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Listening and leading

“Don’t be the rider who gallops all night and never sees the horse that is beneath him.” -Jelaluddin RumiVirtually, everyone who starts riding has the same motivation: love of horses. But most of us soon realize that love is not enough. Riding is a discipline that asks a lot of both the mind and the body, and most of us realize that starting to ride is the start of something big – very big!When I started riding six years ago, I never imagined that I would someday be concerned about things like balance, collection and “throughness” (a dressage term translated from a really long German word). I never imagined how much I would have to learn – and am still learning – about fear, patience and perseverance. When I look back on those years, I realize there were critical moments when I started to understand important concepts about working with horses.I recently asked several area horsewomen about their “moments of truth.” What made the biggest impact on you in learning to ride and handle horses? What’s the first thing you would tell a new rider to help him or her overcome some of the problems all beginners experience? Their comments were remarkably similar, with two common themes: creating a partnership with your horse by learning how to be the herd leader and developing a secure and balanced seat that allows your horse to move freely.A herd of twoGerrie Barnes of Elizabeth teaches clinics for new riders on buying and owning horses ( She and her husband, Jeff, also teach a clinic on “being the herd leader.” Gerrie says, “Watch horses interact naturally with other horses. Note how they ask first, then tell, and ultimately demand what they want from each other – all in about three seconds.” To communicate effectively with your horse, you have to speak his language.Tami Fredrich of Colorado Springs was changed when she read Monty Roberts’ book, “The Man Who Listens to Horses.” “It was my first introduction to natural horsemanship, the art of working with horses in a way that takes into account their natural behavior, instincts and personality,” says Fredrich. “I’ve been applying myself to learning their language ever since.”Hilary Wood, founder of Front Range Equine Rescue, agrees. “Understanding the horse as a prey animal, how to communicate with them in a manner they understand, doing ground work until it’s solid before riding has been my mantra for the past few years,” says Wood. “My horse hasn’t worn a bit in years. Hard to believe I can ride him in a rope halter with a cotton lead at all gaits!”Partnership, not dominanceI remember being initially uncomfortable with the concept of “being the herd leader.” Did this mean showing the horse who’s boss? I didn’t want to be my horse’s boss; I wanted to be his partner. But someone had to be in charge. “Herd life is not a democracy,” says Barnes. “Each herd has a herd leader. When the herd is threatened, she decides which direction and how far the herd will run … horses feel safe with this arrangement and become nervous when they do not know who is in charge.”Kara Stewart of Sedalia makes a sharp distinction between dominating the horse and establishing a true partnership. “Actually, I would like to go back and unlearn the alpha type of teaching that was the norm when I was learning to ride,” Stewart says. “I wish I’d never learned the notion of ‘respect’ with regard to a horse. We say horses ‘respect’ the herd leader that bites and kicks and threatens them. They ‘respect’ him by keeping a good distance away. I wish I’d learned to be the leader they can rely on to be fair, consistent, level headed and counted on day after day, no matter what. I want to have mutual respect for each other based on mutual trust and high expectations.””We were all taught that, to be alpha equated to brute force,” says Robin Widmar of Elbert. “We all know now there’s a better way to do things. My horses and I are all happier working as partners.”Next month, I’ll talk about the importance of a secure seat. In the meantime, check out these books:”Natural Horse-Man-Ship: The Six Keys to a Natural Horse-Human Relationship: Attitude, Knowledge, Tools, Techniques, Time, and Imagination,” by Pat Parelli;”Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership,” by Mark Rashid;”Conversations with Horse: An Uncommon Dialog of Equine Wisdom,” by Kate Solisti-Mattelon

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