Our interpretations of the horse’s nature and actions have a profound effect on everything we do in our horsemanship. Some viewpoints can lead us to compassion and connection, while others will take us down paths where both horses and humans are likely to struggle. Learning to spot the difference – and to make adjustments when you find yourself drifting into muddy waters – is an important part of building a solid foundation of trust between you and your horse.
In this article, we will look at four styles of horsemanship that are based on different interpretations of how horses think and what their actions mean, including my own style, which I call “Relational Horsemanship.” I hope that exploring these various approaches will help you to clarify your own interpretations, understand how they shape your horsemanship and balance any tendencies of thought that could impede the development of a positive relationship with your horse.
Emotional horsemanship interprets the horse through a lens of human emotion. When we view the horse through this lens, we tend to take what they do personally and often quite negatively, overlaying their behaviours with attitudes taken from our own emotional life. This can create a huge disconnect between what is actually happening with our horses and what we believe is happening. For example, we may feel “disrespected” or think the horse is “being a jerk” if it kicks out, bucks or twirls its head when we add some pressure in the round pen. This perceived slight makes us feel justified to respond emotionally and “get after” the horse, which drastically changes our energy and presentation.
In reality, the horse’s supposed disrespect is most often just an expression of confusion or fear in response to some lack of clarity in our use of space or pressure, and I have found that the most productive way to work with that is to take responsibility for it and adjust what you are doing. If, however, you frame the situation emotionally and blame the horse for its “bad attitude,” you have allowed yourself to be pulled away from a stance of positive calm into one of negative emotionality. When we let the actions of the horse change our mental state like this, we create an instability in our energy that is deeply unsettling to the horse.
The result is that they see us as unpredictable and untrustworthy – the opposite of what we need to be if we want to earn the position of leadership in the horse’s eyes. A good leader is someone who knows what to do and stays calm when challenges appear – they don’t get angry, scared or otherwise rattled under pressure. By maintaining their equilibrium, good leaders set an example that draws others toward a feeling of safety and peace. I believe this is what our horses need from us in order to willingly put their lives in our hands, which we literally ask them to do all the time.
Of course, we are human beings, and as such, we are all going to get emotionally triggered in certain moments. The key is to understand that when we feel frustrated, disappointed or annoyed with our horses, it is always our responsibility, as the leader, to find a solution that brings the horse to a better place, not a worse one. In this sense, working with horses is a great way to help you find your best self, as horses will show you very clearly whether you are adding value to their experience or adding stress.
It is also helpful to remember that in working with horses, we are taking a self-preserving prey animal and trying to drastically change the way they naturally think and respond. This is inevitably going to involve overcoming challenges, and there will be lots of ups and downs. But, if you can learn to take those difficult moments in stride and see the challenges as a normal part of the process, they won’t be so likely to pull you away from the clarity, stability and calm you want to maintain.
Another way of interpreting the horse might be described as “dictatorial horsemanship.” This viewpoint grows out of the belief that equine relationships are primarily hierarchical, with every horse having a rank in the pecking order. The highest ranking horse, often called the alpha, is thought to be the leader, and the first goal of this style of horsemanship is to become the alpha by showing the horse that we are the boss and making the horse “respect” us. While there is no doubt that social rankings do exist among horses, and we definitely need our horses to understand that it is not okay to bite, kick or push on us, I have observed that when we make the idea of being the alpha the foundation of our training, it can sometimes get in the way of a deeper relationship with our horses.
This is most likely to happen when we overemphasize methods like driving or moving the horse and continuing to apply pressure – often aggressively – until the horse lowers its head, licks and chews, follows you around or offers some other sign that is thought to imply that the horse now sees you as the leader. While this dominance-based paradigm can certainly teach a horse to do many things, it can easily lead you to become a dictator to your horse rather than a leader. What the difference mostly comes down to is that a leader focuses on bringing peace, meeting the horse’s needs and training as a two-way conversation, while a dictator focuses on telling the horse what to do and uses pressure to make the horse do it.
In reality, horses are no happier under the rule of a dictator than people are. The reasons for this become clear when we understand that under natural circumstances, equine relationships are much more cooperative and less hierarchical than most of us have been led to believe, and that “rank” in the pecking order does not necessarily correspond with “leadership.” Research into the social behaviours of wild horses has shown that in a natural herd, aggressive, bossy horses will hold the highest rank, as determined by who gets first access to scarce resources. However, these horses are frequently not the leaders. The leaders (and there is often more than one) are typically quiet, calm individuals that simply go about their business in a way that has proven to convey benefits to those that stay with them. The rest of the herd will choose to follow and interact with the leaders because these horses help them meet their needs for food, water, safety and companionship, but they will actually try to keep away from the aggressive, high ranking ones whenever possible.
In our training, we can choose to be more like the leaders the horses want to follow and hang out with, or more like the high ranking horses they would rather avoid. But, even if our way of working with horses doesn’t normally overemphasize the dominance/submission paradigm, there is going to be that moment where we are late and the horse won’t get in the trailer, or the horse won’t stand at the mounting block, or some other situation arises where our frustration leads us to think, “Come on…just do it already!” In those moments, we all have a tendency to become dictatorial and use pressure to try to make the horse do what we want, rather than considering what the horse needs from us in order to feel good about complying with our request.
If you catch yourself entering that mental space, try taking a breath, then remind yourself that pressure used well is not forceful, but is rather a form of communication meant to guide the horse to the right answer. Focus on helping the horse understand how to think through your pressure rather than react to it, and you are far more likely to end up in a good place.
Mechanical Horsemanship has many things in common with Dictatorial Horsemanship. However, practitioners of Mechanical Horsemanship have a distinguishing tendency to rely heavily on gear and gadgets when searching for solutions to training issues. For example, a horse that isn’t soft in the bridle is likely to be put in a stronger bit, and a horse that tosses his head may get ridden in a tie down or martingale. While almost any piece of gear can have benefits when used correctly and for the right reason, they are too often employed as a “quick fix” by the Mechanical Horseman. The problem with this is that such fixes may succeed in masking the symptom (the head tossing, etc.), but will likely fail to address the core problem, which is most often a lack of connection and understanding between the horse and human.
This same lack of connection also leads to another common feature of Mechanical Horsemanship: an emphasis on repetition. Because the focus of Mechanical Horsemanship is on making the horse’s body do what we want, rather than on ensuring the horse understands and feels comfortable with what we are asking of him, horses trained in this style often struggle to figure out how to respond to our requests. Practitioners of Mechanical Horsemanship often believe the answer to the horse’s struggles lies in repeating exercises over and over again, which is thought to be necessary in order for horses to learn.
One upside to Mechanical Horsemanship is that its practitioners generally understand that getting emotional in response to what a horse does is not likely to be helpful. Their use of pressure is, therefore, rarely emotional, but it will often be heavy since they tend to rely on force to get their point across. You will, therefore, see a lot of demanding and taking with the aids, which are thought of as a means to make things happen rather than as a conduit of communication.
Most horses do eventually learn what is wanted of them when trained with these methods, but there is a cost. Horses trained in this manner will often have a vacant, sour or worried expression, and they tend to perform robotically, without joy or willingness. I believe this state is brought on by frustration and a lack of real relationship with their human handlers. Their needs are simply not being met, in large part because the trainers do not have a clear understanding of the way horses learn.
In my experience, horses can and do learn extremely quickly, with very few and sometimes no repetitions, if what you are asking of them is presented with clarity and fairness. Studies by Dr. Evelyn Hanggi of the Equine Research Foundation have shown that horses actually learn faster than dogs, and that their memories are superb. This makes sense for a prey animal, as they must learn very quickly in order to survive under natural circumstances. For example, if a horse is lucky enough to survive a cougar attack in a particular patch of brush, you can be certain he will avoid that patch of brush for the rest of his life – no need for multiple repetitions!
This is why one bad experience, such as an accident in a trailer, can cause problems for a horse indefinitely. Of course, the positive side is that they can also learn things we want them to learn with incredible speed, and they are likely to remember these things for life if we present them clearly and in a way that makes sense to the horse. This means that you need good feel and timing in your use of pressure, as well as an understanding of what the horse needs in that moment to maintain a positive frame of mind. When you have these things, you are operating from a perspective I call “Relational Horsemanship.”
I refer to my own style of working with horses as “Relational Horsemanship” because it focuses on the creation and maintenance of a balanced, positive and mutually beneficial relationship between the horse and the human. Relational Horsemanship steers away from the common emphasis on dominance and submission, instead seeing the horse as a being whose thoughts and feelings have true value. In order to realize that value, communication with our horses must be a two-way street. Therefore, instead of being dictators, we need to become keen listeners, always seeking to hear and understand what our horses are continually telling us. Only in this way can we fulfill our primary relational responsibility to the horse, which is to meet their needs.
The study of psychology tells us that human relationships are need-based, meaning that we form relationships with other people because we have social, physical and other types of needs we cannot satisfy if we are alone. Horses, being social animals, are very similar. Like people, horses are most content when their needs are being met, and they will form the closest relationships with those who help them maintain a high level of contentment. Relational Horsemanship is, therefore, about striving to understand, evaluate and meet horses’ needs in order to form a meaningful relationship with them. When we make this a constant priority, we create a foundation of trust and connection that allows the horse to be a willing partner able to reach his full athletic potential. I consider this the basis of all good training and believe that it should inform every aspect of our work with horses.
If we use this Relational Horsemanship concept as the “filter” through which we interpret the horse, we start to see that that the horse’s actions and thoughts all stem from either met or unmet needs. This means that our first priority must be to understand what the horse’s needs are at any given time. Generally speaking, the horse’s needs are constant and universal. Beyond the basics of food, water, shelter and companionship, their deepest need is to feel at peace, which means being comfortable in both mind and body. Anything that unsettles them, either mentally or physically, can cause them to struggle, as it is their nature to flee or resist any threat to their well-being. It is our job, as the leader, to strip away the fears and uncertainties that create worry in the horse, and to help them attain a state of peace that carries through whenever we are present, and in everything we ask them to do. We can achieve this by working with what I think of as the three pillars of training: Mind, Space and Pressure.
The Mind of the horse is often neglected or ignored, especially in styles of horsemanship that focus on making the horse’s body do this or that. When we understand that the mind of the horse is what controls the horse’s body, and we shift our focus to communicating with the mind, great changes start to happen. By helping the horse’s mind understand and feel okay with our requests, we bring peace to the horse instead of creating fear and tension. They will then give their body over to our requests softly and willingly, instead of us having to take it from them in a state of struggle and resistance. The difference this creates – not only in how they feel about life, but in how they move, respond and carry themselves – is something truly beautiful to behold.
In order to communicate with the horse’s mind, we need to make good use of the medium of Space. Horses “talk” to each other in many ways, but one of their main forms of conversing is through spatial interactions. Horses can claim, hold, yield or share space, all of which form a language we can learn and utilize, enabling us to interact meaningfully with our horses and allowing them to understand what we want from them. From a Relational Horsemanship perspective, spatial interplay with our horses is not an exercise in dominance, but rather a means to establish clarity and understanding that builds connection.
Pressure is probably the most misunderstood and misused of the three pillars. All too often, pressure is used to push or force a horse to do something, rather than as an energetic conduit through which we can communicate with the horse. When used in a relational manner, the function of pressure is to modulate the conversation of space – much like our tone modulates our voice when we speak. And, in the same way that your tone of voice can vary from calm and inviting to harsh and threatening, the tone of your pressure can also vary. We tend to think of pressure as something to drive the horse and move it away from us, but used relationally, pressure can also be used to draw the horse’s mind and body to us – something many people find surprising in my clinics.
By showing us how to communicate and build connection through the pillars of mind, space and pressure, Relational Horsemanship allows us to meet our horses’ needs, create a living atmosphere of peace, and form a deep bond with these amazing beings that are so willing to give if we simply stop trying to take.
Josh Nichol studied biology at university, and in the summers gained valuable experience all over North America, working on ranches and studying under a variety of trainers. He teaches clinics throughout Canada in the summer and works out of his home ranch in the winter. For more information on his Relational Horsemanship visit joshnichol.com.