From the moment you enter your horse’s space each day to the time you put him back out in the field, you are either training or un-training him. Each interaction you have has an impact on his relationship with humans. There are certain truths about horses with respect to how they respond to any other creature. Natural horsemanship takes the viewpoint of using a horse’s natural instincts in a herd to make them believe that you are higher in the horsey pecking order than they are. I believe that this is a misstep. I believe that we should approach horses knowing their natural responses, but as a human developing a relationship with a horse. It is possible to work within the horse’s natural response as something other than another horse. I think this is an important distinction to make.
I am going to skip the in depth discussion of flight and fight response in horses because I think that it is pretty clearly understood. It is as simple as that a horse’s first response to a new or frightening situation is to flee. The blood shunts from their brain and organs to their muscles and they bolt. If they are cornered in an unbearable situation, they will fight until they are free enough to flee. There is a lot more to this aspect of the horse’s natural instinct, however, one of the most amazing truths about a horse is that this instinct can be numbed with the very simplest repetitive handling. One of the reasons that horses are able to be used by humans is that they take to be dominated in a relationship. I do not mean dominated in an aggressive or physical sense, I mean that more than other animals, they are willing to have a leader. We want to build on the later instinct and gradually eradicate the flight or fight response in our horses.
In performance horses, we are taking this relationship to a new level. We need to hone a horse’s natural talents and athletic ability, while still harnessing and directing it. Numbing a horse’s response to humans is no longer our goal. We want a horse to learn to respond to subtle cues; we want them to be tuned into us at all times. It now becomes even more important that you are a good leader. Keep these things in mind while you are leading your performance horse through his training.
• Trust: Your horse must have as much confidence in you as you have in him. You are not teaching your horse to do each new thing without fear. You are instilling the belief that anything you ask him to do will be safe. For your horse to be fearless in the showpen, you must never put him in a situation where he loses your trust. Be thoughtful about what you are doing. Is your horse advanced enough to be doing what you are asking of him? Is he capable of doing what you are asking, or are you putting him in a situation where he will fail?
• Focus: These sports require specific cuing and timing. You must be focused on your horse and on your job for him to be able to do his job. You are the pilot, and with that comes great responsibility. Only handle your horse for as long as you can stay engaged.
• Fairness: Structure in your program is paramount. Training a horse, in its simplest terms, is giving a cue until you get the desired response and then releasing the pressure. The horse then learns what you are asking for because they get relief when they give the correct response. As you advance in a horse’s training, this is still true, no matter how complex the maneuver. Be very cautious in your training that you are giving consistent direction. Just like with raising children, consistency and fairness in educating and discipline is key.
• Emotion: You must care for horse and what you are doing, but your emotions have no place in training. You must not allow yourself to become frustrated or angry. Likewise, you must not think you can pet and love your horse into perfection. Training horses is a process that must be followed pragmatically. Sometimes they need a firm hand, sometimes they need to be eased up on, but both instances are determined by what the horse needs to learn, not by how you are feeling about the process. You must put aside your emotions and train your horse without a charge.
• Self Examination: It is not only about your horse. As the leader in your relationship, the entire responsibility falls on you to create the situation your horse needs to thrive. You must always be honestly looking at your actions and your program and editing if needed. It is not easy to be a good leader, but if it was easy, everyone would do it!
"The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly."
— E. James Rohn