If you ask people what they mean when they say they want to build a partnership with their horse, you will hear things like, “I want to feel that my horse and I are working together,” and “I want my horse to enjoy being with me as much as I enjoy being with him.”
These are important and worthwhile aspirations, and if we can achieve them they definitely make training and riding more enjoyable for both horse and human. However, I would add that a true partnership with a horse requires that you make a constant and sincere effort to meet your horse’s needs, not just to fulfill your own. Meeting a horse’s needs allows you to add value to his life instead of just placing demands on him, and that’s when you discover the tremendous heart and willingness that a horse will give freely if he is inspired to do so.
Unfortunately, the desire to build that kind of relationship with a horse does not always show us a clear way to get there. As I see it, one of the most common stumbling blocks to achieving a real partnership with a horse is the idea that our interactions with horses must be based on a paradigm of dominance and submission. While this idea is quite pervasive in the horse world, and many people are happy with the results they achieve, I always look at things from my horse’s perspective and try to figure out if he is happy with how things are being done.
A lot of the issues with dominance centre around the concept that all horses want a ‘leader’, and that the only way you can become that leader is to demand ‘respect.’ But when people are really tuned in to their horses, this approach will generally leave them with a twist in their gut or a heavy heart.
The teacher using such methods may be very successful, but try looking into the eyes of the horse they are training, and you will see whether he feels like a valued and respected partner or a tool being made to perform various actions. A horse trained with dominance-based methods will often look like he has gone away inside himself somewhere, his expression distant or flat. A horse taught with a more relational approach will have life in his eyes, along with calmness and curiosity.
Of course, we all want our horses to do what we ask of them, when we ask it, and we also need to keep ourselves safe. But if we accomplish these things through dominance, we simply cannot fulfill the basic tenets that make any type of partnership work. When two people are partners in a small business, for example, there is an expectation of benefit to both parties, both parties are willing participants in the endeavours they undertake, and there is a solid level of trust that both partners are working for each other’s good as well as their own.
These tenets are no different in a partnership with a horse. To fulfill them, we must strive to make our interactions with our horses worthwhile from their perspective.
Mind, Space & Pressure
This brings us back to the idea of meeting the horse’s needs, which is the foundational element of my Relational Horsemanship style of training. In this context, I am talking about the horse’s three basic relational needs: Mind, Space and Pressure.
To meet your horse’s Mind need, you must show him that he can rely on you to deal with whatever is going on in the environment so that he doesn’t have to. He thus learns that if he keeps his mind with you instead of focusing on every possible concern around him, and he allows you to take care of the things he is mindful of, he not only stays safe, but feels much more at ease.
To meet your horse’s Space need, you must demonstrate a fluency in the spatial language horses use to communicate. This is not about “getting after” your horse or “showing him who’s boss.” It is about consistently demonstrating that you are calm and confident in your ability to be present, aware and communicative through your space. Providing this clarity draws your horse to you and brings him a deep degree of peace, as he does not have to question or worry about whether he needs to be directing you spatially.
When horses are unsure about their spatial relationship with us, they often do things that get them labelled as pushy or rude. Most of the time, they are simply unsettled due to a lack of clarity in their human’s spatial communication, and they are doing the only things they know how to try to find out where they stand. I have found that the best solution is not to dominate your horse, but rather to show him that you “own your own space,” which gives him the clarity he needs without damaging your relationship.
Check out this video for a demonstration: https://youtu.be/YTuViFJwAfU
Horses also have a profound need to understand and feel able to control anything they perceive as a pressure, whether it is something touching them physically or something that could be a potential danger somewhere in their vicinity. For example, if your horse sees your neighbour’s dog coming toward him and believes the dog is dangerous, that is a pressure, and he might feel the need to flee from it. However, if experience has shown your horse that taking a step or two toward the dog will make it run away, your horse feels in control of the situation and will not be worried about the dog.
Building a solid partnership with your horse must start with doing the work on yourself to be the kind of person who inspires calm and invites trust.
Similarly, meeting your horse’s Pressure need means helping him learn to think through situations in which he encounters pressures, rather than simply reacting to them. When a horse understands that processing a pressure calmly keeps him safe, his confidence grows in leaps and bounds, both in himself and in you, as you consistently guide him to a good place whenever he has a doubt. By helping your horse master pressure in this way, you truly empower him, enabling him to navigate the world with less fear.
The take home message in all of this is that meeting your horse’s needs allows him to feel better, calmer and more confident going through life, all of which is of tremendous value to a prey animal. Help your horse to feel safe, relaxed and self-assured through your teaching, and he will want to be around you and enjoy working with you. This is an absolutely critical aspect of building a true partnership.
However, none of this is “mechanical,” by which I mean that it is not a set of techniques you can master simply by doing certain movements or going through a set of specific exercises. At the core of any good partnership is that tenet of trust, and that has to do with the kind of energy your horse is receiving from you.
While this may sound a little airy-fairy to some, the fact is that horses are incredibly attuned to what is going on inside of us. For this reason, building a solid partnership with your horse must start with doing the work you need to do on yourself to be the kind of person who inspires calm and invites trust. Horses are naturally drawn to those whose energy is quietly confident and consistent, so if your heart and your head are frenetic or uneasy, your horse will feel it and have a harder time entering into a contract of partnership.
Therefore, to develop an excellent partnership with your horse, you must continually work on two elements on your side of the relationship. First, be willing to make meeting your horse’s needs a top priority at all times. Aim for him to feel safe with you and with what you ask of him, not worried or fearful. Second, be attentive to what is coming from you. While we all have our ups and downs, your goal should be to generally give off energy, thoughts and intentions that your horse would enjoy being around.
An extra benefit of working on this aspect is that as you begin to take responsibility for your own energy and consider how it affects your interactions with your horse, you will soon see that the same thing applies to all the relationships in your life. You may then find yourself forming better partnerships all around, not just with your horse!
For more information on Josh Nichol’s Relational Horsemanship, visit joshnichol.com.