Thursday, February 2, 2023

 The Leadership Gauge (Part Two of "The Horse, The Environment, and You")

by Mary Gallagher

Building a language of leadership is our best tool in developing a confident horse.

In last month’s blog post, I introduced a diagram that helps us understand the importance of using boundaries in the proper environment to build a language of leadership. When we are in the ‘sweet spot’—good observation, strong boundaries, balanced emotions—our horse’s confidence enables connection, communication, and cooperation between us.

This month I am taking the diagram further, drawing our attention to how crucial awareness of the horse’s emotions is in keeping us in that sweet spot where optimal learning occurs. Because the diagram helps us see where we are with the horse at any given moment, I am calling it the Leadership Gauge.

How to use the Leadership Gauge to assist your horsemanship. The gauge is a way for me to quickly assess if I am headed in the right direction with my training techniques. I start by observing the horse’s behavior, and relating it to the leadership gauge. I can begin to form a plan for the activities that will bring connection, communication, and cooperation into the optimal learning space.

The green zone is where I want to be—the two of us connected, communicating and cooperating  safely, exploring and growing the edges of our environment with curiosity leading toward confidence. We have established boundaries, whether simply the halter and rope, ground poles, or at a more advanced stage, earned respect for space, at liberty.

By continuing to observe my horse’s behavior, I can tell how my boundaries are holding up, and whether I am establishing a connection. I know we’re in the yellow zone when I see the boundaries are inconsistent and the horse is not well connected to me. This will show up in his behavior which could be playful, moving towards pushy, or on the other side, unconfident moving towards suspicious.

Without correcting that situation, I may see my horse’s behavior shift to the red zone where the boundaries are not upheld at all, the environment is unsafe, and the horse is potentially dangerous, showing behaviors of aggressive dominance, or on the other side, spooky and fearful.

Knowing where my horse stands in the zones will determine how adventuresome I can be in the
environment. Ideally, I want my horse in the green zone, where the connection, communication, and cooperation is building the maximum amount of confidence.

When my horse is feeling curious—on the edge of the green zone—I can see how my boundaries are holding up. If we are working productively with that energy and curiosity, great. And if the horse tips out of the green zone, I know right away that I’ve pushed the edges of the environment and the maximum resistance on the boundary I’ve set, and can adjust to stay in the sweet spot.

If the boundaries are not holding, I will step back into a more comfortable environment and work on establishing better boundaries. This could mean physically shortening the rope, moving to a more familiar part of the arena, or smaller pen, say, or just slowing down, reducing pressure, simplifying the activity.

Developing the sweet spot involves knowing how to create and/or take advantage of a safe environment, and knowing how to set boundaries that are respected by your horse. That safe environment expands as boundaries are tested and upheld. When a horse has tested boundaries, they are more sure of the safety of that specific environment.

The human side of safety. How do we humans hold up to this kind of testing? Horses see humans as safe or unsafe, in relation to the environment. To them, an unsafe human attacks; an unsafe human is unaware of the dangers in the environment. The unsafe human does not provide and maintain leadership when the horse tests the boundaries or there is a disturbance in the environment—or the horse himself becomes dangerous.

Being an unsafe human (in the horse’s view) makes it unsafe for us to be with the horse, and unsafe for the horse (as they see it) to be with us, thus the fight or flight instinct elevates when there is no leadership. 

So how do we go from being unsafe to being safe?

Choosing a safe environment. We start by understanding how to use the environment to elevate our leadership in a way the horse recognizes. This means setting and upholding boundaries while working in the given environment. By choosing a safe environment to start with, the human buys time to establish leadership boundaries with observation and the language of movement.

Which environments will be safe for horse and human to work in depends on the horse and the ability of the human. A round pen might feel safe for the human, but if it is located a substantial distance from the herd, for the horse it may not be the ideal place to start.

In most situations the pen that the horse lives in is the safest environment for the horse and will cause the least upset. In that pen, the human can begin teaching boundaries, beginning with how they catch and halter the horse. The halter becomes a boundary with its own sweet spot. From that initial catch and halter, how well you use the halter to communicate is a continuous learning opportunity for the horse and the human. With care, even the safest environments have plenty of optimal teaching opportunities.

Observe observe observe. From the very beginning, you need to be a great observer. You have to be able to pick up on subtle changes even as you approach your horse’s pen. Taking the time to observe will be helpful as you prepare your teaching sessions.

Observation is key at all levels of the optimal teaching zone, along with good self-awareness of our own bodies in motion. Controlled movement—human body movements influencing horse body movement—with good boundaries IS the sweet spot. We can even say, ‘no movement, no language’ (remember we are developing a language of leadership).

Back to the Leadership Gauge. In this post and with the Leadership Gauge, I have tried to shed more light on how to observe and recognize the horse’s emotions and what they mean in our training. Next month we’ll continue to explore the environment(s) we work in, and suggest activities for each side of the gauge—ways to engage the playful, dominant horse, or the unconfident, fearful horse.

My hope is that having the range of possibilities in mind, we can avoid the extremes, developing our awareness and toolset for keeping us in our sweet spot, and knowing what to do when we are not.

Mary Gallagher and her students focus on these concepts in her weekly Friday Horsemanship class--a welcoming ground work class for adult students at all levels.

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