The Thinking Horseman

by Chantal Marleau

Have you ever needed a bucket of grain to distract your horse from his buddies as you slip on his halter? Perhaps you’ve stood at the edge of a field you would like to gallop through but are unable to convince your horse to take a single step forward? In fact, he may have dragged you back to the barn while you cursed and called him stubborn and unwilling.

The truth is, every rider has been stumped by his horse at one time or another. It’s natural to blame our equine partner and chalk it up to disrespect, disobedience and bad character. However, these are all human tendencies that simply do not exist in horses. When we look at our equine partners from this point of view, we tend to react as we would towards a person who has done the same. I call this approach “Emotional Horsemanship”.

This way of interpreting your horse reveals itself even more strongly when horses challenge us in ways that might surprise or even frighten us. They might turn their hindquarters to us or rear or bolt. Seen from the point of view of Emotional Horsemanship, this might seem as though the horse is full of negative thoughts. Our natural tendency might be to respond with pressure in a similar manner. If you have experienced this, you’ve probably had a fight on your hands and were unsure how to deal with the issue. The answer is to view your horse from a perspective I call “Relational Horsemanship”.

Relational Horsemanship
When horses struggle it is never a case of being bad or opinionated. The only thing they truly desire is to feel safe in the presence of a clear and consistent leader. More than anything, that is who your horse wants you to be. From the point of view of Relational Horsemanship, the way we choose to communicate factors in the horse’s need for self-preservation. When a horse questions his survival on any level and is trying to figure out who is leading whom, he becomes anxious and will express this uncertainty through his body. He may kick out or pin his ears or try to run away for example. If we can keep our emotions in check, both parties have better odds of coming to an understanding and it becomes possible to build a more positive relationship.

Putting Emotion Aside
If we are going to make an honest attempt to understand the root of our horses and provide them with the leadership they crave then there are few things we need to clear up within ourselves. What emotional baggage are you carrying with you when you pick up that lead rope to go out and catch your horse? Are you upset because you just had a tiff with your spouse but are smiling on the outside and telling everyone you’re fine?

As humans we are experts at hiding our emotions. Truth is not necessarily our first response. That is a function of living in a complex verbal society. This behaviour is taught to us from a young age and I refer to it as a social construct. This is an unconscious relational tendency that our society abides by. For example, a friend asks what you think of her new hat. You may not like it, but are trained to respond that it’s beautiful or flattering. We are experts at having thoughts that do not manifest themselves in our speech or actions. Horses on the other hand are unable to hide what they are feeling and have the acute ability to detect this dishonesty in us. This confuses them and makes them wonder if we really would be able to take care of their safety in both quiet, everyday settings as well as in unexpected situations like when a motorized vehicle carelessly zooms past you out on the trail.

What this means is that our equine partners often distrust our level of leadership given the level of conflict between our actions and emotions. They are worried that we are unable to take care of their need for safety, and will let us know by either mentally fleeing back to their herd mates or challenging us to see if they might be better suited to take care of things. This is where Relational Horsemanship will keep both you and your horse safe as it provides your horse with the elements he needs to feel at peace: clarity in the mind, the space and in pressure.

Working the Horse’s Mind
Understanding how to work with your horse’s mind is extremely important. Most herd-bound horses struggle because their mind flees elsewhere. Since horses are honest, their feet are constantly attempting to get to where their thoughts are. Often this is outside with their buddies or away from that all-terrain vehicle that just passed you. At that moment we are faced with a choice: do we attempt to force the body to go where we need it to go, or do we first recall the mind?

Maintaining the horse’s mental focus at all times is the solution to almost every problem. The secret to maintaining your horse’s attention is to interrupt his thought when it drifts elsewhere. If you are on the ground working your horse at liberty or on a line, you first need to recognize when you have lost your horse’s focus. With some horses this can be a subtle glance away from you or a whinny directed at a buddy. Others might tune you out and trot off in an opposite direction. It’s your job to listen and recognize the signs specific to your equine partner.

To recapture your horse’s brain, remain calm and ask him to look towards you by making a little bit of a fuss. You might kick up a little dirt, slap your leg, give a little cluck. My personal favourite is tying a plastic bag to some sort of stick which I then shake, I call this a flag. I then think about regaining my horse’s attention, maintain an inviting body posture and add a gentle pressure such as the flitter of my flag. I sustain all of this until the moment my horse begins to look towards me, and stop the moment that he does. This teaches him two things: that he himself can control pressure by finding the correct answer and that I provide comfort since pressure disappears when he returns his focus to me. Consistently using pressure in this way encourages “try” in my horse and he will eventually trust my thought and intention when I’m leading him from the saddle. It also develops his ability to maintain mental focus.

Creating Safe Space
Since horses also need clarity in the space around them to feel safe, this is another concept we need to master. If you can imagine that both you and your horse each live inside a giant bubble, then you are well on your way to understanding how your horse manages his world through the use of space.

Horses earn their rank in the pecking order in various circumstances by pressing their bubbles into those of their herd mates. When one horse moves out of the way and yields to the other, he has conceded that in that moment he would rather follow than lead. If we want to be our horse’s leader we need to take charge of space and be the one who is directing it. When a horse is unsure of our ability to lead the space then he might see who is in control by using his body to check things out.

For example, when your horse steps into you and forces you to move, his bubble has just moved yours. You, in that moment, have relinquished your role as leader. The ideal here would be to press back into him and have him back up or move over to convey that you may have been absent for a moment but are back in charge. The challenge for us is that we, as humans, are quite dishonest and inconsistent in the use of our space. We allow ourselves to constantly be pushed until one day we explode. We then feel bad for getting mad and the cycle starts all over again. This becomes one of our biggest problems when we spend time with our horses.

The other problem I often see is backing up. Unconsciously, if another person gets too close to us, we will usually back away and find a comfortable distance from them. This is the polite thing to do among humans in order to maintain peace. On the other hand, as we’ve already discussed, horses communicate through space and back away to yield to another’s leadership. Once you begin involving yourself in the space your horse will begin to communicate with you and you can communicate back. He may express his thoughts by pushing into you or kicking out a little, but with a new understanding that he is simply asking who is leading whom, you should view these situations as great opportunities to deepen your leadership rather than as moments of disrespect.

This takes practice. If we have any hope of developing an ease in communicating this way, we need to develop this habit in everyday life. Is someone crowding you in the elevator? Perhaps you should politely ask him to step back a smidgen or maintain your position until his own discomfort causes him to step back. Is a clingy colleague constantly stepping into your office to chat when you have mounds of work to do? What a great opportunity to practice your honesty and explain that you need to be alone. When this becomes second nature you will be better equipped to assert your personal space while in the company of your horse and he will thank you for it.

Using Pressure to Communicate
The last element in our equine communication that must be absolutely clear is pressure. There are two types of pressure that can be used with a horse and I call them, “Predator Pressure”, and “Herd-Dynamic Pressure”. The first is aggressive and is used in nature by a predator such as a cougar or bear. This causes both the horse’s mind and body to flee and I do not believe it should ever be used.

The second, on the other hand, is a pressure that keeps the mind engaged in conversation while moving the body without generating fear. Understanding which pressure you use with your horse will help you understand the root of your problems. Predator pressure is any type of pressure that a horse is attempting to flee from or any pressure that they feel is chasing them. This could be a human chasing them in a round pen or someone riding a horse and scaring them with their leg aids.

Herd Dynamic pressure has to do with the pressure used in a herd. The herd pressures each other but there are certain parts to it. First, the mind of the horse is with the horse that is moving it (they would still rather be with each other than apart) and the pressure that they are using works to create yield in space not flight (fear-based), this then develops a conversation. So the herd works on more of a conversation with a present mind and communicates leadership through yield in the space while a predator, for example, chases the body and the mind flees the conversation.

Yield vs. Resistance
Once your horse remains focused on you, trusts your ability to lead his space and understands that he has the ability to control pressure, you will begin to witness true yield within him. Yield can be felt in a horse whose mind is present and relaxed and who is engaged in a conversation with a rider able to provide a consistent feeling of security. As the mind relaxes, resistance on the inside begins to melt away and the outside of the horse softens. Once this change occurs, a horse is better able to use himself effectively and move effortlessly in the direction you would like him to go.

Every time you step into an arena with an agenda and very little desire to listen to your horse then you are riding resistance; tension that runs from the poll through the spine. You can bump with your leg and hold a horse into just about any frame with your reins, but if the mind has yet to let go of all worries then you cannot experience true yield. In the absence of this softness you will find horses prone to stress injuries and soundness issues due to the lack of fluidity in their movement.

Whenever you encounter struggles, either within yourself or your horse, take a moment, step back and analyze what is really going on. Chances are you will find that your partner needs you to listen more closely and be a little less emotional.