lofty expectations of my horse with rest and praise when those expectations are met, and with admonishment when the horse falls short, keeps her trying hard and seeking my approval.
Horses feel the same basic emotions we do – anger, frustration, fear, jealousy, humiliation, contentment, depression, excitement. I think some horses also have a distinct sense of humor, while others decidedly do not. Horses at various stages of life experience varying levels of confidence, bravery and stoicism, just as humans do.
“Reading the horse”, or being aware of her emotional state, is important for successful handling and training. Once a horse becomes overly emotional, she has difficulty thinking; once her emotions boil over, she’s downright dangerous. Training can only occur when a horse is quiet in the mind and able to think about what I am asking. Keeping a horse mentally relaxed and engaged can be a challenge, but it makes an enormous impact on how fast she learns.
Because horses are prey, flight and herd animals, they tend to adopt the emotions of those around them. A lifetime of working with horses has taught me to be aware and in control of my emotions at all times when I’m around a horse. If a rider is angry, scared or frustrated, the horse feels it too.
While mares may be slightly more relationship-oriented, all horses have relationships within the herd. Usually, a horse will form a special bonded relationship with one other horse in the herd. Often called “buddies” by horse owners, two bonded horses are referred to as “associates” by behaviorists. Only associates will mutually groom each other; they hang out together, they play together and they watch each other’s backs.
Between two associates in a herd, one is dominant and one is subordinate – that part of the relationship is usually clear and uncontested. While I am not naïve enough to think I can replace my horse’s associate in the herd, this kind of relationship sets a gold standard for what I want with my horse. I want to be her friend, but I also want her to look up to me as the leader, the one in charge.
Because horses naturally crave relationships, they can also be controlling and manipulative. Horses love to play games and control the actions of others in the herd. In theory, humans are much smarter than horses, so it’s a little embarrassing how often I see horses manipulating humans. Having the sense to know when you are being played like a fiddle by your horse is important. I like to think of action/reaction. If I make an action to which my horse reacts, I am in control. If the horse makes an action, to which I react, the horse is controlling me.
Meeting your horse’s needs
Understanding a horse’s natural behavior, her motivations, psychology and the way her brain works, means I can conduct myself in a way she understands. Your horse’s needs are simple: she wants safety and comfort. But meeting those needs is decidedly not simple and presents a constant challenge. Keeping in mind these important aspects of equine behavior helps me connect with a horse on a more meaningful level, to bring out the very best in both of us.
Bringing out the best in both of us
Without question, horses make us better people, if we let them. Going beyond the sporting and recreational opportunities horses offer, delving deep into their behavior and adopting the principles that make us better humans brings a whole new level of significance to the endeavor. To be the kind of leader my horse chooses and believes in requires a lot of hard work and dedication on my part. But what that horse gives me in return is invaluable – a true partnership between horse and human, and the feeling that together we can accomplish anything.