This has got to be THE big question – not just the issue of the relationship between yourself and your horse but, let’s face it, respect means so many different things to different people.
The dictionary definition of RESPECT is ‘…an attitude of deference, admiration, or esteem; regard. The state of being honoured or esteemed.' Now isn't that interesting! Did you ever have a teacher at school, college or university that you had great respect for? Someone who inspired and motivated you; someone who always seemed to be in control of themselves and the class for which they were responsible? I know that the teachers I respected were the ones who came to class well prepared for the lesson, with an obvious plan. They never seemed to be undecided or became flustered or hesitant. They certainly didn’t try to become their student’s best buddy. And, guess what - on field trips, they were always the teachers that students instinctively wanted to hang out with! So we didn’t fear them, but we did have respect for them - and I believe that students taught by these teachers achieved more.
The need for leadership
Our horses lack respect when there's no consistency in their handling; when their training lacks structure, or they feel threatened and - as a direct consequence - need to become defensive. And remember that it’s impossible to achieve respect if we lack confidence in ourselves, are unsure and doubt our own actions. It’s downright impossible to fool our horses, so we need to see the big picture when we train them. We must know what we'd like to achieve; how our horse will behave, and how the overall picture will look - whether from the ground or under saddle. At the same time as having that picture very clearly in your mind, it's just as important to be able to break it down - and those goals - into much smaller component parts. This gives us a systematic and progressive plan, which in turn helps with consistent schooling. So that’s the ideal - we demonstrate good leadership qualities and have a well thought out plan. Experience tells us this will work, right? However, back in the real world…..
... you’re in a muddy field with a pushy two year old that's in danger of either running you over or kicking up it’s heels – in your face! Your boots are stuck in the mud, the dog's running around you barking and making things worse. Whatever happened to that sweet, cuddly foal you originally bred?It's turned into the equine equivalent of a hoody wearing yob; not exactly a well mannered, polite horse that's safe to be around.
Remember who's boss!
'The boss'... that's you, right? We all know that this is how it’s supposed to be, but for some people this is easier said than done. To be your horse’s boss you need to be able to move it away from you, not the other way around. If you move away from your horse (for example it steps towards you and you move backwards to avoid being trodden on) then your horse has just discovered that you're lower down the pecking order than it is. Your horse now looks upon you as someone who'll move out of it’s way. Why would he think twice before walking right over you if necessary? And don't ever forget that those cute little foals will start to test the boundaries just about as soon as their feet hit the ground. Check out this picture of Skooter to the right. It's one of our favourites because it shows so much personality and expression! Even at this age she was testing out her humans... what would her human do if she flattened her ears and flashed her front feet and made a loud squealing noise? Now what if her human had turned and run? So think about it, and be aware that every time you're around your horse, whether it's loose in the field or stable, tied in the stable or yard or being led – you must STAND YOUR GROUND and do whatever is necessary (and appropriate) to make your horse move out of your way. NEVER GIVE WAY!
Set yourself up for success
This is so important; you need to be prepared every time you're around your horse. If you know that going into a field means that the bolshy two year old practically leaps into your arms looking for attention (and, heaven forbid, treats) then go 'armed'. It could be a feed sack to flap him away, or a lariat makes a good noise when you smack it against your leg. Be sensible about it - I don’t think a pitch fork or a stick is the best tool to use - but I have been known to throw the odd bucket, or wave a yard brush in a particularly pushy horse’s face! Your safety is paramount and you must be able to stand your ground, so go prepared. Your horse needs to know that you have a large bubble around you that they are not allowed to enter unless you invite them in.
Time for school... the importance of movement (a check-list)
The quicker you can set up some lessons in respect then the quicker you will be able to spend quality time with your horse without worrying about being trodden on, bitten, kicked, squashed or dragged around. Most horses learn very quickly and actually are only too happy to be the follower, not the leader. You just need to be the leader.
To get your horse’s respect you must be able to move it’s feet forwards, backwards and sideways. Next time you're with your horse put a halter and long lead line on him. Does he walk forward when you walk; stop when you stop; back up when you turn to face him and step into him; and move sideways away from you when you ask? Be honest!
Did you have to pull the lead rope to get him walking?
Did he walk past you when you stopped until you pulled the lead rope?
Did he stand rooted to the spot until you pushed on his chest to make him go back, and
did he push into you rather than move away when asked?
If he did any or all of these things he wasn’t being naughty, stubborn or wilful. He doesn't hate you. He was just reacting normally. He was just being a horse! You have the responsibility to train him in these fundamental skills so he can feel safe and confident in our world. That's your job - that's what will make you a really good boss!
Let's make it better... walking and jogging in hand
So, you've run through your check list and realise straight away that some areas definitely need work. When you're walking (and jogging) in hand you need to have a consistent system in place.
First extend your right hand forward putting a little pressure on the halter.
If there's no response click your tongue.
If your horse drags behind and reluctantly leads, you probably need to carry a schooling stick
...and be prepared to tap him behind his girth to encourage him forward.
Always start the same way: extend the right hand, click and then back up the cue if necessary. But give your horse the chance to do the right thing the first time. Before long you only need to suggest the movement and it will happen.
Hang on... nothing's happening!
One of the biggest problems I encounter with clients, particularly when they have young horses, is that their horse won’t move out of the way but actually pushes into their handler. All horses are ‘into pressure’ animals. That just means they're born with the response to push against you. Each horse will vary in terms of the amount of 'pushiness' they exhibit. Sometimes you might have a horse that isn’t particularly pushy but just isn’t inclined to move. They're perfectly happy to stand and 'chat' with you, are quite polite and love having human contact. But, they won’t move when you ask!
The answer is always the same – unless there's a physical reason why they can't, when you say go they must go! You may need a little extra help in the shape of a lariat, plastic bag on the end of a schooling stick or lunge stick. You need something that makes a noise, increases your ‘reach’ and makes your 'personal bubble' much bigger. You can’t be half-hearted about training your horse to move away from you, they'll know if you're unsure or not 100% determined. Without ever hurting or injuring your horse, do whatever is necessary to create movement. I've been known to jump up and down and scream like a banshee. Don't worry about looking stupid - luckily your horse doesn't think like that!
The other end of the spectrum is the horse that doesn’t do anything! It doesn’t interact with you and could be described as ‘...the lights are on but no one’s home’. These horses are sometimes called 'stubborn' or 'stupid' but in some cases these can be the most rewarding of all to work with.
I'm talking here about horses that somewhere along the way have learned that whatever they do is usually wrong - so they've stopped trying. Now let's just stop and think about this for a minute. Imagine what it would be like for you if you were criticised constantly, no matter how hard you tried to please. You might get upset or cross to begin with, but eventually wouldn't you think there was no point in trying?
If you come across this type of horse you need to ensure that you can always keep the horse working inside its comfort zones, both physically and - especially - mentally. If this horse feels threatened or put under too much pressure it will immediately retreat back inside itself again. To deal with this problem you must be completely in control of your own emotions and read your horse well enough so that you can make adjustments to your schooling/handling so that the process, and the experience, always remains positive. If you can't deliver these things then, for the sake of the horse, take advice and work under supervision from an experienced professional.
Now we have movement...
It’s not enough that you have your horse moving now, you need to direct and control that movement. Your horse will only look upon you as 'the boss', and pay attention with respect, if you demonstrate that you're in charge of where and how he moves. If you send your horse to the left on the lunge or in the round pen, he must continue in that direction until you ask him to change. If you ask your horse to jog or lope, then he needs to maintain that gait until you decide he can slow down. If you tries to come to you uninvited, then you must push him away until you're ready to invite him to you. So just for a moment think back to the picture of Skooter as a little baby, and look at her in the picture to the left. This was three years later and, as you can probably tell, she's an absolute joy to be around.
The lesson here, in all your schooling, is to make sure that you're consistent and that everything you do is black and white. Following these basic principles will play a major part in helping you and your horse to build a partnership based on mutual trust and - yes - respect!