Leadership Conversation

Summer has been pretty good to us here in Virginia. I have been on a slightly different routine with Khaleesi where I have been aiming for more polarized training. This includes regular low intensity training like hiking up and down the mountain that doesn’t break down her body but builds the engine contrasted with fewer high intensity training where we do shorter sessions of mostly cantering until she needs a break then cantering again until she needs a break etc.

I really like the approach and it appears to be doing something positive for us, including me because though I do ride her regularly I also now hike with her on foot as well so I’m getting more workout that I normally would and even in riding I’ve come to jog long downhill segments especially if rocky because we are faster, but more than speed for the sake of time she can do a slow jog on that downhill (where I’m aiming for higher HR than picking her way down, but still in a low threshold) without injury or putting excess stress on her joints which make it a better workout even at low intensity.

My training this summer feels a lot smarter and intentional than in years past. Time will tell if it’s more beneficial.

Something else I’ve been layering in this summer is a shift on the concept of leadership — which is a term tossed around quite a lot in horsemanship and means different things to different people. 

I recently heard Andrea Wady talk about it in ways that gave me pause to consider because it was not what I usually think of a being a leader.

Wady has done a lot of observation of wild herds in the UK and the US as well as other places around the globe and has been on a lifelong journey into the world of pure liberty which is not the same as good training that can eventually be done without ropes and halters. She used to do this more conventional liberty work in Costa Rica where she lived for 18 years but began to ask the question: if my horse knows that there are consequences for not doing what I ask, is that truly liberty? Or is it good training? What happens if I were to take away the treats and the ropes or sticks, and have a real conversation with my horse? Not a trained conversation.

When I heard her interview I almost screamed out loud: YES THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN ASKING FOR YEARS!? WHAT HAPPENED!?

She tells of going out with her horse that she could ride and work with at liberty and they took a hike into the Costa Rican jungle off her property and was so excited to see where their relationship was. She went on the share how she was devastated to find out a couple miles into the jungle… that her beloved friend the horse had ditched her and ran home when she realized the choice truly was there to do so.

Since then she’s been trying to sort out what real freedom and choice would look like and is doing fabulous things with horses and people. What I admire the most about Andrea is that unlike me she is so much better at helping people start with bite-sized small things to pepper in where I tend to jump off cliffs and go all into try out these things- and most people (wisely so) are not willing to do that. She also uses things she observes about how horses communication and connect but is candid about the fact that we are not a horse nor should we pretend to try to be one. We aren’t fooling anyone. We can however try to understand how horses think and communicate and get better at meeting them in a way they might understand.

One of the concepts she challenges people to reconsider is what makes a good leader. We often say that the leader moves the other horse’s feet, so we must also be the one to move the horse’s feet, and they should never be able to move our feet. We imagine the lead mare who if she doesn’t get her way with a look or ear flick will snake her head, bite and kick.

Andrea shared an example she once observed of the wise mare standing at a water trough who notices a young gelding pin his ears and begin to move purposefully toward her. Almost bored looking the mare wanders over to the shady spot under the trees and the gelding arrives at the water to find no opponent there to push around and then also notices the rest of the herd heading toward the shade because it’s pretty hot this afternoon and that seems like a pretty good decision.

Who is the leader? Probably the mare. Who did she push around or pin her ears at? No one. She could have stood her ground and kicked the younger gelding, but it probably seemed more effort than she wanted to put out on a hot afternoon. She didn’t round up the herd and move everyone’s feet, she just made a good choice. And she probably has a history of making good choices. And so when she does things the herd follows her lead. Sure she can enforce her space bubble or push horses around, but she doesn’t need to do that much.

This is what I’ve heard called passive leadership and it comes from just being a good leader.

When I thought this through a bit more I realized that the best leaders (in the world around me) are not the bossy ones who move everyone’s feet but lead through example. They show more than the tell. They live out what they want to see around them. The best leaders don’t have to make everyone do what they are asking, they start out ahead of everyone and do things that others want to be part of.

She often stays with me until I have to leave after we work together anymore. I hate having to go.

While it’s true that Khaleesi will not hesitate to move another horse’s feet with force if that horse is where she would like to be… she is rarely very violent on a day to day basis, and generally the herd just follows her lead naturally because, usually she has the best ideas. And the funny thing is she never uses a halter or lead rope. The horses always make a choice. The horses always have freedom in the herd.

Another interesting challenge to my concept of leadership is the sacred cow idea that in order to be the leader we must be 100% the leader 100% of the time and the horse must always know that compliance (even if it’s to try while learning a new thing) is the only right answer and if we ever let the horse get away with saying no thank you to a request our future is doomed.

Wady talks about sharing the leadership from time to time in order to come to learn about the world of your horse from their eyes. This should only ever be done thoughtfully with safety in mind. It isn’t a process of zero structure and the possibility of ending up on a highway with a horse who is now leading but put in a position to make poor choices that could end up getting someone hurt.

What it might look like is deciding on a certain amount of time each day or each week when in their own pasture you begin to follow their lead on purpose. She talks about asking your horse to take you on an adventure for once- in your own field. The problem is many horse’s favorite adventure might be grazing, and humans think that’s a terrible adventure and have no patience to stand with a grazing horse and give five minutes to matching the weight shift and slow movement of their feet and legs to see if you can be in harmony with them. How about squat down as they graze and notice what’s in the grass… different kinds of grasses, clovers, weeds, what’s the soil like? Pick through some of it on your own- how does it feel? Most humans struggle to spend five or ten minutes like this with their horse. But it wouldn’t hurt any of us to experiment and try.

Khaleesi’s idea of a great adventure

What about an arena area set up with a mounting block, some cones or buckets, anything else you might use in an arena… could you go in there with your horse, no halter or lead and go along as your horse checks out the different things… don’t try to lead them over to things, and don’t just watch as they do it… go along, touch what they touch… smell things (we don’t smell things very often do we?) turn things over so they can see the underside, bang on it and make noise, are they slow to process things or more quick to move on? What do you notice about them?

These small moments you could work in from time to time not where they just get to do this on their own, but you join them begins to create a different kind of connection.

What I’ve noticed is that we are predatory straight line thinkers usually with goals and a timeline. Here is what I would ask you- if you’re not feeding your horses or cleaning up around the barn and busy with something but enjoying that the horses are around… kind of like an equine fish tank… when was the last time you engaged with your horse in something that was not your idea?

This is the normal order of business I THINK for most horse people (you may skip or add a few but I think you’ll see my point):

  • Approach horse
  • Halter immediately
  • Bring horse in
  • Feed horse
  • Groom horse
  • Load on trailer
  • Put on tack
  • Get on horse
  • Ride horse (trail, or arena, either way it is all the human plans)
  • Get off horse
  • Untack
  • Load on trailer
  • Release horse to environment

In all of the normal routine is there in your routine built in a moment of “ask horse what she wants to do or what she thinks about this” moment? If so is there a “right answer” involved? So maybe 95-99%… or maybe even in some cases 100% of the time interacting with our hoses is our plan. This is often what we also look at as leadership, we are the leader. 

So what’s wrong with that? Is the reaction I get most. Either the human is aware they really only have a horse to do what they want with (and then they have all those other hours to just be a horse and that’s a lot more than with me and my demands right?) or they actually think that horses are not intelligent sentient beings who have thoughts, opinions, curiosity or are capable of taking us on an adventure anyway. They only want to eat, they are just dumb creatures of instinct, you’re putting way too much into this.

Well. I suppose it would be a waste of time to try to change anyone’s opinion about any of that. I can only share what I’ve seen as I experiment.

Contrary to what I used to think, if I ask my horse if she would like to make a choice from time to time it doesn’t make her less inclined to follow me when I ask for the leadership role. I think it makes her more inclined to submit to my leadership when I ask.

If you ever want to test all this out, you can try having a conversation with no method of control. See what you can ask your horse to do truly at liberty and you’ll have a gauge of where the relationship is. Of course if you’ve only relied on tools in the past you might have to work on some simple ways to communicate in order to even start this because you haven’t developed any common language except feel on a lead rope for example. 

In the end you may see it as a waste of time. I can understand how someone would think that actually. Entering the world of the horse is like going from New York City to Mayberry and the New Yorker is not going to have much patience for how long it takes the sheriff to form a complete sentence. We are pretty sure that the only way to accomplish our goals is to get on and get working.

And yet… after adding in bite sized pieces and parts of this, I took Khaleesi for a high intensity work out on the river trail. I actually now am becoming more adept at shifting leadership in small ways more fluidly. I have never had her carry herself as balanced as she began to offer me at the beginning of this ride, in what I considered the warm up part. We walked, did some lateral work back and forth on the wide trail, I did some backing up and some reaching for her in softness. The best of these things became interspersed with asking her if she’d like to stop a moment (eat grass)… if she asked to stop and listen or look (strange sounds) we would sometimes do that… I was more in tune to the things she might ask me in this process and more likely to find a moment to say “sure, we can stop here and tune into that sound and see what it might be”.

Sure you can have a bite but then let’s go

As we continued on this warming up part of the ride each time she took up the trot she lifted into with balance reading my mind perfectly, but without me asking, once, she offered an idea: how about I pick up into the canter here at the same slow trot speed and give you the most floaty, balanced, lifted canter you’ve ever ridden in your life?

And I said: I love that, yes, that’s a great idea I’m with you!

It all happened in a matter of microseconds but it was all her idea, I was not going to canter until a bit later. And in truth I have never ridden her with this lovely of balance and lightness in my life. She gave it, offered it, to me. In that very moment she was the leader and I said yes.

It felt so good I think I cried a little. No kidding. And when she felt done we stoped. Also her idea. And then just stood there a moment both of us enjoying the sound of the river below, the breeze in the trees, and I noticed the smells in the air. The way she sighed and stood softly I think she was quite pleased with herself.

After that we continued to get warmed up and then hit the turn around of the trail where I planned to ask her to give me everything she had on the way back. Three miles of as much cantering as she could do. And then my plan was to repeat for a total of 12 miles for the afternoon of low intensity followed by all out high intensity. At the turn around there’s some grass in a circle and I allowed her a short snack. When I asked her her to attention and to return she didn’t fight with me, she knew her turn was over and we were going back to work.

I turned her around and barely thought: canter. She lifted off in a great strong canter though not as floaty as the one she offered earlier, and I never asked again the next three miles. Every time she asked to slow to walk or trot I said yes, and every time when she felt recovered enough she went back to the canter on her own. She was doing it, I just had to stay with her because I needed to support her changes and not get behind her movement in my body. For three miles she gave me all she had and it was stunning.

When we returned to the trailer I had planned to let her graze and recover then do it all again. That was my human training plan. I usually stick pretty tightly to my plans… I am a goal setter after all. But something about that ride was special enough I had a gut sense not to be greedy. Take what she gave me and tell her it was enough today. In fact it was better than enough.

I let her eat some grass while I untacked her and loaded her up for home. What I did learn about 20 minutes later was a massive storm was blowing through the area we had been and a warning came up on my phone as I went though town. So in the end, it was a good choice all around. That’s just a side note.

Maybe that ride was going to be unusually strong and connected regardless. I guess we can’t know for sure. I had been doing some of this time with her off and on and been building up a bank account of connection recently. I’m sure some other factors played into the perfect storm that brought such a great ride. However I do see a difference in our time together as I’ve begun to reconsider what good leadership is.

I should clarify that this is not the same as there being no one in charge, no leadership. When I decide to have a conversation about leadership with K or she asks me about an idea and I say yes, sure, great I’m with you, it is not random. There is an interaction happening over who is leading. Some people have no concept of what leadership is and have random free-for-all going on with their horses and that is not a good thing.

This interaction style will mean different things for different horses just like every parent knows that each child is unique. Khaleesi and I will forge a slightly different leadership dynamic than Wyoming and I will. I have also gone too far sharing leadership with Khaleesi and found where things don’t work very well. Even in freedom structure is helpful. 

It is also true that my horses on the whole have had more choice and freedom and their voices tend to be considered probably more often than most normal horse people are willing to take the time and patience for… for better or worse. I think someone whose horse hasn’t had much say or freedom needs more structure in transition or they are likely to feel lost and confused. 

Probably one of the biggest blocks to this is fear of losing control altogether. If anyone is curious to try to do some of this experimentation, you might remind yourself that control is an illusion anyway. You aren’t going to do too much “control” damage by going out into their world and learning how to be with them without controlling them as a start. In a really bad situation you’d be better off with a horse who knows how to make a decision and who feels connected to you by choice than one who is afraid of you or knows if it doesn’t comply there will be punishment. Someday something the horse fears more will come along… and injury usually comes out of that.

If you want to have a conversation about what it could look like to begin this process in small bite sized ways feel free to connect with me! You can find lots of information on Hopehorsemanship.com.

Meanwhile… get out there and feel the grass! Sniff the air… and hear the sounds around you. Slow down just a little, it will only do you good!

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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