Traditionally horses are kept for reasons; for transportation, to plough, to work cows, for recreation and for sports, as such we demand full control. For millennia we have known how to make horses subordinate and controllable. Anyone can see that horses are big and strong, they seem friendly and calm, but suddenly they can act irrational; panic or sometimes even act aggressive and hostile for no apparent reason. “We do not trust the beast, we control it”. To be able to control a horse is considered a true sign of professionalism and power; the term is “to break a horse”. Everybody wants a well broke mount. This view upon horses is very old and traditional. It works fine and it provides us with everything we ask from a horse, but give it a few minutes of free thought and it is obvious that we also lose something.
When everything in the horse’s life is predetermined by us humans, she eventually stops asking and communicating. We ask and the horse performs. Traditional horsemanship is supposed to lead to a state where the horse considers us as being the “good leader”. The term is not all easy to relate to, if you come to think about it. What is a good leader? Do we really need a leader in a team of only two? The idea comes from observations of horses living together in a herd, but it is also tinted by human preconceptions borrowed from military hierarchy thinking.
A band of wild horses can be composed in many different ways, but to give an example a herd generally consists of a group of mares and their colts and fillies. The band is kept together by a herd stallion, which guards his harem from other stallions trying to take them away from him. The stallion also protects the herd from predators and other threats. As the colts and fillies grow up they are eventually expelled or pushed out of the herd by the stallion, so there is usually never any risk of inbreeding among wild horses. The expelled young stallions often run together in bachelor bands, sometimes one of them challenges a herd stallion and manage to take over a herd of mares, or part of it. The expelled young mares are soon picked up by another herd. The lead mare is the big boss; she seems to control everything in the herd, but her leader role is not really comparable with what we expect from a human leader.
A lead mare is typically an experienced mare with a confident personality. She rarely accepts being pushed around by other mares. She wants to graze wherever she decides, the other mares usually treats her with respect and want to be accepted by her. If any mare shows disrespect, the lead mare will chase her away from the herd, then the lead mare stops and the other mare stops too, looks around and soon realizes it feels unsafe to be alone. The lead mare then turns around towards the herd. The other mare then slowly walks back towards the lead mare with her head low and they both rejoin the herd. The other mare learned her lesson; if you mess with the lead mare you’ll get expelled, so behave well and you will be protected by the herd! This is a useful process between human and horse, Monty Roberts calls it the Join-up-process.
All mares in a herd are different personalities and there may be several strong personalities, so the role of the lead mare may change in different situations. Some are watchful against predators and other threats against the herd, have exceptionally sharp senses, some are confident to graze where others feel unsecure, some are exceptionally good at finding super tasty grass or perhaps they can smell water over longer distances than others, some are wisely experienced and knows their territory. Generally we see the toughest mare as the leader because she stands out and when the stallion is around she gets the attention first, but in reality there can be several mares leading the herd depending on the situation. Some mares seem to get along as best friends and form a band within the band, grazing together with their fillies playing around them.
What we want to achieve in our relationship with horses is a state where the horse look upon us not just as a leader, but also as a good friend. We don’t want the horse to fear us, we want the horse to feel comfortable and safe around us, we want the horse to feel that our friendship is beneficial.
If the horse is totally controlled by you as a strong powerful leader, she will do what you ask and even walk thru fire for you. For most uses like sports and cow work, this is exactly what you want from a horse; a safe and easily controlled SUV.
On the other hand, if you want a trusty friend out on the trail and are prepared to give up a little of that control, you can gain a horse that trust you as a good friend; a horse that won’t walk thru fire for you, but she will certainly convince you it is darn stupid to do so and instead suggest a better path.
True friendship always includes freedom of speech. When we demand total control from the horse, we turn off the horses senses. Horse’s senses are vastly superior to ours. When you are ready to trust your horse and accept her as a true friend she will do the same for you and then you gain access to the horse’s senses. There may be unlimited reasons for a horse to resist or hesitate when we ask something from her. The horse is not always trying to control you; maybe she simply tries to share something important.
With a horse that considers you a trusty friend, you will discover more of the beauty along the trail if you pay attention to her signals. She will not walk straight like a gasoline robot, she will tell you about the gorgeous herbs she smells along the trail, the birds she hears hiding in that bush over there, the smell of that fox who crossed the trail this morning and the stream you will have to cross around the next bend. She will argue please to take another path, where there is a nice place for a coffee break and by the way, incredibly great grass. The trail ride becomes a different experience.
In traditional horsemanship the fear for horses is controlled by leadership, but that is not what we want. We want to achieve a state where you and your horse work as a team of trusty friends, where there is no room for fear. Horses can be playful and humans are more fragile than horses so we can get run over, kicked or bitten by accident, so it is important to learn to read horses and to read situations before they happen. Spending time with horses and observing them interact is always well spent time, so keep them close to you and you will learn more. In the most prominent horse cultures in the past, horses were closely incorporated in everyday life.
This way of regarding the horse as an equal friend, should also affect the way we provide for our horses and how we feed them, because food is very central in horse’s lives and it occupies most of their time. In the next part about this subject we will discover what determines how and what horses eat.