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Raising the Bar and Becoming the Leader our Horse Needs and Wants

Focusing on the human aspect of what we expect and hold as our own standard directly affects the quality of what we offer our horses.

This week of lessons taught seemed to maintain a theme with me encouraging students to “raise the bar” in all aspects that they interacted with their horse.  I understand that our horsemanship is an ongoing experience, but even if someone is a “student” themselves, they still must be a leader to their horse.  I find that the pendulum seems to swing to extremes from over-confident and undereducated horse people, to those who are learning and realize in the process how much they were unaware of “before” their real learning began, and have therefor become hypersensitive or over analytical in regards to all aspects of their horsemanship. 

In my own teachings I have found some of the top reasons for a delay or lack of clarity in human communication offered to the horse seem to include (but are not limited to)

a.) Hopefulness- where the person makes a compromise within themselves physically in order to “fix” what their horse is NOT doing.

b.)Distraction by the “end” goal rather than the current event.

c.) The person is unclear within themselves of what exactly they want from their horse and yet have already presented a scenario to the horse.

d.) The person is self-absorbed into OVER thinking a situation and “missing” the moment(s) when their horse has attempted to communicate with them asking for direction, help, etc.

e.)When dealing with either a hypersensitive or “mentally shut down” horse and not wanting things to “get ugly, big or dramatic”, etc.

We humans tend to want to continually measure “how much progress” we have made with our horses.  The standard for which you hold yourself and your horse to should not be compared with what your “friend and their horse” can do, nor what you saw someone on a training DVD do, nor with what you used to be able to do with a different horse you used to own.  Instead you need to evaluate where you and your horse are “at” on the particular day of the current session.  The past is the past and the future is unknown.  This allows you the opportunity and “freedom” for forward progression.

“How can I help my horse?”  The most valuable thing you can do is to become a clear LEADER.  Remember horses are herd animals, when you and your horse are together, you create a herd.  There is only ONE leader in a herd.  If you do not make the decisions, your horse will.  Being a leader does not mean you have to be aggressive, micro-managing, an egomaniac or “driving” your horse every step of the ride.  Being the leader also means that you cannot be “hopeful” that your horse will “figure out what you want.”  Being the leader does not mean expecting the “correct response” to something you haven’t presented clearly, or riding in an “after the fact” manner- i.e. not communicating clearly and then correcting the horse after he didn’t do what you wanted, rather than presenting what you wanted fairly in the first place.

Being the leader means that you make clear decisions in what and how you want to do something with your horse, and then you use clear communication whether it is physically or spatially to convey what you would like to your horse do.  It also means that you follow through as your horse is trying; if he doesn’t initially offer or understand what you would like, you are not there to just tell him “NO”, but rather to find a way to help and support him in order  to “get it right.” 

As a leader it is your responsibility to SUPPORT your horse whether he is insecure, worried, unclear, stressed or experiencing any other emotional stress.  It is your job to make the decision in how to take an overwhelming scenario and perhaps present it to your horse in “pieces” or baby steps, so that the end goal becomes realistically attainable rather than overwhelming.  

As a leader your brain must be participative 110% of the time; life, job, family and other personal stress, distractions or issues must be “left at home.”  If you show up at the barn only partially mentally and emotionally committed your horse will sense it in less than ten seconds.  He will also get defensive if you pressure him to offer 100% when you are not completely “present” during the session.

We’ve all heard the saying, “You are your own worst enemy.”  This definitely holds true in the sense of how we can “sucker” our brains into overthinking, and then psyching ourselves out.  I had comments this week from students ranging from national level competitors to “back yard riders” who all realized they have at times psyched themselves out of things that had never bothered them before. 

We’ve also heard the cliché, “Knowledge is power,” but I find many times with students that they can get in “trouble” trying to process too much knowledge in theory, without putting in enough “time in the saddle” to improve their eye, timing, clarity, etc.  So sometimes as much as people can be enthusiastic students and what to “sponge up” all the information they can, it can become too much and then can actually handicap a person from “experimenting” with their horse to find out what works and what does not for their particular abilities and partnership.

I’ll be honest, for those of you who have ever attempted to “take on” reading my website there is a LOT of information to process.  Over the years I have specifically used the site the “sift” through potential students who just wanted a “quick fix” for them and their horse versus those that understood their journey with their horse was going to be an ongoing process.  On the other hand, if people have enjoyed the site, many have said, “Wow, I never knew how much I didn’t know.”  But sometimes this sudden new knowledge can allow a person to “corner” themselves into thinking that they now have nothing to offer their horse because of their realization that their current knowledge is limited.  If you carry feelings of insecurity inside of you, there is no way you will BE a leader to your horse.

Remember, if you’ve made it this far you have SOMETHING to offer your horse.  Perhaps advanced movements or scenarios are not appropriate for your current abilities, but there are always things you can do with your horse both from the ground and while riding that can be rewarding and confidence building scenarios for both of you.

Years ago an amazing horseman was helping me with a difficult horse, for most people the horse would have been considered a serious candidate for euthinization because of his extreme athletic and dangerous outbursts that followed his mental stress…  I had definitely made progress with him over the years, but had not realized that he gently trained ME to learn how to work around his “light switch” personality by being very “quiet” in order to avoid any level of confrontation.  The horseman was watching a scenario where this was occurring and he said, “Embrace the tantrum.”  It was such a bold statement that it took several days for my brain to process what exactly was meant by those words.  I finally realized, if I was going to always “tiptoe” around my sensitive horse, my tentativeness was actually adding to my horse’s stress, fear, and anxiety of the unknown.  But if instead, I directly addressed and HELPED my horse “face his fears,” although he may have a bit of a mental and physical melt down, if I was able to follow through in my support, I’d actually help my horse get to feeling better about life after we got through the tantrum.  So I will add to the initial statement, “Embrace the tantrum, but don’t leave your horse in it.”  This statement also does not mean to “challenge” your horse until he “blows a fuse,” which sadly is a very common scenario in things such as trailer loading, crossing water, etc.

So perhaps in time away from your horse you can begin to think back on past sessions and look for possible “holes” in your own behavior that are creating a lack of believable leadership towards your horse which in turn may have caused unwanted results.  Try and learn from the moments when you were/are clear and how fast your horse responds with an, “Aha” moment of recognition that he can offer you what you want, or when the scenario feels more like the “blind leading the blind,” and you and your horse saying, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” to one another.

Most people can be the leader their horse needs if they start with believing in themselves.  This in turn will allow you to be the quality leader your horse needs, and you’ll be able to raise the bar and reap the rewarding results of your equine partnership.

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