How to Let Your Horse Know Who is Boss, and Everyone Else Too

Reader Contribution by Jamie Cearley and Phd
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The horse community can be quite controversial. There is however one thing all horse folks seem to agree on; to be a good horseman you must be a good leader. “You need to show him who is boss” could be the mantra of the horse world. It is not so much this phrase as it is the behavior following on the part of the person intending to be the boss that starts all the fuss.

This divergence is in large part a direct result of the level of leadership skill on the part of the horseman. Where a horseman stands in the following progression of leadership skill will not only determine how they go about showing their horse whose boss but will also directly affect the horses behavior in response. Incidentally, horses tend to be more blatantly honest in their feedback regarding leadership skills than humans.

Listening to a horse’s feedback will provide a clear picture of what human friends are feeling about a person’s leadership skills, yet just don’t have the audacity to say to their face.

While each of the tactics below are necessary and useful at times, in general they can be thought of as depicting increasing levels of leadership ability.

Three levels of leadership skill:

1. Tell

Unfortunately, this is as far as most people get; with horses and humans. Everyone loves that boss or parent who has no strategy other than, “because I said so,” right? The truth is, no one likes to be told to do anything.

Moreover, harmony is never achieved at this level. Why can harmony not be achieved by telling? Because the one being told to perform shoulders no personal responsibility. As a result, opposition and unwillingness predominate. There is no dignity in being told, no positive motivation, no heart nor desire called upon. Fortunately, there is a better way.

2. Ask

Who wouldn’t rather be asked than told? Then why is it so much easier to just tell what is desired than to ask? Simple, because asking is a request and by its very nature leaves an opening for decline. It is the option to decline that is loved on the receiving end and detested by the one asking. Why, because in the mind of the one asking, control has been relinquished, and humans hate losing control. To make giving up this control easier, it helps for the one asking to realize it was never really theirs in the first place. It has been said by horseman of old, if a horse doesn’t do what is asked then it must have been the wrong question or asked at the wrong time.

A positive response to asking indicates a level of respect and rapport is developing. It is at this level harmony begins to appear, opposition decreases, and willingness increases. The one being asked begins to bear some responsibility. There is dignity in being asked. This is the beginning of a true partnership.

3. Suggest

This is the ultimate in horsemanship and leadership. For many this only happens in dreams where they simply think, “Let’s canter” and off they go. It is at this level of communication that relaxation, harmony and willingness are at their peak.  Here, there is a perfect balance of responsibility on the part of both partners.

To achieve this level of leadership requires a great deal of trust, respect, justice, clear communication and time.

Sometimes in dealing with horses and people alike leaders find it “easier” to simply tell what they would like to happen. However, there are infinite negative consequences to taking this easy way out, both immediate and long term. Taking the time and making the effort to learn to ask, then suggest, is priceless in building relationships with horses and humans. As it is with most good personal traits it takes time and hard work to build them but in the long run it is easier and more pleasant for everyone involved.

I would love to hear your leadership experiences. Please share your comments.

Would you like to read more stories like this? Please visit my website for more Mental Morsels with Dr. Cearley. Learning life principles from the farm.

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