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Rhody Ranch

Horses 101

Learning To Lead: Part 2

She who has established herself as leader of the herd doesn’t look to others for approval when she makes a decision. When she decides she acts.

Her vision is forward, her decision made she moves her own feet in the direction she means to go. Because the horse is a herd animal horse sense dictates that everyone follows the leader. If you want to be a strong leader for your horse then you must present yourself to your horse in the same manner. It doesn’t have to be loud, obnoxious, demanding or mean. It simply needs to be focused and full of purpose. Quiet and focused will get your horses attention faster than anything else because it conveys purpose and strength. They’re not mindless followers by any stretch. They will test their leader to make sure they’re worth following. They won’t just blindly follow.

If you’re nervous your horse will instantly pick up on this. Being a prey animal they’re especially sensitive to this. They will get the idea that there’s something wrong and be weary. When they figure out that there is no immediate danger they’ll realize that you are not a strong, confident leader and will be much less likely to follow or cooperate. Its that simple. In human terms they measure us by our actions and look to see where the rubber meets the road. If you project confidence in what you’re attempting then they’ll watch to see if you’re full of beans or not. That might sound silly, but think about this. A 1000 pound animal with so much strength is able to feel a small fly land on its back. In human terms that’s the same as us being able to feel the brush of a butterflies wings in a hurricane. Horses are extremely sensitive to their surroundings. They have a sense of things that has been erased from us by modernization and convenience.

Horses communicate primarily by body language. The herd leader never looks to those under her, but they all look to her. That is not to say that the herd leader doesn’t share a level of intimacy with her subordinates, but when the herd is on the move they’re watching her for direction. If, when you’re working with your horse, you are constantly looking at them – making eye contact – that is a signal to them that you’re looking to them for leadership. Thus, when you ask them to do something they might get a little confused and possibly give you the business for asking as though you’re in charge. In their language you’ve passed that torch to them and now you’re asking them to move their feet to your wishes.

This one was especially hard for me to learn because before I began spending time with horses I had spent so many years with dogs. Dogs are and think very much the same as humans simply because we’re both predators. We think basically alike. Our relationship has evolved over time to have so much in common. Between people and dogs eye contact means something completely different than it does between human and horse in many situations.

When I greet my horse in the field eye contact is made and is part of saying hello. If we’re working and I want him to follow me I’m expecting him to look at me and follow. He makes eye contact with me and not the other way around. If we’re doing halter style training where we’re moving side by side I don’t look at him. I’m expecting my horse to be looking to me and at me for queues on what to do. Am I going to move left,,, am I going to move right? Am I going to stop. My horse has to be paying attention to me. If, at some point I look at my horse during this work I’m actually passing that command and control to him. I know… sounds odd but that’s the way it works. Working with young horses or a horse you’re new to and haven’t yet built a solid bond with, this is a real factor in regards to who is leading who.

Jules saying hello and introducing herself.
Jules introducing herself to a new horse.

There are clearly established rules and boundaries in horse culture. Even something as simple as greeting one another in the field is important when first developing the bond. Walking up to your horse and immediately putting your hands all over your horses head and face is considered rude by horses. That’s the kind of behavior seen from undisciplined baby horses and is always discouraged by mothers, and others in the herd. If you watch more mature horses greet one another they will often approach one another slowing down and almost pausing as they draw near, and then stretch out their necks slightly as if offering one another the tips of their noses. They’re smelling, sharing breath and politely greeting one another. When i greet my horse or any other horse for that matter I offer my palm, back of my hand or my wrist slowly and gently in greeting. Even now, after all this time with Belle and Sonny, I do this each time I greet them in the field on their stalls. Its just polite.

The image above
: In this image Jules, who is an Equine Massage Therapist and has been a horseman for quite a while is simply introducing herself to this horse. Notice her position is neutral, her line of site is off-set to the side and down. She’s offering the horse access to her without entering their space.

Incidentally, horses sharing breath with one another or their human is a very intimate thing. They will only ever do this with those they trust. If your horse ever does this with you it is a great honor. It is a signal to you that there is a strong bond of trust between you and your horse. Don’t ever take this lightly. When two horses greet each other, if you watch, their heads lower and their noses are almost side by side. They are sharing breath with one another. It is a very intimate occurrence. At that moment both horses are vulnerable to the other which is why it only happens between two horses that know the other is trustworthy. It is not the same as touching noses.

Next time your horse faces you, raises their head a little and place their nose to yours, pause for a bit. They will breath in and out gently. They’re not smelling you – they can do that at a distance – they’re attempting to share breath with you. Live in that moment and cherish it.


~Mark Weaver
If you're willing to learn there are many teachers. Not all of them are human!