Grit Blogs > Mental Morsels With Dr. Cearley

Why Size Does Not Matter To Your Horse

Jamie Cearley, PhDSize_Cearley

There is a bizarre logic many exhibit when it comes to horses. On the one hand we moan at the weight of our saddles as we hoist them to painful heights. We dread the arrival of the hay trailer. As it lumbers down the driveway to its winter resting place it feels like a funeral procession for the living.

But, the power of the horse is something we horse lovers hold in awe. Their massive muscles flexing as they run and jump gets us excited and wanting to ride.

Then we lose our minds.

Somehow while we struggle to carry a saddle or stack 50 pound bales of hay we think we can out muscle a 1200+ pound prey animal.

My farrier proclaimed our draft cross Loki was less than obedient because he knew I wasn’t strong enough and he could push me around.

This fascinates me for many reasons, not the least of which are these:

1. Loki is by far the largest and strongest horse in our herd of six. His hooves, resting at the ends of his tree trunk legs, are double the size of the others. His buns are like those of a mammoth. Funny thing is, Loki is at the bottom of the herd hierarchy. If size mattered to Loki or the other horses in the herd he would throw his weight around and be king, but that does not happen. Instead he runs at the flick of an ear from any of them, fearing they will have what I call “a cinnamon bun breakfast.”

2. While I may not be Schwarzenegger, I also doubt my farrier or any other human has the physical strength to control Loki. We should not find it surprising an animal capable of pulling a plow or carrying a large man would be less than impressed with human musculature.

3. As if the first two reasons weren’t enough there’s this: Loki responds to flies. Enough said.

So if size doesn’t matter to a horse what does?

Here are 3 attributes that matter to a horse far more than size or strength:

1. Timing. We’ve all heard it said, “Timing is everything.” Nowhere is this truer than in horsemanship. Timing can take on several different forms, all making you a great leader. Timing could be the release of your hands on the lead rope or reins the instant your horse tries what you asked, a small correction with your leg at just the right moment, or asking for a canter transition just as the lead foot is falling. All of these are examples of timing that matters to your horse. Or, it could be as simple as practicing your trailer loading long before your next trip. A timely dismount at the first sign of disaster can be life-saving for both you and your horse. I used to have a sign on my desk that read something like, “Procrastination on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” We all detest leaders with bad timing. In this sense horses are no different.

2. Feel. What is feel to a horse? It is the ability to be in the moment. To have a deep sense of your surroundings. Not only knowing the physical environment but discerning what each herd member is experiencing at any given moment. For the most part, horses are non-verbal. They rely on body language to communicate in silence. You might say they have a sixth sense about them. That sixth sense is feel.

3. Movement of feet. To horses quality leadership often boils down to one simple factor: who moves whose feet first or most. This idea is foreign to humans. As a result many times our horses have an easy time getting us to move our feet. Our first horse Twister was so clever at this game he could have you on the other side of a 6 acre pasture wondering how you got there. I have thought it would be interesting to hook up our GoPro camera on time lapse and film myself performing basic tasks with our horses like grooming, bathing, saddling or even holding our horse for our farrier. Since these are all tasks requiring the horse to stand still I have a feeling I would look like a Mexican Jumping Bean in the resulting video.  

Have you ever seen two horses play the game of nip and duck? If played well both horses plant their feet and engage in somewhat of a sword fight using their heads and necks. The horse who manages to get the other to move his feet first wins that round. Our horses play this game daily, sometimes for hours. We would be fools to think they aren’t engaging in the same game with us, whether we even know we are playing.

The next time someone says you aren’t strong enough or big enough to handle your horse, remember size doesn’t matter to your horse. Focus on those attributes of leadership most important to your horse and bear in mind, even a fly can move a horse.

It isn’t about size. It is about effective leadership.

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