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By Jorene Downs

In response to questions / comments ...

re: "Act like a Horse" and your horse will understand you better.

More correctly, learn the nuances of horse behavior so you can better understand the horse, pay attention to what the horse is telling you, and communicate in a way the horse can understand. Yes, this will resemble "acting like a horse" but you want to be careful which horse behavior you choose to try and emulate or you'll send the wrong kind of messages to the horse.

re: squeal at a horse when he does something wrong, act like the lead horse.

You don't "act" like the lead horse - if you're doing this right you are the established lead horse 24/7. ;)

But squealing is a more aggressive audible in the herd that is often a step from a more physical discussion. If you're at a "squealing" level you didn't see a problem coming and anticipate or prevent the escalation. Better to see a problem coming, and head it off at the pass ... but the objective is to keep the situation calm rather than aggravate it. So choose the appropriate "lead horse behavior" for the situation.

The horse will normally read your "No" body language before you accompany it with an audible. The audible - in most situations - is more like reinforcement of the visual message you're sending. The two audibles I have a habit of using are "Quit!" or a sharp sounding "Eh!" ... and the tone of voice reinforces the "don't do that" body language. Prior to that point often offering a calm distraction will prevent the incident, and with calm repetition of prevention the horse learns "don't do that" as a consistent behavior boundary established by the boss, while as handler you reduce the potential for a situation requiring direct confrontation with an animal substantially larger and stronger.

re: horses in the herd are often challenging and fighting

What you aren't seeing is the less obvious leader role in the herd, the quiet leadership with the subtle communication where the other horse willingly complies. ;)

When there are two horses, one is the leader, the other is subordinate. Always. There is no "equal" relationship in the horse world ... horses by nature will quickly establish who is the boss and sometimes that discussion results in the kicking or biting you have observed. Other times there is simply posturing for discussion regarding who is the boss, and one horse may yield leadership to the other without a real challenge or even a discussion. Throughout the herd you'll find individual relationships established between each two horse combination - a hierarchical herd environment - and some examples of leadership you'll want to avoid, like the herd bully who seems to be aggressive with every other horse in the herd.

The leadership example you're looking for is the two horses standing relaxed next to each other. They are herd buddies, but one horse is the quiet leader and the subordinate horse is comfortable around him ... a willing follower who trusts the calm consistency of the boss instead of being wary he's about to get kicked or bitten.

That quiet leadership status is the role you want as the human in the herd. Often simply moving with confidence is sufficient to establish your leader status. The person who has a more volatile personality or is quick to show impatience will find it far more difficult to achieve this kind of quiet leader status because the subordinate horse will be more relaxed around consistency in leadership. The horse is good at reading body language, and if you're tense, the horse will be tense and wary wondering why you're tense. If you're calm and relaxed, the horse will more likely be calm and relaxed. So sending the right message is critical for good leadership.

In the herd a "warning" communication might be a swishing tail, a shift in body weight, a change in posture angling the neck or head, a flick of an ear without necessarily pinning the ears yet, etc. And with this subtle action one horse sends a warning communication to another horse. Often the warning is space / distance related ... like "you're too close" ... and the other [subordinate] horse will simply move off until the warning messages stop. The bite or kick occurs when the subordinate horse fails to respond appropriately to more subtle communication ... and often the bite or kick isn't even intended to connect but is a next level of escalation. Next level up might be contact. Some horses will escalate faster than others or give little warning, and these are the less trusted leaders within the herd ... not the right role model for the human.

A slight change in your body language sends a quiet message as a request, another slight change makes that message more insistent, another adjustment presents the message as a demand. This is all degrees of pressure, and different horses will respond differently so you need to adapt. Your body language is talking for you, and essentially you can turn up the volume or turn it down. The average horse will easily understand the "normal volume" communication and provide feedback, some horses need a bit more clarity, a hint more volume, additional cues, etc., to open lines of communication, but the goal is to reduce the volume to a clearly understood whisper of communication between horse and human.

To put it another way ... if the alpha horse in the herd consistently uses aggressive pressure with little warning, the subordinate horse will be wary around that alpha horse. The warning posture of the quiet leader is a form of soft pressure, and the subordinate horse calmly responds / yields until the pressure is removed. So how the pressure is presented and perceived is an important issue in your status as subtle herd leader. Slower movement is less threatening than sudden movement, your posture can make a polite request or shout an order, etc., so choose the right message to send. Your horse will be communicating messages back to you, simply adjust what/how you're communicating according to what the horse is telling you. How  the horse perceives and responds to your communication is the measure for success regarding how well you're communicating and the quality of your relationship with your horse.

Horses aren't particularly complicated, so building fundamentals in a quality relationship isn't as difficult as it appears once you get a handle on things. Until the human figures out and applies the quiet leader role, odds are there is some fear and confusion down at the barn because the horse is getting mixed messages instead of calm consistency.

originally posted to the rec.equestrian newsgroup in the 1990s
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