It doesn’t matter if you ride a horse once a week, or have ridden everyday for 20 years- when you are working with your horse, you are “training” that horse. You may just be reinforcing good (or bad) behavior, but every single time you work with a horse, you are telling the horse what is and what is not acceptable behavior.
Horses are often lazy, but they also want to know where they are in the herd order. If you have an established relationship with a horse, he may even stop challenging you for herd order. If you have a wild Mustang like Gypsy, you will know that every small infraction of the rules is a challenge to your authority, and must be dealt with appropriately. What everyone should remember, however, is that it is important to acknowledge that you are working with a 1,000 pound prey animal, and you must create a presence that indicates that you know what you’re doing, and can be looked to as a respected leader.
People often forget, but body language is incredibly important to horses as that is their primary means of communication. That means that the conversation of who is in charge and who can be trusted begins immediately when you enter the stable. If you are passive, if you indicate fear, or if you do not act in a way that communicates confidence, your horse will be less likely to trust you than if you are confident and sure of yourself.
A recent example that comes to mind occured when one of Hanaeleh’s volunteers was working with a horse named Popcorn. I have worked with Popcorn on and off for the past few months, and have never seen anything but a docile, willing (albeit lazy) horse. He knows what is expected of him in the round pen, and will walk, trot or even canter when asked. Last week, however, he turned on a volunteer and refused to move. When she asked him to walk, he reared up slightly and struck out. We quickly rushed over- this was not indicative of any behavior we had seen previously- and my assistant trainer got into the arena. She took the whip from the volunteer and told him to go to the rail- and he did. Immediately. Then, under her direction, he worked without any issue. She worked with him the next day, and said that he turned toward her when she first asked him to start walking, and when she cracked the whip and told him to start walking, he did- and did not challenge her again.
I should note that Popcorn has never tried that with me. I believe it is because he knows, just from me walking him, grooming him, and being around him, that any such challenge would be futile. I am confident while working with horses, and my presence indicates that assuredness that I know what I am doing and am a capable leader. Popcorn doesn’t need to challenge me because I am a herd leader. He can see how the other horses respect and listen to me, and he can see how other humans respect and listen to me. He challenged the volunteer because he was not sure where she fit in regard to the herd order. Her lack of knowledge of what to do in that situation became an immediate lack of confidence, which resulted in my assistant trainer having to step in. I believe that he will probably challenge her again, and she will need to work more with Popcorn to claim her rung in the herd ladder before he stops.
This is also why people may have issues with their horse, and when they ask their trainer for help, their trainer merely shrugs and says, “He doesn’t do that with me.” That is because your horse knows that there is no need to challenge the trainer- he or she is already known to be higher up on the rung of the herd ladder.
Humans have their own ladder, although it is not always as obvious. Think back to when you were in school. Did you try to get away with more with the “nice” teacher than the “mean” one? How did you treat the substitute? Did you respect the substitute as much as you did your regular teacher?
Of course not. No one does. Speaking as a teacher who worked as a substitute for over a year, think about your horse acting out as an odd form of karma.
I will address issues of how to deal with challenging horses in another post (or several), but if you are having issues with your horse, think about what presence you are putting out into the world. Does your body language say that you are confident and know what you are doing? Or, are you saying you are uncertain and don’t know what is going on? Try to exude a presence of confidence and authority and see if that helps gain you a little more respect in the horse world. If nothing else, it should gain you a little more respect in the human world.