What are your thoughts on leadership? Is being a leader wrong? Does the mere mention of it evoke feelings of fear? Or perhaps horrible thoughts of having to be responsible for others, of influencing their actions? Does it make you think of Hitler and Maggie Thatcher? Does it carry thoughts of having to correct someone's behaviour or to redirect them? Or does it make you want to puff your chest out, stand at the front of a room and say hey, listen up, I have an idea? Follow me!?
Or does it just leave you a little confused about what that word actually means to you and how you should apply it? If this is you, you're probably standing in the middle of the room!
The definition of leadership is this "The action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this."
Do you know of any group who doesn't have someone to look up to, to ask questions of? Think of family, some of you will look to parents for answers even if they re no longer part of your household. Within a household, one person will make all of the decisions on money, what you're having for dinner, who tidies up and when and it's this leadership that creates a harmony within the family. Now some of you should be able to edge towards the leadership side of the room.
Does the family dog always come and sit by you, ask you for his dinner and bring the lead to you at walkies time? You can move across too.
What if that group consists of just you and your horse? Do you own a mare who does everything you ask of her, most of the time, of whom you are not afraid in anyway, even when she greets you with her ears back? Welcome to the land of the leaders. The chances are you already know that you're a good leader and you're not hovering between to the two, but believe me, if you're in any doubt, yet you have this relationship with your mare (or stallion I might add), you need not be!
If you have a gelding who is all sweetness and light, does everything you ask when you ask, never objects, can read your thoughts and would happily go out with you every day if you asked, stopping only when you accidentally slip off from sheer exhaustion or excesses of alcohol, to ask "What are you doing down there, Mum?" You guys can take a step towards the follower's side. You guys are then envy of all other riders. You have a partnership with your boy based in a mutual understanding that neither of you wants to be the boss, that you do things together and that if he could come and sleep in your bed or you in his stable every night, which would be just fine. You two have found each other and will stay partners for life and even when he leaves you, he'll still be with you and he will be in your bed!
On the other hand, do you own a mare or gelding who constantly barges you, tries to bite you, won't stand still or move over when you ask him to? Does he or she scare you a bit and chuck you off fairly regularly? Perhaps most of the time it looks ok, but then for no apparent reason they start leaping around all over the place, won't be caught, they change and then change back just as quickly. Stay right where you are, in the middle, somewhere between leader and follower. The chances are that is who you really are. Go and find a nice gelding who doesn't want to be a leader and you'll be fine!
But you won't be happy.
This horse who keeps challenging you, you want to have a better relationship with them that is why you keep getting back on. He's too handsome for you to give up on. In his moments of sweetness and light he is adorable and you can't understand for the life of you why he can't be like that all the time. Some days she leaves the yard, chilled, relaxed, and happy to go wherever you want her to. Other days she doesn't. Leave the yard I mean - at all. And if she does finally decide that she's going to go, she's spooky, sharp and there is a good chance you're coming off. Or at least you feel that way for most of the ride.
Now the leader inside you likes a challenge, the follower inside of you wants someone else to fix the problem for you. Today your inner leader is convinced that they've found the solution, tomorrow you're phoning an instructor begging for help. One day you're holding up the cup, first prize in the Open jumping, the next day you can't get near the horse to give him so much as a thank you scratch.
Don't worry, you're just learning to be a leader and you will not be the first or the last person to experience these frustrations.
Why must we have leadership with our horses?
Nature's design of the horse is that it lives in a herd harmoniously in order to survive. It must get along with everyone else if it's going to be afforded the protection of that herd; if it doesn't it will be outcast. This makes him very vulnerable. But if all of the herd members were followers, who would lead them to fresh water each time they needed to drink? Who would be the one to take the first steps towards new pastures in time to ensure that the entire herd didn't die of starvation? They'd all just stand around looking for food, water and shelter and if it didn't come, they'd die. But the alpha mare, usually an older mare who has travelled with the herd all of her life will make these decisions for the whole herd and they will follow her because they need leadership and guidance to survive.
If we chose to give our horses no leadership or guidance they are forced to act up on their own instincts. They will take themselves to places of food and water, (how often have you seen a horse drag their owner to grass?) They will choose to leave a situation that frightens them because there is no other leader present to put their faith in. If your horse isn't a natural born leader he will try his best to be his own leader. And even if you think you are his leader, if you're unreliable, if he can only trust you sometimes, if occasionally you force him in to danger and scare the hooves off him, you are not his leader. His instinct to survive is much more powerful that your wishy-washy leadership.
Consistency is key to leadership with horses. They love routine. They love patterns. A good leader will be the kind of person who is strict about these things. Every time they lead the horse from the field, they will ask for the same behaviour and keep asking until they get it. When a horse is being groomed or tacked up or ridden, the same question will be asked of him time and time again until 'good' or wanted behaviour becomes a habit and soon the horse knows what to expect and when. I have to admit I can count on one hand the people I have met who are that consistent and it would appear that once the relationship of leader and follower has been established that there is room for the occasional lapse in consistency. But these are occasional.
The issues with consistency may lie in a lack of confidence on your part. You're not sure what behaviour is acceptable to you. When you have so different many ways to go about things in the horsey world you're surrounded by, I would suggest that acceptable behaviour is that which makes you feel safe, relaxed and happy. Anything else is not.
And even if you are sure that certain behaviour is not acceptable you may not be sure of how to correct it. Simplified, I would say that you need to study how horses behave in the wild. There is plenty of literature, you tube videos and systems out there that talk about this so it's not hard to find. But what you're looking for is something that teaches you to read the horse's body language. Understand why a horse is behaving the way it is and figure out what the rest of the herd would so if this horse acted in this way.
If you reckon your horse is about to flee, ask yourself is he in real danger? If he isn't that is the point that you have to be the alpha horse and let it know that it's fine to stay here, there isn't any real danger and that safety is with the herd, even if that herd is just the two of you. If, however, the thing that he is scared of is terrifying to you also, you are giving him all of the signals that the other herd members and the alpha horse would be giving him too. "Yep, c'mon, its time to leave!" and he's going to run because every part of his natural instinct, and yours, says he should!
It's also worth watching herd members who are trying to move up in the ranks. There is always a hierarchy. But occasionally one horse will decide he wants to get his own way and sometimes if they have picked on a weakening member of the herd, they will succeed. I often hear the expression 'Oh, he's just taking the mickey." Horses do not have the mental capacity to do this to a human; they have no concept of it. What they are trying to do however is challenge their human's leadership to see if today is the day they can win. This happens less and less as the relationship between horse and rider grows providing the rider is good at showing consistency in their leadership. If they don't the challenges become greater and often more dangerous. That horse has spotted a chink in your armour and you had better straighten it out and fast!
If you want to learn more about leadership might I suggest you read any of Mark Rashid's books, he will teach you to lead in such a way that does not compromise the horses' welfare or dignity in anyway. But most of all learn to read your horse.