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Let’s talk about “leadership”. There are lots of different ways to think about it. Here’s my viewpoint:

I often hear people say they want to be their horses “leader”. Generally, the way I see people go about trying to attain the “leader” position isn’t really garnering respect, it’s more by intimidating the horse and trying to be a dictator. Some folks just push the horse around until they give in. Like the bully in elementary school that took the smaller kids’ milk money. No respect there, just the knowledge that trouble would come if he didn’t shell out his milk money. Some folks try to act like another horse and play “dominance” games. To me, leadership is something very different than that.

I would suggest that folks stop working so hard to be the “leader” or “alpha” or “boss” and try more to be a good partner and friend for the horse. Most folks seem to have the idea that the “alpha” has to be the one to make ALL the decisions and that the horse is not capable of making any good decisions on his own. I disagree. I would suggest we find a way of trying to work with the horse… find ways that help him understand what we’re asking, as well as us understanding what he’s asking or offering… rather than just trying to boss him around all the time. I believe the horse can read your intent very clearly, and offering to do things with respect, appreciation, and humility will take you much farther than doing things with the intent of dominance.

If you want to be his leader, be a good, solid and caring leader instead of a dictator.

A good leader takes on more responsibility than their subordinate. You have the responsibility to know your horse’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, habits, physical limitations. You have the responsibility to become the best rider you can be, provide the best care and handling you can.
A good leader listens to the horse, then takes the horse’s feedback into consideration and acts accordingly. He does not approach his horse with a set regimen and expect the horse to fit that regimen no matter what. He understands how to read the horse well enough to find the right exercise, in the right amount, at the right time.
A good leader accepts responsibility when things don’t go as planned.
A good leader tries to see things from the horse’s perspective. Sometimes I hear people refer to their horse as being “disrespectful”. In most cases, the horse is just confused by the human’s lack of clarity. This would be obvious if they could see things from the horse’s perspective.
A good leader can give the horse support and confidence when the horse gets worried.
A good leader is able to observe, remember, compare, and make a sensible plan.
A good leader is flexible and ready to adjust to fit whatever situation might arise.
A good leader will set his horse up for success and makes him feel like a winner!
A good leader allows the horse to think for himself.
A good leader is clear, fair, and consistent.
Through good feel, timing, judgment, and skill a good leader will inspire his horse to want to do their best.
A good leader shows his horse love, respect, and appreciation.
A good leader has the humility to know that they cannot appoint themselves as a leader – they have to EARN it – it is something the horse may, or may not bestow upon you.
And, before you put too much pressure on yourself, remember, you can have a fantastic relationship without having attained the all-high status of a true “leader”. I think there are very few people who can truly be a worthy leader in their horse’s eyes.

One of the best horsemen I ever knew touched me deeper in the short period of time I was with him than anyone else. Something he said has stayed with me. “Son, with anything there is to do with horses, there are about a hundred different ways to get it done. Maybe 70 or 75 of those ways will work. … but maybe only 10, or 15, of those ways are a good deal for the horse.” And then he followed with a couple more statements: “My point is… not everything that’s effective is a good deal for the horse. Not everything suits every horse. There is more than one right way. There are some things that you won’t understand or agree with. That doesn’t make them bad. There are some things you may think are the best way right now. Later, you’ll come to see that maybe they weren’t nearly as good as you thought. Keep learning, keep trying. It will come.” I saw him do some things that were unbelievable to me at that time. He could feel through the lead rope and know what the horse was doing. He could feel all the way through the horse. Sometimes he was so soft, so subtle. And sometimes I saw him get very firm. I mean in a hurry! But then he’d get real soft again, and the horses would all hunt him up and want to be with him. His name was Ronnie Willis. I’ve also seen Ray Hunt get very firm and heard stories about Tom Dorrance getting very firm. The biggest key is the understanding of the horse and the timing. But that doesn’t mean everyone has good timing. There are a lot of things that go on in the horse world that I don’t agree with. I try to learn all I can from everyone I can. Sometimes when I watch people working on TV, I cringe because I feel the horse isn’t getting a fair deal and is confused. It turns my stomach, and I have to change the channel. Sometimes I see some real good stuff. Just because people do things that I don’t agree with doesn’t make them wrong, and it doesn’t make me wrong. Like Ronnie Willis said, there is more than one right way. I look back on my horsemanship journey, and I wish I could go back and apologize to some of the horses I worked with. But I was doing the best I knew at the time. And I’m still learning. I can’t wait for the next five years to see how much deeper my understanding is. One of the hardest things about working with horses for a living is that it’s not my place to tell folks how to work with their horses unless they ask. If I see someone doing something that will hurt their horse or someone who is near, I will step in. But just because I don’t like the way they handle their horse or because we have philosophical differences doesn’t give me any right to tell them how I think they should do things. And sometimes it breaks my heart, because I know the horse could offer so much more if given the chance. We can’t tell folks how to raise their kids. We can’t impose our philosophy on everyone else, unless they ask. There is more than one right way. Offer your horse the best you know, and learn more. Then offer him the best you know, and learn more. Don’t be so stuck in your ways that you might miss an opportunity for some new knowledge and understanding. If your horses are soft and willing, people will notice. And they’ll ask questions, then the doors will open. This is just my opinion.
Sometimes, Horses get a reputation of being “Dangerous,” “mean,” “Nasty,” “flighty or “shut down” … the list goes on and on. But just as stereotypes are a harmful mental shortcut in human relationships, these labels limit our thinking and our awareness about how we can help a horse through his issues. It’s almost like a sign has been hung around the horse’s neck and he doesn’t have a chance to get out of that category and become a solid partner for us. You know, if someone met me when I was sick, that person might think I was grumpy. Or, if someone else talked to me as I was returning from a trip and eager to see my wife and son, that person might think I was extremely happy and a little bit hyper. And neither of those people would be wrong. It’s just that different parts of our personalities surface according to our circumstances. Our horses are the same way, and it’s important not to box them in to rigid categories. The same thing applies to us – and them – physically, as well. Maybe I made a wrong move and pulled a muscle in my back. Does that mean I now have a bad back and should start acting accordingly? Or does it mean that I have an injury from which I’ll bounce back? At my clinics, I often see horses that are described as “having baggage.” It’s real easy for an owner to start to make excuses why a horse “can’t” do something. Often, the frame of mind the person is in – the making of excuses – is the horse’s biggest obstacle. Good horsemanship is a lot like life; we can’t change the past, so I don’t think we should dwell on it. But we can make the most of the present and set up the future. Rather than thinking about the past, I find it more helpful to meet the horse where he’s at today. So my good mare was stiff to the left yesterday. I’m not going to expect the same thing today. I’ll warm her up, trying to attune myself to what she’s showing me today. When I reach down the left rein, does the ear flick back toward me, and then she bends with suppleness? Or does the ear come, and then she’s stiff? Or does the ear not come, and then I know her mind’s somewhere else? It’s all about what is happening now, not what happened the day before. Now, it’s important not to ignore a horse’s problems when they can be dangerous to us. I’ll be very aware and on my toes as I work with a horse, but I won’t expect there to be trouble. I’ll still ask him these questions: “Where are you today? What’s the best you have to offer? Here’s where I am today … this is the best I have to offer. Where can we meet?” And we’ll get to know each other. If we can keep our thoughts in the present, heighten our awareness and really learn to read a horse, then we can help him learn to trust us. Those “dangerous” horses can become safer and even enjoyable to be around. By all means, you need to know when it’s time to get help from somebody with more experience. But do have faith. Your horse wants to be OK with things. He needs to know that you believe in him, that you care about how he feels and that you’ll do your best to help him work through things. Have the same faith in him that you might have in a newborn foal – knowing that someday, you’ll get there. With foals, we never doubt that the little newborn will evolve into a good riding or work horse. We have faith that even when setbacks happen in the early learning stages, he will be able to overcome our foibles and turn out to be a good horse and a good friend. We need to have that same kind of faith in our older horses who have had experiences that can be tough to overcome. With horses who have had some bad experiences due to poor handling, abuse, neglect or accidents, it will take longer to regain the trust. But with patience and good timing, it can certainly be done. Understand that this takes a lot of work, especially with horses that have been mistreated. It takes clear, consistent and fair boundaries, together with a good dose of empathy and an open mind. I want to come into each day with no preconceived notions, but with an open mind and open eyes. When I work with a new horse, I see if I can find the holes in his foundation and help fill them in so he can be more solid and trusting. Once the foundation is solid, we can be well on our way. For example, when the horse gets worried, he should look to the human for support. I want him not to just react, but to think and find me. I’ll be there to show him the way. And always, I’m having this conversation every time I approach a horse: “Where are you today? What’s the best you have to offer me? I’ll ask you for nothing more than your best. This is the best I have to offer you. I’ll give you nothing less. Now, let’s see where we can meet and what we can accomplish together.”
I don’t know if the concept of feel can be “taught” to you by another person but the elements of feel can be pointed out and a person can be coached to a better understanding. Bill Dorrance said “You can’t teach feel, you have to experience it”. But if someone has no idea what he’s trying to find, it’s a sure bet they won’t figure it out on their own for quite some time! I believe if a student understands the importance of feel, they will apply themselves to really try and learn how to offer it to the horse. During clinics I often end up doing simulations to help people feel they type of “feel” I might offer to a horse. Then they can try to take that feel to their own horse. Lots of folks surprise me by showing remarkable progress in a very short period of time! When talking about “feel”, it’s important to note that it’s more than just a physical touch. It’s the essence of everything we do with our horse if we’re striving for quality. Have you ever met somebody that just feels good to be around? They have a sense of peace, fairness, and overall goodness about them? Good horsemanship starts with getting yourself right on the inside. It’s about living life right. It’s about learning to let go of your anger and grudges so you don’t have to carry a heavy heart everywhere. I believe horses can feel the baggage we carry around inside of ourselves. Part of good horsemanship comes from being at peace, and doing things for the right reasons. Learn to see when a horse is ready for you to ask something of him. Put all the pieces in place before you ask the horse to do something. Instead of always making things happen through getting progressively firmer, find ways to get the horse prepared. Then the movement you had in mind will be the next logical thing for him. I don’t methodically “up the pressure” until the horse finds a way to escape it. I don’t want my horses looking to escape pressure, but I want them to be with me mentally… to feel to me, and to follow the feel that I’m presenting. I might make a request and get some sort of feedback from the horse. I adjust my feel and presentation based on what that feedback is. Good horsemanship is not about phases. It’s about clarity, feel, timing, awareness, and listening to your horse. For example, when I’m trailer loading a horse, I don’t make it so uncomfortable outside that he goes in looking for relief. I want the trailer to be a good place for him to go, a comfortable place… not just the lesser of two evils. There is a HUGE difference between a horse moving to evade pressure, and a horse that is following a feel, seeking the release. Evading pressure is avoidance, and creates worry and brace. A horse that is following a feel and searching for a release is a horse that is thinking, and is much more likely to be supple, soft and happy. Work to improve your timing. Learn cadence. The best time to influence the direction of a horse’s foot is as it’s about to leave the ground. Notice that when you’re doing groundwork; and learn to feel it from the saddle. Pay attention to how your position, whether you’re on the ground or in the saddle, affects your horse’s balance and ability to do his job. In simple terms, get out of his way! We want softness in our horses… we should make our request with softness, good feel, and good timing. If the horse doesn’t understand what we’re asking, we need to make sure that we’re being very clear, staying out of his way, using good feel and timing; then give him the opportunity to search for the right answer. Fix it up and wait. Let the horse have the opportunity to search and explore his options. Allow him to make his own mistakes and learn from them. Allow him to find the answer on his own.
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