Tuesday, May 28, 2013
28th May, 2013 Circles of Influence
When I work with horses I always try to be the gentlest and subtlest that I can be, and for behaviour that I want to keep, I want to make my body language, cue or aid, as small as it can possibly be. This is why it is a joy to be able to think a horse into trot. HOWEVER, there are times when I will use the very biggest body language I have available, flap my rope hard against my coat or even jump up and down. There are just four sets of behaviour that I don't want to keep and my aim is to make those behaviours redundant at the earliest opportunity. I don't want a horse to bite me, kick me, invade my space or overtake me when I am leading him. The first two might seem rather obvious but I meet a lot of horses that bite. The last two are not so obvious but to me they are two of the most fundamental rules that I have. They are also two areas where a lot of people do not offer the horse enough clarity or consistency and often confuse the horse by giving mixed messages.
When I lead a horse, I want his head to be right by my side - not in front of me and not behind me. As soon as a horse is ahead of me he is put in the leadership position and effectively told that he must now make all the decisions. If he is a quiet, older horse with lots of confidence, he may be fine. More often however a horse put in this position will take the leadership he has been given and start to try to influence his world. They will move their owners around rather than the owner moving them around. Some horses will take their owners for walk or to eat some grass, others will start to circle their owner or press in with their shoulder, impeding the owner's path and preventing their progress - postponing behaviour. The picture above is an exaggerated example of that. When a horse starts to feel out of control, he is often taking control. The temptation is always to put him on a circle around you until he loses that level of energy but it is that very circle that puts the horse in control; almost always he will start to come inwards and move the owner with his shoulder. Shoulders are a massive source of power for a horse.
These behaviours are all entirely natural - this is what foals do to their mothers in order to get them to stop so that they can have a drink. It's what they do to other horses to influence speed, direction and destination - just look at the pictures of the horses practising their emergency drills.
Leading a horse from the shoulder also causes them to be crooked unless the handler never pulls on the head-collar. Pulling on the head-collar causes the horse to go 'into-pressure' and to forge ahead.
If a horse is asked to follow his owner there are two possible outcomes. First of all he may switch off altogether and look as if he is very obedient. I don't want that level of disconnect with my horse. Not only because I prefer to be 'with him' physically and mentally but also because he becomes less responsive to other stimuli and, if suddenly startled, may run me over. I like to know that he is awake. Secondly he may form the impression that he is moving me and be tempted to see what would happen if he did it a bit more or perhaps gave me a little nip!
It's hard to be adamant with a horse about where you want him to be, especially where there is a strong emotional connection with the horse. We want to be really nice to our horses so that they love and trust us, but some good leadership (and here I don't mean domination, I mean having a sense of purpose and security) is worth a lot more to a horse than all the love in the world. A strong intention and absolute resolve will establish the wanted behaviour in just three goes in most cases. Being tentative will only prolong the existence of the unwanted behaviour and cause it to become a persistent dance - I do this two, three and you do that, two, three until the horse might believe that is what is wanted. I would rather get the behaviour out of the way not just because it is boring to deal with it over and over again but because I'd rather be doing something positive with the horse. Once the horse is leading with his head by my side, we can go over obstacles, we can go for walks, we can try matching stride for stride - fast and slow - and all of this without ever having to pull on his head. Leading a horse should be like going for a purposeful walk with your best friend.