Pecking Order Perspective
By Betsy Kelleher
Watching RFD-TV recently, I heard Ken McNabb say that the pecking order in horses is often misunderstood. He said the real leader is not the meanest or toughest horse; it’s the horse the others look to for safety and security. I immediately thought of the pasture horses at our stable, where a couple horses in particular are more aggressive than the others; and I wondered which horse is the real leader.
I can just imagine my Lady out there as the lead mare; and believe me, I’m protecting them all by not turning her out with them!
Horse trainer Mark Rashid has written a book, “Horses Never Lie,” in which he explains his own perspective on this “passive leadership.” Working with horses, he has learned to relate to them not as an “alpha” or dominant horse, but as a “passive” leader. He describes this herd leader as “a horse that is extremely dependable and confident, one that the vast majority of horses will not only willingly choose to follow, but that they actually seek out.” The word “passive” helps define how the leader is chosen, rather than describing the actions of the leader. Without aggressively taking charge, this horse is actually the wise, responsible care-taker. If horses choose a leader based on quiet confidence, dependability, consistency, a compassionate gentleness and self control, then having those qualities helps us humans to earn our horses trust.
But haven’t we always been told to be the dominant horse in our herd of two? We want respect, but is dominance the best way to earn it? If a horse desires safety and security, then perhaps we need to look at things from a different perspective and let our minds discover a new truth. Respect can also be earned through understanding. If we become the passive leader that horses seek and willingly choose to follow, aren’t we still in control? And without the negative effects of harsh control methods. Remember the true leader is the wise and dependable horse, not the aggressive one.
I’ve learned a lot from various horse trainers, through videos and DVD’s, and many of them use round pen work to establish control, or better said, to establish the pecking order and form a team relationship. For those of us without round pens, there are other ways, using ropes and games or exercises for respect and control. A good relationship is a good reason for our horses to seek our leadership instead of going their own way.
I believe we find workable techniques as we take time to give attention to our horses and to be sensitive to their responses, to be patient and creative and willing to look for different methods. We don’t have to give in to our horses or become treat-providers to make our horses come to us. If we want respect from our horses, then we should treat them with respect. If we want our horses to desire our company, then we should learn to be good company. If we want them to listen to us, to follow and to obey, then we need to listen to them, too. Just like children.
How we “see” our horses has an effect. Can we see each one as an individual with unique personality and abilities? Can we sense when a horse has had past misfortunes that need extra compassion? Previous owners sometimes leave scars which need to be healed before a horse is able to form a good relationship and accept our leadership. How often do we consider this horse’s needs beyond food and water and exercise and health care? We should respect who they are and what they need from us. Each horse is a special teacher, each with a different lesson to teach.
Consider a handsome stallion. This horse is powerful and proud and magnificent, yet can be trained to be willing and responsive and obedient to gentle cues. Such training takes time, patience, and sensitivity as well as skill. As a horse’s leader, we must be aware of that horse’s needs and work with him to provide the comfort and security that will prove our worthiness as a leader. Horses respond because of our relationship and because of our training. If we are doing something in our training program that causes pain, discomfort or fearfulness, then we should look for better methods and begin to use comfort as a reward. Our training goal should be to “control” our horse with gentle cues instead of force.
If we want an effective partnership with a horse, then we need to encourage our partner, to allow him to use his abilities, to develop his potential at his own pace, and see himself as a worthwhile member of the partnership, instead of just an animal to be used and controlled. A horse develops his full potential through our wise and careful training that encourages him to use his mind as well as his body. Our patience and understanding allows him to develop at his own pace rather than being pushed to meet a deadline. Extra compassion is necessary if this horse has past issues to resolve.
Changing our methods may take time, but perhaps we can try on this new perspective for awhile and see if it works. Instead of forcing a horse to do something, find ways to help this horse think for himself. Remember the saying, make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard?
Mark Rashid, in his book, talks about setting up a situation so that the horse can learn to make good decisions. Teaching a horse flexibility might call for riding into corners. Teaching whoa is easier when riding into a wall. I’m kind of proud of myself for my work with Rocky, who was spooky around tarps and plastic bags. It took a year, but I finally got a brainstorm. I put plastic bags in my pocket, and whenever I led him from one place to another, I stuck them into his halter. Didn’t seem to bother him that much and he got used to it. Then I started feeding hay on a tarp in his paddock. After a week or two of that, he finally got as much of the hay as Traveller did, who didn’t mind walking on the tarp the first day.
I am convinced that horses know how we feel about them. We need to be real and honest in their presence. They sense our fears, our troubles, our anger and whatever other attitudes clog up our minds. Sometimes those attitudes keep our horses from enjoying our company and accepting our leadership. Our negative attitudes can definitely affect how well our horses perform. Everything works better if we can leave our negative garbage outside the barn door!
Only God can really help us with our fears and our troubles, yet some horses are soothers, especially for women. My Lady has a motherly instinct and she is lovingly affectionate and nurturing. Traveller has always been a quieting influence for me, so sensible and sensitive and trustworthy, and just a wonderfully safe horse to ride. I feel good when he feels good, even if he gets a bit jiggy on the way back to the barn.
While horses seek comfort and security, human beings also have a need for comfort when life seems difficult, for strength beyond our own and for security in the midst of a changing world with endless fearful possibilities. God can provide it all. He is our true leader. In my own life, He has been that “passive” leader, the wise, responsible One, with perfect dependability, consistency and confidence. He knows all, sees all and loves us all unconditionally with gentle compassion and mercy.
Matthew 6:33 tells us to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” and in Jeremiah 29:13, God says “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
One day I realized that I could spend time every day in prayer and Bible reading, and still not experience life changing personal growth. Although it is a good thing, the act itself isn’t always enough. I also need a SEEKING ATTITUDE! My heart must be willing to obey and my desire must be to please and follow Him. My top priority should be to seek His Presence and His perspective on life.
Scripture is full of reasons why we should seek God’s guidance, wisdom, and strength. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 91:1-2. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” I especially like the word “rest,” for it means to me a place of peace. There are three other passages in the Psalms which refer to the image of finding refuge for shelter and protection under the wings of God. Being an old farm girl, I can easily picture a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings as they run to her for comfort and safety.
While reading my In Touch magazine recently, I came across this sentence: “Discipleship isn’t about training and guiding; it is about living by example—reading Scripture, praying, demonstrating integrity and kindness, and getting involved in the things that matter to God.” Sounds to me like the same principle that Mark Rashid is using with horses—just one more parallel between Christian discipleship and horse training!
(Originally published in the October 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)