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

By Jeffrey Rolo

When watching an alpha mare or herd leader interact with members of his/her herd you will inevitably see the leader exhibit aggressive behavior, whether in the form of brute force or (more commonly) in the form of body language. If a subordinate grazes too closely to the leader without the leader's consent the follower finds out the error of his way in short time.

Whereas this continual "bullying" behavior may seem excessive to us, it's important to realize it's a fact of life for a horse. It is their way, and to enjoy a healthy relationship with a horse it's better that you understand their customs and language (even if you instinctually disagree).

What does this have to do with you? In Part One of this article we learned that you must take the leadership position in your relationship, and most horse owners luckily understand that fact. The problem is many owners fail to follow through. Leadership is not earned once and forever remembered – with horses leadership must be constantly maintained. Horses will test their boundaries from time to time to see whether your leadership is faltering or whether they may possess the upper hand. Like the alpha mare in the field, you must suppress such "rebellions" and make sure they realize you still are, and always will be, the leader.

When I was a teenager I owned a gorgeous thoroughbred mare and we both worked very well together. She was quite simply a great horse. I want to emphasize this point before going on because even the best horse can pick up a bad habit or make a mistake if permitted to.

Like most horses, this mare thoroughly enjoyed her sweet grain every evening, and with each evening as the months went by she would become a little more demanding. It would start with invading my personal space… but since I trusted her I didn't feel she needed to keep her distance. We were partners, right? She meant me no harm.

Soon she would begin nudging the bucket, forcing me to keep a tight grip lest the grain within spill on the floor before making it to her feeding dish. But I justified this poor behavior by rationalizing that she was just understandably anxious for something she enjoys, and I could hold onto the bucket and play a game of "dodge" with her. No real harm in it, just a small nuisance.

Finally one day as my back was partially towards her she kicked me. Nothing that left more than a black and blue, and not a kick that had bad blood or mean intent behind it. Just a little strike with her front leg to let me know she was impatient and wanted her grain now.

So did she get it?

No! With that act she crossed the line from poor manners to an action that was outright disrespectful and could have hurt me. As much as I hated it, at that point I gave her a couple strong cracks with my hand, shouted my disappointment with her and sent her running. And I brought the grain back with me to the barn – she had to be happy with hay for that evening. I never had a problem with her again. Come the next day she completely respected my personal space and waited until she had my consent to indulge.

She wasn't my first horse, but she was my first young mare and possessed a stronger will than my previous gelding, so combined with my relative inexperience a situation developed that never should have. From that day I learned the following:

bulletDo not allow any poor manners, no matter how seemingly innocent they are. A horse will rarely test their boundaries in blatant ways – they do so little by little, seeing just how far they can go until they hit a wall or take over the leadership position.

bulletWhen a horse challenges your authority, make sure your reaction is as strong as a lion's. You must let your horse know that you are the leader and always will be the leader. And understand that sometimes a reaction need not include physical force – it's something I rarely use.

bulletIf you are a fair leader, when you do exert your authority the horse will not hold it against you. Although my mare learned rather quickly that she overstepped the line, we always had a great relationship previously and thus the incident only improved our relationship as she discovered I was indeed the alpha.

For someone who understood nothing about the horse "language" at the time, I assumed small actions like walking too close to me (without permission, mind you – I'll still to this day cozy up to my horses on my terms) or nudging the feed bucket weren't worth fighting over. As humans we are taught to choose our battles, after all. It wasn't until it progressed to the "breaking point" that I learned…

In the horse world, every battle must be faced with conviction lest the other party lose his or her respect for your authority. Whereas some would blame the horse for the inevitable result, the fault actually rested on my shoulders. I did not understand horses well enough at that time to realize I was failing her as a leader.

Once you have established your leadership ensure that your horse is reminded of your authority anytime he starts behaving even the slightest bit out of line. I've found for me a good 90% of the time I can remind my horses who is the "boss" with a subtle gesture, shift of my body or voice inflection – subtleties that many humans wouldn't even detect. When you and your horse work together daily and understand each other's body language, you both will become a fluid machine that can respond to even the slightest gestures or clues.

This is why it's so important for horse owners to truly learn a horse's body language. We expect a horse to learn our language yet many of us don't even put forth a half-hearted effort to understand them. But such folly is outside the scope of this article. Instead my point was that if you and your horse understand each other, physical force would probably never enter the equation. Being as strong as a lion does not mean being violent or abusive! It does mean that you are always observant of potential red flags and that you address each of them no matter how petty.

What humans perceive to be petty incidents are considered significant strides to horses. Don't make the mistake of applying our rules to the horse world as I did with the abovementioned mare. Think and react as an alpha horse would, and that means…

Always be as strong as a lion, but also as gentle as a lamb.

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