Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership by Mark Rashid is our book review of the month. Overall what is it about? Attitude! As in, the attitude you have towards your horse and your partnership together, and your attitude towards your training and interaction. There is no single approach or training philosophy that will really work for every partnership. Instead you have to take the time to learn your horse's personality and your own strengths and weaknesses in order to develop communication and synergy that works for the both of you. However, that being said, it never hurts to read Mark Rashid's perspective, delivered through charming stories of his own experiences which provide clear situations and great context to learn from.
Being an equestrian is a beautiful, fulfilling journey with no particular destination. It is an unending learning and experiential state of being that is all about the moment, the here and now. The connection and the relationship we have with our horses is why we are so attracted to them in the first place. But like any relationship it is important to learn how to communicate and how to create a mutually loving, healthy and beneficial partnership; one that is not based in fear or force but in love, desire and willingness.
Working with horses should be a delicate balancing act between finding how much or how little direction it will take to help the horse understand what we're trying to teach. Too little direction and our efforts become ineffective. Too much direction and we may develop resistance and animosity.
In Horses Never Lie, Mr. Rashid goes into the dynamics of herd behavior and developed the concept of the "passive leader", which is a horse within the herd that is not the alpha. Instead it is a horse that is "chosen" by the other herd members to lead them in a mutually respectful and willing sub-hierarchy below the alpha. The alpha is a vital member of the herd, more so than any other horse -- it's generally a mare, too -- and they see to the herd's daily needs of shelter, food and water (the stallion sees to protection and procreation). However, that alpha leadership role doesn't lend itself to any "softness". If you actually look at herd behavior the herd members do not look up to the alpha with awe and undying respect. More often it is fearful deference and avoidance, because in order to ensure the herd stays to together, the alpha must do all in their power (which is considerable) to keep the others in line and respectful of the alpha's position. Without that organization the herd would fall into chaos. For horses in their natural state, it is essential! But, for horses not in a natural herd environment -- i.e. horses boarded in barns and stables with lovely owners who dote on them -- that dynamic of alpha leadership changes shape, even though the need for some kind of leadership hierarchy still instinctively exists for our horses.
Mr. Rashid does not put down the "alpha leader" philosophy since it is natural for an actual herd. However he does call its tenets into question for horsemanship. The alpha leader philosophy is one that is based in total domination of your horse at all times. He felt that the delicate balance and subtle nuances that are a part of horsemanship, if not the heart of it, were starting to get lost in the whacking, pushing, and whipping apparently needed to move your horse's feet and establish "alpha" dominance. Instead, he offers an alternative approach.
Quiet confidence and lack of force or aggression appears to be something that other horses look for and, when given the opportunity, actively seek out.
The philosophy of a passive leader is that you earn that leadership position through being more of a partner than a dictator, and allowing your horse choices and the opportunities to choose. That is a big distinction, the opportunity for your horse to choose, and not by force or while they're under duress, and to allow them to keep their dignity while accomplishing something together. Not necessarily in all things, especially with regards to safety, but in an overall approach to your horsemanship and training. It's an overall attitude to cultivate: to have your horse want to do things together, instead of they have to do it. Probably safe to say that we can all agree that having freedom of choice is preferable to force, preferable to an ultimatum approach in order to gain our cooperation. Alpha leadership is: I say, you do. Passive leadership is more: Let's do this together.
Any time you're willing to fight with horses, they'll always be willing to fight back. The thing is, though, even during those fights the horse is still trying to figure out what you want. The sad part is, because you're so busy fighting with them, you'll never feel those tries.
The stories of Mr. Rashid's red gelding named Buck were pivotal for how he learned and developed the passive leadership style. Buck basically taught him two things: one, you can accomplish a goal without once relying on any kind of force; and two, that by remaining extremely calm and consistent and using only the energy/effort that is absolutely needed (nothing more or less) you can accomplish your goal(s) during a training session more effectively. He also talks about several other examples of horse's behavior being interpreted incorrectly by their riders, and how we often miss our horse's entire effort to communicate to us. We get so stuck in a one way communication direction -- we say, they do -- that we often miss what they're trying to tell us, or even show us.
A horse's attempt of what we are asking, or their "try", is often much smaller than we might think, and is almost always smaller than what we are looking for. Horses have an innate ability to communicate on a level that humans probably cannot completely understand nor have the ability to achieve.
You're always training your horse. Whether you're on the ground, in the saddle, in the cross ties, putting the halter on, doesn't matter ... every moment of interaction is a training opportunity and an opportunity to exercise your chosen attitude, to build upon your partnership. So ensure that everything you do is done with a distinct and clear purpose and is congruent and consistent with how you want your relationship to be.
We all often think we're smarter than our horses (and pets) and that we know best, and underlying it all is that we are always trying to do right by them too. But, to set our horses -- and our horsemanship -- up for success and for our horses to truly look to us as a leader, there should be a lot more give and take in the relationship. Which begs the question what kind of equestrian do you want to be? What kind of partnership do you want to have with your horse?
Horses know the difference between when we are doing something with them and when we are doing something to them. Don't become so concerned about what you should be doing with your horse and how you should be doing it that you miss the most important piece of the whole horsemanship puzzle:
Your relationship with your horse comes from the heart, not the hands.
This book was a great read and fantastic food for thought in helping you learn about the passive leadership perspective and approach. The stories Mr. Rashid uses as examples are great learning tools, not to mention relatable. Is passive leadership right for you and your horse? Read it and find out!
Live. Love. Horses.