Law 5 – Become the leader.
This law focuses on a simple principle of horses. They exist in groups with a hierarchical structure. In other words, one horse is always the leader, and the rest are followers. Humans often miss the factors that determine the structure unless they carefully observe them. But like humans in a group, there is always someone who is the leader and the rest followers. It has been this way since grade school.
I define horsemanship as leadership. There are no other ways to look at this. If you can’t become the leader of your horses, then they will become the leader of you. And not all horses are good leaders! One of the simplest principles I see missed in the barns is that the horse includes YOU in the herd. Once understood, the fun begins because of the various combinations of herd structures and several different definitions of leadership. Let’s dig in.
What is leadership? Many books discuss this, but for our purposes here, leadership is the ability to have those around you do something they would not normally do on their own. That is simple but accomplishing it is more difficult. Leadership has two parts: who YOU are and who are you trying to lead? For example, a unit leader can yell, “Charge!” but will the troops follow him into battle? The leader’s conviction, the fairness of the leader and the respect he has from the followers, is only half the equation. How he connects with the followers is determined by who they are individually. This law is about the first part – who YOU are – while the second part of this is in the next law.
Recently a young girl had her pony in the cross ties. He pawed constantly and flipped his head up and down. The girl continuously reprimanded the pony, who stopped for a moment and then returned to his bad behavior. Soon after, the pony was with me, standing in a stall on a lead connected to me. His head lowered, and he was very quiet and relaxed. The girl turned to her mother and asked why he behaved for the vet. Wisely, the mother said to ask me. When she did, I told her if she wanted the pony to behave calmly, she would need to purchase a mirror about her size and mount it to the barn wall. Anytime the pony acted up, she needed to stand in front of the mirror and ask herself what she was doing to cause his behavior. While she did not understand this, the mother smiled at me with a thumbs up. My point is that most bad behavior with horses, dogs, and humans reflects your thoughts and energy. Get that right, and leadership follows.
Confidence and arrogance look similar, confusing people, but they are very different. Confidence comes from experience, humility and gratefulness, which are the qualities of a leader. Arrogance comes from insecurity, meanness and a self-centered outlook on the world. Guess which one the horse likes better? Guess which one they will follow? I only want to talk about confidence.
Becoming confident comes with time, but there is a shortcut some people call the “fake it till you make it” process, which is where the mirror comes in handy. Look at yourself. Find your kindness and fairness. Find your strength and your vision of how you want things to be. Find the peace inside of you and forget all other distractions. Learn to form an energy that is as low as possible. I’ll talk more about energy in Law 9 but focus on this one thing for now. The elimination of all doubt, worry, fear and anxiety.
Fear is the biggest killer of leadership. If you are afraid of a horse, you should not be working with them. If you doubt the outcome of your existence with horses, you should leave horses now. If you worry that you will become hurt or that things will turn out badly, find something else to be around. Anxiousness is the accumulation of doubt, worry and fear wrapped up in a package that feeds your negative energy. Throw that package out. Remove the word from your vocabulary. Understand that excitement and anxiousness seem similar, but they are far from equal. Be excited – it is good energy to have.
Stand in front of the mirror and say, “I have no doubt, worry, fear or anxiety.” Then breathe deep breaths until you become calm. Breathing is the body’s route of excreting adrenalin (the hormone of fear and preparation to run away). In time you can achieve this instantly. As soon as you do, the horse (and the people around you) will calm down, focus and accept your leadership.
Now I see what almost all horse owners do for the other little thing. Nagging.
There are two types of ways to talk around a horse. The first is coaching when the owner says, “It’s OK,” “It’s alright.” “This won’t hurt.” “He won’t hurt you.” “This will be over soon.” “Work with me,” “I’ll give you carrots when later.” On and on, the nagging continues. Most are lies. The horse hates this type of communication. They are not stupid; coaching only works when someone asks you for help. Coaches without someone asking for coaching are just naggers; NOBODY likes nagging.
The other form of communication is cheerleading. Here are some examples: “Good boy!” “You’re so brave!” “I knew you could do this!” “You’re the best!” “I love you!” Thank you!” This last one, “Thank you,” I use a lot. I also tell them I am grateful for them helping me and tell them how much I appreciate this opportunity or time together. If you don’t think this works, try it once. You can try it on a horse or a human but try it and see what happens. When I ask horse owners to do this as I work on their horses, the results are no less than a miracle. The owner sees it, and they swear to me they will never coach again, though it is hard for many.
Becoming the leader is all about earning the respect of the horse. Once gained, the horse will do almost anything you ask but not always. Leaders must remember that enforcing rules is needed to remain the leader. Enforcement is called discipline and is a corrective measure to exert your authority but not abuse. Anarchy forms (a group without a leader – a free for all) when there is no action against bad behavior, leading to injury and abuse. Anarchy and the inability to exert authority usually come from fear, worry, doubt and anxiety. Leadership comes from confidence, and so does discipline. You can look at discipline as coaching with respect and is required when leading.
The art of discipline is simple. Make it quick and effective, and then let go. Most people don’t do this. Instead, they poke and nag, which irritates the horse more. Worse, it can encourage and reward the continuation of bad behavior. Either ignore the bad behavior, start rewarding (cheerleading) the things he is doing right or effectively discipline the horse to stop it. Choose the battles wisely. If it is nothing, ignore it. If it is bothersome, figure out why the horse is doing it and change it. Remember the horse fidgeting on the cross ties with the young girl? She continuously rewarded the bad behavior with ineffective movements and voice commands the horse ignored. His attitude drastically changed when he got with me because he respected me instantly. He was drawn to my energy and knew that annoying behavior would not get him any reaction from me. Rather, I heaped praises of thanks and gratitude on him as I worked with him, which was refreshing and rewarding for him. I rewarded his good behavior.
Occasionally, a horse needs firm discipline, which is swift and immediate while not exceeding the energy behind the action. For example, if a horse strikes me or attacks me, I will react swiftly and with efficient motions that most horse owners won’t even see. Sometimes it is just a stare through their eyes, a growl, or I set him back in a corner, coming close to his face. However, before taking any action, I found the time to understand why he behaved this way. I need to show understanding if it was an accident due to an outside event. If it was just bad behavior, I need to exert an equal effort back. If it was from fear, I need to understand that any reaction from me would enhance his fear. More often than not, I talk with the horse, using questions rather than coaching phrases.
Remember, many horses misbehave because of the root cause, which for most horses, is their diet. If a horse has trouble focusing and is always not connecting to your efforts AND the horse is being fed grain, grain by-products, treats, supplements and any other inflammatory ingredients, immediately stop feeding these. Instead, feed only pasture and hay for two weeks. Almost every horse will soon become tolerant of what you are doing.
Find any underlying cause (diet, lack of sleep) and correct it. Work on yourself first. Become a leader by becoming confident. Look at yourself and say, “I have no worry, doubt, fear or anxiety.” then breathe and smile. You get to work with horses! How much luckier can we be?