Thursday, 10 January 2013

In which I ponder the nature of the good leader, and the power of words.

There’s a good old barney brewing on the horse section of the internet, about Being a Leader. There’s an old school idea, and a matching natural horsemanship notion, that you must be your equine’s leader. That is what the animal needs. How you achieve that is obviously the bone of some contention.

Bullshit, cries a voice from the back row. All this being a leader balderdash is just a horrid human excuse to exert dominance. It’s merely revolting ego.

The voice from the back row has art. It is a short video of a French instructor being not very nice to a head-shy horse. It is quite demoralising to watch, and the message boards are howling.

What it really made me think about is the power of words.

Words are important. I love them and use them daily in my work and give them the respect they deserve. They are miracle things. A black mark on a page or a screen can provoke intense emotion, change mood, invite you into another world, transport you through time. A word can break a relationship, or soothe a battered heart. There is something perfectly extraordinary in that.

I have thought about the leader thing quite a lot. At first, I merely accepted it as sense. Horses, and dogs too, being herd and pack animals, need a good honest boss to follow. It makes them feel safe. It’s also excellent for the humans involved. An untrained dog is a bore; an unsettled, dominant horse can be a serious half-ton danger.

But lately, I’ve been wondering whether it is the wrong word. Leader can mean lots of different things to different people. It might mean the swaggery, take no prisoners, strike fear into the heart, my way or the highway autocrat. It could mean the diametrical opposite: someone quiet and confident, who does not need to shout or intimidate, but facilitates the desired result with calm and ease.

When I watched one of the HorseBack leadership courses, the ex-military officers talked of concepts I would not necessarily have expected, about leading people. Sense of humour was high on the list, as was moral courage, and having the bravery to say the unpopular thing. They also talked of being bold enough to admit the things you did not know. Humility was right up there.

I think perhaps that leader, such a bald, plain word, can mean twenty different things to twenty different people. With my own horse, my new word is partner. (When I am being a bit flaky, it is: howdy, pardner.)

Out on some of the equine sites I follow, there are a lot of serious goals. What are your goals for 2013? they ask, and people give lists of dressage tests, and jumping four foot fences, and doing cross country, and teaching the perfect half-pass. My own goals are amazingly homespun and humble. I was making a bit of a joke about it to the Horse Talker the other day.

‘There are all these people wanting to do an immaculate flying change, and I just would like to lead the mare twenty feet into the scary woods,’ I said, ruefully.

‘Let’s do it,’ she said. (She is a woman of action.)

So we led the horses over the bridge and up into the alarming woods. The trees are very dense and there is hardly any light. The place is quite sinister for a human, let alone a flight animal.

Up she went, my dear girl, by my side, snorting and widening her eyes, on high predator alert. And then she relaxed and realised we were fine and I let her graze for a bit, and then we went back. I was as filled with triumph as if we had won Hickstead. The serious competitive people with their proper goals would be laughing their heads off. But it was championship material for us.

‘Of course,’ I say to the Horse Talker, ‘when I say partner, I mean senior partner.’

That’s my idea of leadership. The horse and I are in it together. Everything I do with her must come with her consent. But she needs confidence, and that is in my gift. My word is the last word, but it does not mean she does not have her say. I read her carefully every day like a book, work with her moods rather than against them, ask her only what she is capable of giving. I never punish her, merely persist gently until my aim is met. And then she is covered in congratulation until she smiles her horsey smile, and looks vastly pleased with herself.

(This happened today, as she let me run a plastic container filled with alarming sloshing water all over her body. She was braced and uncertain, this being a new article, but she stood like a rock, her head coming down in increments, as she realised that she was in my safe hands, and in the end she calmly sniffed and lipped at the terrifying object. I rewarded her as if she had just jumped round Cheltenham.)

My goal is a very small, simple thing. It is trust. I don’t want a brilliant, prize-winning horse; I want a happy horse. If we build that bond of trust between us, there shall be joy, for human and equine both. It is a sort of leadership, I suppose. But the good word for it is Love.


Today’s pictures:

Bit of a blah day, here in Scotland. But lovely and mild, despite apocalyptic warnings of crashing mercury:

10 Jan 1

10 Jan 2

10 Jan 3

10 Jan 5

10 Jan 6

These are the dear dozy faces that greet me each morning:

10 Jan 11

Posing PONY:

10 Jan 12

Autumn the Filly:

10 Jan 13

Red the Mare:

10 Jan 14

Stanley the Dog with his stick:

10 Jan 15

And doing most excellent sit and stay. Ha, I AM the Dear Leader in this shot:

10 Jan 16

Where the hill should be:

10 Jan 20

I realise, as I read this through, that I really have entirely given in to my most hippy-ish tendencies, as I advance through middle age. It’s all love and trees, in my house. There is a part of me that thinks, oh come on, be sharp and cynical and funny, instead of dippy and hokey.

But it really is the thing I do believe. When we lie on our deathbeds, our defining mark shall be: did we love well? And were we loved well in our turn?

It’s all that matters, in the end. Even such a curmudgeon as Philip Larkin said that all that is left of us is love. And he was right.


  1. The concept of partnership is a good one. Instead of leader, with all its different interpretations, you seem to be the managing partner. ;-)


  2. Oh YES! There are reams of stuff on Dominance in the dog world. And I look at my three and there is no One Leader, rather they take turns according to circumstances. And sometimes we are there to insist on manners and politeness, because that is what makes it possible for us to live together without killing each other. Or to encourage our dog/horse/friend/self through a horrid experience to prove that it can be done and isn't really that bad. This is starting to be talked about but will take a while to garner mainstream acceptance.

    Perfectly happy to be hippy-dippy on this. It all comes down to "live with respect" and there are much worse creeds to live by.

    So far, mercury has not yet started to soar, prediction is for 37 celsius today and tomorrow, so rather envying you in Scotland. Loving the photos. Does Myfanwy do the slow blink to show off her eyelashes? And just look at Mr Stanley's long elegant greyhound toes. Please give him a hug from me!

  3. Big difference between building a bond and bullying an animal (or person, for that matter!) into submission!
    I couldn't look at that "horse training" video, yet couldn't help but wonder how that woman treats other human beings....
    Temperature meant to plummet here too (to the minuses on the weekend). I always forget that February and March are still (and usually heavier) winter. And the first few snow drops were already out today in the front garden...go figure!


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