When we talk about handling horses, perhaps it would be a good idea to recognize that there is a difference between individual handlers. This difference, which is a combination of experience and personality, affects how the horse responds to direction.

When I was running a professional stable, we shipped our horses with a local vanning company. One of the drivers was an exceptional horse handler. The best way I can describe him is to say that he weighed 17 pounds when he was born! And he was also one of the gentlest men I have ever known. I never saw him raise his voice or a hand to a horse, but when he walked up to a balky horse the horse stopped balking and went on. Perfectly calmly, without fear. The horse just looked at the man, recognized his authority and apparently thought “Game’s over. Time to walk on.” Probably each of us has had a least one teacher in school with the same authority. No threats, no yelling, but when she looked at you, you said “Yes, ma’am,” and sat down and opened your book.

In a slightly different context, my great-grandmother was known for her abilities with animals. When she walked out of the house, every animal and bird on the place who could do so would come and follow her around. Even the vicious bull that every one else was terrified of would submit to her authority.

The people who have this kind of authority, either inborn or trained, have a much easier time with refractory horses than others do. It is hard to say where this authority comes from, but it seems to be mostly a supreme confidence that the animals will listen to them, accompanied by a total lack of need to ‘control’ the animal, and a total lack of fear. Most of us will never reach a point where we receive that kind of respect from all creatures, but I think we can succeed with those animals and people that we deal with all the time.

Notice that these people I described did not demand respect, or even ask for it. It was freely given to them. So it appears that those who submit to this authority choose, consciously or otherwise, to do so. Why did they make this choice? I believe it is because they recognize somehow that the person feels a kind of love for them, and also has great understanding and judgement. Therefore this person can be trusted to only ask for what is in the best interest of those she is directing. A child who trusts his mother will go to the dentist, even though he is afraid, because he trusts that his mother is sending him, not because she wants him to be hurt, but because she knows that if he doesn’t go now, things will be a lot worse later. Not that the child thinks through it in that way, but because he trusts that his mother has done so.

Sometimes a child will ‘test’ her parent, complaining and whining that she doesn’t want to do something. If it is important for the child’s welfare that she do it, and the parent gives in to the child, he is really saying, “Your welfare isn’t important enough for me to make the effort to overcome your resistance.” On the other hand, the parent may want the child to do something which is important to the parent, and threatening from the child’s point of view. In this case, if the parent insists—especially if she does so unsympathetically—she is saying, “Your wishes are not important to me.”

It is the ability to understand this delicate balance between asking for respect because you want your own way, and asking for it because you feel that what you are asking is in the best interests of the other person, that is a major part of one’s ability to gain respect.

If we want others to respond to our requests, we need to understand their priorities. We need to seriously consider whether what we are asking for is truly in their best interest, or merely something that we take for granted. Often in training horses we assume that the horse ‘should’ be able to do something. Getting a horse to stay out on the rail in an arena is an example that comes to mind. The assumption is that if the horse stays out on the rail he will be making a larger circle, which will be easier. We are caught in the trap of thinking, ” All horses are supposed to stay on the rail. It’s easy for the horse to stay on the rail, so if he won’t we just keep insisting until he does.”

But the horse keeps saying “No, I don’t want to be out here. No, I don’t want to go all the way down to the far end.” His rider is inexperienced, or he himself is somewhat awkward and unbalanced, but in any case, being close to the rail, which limits his options, feels threatening to him. Going to the far end, where he feels trapped away from his herd, is even more threatening.

If the trainer listens to the horse saying over and over “I feel threatened, I don’t want to do that,” and makes adjustments in the training program to adapt to the horse’s needs, the horse soon discovers that his needs are being met. As a result he becomes more willing to listen and accept the trainer’s authority. If the trainer doesn’t listen, the horse may end up ‘shouting’ for attention by bucking or otherwise indicating his discomfort.

As the training proceeds, the horse who has learned to trust his trainer’s judgement—that is, the horse that has found that those things the trainer asks are things that he can succeed at—is going to accord the trainer’s wishes the respect they deserve. Further, if he is treated generously, the horse responds by becoming generous in return. He becomes more forgiving, and willing to ‘go the extra mile’ when the trainer asks it of him. He is following the example that was set for him.

At some point in his training, the horse that would not stay on the rail reaches a degree of competence where he is ready to do it. Now the trainer can be a little firmer, because he knows that now it is in the horse’s best interest to use the whole ring. And since the horse is first of all, ready to do it, and second, now trusts the trainer and respects his judgement, it isn’t long before the horse is staying out without difficulty.

For those of you who may feel that you lack authority because you lack experience, take heart. Authority will come with your increased ability to understand how the horse thinks and feels, so that you gain his respect through your own understanding.

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