Horses are big, strong animals. They can be unpredictable and they have an undeniable fight or flight response. These are some of the reasons why horses are such good teachers. Their size can be intimidating and prevents ego from getting in the way. Their strength makes them difficult to bend to human will. Their fight or flight response means you need to be aware of how your actions affect those around you. Horses can teach us so much about ourselves and others just by understanding the horse’s natural state.
An important lesson horses teach us is how to lead. Leading is a common ground-based lesson in equine-assisted activity and is something that every person around a horse needs to know how to do. Leading is one of the most common activites we do with a horse. We lead it to the pasture, around the arena, on a trail, in and out of stalls, and so many other places. We need to be able to lead the horse in order to do just about anything else. However, if you are unfamiliar with leading, it can be a daunting task.
Most people who fist learn to lead do one of two things: walk in front of the horse to pull it along, or stare at the horse while asking it to move. Neither of these are effective ways to lead. We want to lead from beside the horse. When we take a step forward, so does the horse. When we stop our feet, so does the horse. When we turn, so does the horse.
This post isn’t meant to teach you how to lead (I’d probably need a live horse for that ;)) but to teach you WHY we lead horses a certain way. Leading is often taught in a ground-based session because it teaches confidence, leadership, communication, and personal reflection.
Let’s use the example of leadership. Equine-assisted activities are growing in popularity for businesses and universities to use as an off-site learning and growth opportunity. Leading the horse relates to leading in business. How many ways can you lead your business? How many ways can you lead the horse?
There’s three common ways to lead: from the front, from behind, or from beside. If you lead from the front, you can’t see what’s happenng behind you. Is the horse nervous? Is it going to spook and run into you? Is it going to stop unexpectedly? There’s too much information being missed when you lead from the front. If you lead from behind, it makes it harder to steer. In this sense, I don’t mean behind as in physically behind the horse, like in driving, I mean it as behind the horse’s movement which means being at the horse’s shoulder or belly. When you lead from behind, it gives the horse the power to make decisions. The horse can speed up or turn without you. You have less control over the horse and could wind up in a dangerous situation.
How about leading from beside the horse? Leading from beside means your shoulder is even with the horse’s poll (immediately behind the ears). Walking, trotting, turning, and stopping keeps you in the same position at the horse’s head. This allows you to be a partner with the horse while still being the decision maker. It builds trust. If a horse walks beside you and allows you to lead it, it means the horse trusts you will not lead it into danger. It builds confidence that a 1,000+ pound animal follows your softest touch. It builds communication as the horse tunes into your every move so eventually you can lead without the rope at all.
Instructors can expand on leading in lessons based on who the participants are and what the goal of the session is. Is it business leaders or employees working on communication and leadership? Is it a group looking to build a connection with a living being? Is it teenagers working on trust and relationships? Leading can be applied to different group lessons, or it can just be a useful way to train volunteers and anyone who is around your horses.
Even if you don’t have horses, I hope this was helpful to think about walking beside those you want to build a relationship with, instead of in front or behind them.
Find this interesting? Helpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!