Have you ever wondered how a horse picks his leader within the herd? Is it the gelding or the mare? Could it possibly be that pony in the field? Does size matter?
It’s really pretty simple. The horse that moves the others around is the leader. The horse that eats first, drinks first, gets the best patch of clover in the field…THAT is the leader. It could be the mare or the gelding or even the pony.
Have you ever watched two horses nose to nose biting each other’s halter or jaw? If you hang around and watch long enough, one of those horses is going to back up or step to one side. The game isn’t over until one of them actually MOVES his feet. They are playing a dominance game.
Did you know that your horse will play this game with YOU too? When they do this, they are deciding if YOU are going to be the leader…or are THEY. Horses want to be lead. But if you aren’t up for it, they’ll do it themselves. Depending on what type of innate characteristics your horse has will depend on what kind of problems can arise if you are NOT the leader of your little herd of two.
So, how do you know if your horse is checking to see who’s driving the bus? There are a few ways actually. But the first one that comes to mind is when a horse comes up and puts his big beautiful head, with those soulful eyes and soft whiskers on your shoulder. You think, what a lover, he really likes me and he’s just so darn cute! His head gets heavy or he starts moving his lips against your cheek, you know…giving you those “kisses” you love so much. And then you move….YEP, you move because his head is to heavy now, or he’s nudged you just enough to knock you forward, or he’s licked you or perhaps bitten you! Who just got behind the driver’s wheel of your bus? That’s right, your HORSE did. Because YOU moved YOUR feet FIRST.
Another common example of this is: You’re leading your horse along, he’s right beside you and pretty soon, unbeknown to you, he’s just sort of crowding you a little bit. But you are just sure that he is just so happy to be with you and wants to be next to you. You don’t notice that you are actually MOVING OVER so he won’t step on you as you walk along. GOTCHA! YOU MOVED!
Ok, so now that you are giggling a little bit, or nodding your head in a way that suggests you can relate to the above, you ask “How can I fix that?”
It’s simple; YOU must MOVE your horse’s feet. He has to be the one that goes away. You need to be able to move his hindquarters, his front end and back him up.
There are three ways to move horses, Energy, Steady pressure and Rhythmic pressure. Refer back to the article about ENERGY. Remember we talked about intention in that article. If you want to brush your horse, that’s Steady pressure. But you don’t want him to move. It’s your intention that keeps him still. Your body language is friendly. It’s saying stay and enjoy this brushing. However, if you were to change your intention to MOVE OVER, and you laid the brush on his shoulder in steady pressure, he should move. If he doesn’t, you need to get effective with the steady pressure in increments, until he gets the idea. Rhythmic pressure is pressure that isn’t touching the horse. Swinging/moving anything really. A swinging rope, a bag or flag on the end of a stick, your waving arms or hat, crop, lounge whip…all those things are rhythmic. They are moving before they touch the horse. It’s your intention that decides if the horse can stay still, while your swinging the rope in front of him or if he should back away from it before it tags him in the nose if he DOESN’T move.
Before I go on, lets talk briefly about what I refer to as a “tag”. There is a big difference between a HIT and a TAG. A HIT is an ASSAULT. It has been delivered with AGGRESSION, ANGER or FEAR. It was EMOTIONALLY motivated/delivered by/from the handler. If I “tag” a horse, it’s because the horse didn’t move off when I asked. I gave him an opportunity to make a decision to ignore my request or move off in the direction I suggested. If he made the wrong choice, I’ll encourage him to pick my idea of moving by “tagging” him as a CONSEQUENCE for a wrong decision. There is NO EMOTION from ME attached to this tag. It was simply a consequence. Understand that the horse is ALWAYS seeking comfort. So he will try to avoid being tagged. Soon he will move off my energy and intention instead of a “tag”. Ok, now that we have that cleared up, we can move on.
To summarize this and make it clearer, you have a personal space. Everyone is different in where they like their horses to be in respect to this space. For safety reasons, I personally don’t want my horses on top of me. I don’t want them directly behind me either. I need to at least see them out of my peripheral vision. I like them at least arm length away from me if not a bit farther depending on who I’m leading. And I do not want them to pass my shoulder with their shoulder. I want to be somewhere between their nose and in front of their shoulder. If my horse tries to come into my space or push me or move me. I’ll kindly remind him of where he needs to be. If he ignores my request, trying to move my feet, he gets a tag. This request and tag can happen within seconds. There’s no nagging going on. I asked, he ignored, he got tagged. If I asked and the horse responds right away, then we quietly continue on our walk.
As soon as your horse realizes that you can move his hindquarters and front end away from you like a revolving door at the mall, plus be able to back him up, the sooner you become leader in his eyes. That’s not to say that you may have to remind him from time to time as he may check to see if you’re napping on the job. The more consistent you are with your new set of boundaries for your partner, the safer he’ll feel and the more confidence he’ll put in you as his leader. Horses need to know where to be at all times to feel safe. But remember that horses pick their leader everyday, every moment. When he sees you coming to get him, he’s already asking “are you leader today or am I?”