Recently, a non-horsey friend asked me, “How does one relate to and communicate with horses?” Given that this person had no point of reference for how horses work within their own social structures, much less how they operate with their riders and trainers, I had to explain it carefully. How should I put into words the bond that exists between my horses and me? What makes a rider or trainer able to properly communicate with an animal of a different species and with a completely separate agenda, and how do we convince them to go along with our human plans?
There are certainly trainers that believe in dominance theory, to varying degrees. According to veterinary behaviorists, “dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals that is established through force, aggression and the following submission in order to establish priority access to all desired resources.” Of course, we do observe that horses have very defined hierarchical social systems, and they do occasionally employ displays of force, but to assert that it is all dominance-based is an oversimplified assessment of equine communication and relationships.
The idea that you can become a leader over your horse just because you have convinced him that pressure or discomfort will only end when he submits to you is not only ridiculous, but it is wrong. It is, in fact, just learned helplessness, and does not indicate a real learning process at all. Many trainers relate to their horses this way almost unconsciously, or through misguided training systems that are indelibly anchored in our community. There will always be people looking for the quick fix, the fast way to achieve a goal, and this is one of the first routes that those people go down in their quest.
My theory is that I must establish myself as neither a dictator, nor a doormat, and if I want to be a leader, I have to earn the right to that title. I handle and ride a lot of horses that are labeled “problem” cases, honestly because that’s what I’m able to afford. This means I have grown up dealing with horses that have issues that were invariably created by crap interactions with humans until this point. It’s a very rare case that a horse is innately “bad” or “crazy,” but instead these are labels that we place upon them once their behavior has stopped responding to our training methods. How often do we hear, “He keeps bucking me off, the little butt head!” instead of, “I don’t know how to communicate with him and achieve understanding between the two of us.”
My two cents? Your horse isn’t bucking you off because he hates you, or because he has a personality disorder or because he’s being a jerk. He’s bucking you off because he’s trying to communicate with you, and you’re too busy thinking about other things to be paying attention and speak to him on the same wavelength.
We learn to communicate through observation — and years of it — attention to detail and the ability to focus on subtle body cues. We earn our place as leader (or at least co-conspirator) because we have proven ourselves over and over again to be trustworthy and, most of all, fair. My horses follow my directions (well … most of the time) because they have seen and experienced that I always have their safety at the foremost of my mind, and that I do not act irrationally or inflict discomfort upon them for arbitrary reasons. I’m a lead mare because I’m intelligent, confident and trustworthy, not just because I’m the baddest bitch out there.
I am also not a doormat, which is to say that I won’t just roll over and let them trample me because they feel like it. I have rules about my personal space, just like any other horse, and I enforce them with various methods that you could observe in the herd … if there was a biped with no hooves wandering amongst them. Respect does not have to evolve from a basis of dominance or fear, but rather an acknowledgment of cooperation and trust. For all of us, we could strive to be a little more conscious of how we communicate and behave because, after all, every moment you spend with your horse, you are either training him or un-training him, so make it count.