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Lead By Example

By Jeffrey Rolo

There's an old management adage that states to successfully lead one must lead by example. Truer words were never spoken, and this old truth holds true for horse owners and trainers also. Like many adages, most of us would whole-heartedly agree with the general concept if asked, but when push comes to shove some of us forget about it during the all-important critical moments of training or hardship.

When we work with our horses we expect them to behave in a cool, calm and logical manner at all times, yet all too often we have difficulties keeping our emotions under control. Keep in mind that horses are herd animals, and as such they adopt the behavior (and to some extent emotional states) of those around them. This will not change just because you are working with the horse one-on-one; whatever emotions or bad habits you exude will very likely be picked up by, and absorbed by, your equine partner.

The old school of thought when it comes to horse training stated that the best way to train a horse was to dominate it with sheer physical and/or angry force. Horses are generally not conflict-prone creatures, so when faced with the overwhelming negativity they would first attempt to flee, then submit if their path of escape was barred or unavailable. Does this theory work? At best you can say it can force a horse to do your will, albeit in an unhappy and untrustworthy manner.

Angry trainers produce angry or insecure horses. While such horses may submit to the will of their angry trainer for the time being, one of two things will inevitably happen:

bulletOnce the horse becomes more fearful of a person or situation than it is the trainer, the horse will freak out and very likely injure the trainer.
bulletOnce the horse is sold or passed on to a gentle handler, chances are strong the horse will take out its pent-up anger on the innocent humans, becoming a risk.

Luckily in this day and age, few of us reading this would think to adopt such forceful methods of training, but don't dismiss the effect of subtle anger or frustration. Horses are extremely perceptive animals and can detect emotional states better than most humans, so even if you plaster a fake smile on your face, if you're becoming annoyed or frustrated at your partner's poor performance or confusion, you can almost rest assured your horse will pick up on those emotions. While he may not come to fear or despise you with subtle negative emotional cues, you will compound the horse's confusion or difficulty for that session.

Fear is another emotion that can cause devastating effects during a training session, but unfortunately it's not as easy to suppress as anger. You can't just flip fear on or off like a light switch. Because of this, it's essential that you never push yourself beyond YOUR comfort zone with your horse, because as your horse is exposed to new and potentially frightening requests and environments he will look to you for reassurance that everything is going to be okay.

If you are sitting rigid atop your horse and holding your breath, fearful that your horse may spook at the car coming around the corner, then you created a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the car finally arrives, the nervous horse will look to you, see that you are also afraid and allow the flight instinct to take over. Your fear will validate the horse's fear.

Although professional riding horses are not as prone to being influenced by a nervous rider, it's not far-fetched to witness an experienced riding horse deteriorate by consistent exposure to a fearful rider.

So remember at all times you work with your horse: if you expect your horse to behave in a cool, calm and logical manner, it's essential that you do so too.



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