Horses has evolved across thousands of years. Their success as a species is due, in part, to their ability to figure out where they fit in the herd. Their failure to accurately assess where they are in the pecking order can be the different between a long, happy life, and one of discord, hunger and pain.
If a horse doesn’t have good social skills, and can’t determine who is at the head of the herd, he may misread certain body english. A horse that is a leader, or alpha, will make sure the others know when it’s time to eat or drink. Have you ever noticed a certain horse getting chased away from the water trough by another, bossier horse? If the horse being chased off doesn’t know how to read the dominant horse’s body language and realize that if he doesn’t move NOW, he may get bitten or kicked.
Horses spend their lives continually assessing their herd. “Am I higher or lower than this other member of the herd?” When we are riding, WE are their herd. This assumes that a horse isn’t herd bound, and only follows other horses around the ring. That means its up to us to be perceived as a worthy leader. Otherwise, the horse assumes he’s the alpha in our small herd, and we won’t get much riding done – at least, anything that seems like an enjoyable ride.
As a herd leader, we don’t need to be rough to be respected, but we do need to have clear boundaries, fair expectations, confidence and good timing. Without those qualities, the horse has no reason to follow our aids or do what we’d like.
Clear boundaries: To get the response we are seeking, we need to be certain that whatever was okay yesterday, is still okay today. Whatever behavior was not okay an hour ago is still not okay now. Inconsistent responses to what the horse does will make him anxious, and that never goes well. You need to understand the behavior you are rewarding (or allowing), so you can either promote it or discourage it, depending on whether it is appropriate or not.
Fair expectations: It’s okay to push a horse slightly beyond his comfort zone. It’s how we all learn and make progress, but it’s not okay to expect anything so far beyond your horse’s present level of training or fitness or temperament that he can’t possibly do what is asked. If you want to do hunters, and your horse is super sensitive and hyper, that may not be the right activity for him. Put a “round peg in a round hole” and do an activity that matches his abilities. Alternatively, realize that you may have to work at something much, much longer if your horse is not naturally suited for a job. Patience is always a good thing when working with horses.
Confidence: Easier said than done sometimes, it is important to approach all horse training, whether mounted or unmounted with a sense of confidence. If you are jumpy when you horse nods his head when putting on a bridle, it’s reasonable to expect him to wonder (a) if something is wrong and become anxious (“If you’re so jumpy, maybe I should be on alert”), or (b) if your aim of putting on his bridle is worth staying still for (“Maybe I’ll just wander into a stall to grab a bite to eat”). If you aren’t feeling so confident on the ground, work on having a good posture and a calm, focused way of physically dealing with your horse. In the saddle, work on breathing and making your aids as clear as possible. And remember you can always break down an exercise into smaller, more easily-understood pieces to help your horse meet your expectations.
Timing: As in much of life, timing is everything. Just like you can’t reprimand a dog for making a mess in your house after you get home from work, horses do not understand corrections that are not timed with a specific behavior. Feeding your horse treats after you’ve untacked does not have any correlation (in his mind) that you are rewarding him for good work in the ring. You are better off with a brief pat when still mounted, or getting off quickly when you’ve achieved your goals for a session, so your horse associates good behavior in the ring with immediate rewards or complete cessation of work/aids/pressure. Again, be clear.
We love horses, so it’s easy to think that by showing our love, our horses will be generous and follow our wishes. But to truly communicate with a horse, we have to understand how they think and what motivates them. Knowing horses’ basic instincts for survival, and considering how they operate in a herd, will help us to better communicate with them and have more success in each ride.