5 ROLES OF RELATIONSHIP-BASED HORSEMANSHIP
Updated: Jul 14
There are many training systems available that can help riders and handlers become more effective when it comes to working with their horses. However, horses are as different from one another as we are from each other, and just like us, each horse has his own unique set of attributes, personality traits, and learning styles. I'm not sure it's possible to come up with one concrete system that works for all horses. We need to learn the nature of the horse and his individual characteristics so we understand what he needs to learn effectively. I always say that a good approach to training is as systematic as it can be but also as dynamic as it has to be. I find that with every new horse I meet, I have to customize the curriculum to the individual and shape that curriculum accordingly as we progress. A lot of this is based on intuition and feel for what needs to be done in the moment to keep the horse calm, attentive, and motivated as we educate him.
Horses are highly social herd animals so maintaining functional relationships have played a very large part in the success and survival of the species. Imagine how effective we could be as trainers if the horse desired the same things as we did. Imagine how much more meaningful our time with them would be. It's a little sad that relationship-based horsemanship needs to have its own category in modern day equestrianism. In most disciplines, there is just too much emphasis placed on the horse's submission and the rider's aspirations for the interaction to be considered beneficial to the horse or healthy for the relationship.
So the question is, how do we know what to do in the moment to stay on track with our horses? Well, how about we start by acknowledging how he feels about the interaction and prioritizing the quality of the relationship as we work with him.
There is one major aspect of working with horses that is missing from most modern training systems. THE HORSE'S PERCEPTION. It is wildly important in relationship-based horsemanship to consider the horse's perspective as we work with him. A quality relationship is based on cooperation, compromise, and communication. To do this we need to look inward rather than constantly push outward at our horses. We have to be observant and take in information from our environment to have the knowledge that it takes to understand how the horse is feeling. In this way, we can decipher what sort of things we can do in the moment to educate him while also preserving the integrity of the relationship. We must work in layers, ensuring that we establish a baseline to retreat back to if the horse becomes nervous or confused. We need to be able to perceive what challenges that exist in the moment and meet those challenges before challenging the partnership with new things. We have to slow down and study his personality and then take the time to show him how to learn. We need to give him as much time as he needs to build momentum in his ability to process our requests and not make him anxious about being with us by demanding too much of him.
WHAT DO WE LOOK FOR IN OUR HORSE?
In this system, we work to establish 5 KEY MIND STATES in the horse that make it easier for him to learn. The most important of which that also serves as our baseline is CALMNESS. The horse needs to be calm or he cannot think his way through learning challenges. We then need to ensure that he is ATTENTIVE, so he can focus on the learning process. If he is calm and attentive we can then develop his COGNITION by teaching him cues. Once he understands our basic cue system, we should then use that cue system to interact with him in practical ways, allowing him to get good at what he's learned and generating pride, play drive, and the MOTIVATION to participate. Once he is fluent in the cue system, he can then execute the cues within a rhythm. This is when we achieve a state of FLOW with the horse that permits us to condition his body athletically ... resistance free.
HOW DO WE WANT OUR HORSES TO PERCEIVE US?
In relationship-based horsemanship, our primary objective above all is to preserve the integrity of the relationship, so allowing the horse to show us how he needs to learn is important. We want to know how he is perceiving us throughout the process and what sort of effects the work is having on his desire to interact. This helps us monitor the quality of the relationship as we move through new challenges together. We can do this by ensuring we are fulfilling roles in his life that keep us in good standing with him throughout our journey together. And we can manage this by following a set of guidelines I refer to as the 5 ROLES OF RELATIONSHIP-BASED HORSEMANSHIP. This is a big topic but I will do my best to keep it as simple as possible here to introduce the idea. Within each of the 5 ROLES, we look to focus one of the 5 MIND STATES in the horse. Although each MIND STATE for the horse is a concentration within one of the 5 ROLES, we do look to establish and preserve them all from day one in our interactions with them if possible.
CAREGIVER (Objective: Calmness)
The most important and primary role in which we need the horse to perceive us is as his caregiver and protector. He needs to understand that we are his provider and ally. He needs to accept our presence without fear even if it's from a distance at first. We have to be quiet, steady, and present -like a boulder in his vicinity that cannot be moved. We need to be mindful of protecting the space around us without causing him fear. We work on building trust over time, simultaneously developing our own capacities for patience, perseverance, and self-discipline. We must remember that no matter how advanced our work gets, our horses must be calm before we can request something from him. If he is not, we always forgo our request and bring him back to a state of calmness before moving forward again. This is the most fundamental layer of our horsemanship and must not be sacrificed. This relentless, continuous pursuit of calmness, builds trust, enhances his cognition, and instills in him a process for coping with stress, anxiety, and adrenaline should they arise. This also helps us avoid muscular tension in our horses and maintains the suppleness that is important for his physical health later in training. Once he can stay calm and relaxed as we fulfill his basic survival needs, we can then become more hierarchy-focused if necessary and start asking for the horse's attention. This brings us to the leadership role.
LEADER (Objective: Attentiveness)
The idea of leadership in horsemanship is a bit controversial. The leadership role is NOT about dominance. It is NOT about showing the horse who is boss. It is NOT about causing fear. That is not TRUE leadership.
In Nature, good leadership cannot be faked. A good leader is passive, and conserves energy that can be used elsewhere as needed. A good leader earns the role because she has the highest level of awareness. She will locate resources and perceive danger first, offering the others a chance to let down their guard and conserve energy. A good leader will empower followers. And a good leader knows when it is time to stand down and surrender leadership if it is better for the group. In short, a good leader is the individual best suited for the role in the moment at hand.
The short-term objective of the leadership role is to obtain and sustain the horses attention long enough for him to process a request. Calmness and attentiveness are necessary for cognitive learning to take place. These two states need to be balanced very carefully in the beginning. Many horses find it difficult remain attentive to their handlers for too long without feeling anxious. The horse's attention span will grow over time but we must be patient with him in the beginning and not pressure him to concentrate for too long or he may get mentally burned out and develop anxiety. If we are able to slow down and manage our compulsive desires to advance, our horses begin to develop the ability to maintain these two states for increasingly longer durations, which over time, makes them safer and less reactive while turning them into powerful learners.
Our ability to immediately draw the horse's attention back to us as it drifts proves that we can maintain a higher level of awareness than the horse. It's important to understand that this is one of the most profound lessons horses can teach us. Our ability to create and maintain a state of mindfulness in our work is what qualifies us to hold the leadership role. Our ability to maintain mindfulness during our interactions with our horses helps us earn his respect naturally and gradually solidifies our status as leader as we become more adept at sustaining the characteristics of being a leader. In this sense horsemanship is a powerful way to develop authentic leadership skills.
TEACHER (Objective: Cognition)
When the horse can sustain a calm, attentive state of mind during our interactions, we can then begin to teach him. Teaching is different than training. In this system of horsemanship, we teach the mind of the horse and then once we have cultivated fluency in our basic cue system, we then combine cues with various forms, degrees, and directions of energy to train and condition his body.
The teacher role is about establishing clarity, and instilling in the horse a process for learning new things. We will use a very specific sequence of actions that I call the LEARNING SEQUENCE to help develop the cognitive capacities of the horse. One should understand that progress can be slow in initial stages. We are asking our horses to use a substantial amount of cognitive energy when we first introduce this process. Its not much easier for us in the beginning either, as we have to be very mindful of translating the horse's natural energetic language into a cue system as clearly as possible. When we use the learning sequence properly, it requires us to slow down and control our compulsions. This can feel overwhelming at first. But persevere. It gets easier and the horses get better and better at learning new things the more we use this process.
PARTNER (Objective: Motivation)
Once we have managed to successfully teach our horse some basic cues, we then use them practically in our day-to-day interactions. We should try to motivate our horses as we practice and apply cues to accomplish simple tasks, rather then drill them repeatedly in the arena. Our horses are sentient beings and should NOT be programed like robots.
This is often the stage where I introduce clicker training as it is a powerful tool for clearly marking specific behaviors and turning the learning process into a game. We want to use our new language for lighthearted play under varying circumstances and in different environments to empower our horse, build his confidence, and stimulate his play drive. Curiosity should be embraced and the lines between work and play should be blurred as much as possible while carefully preserving our status in subsequent roles.
We want to become a great partner for our horse and build his confidence in our ability to communicate with him as we continuously look for ways to strengthen his motivation to spend time with us. This is how we create highly functional, and incredibly meaningful relationships with our horses. This also gives him the opportunity to practice the cue system without being drilled, energetically drained, and desensitized by work that has no purpose to him. Once he is relatively fluid with our basic cue system, we can then begin to combine cues, like words in a sentence, to shape the quality of his movement and condition him athletically. So now the mindfulness that helped create our new language evolves into a state of flow we share with the horse. This is essentially when we begin to achieve an energetic flow with the horse that can only be compared to dance.
TRAINER (Objective: Flow)
It is my firm belief that only after we have stabilized ourselves as the horse's CAREGIVER, LEADER, TEACHER, and PARTNER should we even begin to think we have the right to train and condition the body of the horse. At this point, we have developed an intuitive way of communicating with our horse. We have found rhythm and fluidity within our cue system and can share a quiet state of flow with the horse as we guide him smoothly through various exercises. Our cues are subtle and well understood by the horse so he can focus on the energetic connection that allows us to use it to gradually shape his movement while in action. The momentum, synchronicity, and rhythm found through this process makes athletic development much easier and exhilarating for both horse and human. Flow state is a well-researched state of being that brings joy in the moment and allows us to reach our highest levels of performance.
Conventional human expectations in equestrian-related businesses often make it very difficult to give our partnerships the the time and patience needed to reach the flow phase resistance-free. However, if we are to be trainers, I believe its our responsibility to preserve status in all the subsequent roles explained in this system first and foremost. When our horses have gotten good at sustaining a calm, attentive state of mind, have established fluency in our cue system, and are properly motivated to participate, we can then begin to combine cues with energy and flow to condition him athletically. At this point, our horses should feel safe and trust in our ability to guide them. We have become partners and are ready for bigger challenges.
Remember, our ability to hold our status and capacities for any role that we earn in life can change over time. Throughout our horsemanship journey, we will often be challenged with sustaining our roles ... particularly when we reach the role of trainer. We must continue to prove ourselves as worthy … always. We must find balance in all that we do with our horses to keep them engaged and motivated. So, as we challenge our partnerships, we often need to check in and ask ourselves if we still have our horse's trust. Are we showing good leadership and providing them with what they need to be effective learners? Are we being clear and translating new cues in a way the horse can understand? Is he enjoying the process or are we pushing too hard? Are we working in a rhythmic flow state as we shape him athletically? All these things are key to getting the most from our horses while also preserving the integrity of the relationship and keeping our horsemanship from spiraling down into jagged, dominance-based path.
As I mentioned before, this is a big topic but there is one more important concept that needs to be addressed for the idea to come full circle. I'm sure many of you have heard of horses being referred to as mirrors and that they reflect our energy and actions in many ways. To shed a little light on that concept, I want to conclude by saying the 5 MIND STATES that we achieve in the horse through the 5 ROLE SYSTEM are the same mind states that we must develop and maintain ourselves. We must be calm for the horse to be calm. We must be attentive to him if we want his attention. We must teach cognitively to be clear enough for him to learn cognitively. His joy and desire to participate in partnership bonds us to him and also motivates us to continue along a mindful path. And, we must find the same fluidity in our work as we expect from the horse if we are to share a state of flow with him.
The art of relationship-based horsemanship is challenging and rewarding in ways most people cannot even fathom. The energetic connection that you can obtain with a horse is mesmerizing. The horse draws out the potency of our senses and helps us achieve higher states of consciousness through mindfulness and the meditative qualities of flow state. The journey through life with a horse can be absolutely profound. When we allow Nature, by way of the horse, to guide us in this way, we are resetting ourselves back to what's really important and giving our senses the opportunity to experience life so we can have our best chance to reach our potential and make the most of our lives.