I read a rather lengthy post on facebook last night. The poster was boasting of overcoming some difficult riding troubles she had been having with her horse and one of the things she said was that “I am finally being the leader he needs”. For some reason when I read the line I recoiled a little.
I had to step back a minute and ask myself why I had a negative reaction to the phrase. I was happy for the rider and the fact that she had made strides forward with her horse, so where was this negative feeling coming from. As I thought about it, I realized that it specifically had to do with the word “leadership”.
It is like leadership has become the latest buzz word in horsemanship and I hear it used over and over. We all want to be it for our horses, we all think it’s a good thing, we all strive for it and when our horses act the way we want, we think we have achieved it.
We’ve all heard the expression “horses are looking for a leader”. This claim is backed up by the fact that a herd will follow the lead horse to food, safety and shelter. In this scenario, in my opinion, what a horse is really looking for is…survival…not leadership. If one horse knows where the food is, they follow that one because it is the easiest and smartest way to survive.
Take a minute to google the term leader and leadership and then look up if horse herds have leaders. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
What did you learn? When I did it, what I learned is that leadership is a very human concept. And in fact contrary to our belief doesn’t exist in wild horse herds the way trainers have led us to believe it does. In fact, one of the articles I read indicated that horses with the most “friends” are the most likely to be followed and it has nothing do with hierarchy. Another suggested that herd behaviors is are a group decision and does not rest with one solitary animal.
Hmmm….and here we are basing our whole methods on this concept.
Furthermore, and I know this will be a big a surprise…humans are not horses. Our horses are NEVER going to think we are one of them. They are ALWAYS going to know we are a human. This does not mean they cannot look to us for certain things such as food, safety, stimulation and shelter, but to believe that if horses are in fact looking for a leader, that they would pick one that is outside of their species and one that is vacant for most of the hours they spend in a day, seems a bit impractical to me.
I believe what has happened is that at some point a master in horsemanship used the word leader and the masses attached to it. Then they muddied it, misunderstood it and misinterpreted it. Leaders exhibit some important qualities, such as: calm, confidence, emotional control, understanding, decisiveness etc. In training a horse we need to be all those things. It will make us more effective and it will help our horses clearly understand what we want from them. I suspect using the word leader was easier than inserting all of those adjectives.
If not leaders, than what are we to our horses. I prefer to think of us as educators. It is our responsibility to teach our horses how to exist in the human world. Teach them what we expect of them, how we want them to behave, teach them the boundaries, teach them what is acceptable and what isn’t. Teach them that we will care for them, we will acknowledge their feelings, we will not be unfair, teach them that we will be clear, reliable and consistent and in these teachings they become the horses we want them to be.
I realize that I may just be quibbling over words. Lead…teach…tomato..tamato…but I think it is important if we understand how horses learn, live and behave. We like to believe that our horses are looking for a leader and when we provide that for them, it makes us feel good about ourselves. But, I think that misses the mark because if we want horses to do well in the human world, what they actually need is an educator with leadership qualities.