Establishing Authority with Your Horse

The horse who is disrespectful is usually one who has not learned to trust its handler with its safety and well being. In such cases, horses with dominant personality traits feel that if they don’t continually look out for themselves, no one else will, while less dominant animals seek the safety of joining up with other horses. This is due to their herd instinct, where there’s always greater safety in numbers.
The dominant animal, feeling primarily responsible for its own safety, will be hyper-reactive to all sorts of stimuli. This may result in shying, whirling, bolting–and general lack of attention to the hapless rider’s cues. The horse who possesses a lower ranking in the herd pecking order will tend to pay more attention to what other horses are doing than to its rider. Consequently, such horses continually rush to keep up with others, refuse to take the lead, and tend to become herd bound and/or buddy and barn sour.

Aside from these issues, however, is that of the horse actually looking to–and out for–the rider. One of the first things a rider needs to do to train a horse to its best natural gait is to create natural impulsion from behind. An animal who is being continually distracted by other stimuli will not generate the consistent impulsion at a 4-beat walk that is required. Moreover, it will learn to use these distractions to avoid the very real work of properly using and exercising its body. (Contrary to the opinions of some, horses most definitely are not stupid animals!) Nervous, insecure animals will stiffen up, hollow out their backs, and travel in a manner directly opposite of that which is our goal.

The first thing a rider needs to evaluate in such a situation is whether or not he or she is ‘over-horsed.’ On two occasions that I recall, riders with very timid personalities came into clinics with young, extremely strong-willed animals. No amount of persuasion was ever going to make the rider into a more forceful, effective owner of the horse. . .they were innately soft-spoken people who needed well seasoned horses that would respect their gentle manner of handling and riding. Thankfully this is a rare situation. Most people are very capable of learning how to establish authority over their horses.

A common misconception, especially among women, is that it’s possible to love a horse so much that it submits to the rider out of reciprocal feelings of affection. To which I say: Hogwash! Certainly it’s appropriate to express our affection to our horses–but it’s equally or more important to express our expectations to them. We teach them, step by step, that we expect respect.

This is much easier than it may sound. Horses in their natural herd situations establish respect, and authority. . .by pushing one another around. Don’t believe it? Just spend some time watching a group of horses, and you’ll discover there is a continual language being spoken: “This is my tuft of grass. . .get out of my space,” may be spoken with a sharp look and laid back ears. A youngster who oversteps his bounds with an older horse may be forcefully nudged by a nose. If he disrespects the older horse’s suggestion he will likely receive the nudge from the other animal’s back haunches in short order. That same young horse may then seek out the company of an even younger sibling–just to have someone he can push around for awhile. It’s all part of learning a complicated set of social rules that will serve the animal well for the rest of its life.

These same rules must be understood, and instituted, by you. In essence what this means is that you learn how to move the horse’s body, tell it where to go. . .until it fully realizes that you are the current ‘herd boss.’ Once that fact has been established, it lays a solid foundation for all of the work to follow. Until you have established this authority, you will enjoy limited training success.

When confronted by an unfamiliar horse who obviously has not learned to respect its handler, I pull out a simple trick that  quickly establishes my authority. It works off the principle that horses do not like to back up: in the wild, it is a totally unnatural movement for them. Therefore, if I can induce the animal to back up while it’s on the lead line, I have effectively gained control of its body. To control the horse’s body is to be the one in charge.

When I take the lead line of a horse who is a dominant character, the animal will throw back its head and ‘posture.’ That is, he will try to look large and intimidating. A more timid animal will immediately look around and perhaps call out for another animal. I ignore either response,  and begin to walk toward the horse while shaking the lead line and saying, “Back.” If he tries to pull back and turn (usual response), I take up the slack in the rope to prevent it, look him directly in the eye, push on the muscle of his shoulder with the point of my finger, and say–more forcefully this time–“Back!” Usually this will get the horse to at least lean backward, at which time I take of the pressure and praise him–but only for a moment. (Too much gushing praise is not a good thing, as it detracts from the lesson at hand.) If he still isn’t obeying the command to back up, I apply greater and greater pressure until he does. This may take the form of my slapping his shoulder once or twice with a cupped hand or, on rare occasion, giving a pop or two with a short bat. The point is, the horse must submit to my command.

As soon as I achieve the desired response and have rewarded it, I continue to request more steps backward until he’s stepping back one step every time I give the command to back. At that point, I ask the horse to “step forward,” while gently tugging on the lead rope. He is usually only too happy to oblige! At this point the horse has stopped resisting my authority, and is very attentive to my cues. I then ask him to ‘Stand.” If he steps forward, I snap the rope and say, “Stand!” If this causes him to back, I re-position him to where he started, and repeat the stand command until he understands and obeys.

Now if it were a horse I was working at home I’d carry these lessons much further–I’d teach the animal to give to pressure from every point of its body. But the simple steps I’ve outlined here go a long way toward establishing respect, and gaining the authority a rider needs to be able to go on with successful training.

For more information on gaining respect from your horse, I highly recommend Clinton Anderson’s two video series: Gaining Respect from the Ground, parts I and II.

Many happy–and smooth–trails!
Brenda Imus