Stepping up as a leader

Recently I was with a student and her horse. This horse has had quite a journey; from being a natural introvert, not prone to much forward and also quite shut down, to a confident, almost cheeky, engaging friend with masses of try.

My student, like me, is also a mixed methodologist. She mostly uses passive leadership to set the tone, and clicker training to add enthusiasm. She also uses negative reinforcement where she needs to. They are an amazing team, working on a well rounded education together.

This particular day we were planning a lesson together. The horse was standing close and mouthing things in an attempt for bonus attention points, variously picking up a brush and other nearby objects. Her objective was to engage her human, hoping for some clicker action. Now this behaviour may not that desirable, but as a contrast to the blank eyed pony she used to be, this gentle playing is wonderful.

However we were deep in discussion and weren’t ready to change the subject, but we both knew to play with the horse that shows up. Instead of saying no, the student gave her horse another job to do, which was to back away a little and wait. The backup was treacle sweet and slow, the wait was not happening, instead turning into a creep forwards and more mouth. A few repeats and clicking for waiting ensued.

I noticed the quality of the backup. If it was going any slower it would have been going forwards. We spoke about the quality of the exercise. The human cue was soft and slight, and the response was there, but in super slo-mo, and the minimum amount of distance – literally three steps and halt, quickly followed by stepping forwards again. Clicking for the ‘wait’ didn’t help as she still came in for her treat, or if her human beat her to it and delivered would still creep right on back afterwards.

I diagnosed that the horse had slowly reverse trained her human to release for slighter and slighter ‘tries’.

Horses being pattern animals, the mare had developed a pattern that had her boomeranging back in from the world’s slowest slightest backup, every time.

In working on improving the backup and the wait, the student worked on upping the quality by setting a different criteria from ‘release for the slightest try’ to ‘release for slow and right’.

Step one was improve the backup from the ‘treacle two step’ to a steady backup (that had more than three steps), and then the wait.

The horse was quite welded to her pattern. So to interrupt it, the student upped her cue to get a snappier response. We broke the pattern. The cue escalated, became R-, but I could tell it was a reluctantly offered, and the horse certainly could tell. The horse responded eventually, after trying to continue her normal effort only, then through resisting passively, then through crookedness (shoulders getting out and stuck) until finally we got what was required; by being calm, persistent, and instantly releasing for each improvement. Eventually we got a solid five steps back and wait.

Because we had used pressure, the student then waited for the lick and chew which would signify a reset to calm.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the mare started looking not exactly shut down, but not unlike the blank dead eye that the used to be. Was she zoning out?

While what we had originally wanted was a polite wait, we knew that how the horse felt about it was a bigger training point than the exercise itself, and we didn’t want to shut her down again. So we waited.

And waited.

The mare seemed fairly disconnected compared to all the prior ‘look at me’ that had been going on, but she was still blinking…and thinking?

Then my student asked ‘do you think she’s figured out that when I use R-, I will stop and wait for the lick and chew before asking anything else, and therefore she’s holding it back?’

I had never considered this before, but I had just about opened my mouth at the same time to ask ‘is this getting better, or worse, or is something else going on?’

Now I don’t know if my student was correct, but it kind of had a ring of truth to it, I liked it, it probably isn’t common but knowing this smart pony, maybe it was a possibility. Also, one thing that tends to trigger a reset (lick and chew/sigh) is authenticity- and as the student was speaking, the mare gave the slightest secret lick and chew, inside her mouth, no tongue.

Maybe coincidence? Or not?

My own thought was also that we hadn’t actually used that much pressure. Perhaps the mare simply hadn’t actually had the sympathetic nervous system triggered, so therefore had no stress response to release? This horse trusts her human.

Everything we do is based upon confidence, communication, and mutual respect.

By mutual respect I mean leadership; though I expand that to include passive leadership which also, when appropriate, includes occasional ‘followship’.

It’s my conviction that the part of the equation that is called ‘feeling for the horse’ includes us synchronising with them, before expecting them to respond to us. This conjoins the trust, and communication, and mutual respect.

The backup had been slow, but we identified that the sticking point was actually the shoulders. The forehand yield was poor to both sides, and therefore, naturally, also in the backup.

We were reminded that a week prior this same horse had taken fright and shied sideways into me with her shoulders. No one died, or were even hurt, that time, but that is a clue to how things can go pretty bad if your horse doesn’t think your important enough not to run you over!

Trust and communication were well installed.

This meant that the third part of the equation- that of mutual respect- was where we needed to work.

We tested it out, and sure enough, the shoulders were stuck against steady pressure, and also against rhythmic pressure at close quarters.

My student was not as practised in technique, and I was also wanting to show the effect of clear intention, so I demonstrated using rhythmic pressure from a greater distance to get an appropriate response. It worked, instantly, as I fully intended owning that bit of real estate that the shoulder was set upon, no one got hurt, and we got a good yield and an instant, overt lick and chew. Not only that, but the entire expression and attitude changed. She gave great focus. She flowed forwards into a send. She was moving with power in all directions. She was with us, focused, and fully expressing herself through movement.

My student stepped up, and not only got the same result but also tried and mastered a couple of other new (to them) patterns that both include a lot of backup and shoulder yields. A lot of drive, in other words. R-.

The horse was riveted by her, had a great expression, and with a bit of persistence was licking and chewing while actually performing beautiful rhythmic backups, turns, and circling. Overall she looked like a fulfilled horse, doing what they are designed to do, which is to move!

So what was going on?

Why was this different to the prior attempts?

The difference was being effective enough to be understood, and understood enough to be effective.

This mare already knew the cue to back up and to yield her forehand. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t have been fair; and she would have needed a different criteria to actually teach the move which would have been ‘release (or reward- depending on whether using R+ or R-) for the slightest try’.

But she had moved beyond that. Now we wanted duration, and more effort put into the task rather than into how to change the game.

I’m not saying that improving the task (in this case ‘back up’) couldn’t be taught using R+; but that the principle of yielding to appropriate pressure which was behind the non compliance needed to be addressed.


If you ask ‘move please’ and the answer is ‘no, why should I’ and you’re on a road and a truck is about to hit you, then you’re not safe. The world is full of unexpected pressure. Sometimes the horse’s instinct is the best answer; but sometimes it’s only going to get them and us in deeper trouble and we need to be able to prevent that to stay safe. Unfortunately, if you never get to practice being assertive and your horse never gets to practice being responsive, then by the time the emergency happens it’s too late.

An interesting thing happens to we gentle souls when we discover the ‘no-pressure’ methods; positive reinforcement, reading calming signals, synchronising, and passive leadership.

It resonates with gentle souls, and reverting to R-when we need to can feel awkward and diffident.

I think that our horses read us like books. Our intention, our emotions, and our commitment to our actions are very clear to them. I have noticed in myself that if I am alone with my own horses or working with a student one on one, it’s easy to do things. I switch between modes and my horses switch with me, without taking offence or advantage. It’s just life. I am free to act naturally, and if I flow, they flow.

If, however, I’m in front of an instructor or a critic, then the horses might not be so responsive. They feel my hesitation and either hesitate themselves or start playing their own games, depending upon the horse that has shown up. If we are questioning ourselves, the first thing that has to happen, for a horse, is that horse questions you too- and someone needs to be in charge. It’s a biological imperative for a horse to have someone lead; and if there’s only two of you and you’re not stepping up, well there’s only one other alternative.

Horses love positive reinforcement- we all do!

It’s motivating, fun and fulfilling.

Sometimes however we need to step up and say ‘I got this’. This is imperative, because horses react by instinct.

Safety first; then comfort, then play (dominance games) then food/motivation.

Our currency needs to speak to the rung on which that horse is standing in every moment, and while it is possible to condition a horse to do the right thing despite the world going mad around him (consistent training, great timing, and power of patterns giving sense of comfort and control) one day may come where circumstances are so far out from the norm that the horse cannot associate his conditioned responses to the situation at hand.

Good leadership definitely includes ‘feeling for the horse’ and ‘feeling together’- which adds up to being considered a good leader to willingly follow. It also includes being decisive, and being worthy of regard- it’s mutual. If your horse runs me over, then I’m not worthy of her regard, right?

Also good leadership means teaching your horse the appropriate response to pressure. Life is full of pressure and if we don’t teach our horses how to yield then we are setting them up for a train wreck one day.

Good leadership is not being a bully. Is it the act of a bully to stop a child running into the road?

When safety is an issue, you need to know that your horse knows the appropriate response to pressure. Teaching this helps a horse think through a problem when it’s occurred under stressful situations as well as when all is calm.

I know of another horse/human partnership that is a beautiful friendship. She is as gentle with her horse as you can get. However she seldom gets to ride out because she can’t get her horse out the gate, he grazes and meanders and turns around and goes home repeatedly. At the halfway mark he becomes a freight train and blazes past the others on the ride at 90 miles an hour. That horse has a totally immovable shoulder. He has barged over people going through gates and riding out with them doesn’t happen any more with me because I had my knee (and my horse’s side) crushed by this horse suddenly barging past more times than I like to admit before I gave up trying.

It’s more than setting boundaries around your personal space. I have no problem giving ground myself out of good manners. Sometimes you need that horse to move NOW and if you never ever practise that, how do you think it’s going to work out for you when you really need it?

Plenty to lick and chew on there!

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