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To be the leader, you must look and act like the leader!

 

Pretty much all of us, when we learn to ride, learn to sit up straight and look where we want to go when we are on a horse.  However, most of us were not told that these things are just as important when you are on the ground. Our posture determines whether the horse perceives us as higher or lower in the order, whether we pose a threat or not, and whether we make a credible companion or leader. Understanding the influence of our posture, and how we can control and change it, is a vital tool in communicating with our horses.

 

Body language - the forgotten art 

In most cultures, body language takes a back seat to spoken language. Children are usually taught from a very eary age to suppress physical expression of their emotions and ideas and to concentrate on verbal communication. A group of young children with different native lanugages will all play happily together without needing words, but this skill is quickly lost, and is even discouraged, as so much importance is put on words. I think it's fascinating how animals, and horses in particular, react to small children. They often seem to be able to read each other far better than the adults standing around - and that may be simply because they use the same (body)language!

 

Of course, the body language is still there in adults, it is just suppressed, ignored and forgotten about while we all worry about what we are saying. However, if we want to put our ideas across to horses in a way that they will understand easily, we have to get back to those innate skills and develop and refine them.   

 

Finding the right balance

I’m sure we all know horses that are labelled as “a man’s horse” or “a woman’s horse” – and it’s nothing to do with their size. Most men naturally have a more aggressive body language, and some horses react badly to that. Women have a naturally more passive body language, which most horses like, but unfortunately, in many cultures, women are also taught to present a submissive body language – and that, to a horse, means we are not credible leaders.

 

In very general terms, I think most men need to get in touch with their feminine size to communicate effectively with horses, and most women need to develop confidence and a feeling of empowerment – which is not the same as bossiness or aggression. It’s a very fine line, and working on an awareness of your own body language, the effect it has on your horse, and how you can control it, is a crucial part of establishing a harmonious relationship in which you have the controlling share.

 

Posture, focus and energy - the building blocks of equine communication

I'd like you to meet Manuela and Sheitan. Sheitan is an 11 year old Shagya Arab, who was a stallion until he was 10. He had lived at the same breeder’s farm all his life, and had been handled but not ridden. After Manuela bought Sheitan last year, he was castrated and she brought him to us at the Harmony Centre to begin their training. At first, Manuela had great difficulty asserting her personal space with Sheitan. She is the first to admit that her body language was too submissive, and she worked very hard indeed to improve it as well as working hard on the exercises with Sheitan. In March this year, Manuela moved Sheitan to a stables near her home so she could work with him more regularly. I few weeks ago, I went to visit them to see how they are getting on.

 

The hard work has paid off and, as you can see in the video below, they have achieved a harmonious partnership. The day I went to visit them, we decided to raise the stakes and see whether he would accept her not just as a companion, but also as the senior partner. This meant him not just following her, but allowing her to direct his movements which will require a more assertive posture with clear focus and intent.

 

As you’ll see, things were a little different when she tried to take over the senior role, but with a little work on her posture and focus, she managed to swing the balance in her favour. It'll still take more work, she is still looking down and needs still more confidence in the power of her own movement, but it's improving all the time. It’s important to note that neither of us touched Sheitan other than to stroke him, and that the adjustments we made were all to do with posture, energy and focus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does it matter, as long as the horse is obedient?

Many people maintain that all you need is to "show the horse who's the boss", and it's true that many horses will become obedient in the face of aggressive behaviour. However, it's a one-way street, in which the horse has been coerced into behaving in a particular way. What we're trying to achieve with Thinking Horse is a partnership in which the horse works with us because that's what it feels is the safe, secure and logical thing to do. We aim to create a situation where the horse does not buck, or rear, or kick, or bolt because it doesn't feel the NEED to, not because it's AFRAID of what will happen if it does. The behaviours we, as humans, consider undesirable are actually the horse's natural defence mechanisms, and if we try to suppress them, they are likely to pop up somewhere else. Creating a relationship based on trust and confidence in the rider makes for a safer and more enjoyable partnership.

 

How can one re-learn natural body language?

One thing I find extremely helpful is videoing, so you can see for yourself how you look and the impact that has on the horse. Any type of training in communicating with actions and postures will help, such as dancing, mime, acting - or even simple business presentation skills - will help too. If you live near Vienna or Hamburg, the Open Acting Academy runs numerous excellent courses that help you tap into that hidden reserve of bodily communication, but anything that helps your awareness of what your body is doing, and helps you create your own presence will have an application with horses.

 

We spend a lot of time thinking about and working on the training of our horses, but as you can see with the example of Sheitan, it only takes very subtle changes on our part to bring about very big changes on the part of the horse.

 

Many thanks to Manuela and Sheitan, and, of course, Michi the camerawoman! 

 

May 2011

 

 

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