Recently, the ‘alpha theory,’ where the human is dominant (‘alpha’) and the horse is submissive, has become the accepted way to establish relationships with horses. While this type of relationship can make the horse easier to work with, it does little to build true trust.
Feral herds (and well-established domestic herds) have leaders and followers, with minimal challenging for position, which creates security and safety for the entire group. By providing this same sense of quiet leadership for your horse, you create a positive partnership based on mutual trust and respect.
A positive partnership means that you have:
• your horse’s mental and physical well-being as the highest priority
• two-way communication and interpret your horse’s behaviour as feedback rather than labelling as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
• empathy for your horse’s perspective of the world as a herd, prey animal and respect his instinctive reactions
You give your horse what he needs (emotionally, physically and mentally) to be healthy and content so that he willingly gives you what you want.
You can build a positive partnership with your horse by helping him feel safe and secure whenever he is with you – even more than he has with his herd mates. He’ll be less fearful of unfamiliar objects and situations, more willing and able to do as you ask and able to perform better.
When a horse doesn’t feel safe, this fear manifests as physical and mental tension. Tension negatively impacts his ability to learn as well as his ability to perform and causes unwanted behaviours like spooking, bolting and resistance – all normal reactions when a horse feels the need to protect himself.
There are five instinctive fear responses (the 5 Fs) that horses share with many other mammals including humans:
Fight and Flight are the two most commonly recognized fear responses. You have probably experienced situations where a horse spooks and bolts from something flapping in the breeze (flight) or a tied horse pulls back frantically against the rope (fight). In the wild, flight is the horse’s first option because it is his best natural defence. Because it is not always possible for domesticated horses to flee from a threat, the fight response is often seen.
Freeze is often mistakenly labelled as stubbornness needing an ‘attitude adjustment.’ The horse stands still as if frozen to the ground, usually holding his breath and not blinking. It is a natural reflex caused when the horse feels threatened (by seeing, hearing or feeling something he is not sure of) and is the precursor to flight or fight.
Fooling Around behaviours are often mistaken as boredom or attempting to be dominant, eg. grabbing the lead line, not standing still, crowding or pushing with his nose. These displacement behaviours happen when the horse feels stressed or conflicted because he isn’t able to do what he wants to do or is unsure of what he should do.
Faint, the least frequently seen response, happens when a horse lies or falls down because he feels so overwhelmed and, seeing no escape, simply gives up.
To help your horse feel safe, reduce his tension and avoid the 5Fs, follow these five tips:
1. Recognize the subtle signs of tension in your horse. Small signals like the tented eye, pinched nostrils, tight mouth, braced neck muscles, not blinking, tucked or swishing tail, shallow breathing all tell that your horse is feeling tense. By recognizing these subtle cues, you can take immediate action to alleviate that stress.
2. Respect his personal space ‘bubble.’ We all have a bubble of personal space that changes depending on the situation we’re in and who we’re with. The most important part of your horse’s bubble is the zone around his neck and head. Watch for signs of tension when you’re around that area and avoid pushing, pulling or hitting there.
3. Push the right buttons because it’s HOW you move your horse that matters. Horses move each other by pressuring particular areas of the body. Shoulder – move front end away. Barrel – bend away. Flank – go forward. Hip – move hindquarters away. When you push appropriately into those areas it makes sense to the horse. Done incorrectly, it causes confusion, tension and resistance.
4. Help your horse move with healthy, calm posture. Just like us, your horse’s posture affects how he feels – physically and mentally. When his neck is level or low and his back level or lifted, his spine is long and open and he feels mentally and physically calm. Encourage this posture without force. Force creates tension and eliminates the beneficial effect.
5. Focus on helping your horse release tension – always. Recognize that much of the behaviour you don’t want from your horse comes from tension caused by confusion, fear or fear of pain. Look for subtle signs of tension and take action that calms your horse. For example, instead of forcing your horse to stand still when he’s fidgety, allow him to move by walking him in a small circle. You’re directing his movement while recognizing his need to move, which helps alleviate his tension. Then ask him to stand still again, once the tension is reduced.
When you follow these tips to help your horse feel safe with you, you’ll build a positive partnership and both enjoy whatever activities you do together.