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As Strong As A Lion, As Gentle As A Lamb - Part One

By Jeffrey Rolo

Two schools of thought exist within the extremes of the horse training world: domination via force and cooperation via appeasement. One side firmly believes that a trainer must possess the strength of a lion so that a horse dares not question them while the opposition is equally passionate about rejecting any form of force or intimidation. Neither side is entirely correct when taken to the above extremes; as with most everything the truth lies somewhere in between.

A proper horse trainer should possess the strength of a lion AND the gentleness of a lamb!

I firmly believe in natural horsemanship and carry an extreme disdain for those who would attempt to dominate a horse through force and/or mistreatment. Most of us who truly love horses no doubt carry the same view, and I have seen great strides taken away from domination and towards natural horsemanship over the last decade. That being said, it is important not to allow your disgust for domination to jade your views towards necessary force. The two are not the same!

If you observe a herd of horses in a pasture for an extended time you will notice subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) challenges amongst the leaders in the pecking order. Even established herd leaders will regularly remind their herd who is in control, usually with little to no force. Two lessons can be learned from observing horses in their natural habitat:

  1. Each herd has a firm leader that the other herd members respect and often look towards for guidance. This is the natural state for horses.

  2. A successful leader is not afraid to use force to maintain his/her position in the pecking order, but even more importantly he/she can usually remind all but the most rebellious herd members of their authority with subtle gestures and warnings rather than blunt force.

When you develop a relationship with your horse you must take the role of the "leader" during your interactions with each other, but remember that a successful leader is born through earning a horse's respect, not by striking fear into his soul. There is a significant difference between respect and fear.

If a horse respects you he will:

bulletBe at ease around you, though still attentive to your wishes.
bulletUnderstand that if the need for discipline arises it was likely due to an improper action on his part and not hold it against you.
bulletTrust in you and borrow strength from you when he becomes fearful of a foreign threat.

If a horse fears you he will:

bulletAlways walk on eggshells around you in fear that you will randomly hurt or abuse him.
bulletBecome confused and disoriented when you discipline him since it's done so frequently. He will know you're unhappy or angry again, but have a more difficult time assessing exactly why.
bulletHave absolutely no trust in you as a leader so that when he detects a foreign threat that scares him more than you do, he will respond to the stronger threat and leave you behind (and possibly wounded).

Once you have established yourself as the leader the horse will understand that you possess the strength in the relationship and therefore defer to your wishes. You will not often have to display or call forth your strength possessing it will be enough. I cannot emphasize this enough! Except for extreme cases, you should rarely need to rely on strength to guide your horse towards accomplishing your desired results.

It is also important to keep in mind that strength is not defined solely by force, but rather by technique and confidence. Do not let your gender, build or age convince you that a horse will not respect your authority because the fact of the matter is if leadership were determined by physical force we would all lose! Luckily since a horse's first instinct is to flee or avoid danger or conflict, he isn't often tempted to test his (or our) limits.

Horses are very perceptive when it comes to detecting potential threats or moods. In fact as good as we would like to think we all are at detecting deception or emotions, we are rank amateurs compared to many animals. Therefore it is important that you approach an untrained horse with confidence because if you are not a fountain of assurance during the unfamiliar rigors of training the horse cannot draw strength from you. He will be much more prone to testing your limits, spooking or simply ignoring your requests to do as he wishes.

By the same token you must approach a horse with a genuine respect and sincerity because a herd leader is not just a bully that dominates the herd with his/her strength. A leader also cares for the herd and protects it from foreign threats. With time the herd looks to its leader to determine whether a foreign occurrence or object is an actual threat to flee from or something inconsequential that can be ignored. The leader's reaction will largely determine the herd's subsequent behavior.

Can you now see the importance of developing a genuine bond of respect with your horse? If you use fear as a weapon the horse will have no trust in you and therefore be far more prone to spook or flee something foreign. On the other hand if you are a trusted leader the horse will look to you for strength and you'll have a much easier time reassuring your horse to overcome his fear.

One mistake some horse owners make is becoming a little too accommodating towards poor behavior or rude behaviors once they have trained a horse or formed a bond of trust. Many horses (particularly colts and stallions) will subtly challenge their leaders over time to see if they can get away with more or even take over the leadership role. This is why although a horse trainer and/or owner should be as gentle as a lamb they should also possess the strength of a lion there is a time to stand up and maintain your leadership role.

We will look at this aspect of horse ownership in more detail in Part Two of this article.



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