Acquiescence or Agreement: Parallels Between the Business World and Horse Training

Might our experiences on the job shape our working relationships with horses?


Part II – Leaders Lead, BosSES FAIL  

"There is a difference between being a leader and being a boss. Both are based on authority.
A boss demands blind obedience; a leader earns his authority through understanding and trust."

                                                                                                                     ~ Klaus Balkenhol

Drawing a clear distinction between a boss and a leader clarifies for me why so many training methods and systems fall short of creating productive partnerships between people and their horses. Too many horse owners seem to start from the premise that because they are the upright, two-legged members of the pair, they ought automatically to be respected by their four-legged partners. I am the human, therefore I am the boss and you must do what I want you to do whether or not you agree it’s in your best interest or is even physically possible.

Remember in Part I we defined acquiesence as "agreeing to disagree." Not actually agreement, but not arguing, either. Why might a person acquiesce? Many reasons, some of them quite sensible. A timid person might wish to avoid conflict or maybe he doesn’t really care, so the issue isn't serious enough to warrant expending the energy to make his case. Anyone might rightly choose to defer to someone with broader knowledge of the subject at hand or to someone who feels very strongly about his own position.

But what about the other reasons, the times we don’t feel able to exercise choice? People are more likely to feign agreement under some kind of threat. This sort of forced acquiescence happens when one party holds power over the other; for example, a supervisor with the ability to fire someone who dares to disagree. The most extreme of these forced situations would be someone literally holding a gun to your head. You "agree" and live; disagree and die.

Most people loathe being forced, made to do something they don’t understand or agree with. Horses don’t like it much, either, despite all the mumbo-jumbo you’ll hear from some dominance-based animal trainers who focus on simplistic notions about the predator/prey relationship.

The power balance between horses and humans is already skewed. Horses are physically bigger and stronger, their reflexes are faster and senses more acute. But humans decide where they live, what and when they eat, how they are "clothed" and how and when they work. We even have the power of life or death over them.

That's necessary for the role horses have taken on in our world – as domesticated animals they depend on humans for all their most basic needs. You don't ask an overweight horse whether you should cut his rations or inquire whether he'd like to see the dentist this week. But anyone who assumes that degree of power over the life of another being must understand that great responsibility

In Part I, I wrote about one way horses deal with dominance-based training methods: shutting down, giving up. The other way horses blow off handlers who demand their obedience without earning their respect is to become aggressive, finding an outward outlet for their frustration and anger. They use their size and the “fight” side of their prey nature to defend themselves, even to the point of “I’ll get you before you get me.”

In our human work world, these are employees who show great promise, but probably never work anywhere very long. Their resumes list a long string of positions left behind after conflict with management, because they wouldn’t sell their souls for the corporate culture and told their bosses where to stuff it.

The horse who chooses this path probably has a similar resume. He may be extremely smart and athletic, but he moves from owner to owner as a “difficult” horse who shows great promise but proves too difficult for most riders to manage. If someone will take the time to undo all this horse’s habitual behaviors and gain his respect, that person has a real gem. This is a horse who won’t acquiesce; he must reach agreement. Instead, his story often becomes one of harsher and harsher treatment until the horse either hurts himself or his owner and is put to pasture or destroyed.

  Dangerous rogue turned superb trail partner.

Dominance, Pain and Fear
One of my early rehab horses came to me for reschooling after being rescued from the cycle of harsher bits and more aggressive training techniques. He was a very talented jumper who had achieved “rogue” status and had injured his well-meaning owner before someone realized he was in great pain and probably had been for quite some time. This lovely animal had severe chiropractic and dental issues; no surprise he was objecting severely to carrying the weight of a rider and was running through the bit. The early, subtle signs of his distress had been dismissed as laziness or willful misbehavior and his trainer resorted to spurs and whips and increasingly severe bits until the horse rebelled dangerously, refusing to let anyone mount him.

Yet, at his core, this horse was a kind, gentle soul, a very reserved and proper gentleman with impeccable manners, and I still cringe to think what it took to drive him to react violently. By the time I knew him his soundness issues had been addressed and his pain eliminated, but still the first time I walked him into an arena with jumps he trembled so hard his knees buckled and I feared he might fall down. Even mundane tasks like standing in a washrack for a bath were nerve-wracking for him, as he seemed always to anticipate any “wrong” move would bring punishment.

Dominance techniques broke down this horse; the only way forward was through helping him trust that people could and would respect his needs. Months of patient work helped him regain confidence and even brought out his very sweet sense of humor. I enlisted his cooperation in his recovery instead of insisting on it, and the outcome was positive. He became a good, solid lower-level dressage and trail horse for a couple of temporary owners before finding his ideal person, who rode and loved him the rest of his life.

How did I learn to seek agreement instead of acquiescence? I’m not really sure, but I think I started on this path as a small girl working with big horses on my own, trying to master skills needed to compete in the show ring. I wasn’t ever going to be able to accomplish what I wanted to by force – 9-year-old girl vs. chunky Quarter Horse had a predetermined outcome. I wasn’t allowed to feed my horses treats, so I couldn’t bribe them to do what I wanted. I could fly into a rage and hit them with a whip or a rein, but they only reacted in the moment and then quietly tolerated me in their patient way, perhaps sensing my remorse and always forgiving me for my ignorance. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t teaching them anything, and it didn’t make either of us happy to interact that way.

Instead, I started trying to just show the horse what I wanted him to do and help him to learn to do it with ease. With some horses, I had to make the learning process into a kind of game. With others I had to break down each skill into much smaller bits and arrange them into a progression that led to the skill. Some horses needed to drill a new skill over and over to get it right. Others did better when I introduced the new movement and then left them alone to process for a while before asking for a repeat. I had to be creative and persistent and, above all, patient.

the key to deciding what is the best way to build relationship with our horses is to consider how we’d like
to be treated
at our jobs."


One very stubborn mare taught me I must also be able, if challenged, to give the horse a reason to do this thing, something better than “Because I said so!” (Remember the teenager from Part I? He just rolled his eyes again!) Instead, I must be able to prove that I am asking the horse to learn to move laterally with my aids because he will then more easily balance himself and will efficiently develop the strength and balance to carry us both safely in fun activities like trotting up hills or jumping over fences or turning back a calf.

So where do we find the model for a healthy collaboration, in which each party gets to thrive and grow and learn and become his or her best self? Maybe we don’t find them in our human relationships; maybe for those of us drawn to horses, part of the attraction is the opportunity to learn true partnership there.

Just recall how your favorite elementary-school teacher maintained classroom discipline without noticeable effort, while a substitute was tormented into tears and threats of punishment by the very same students. Think of the coach who quietly motivated a team of mediocre players to a winning season by helping each of them discover and own his personal strengths, while a bullying coach with more talented individual players ended up with a losing record. Consider how good you felt on completing a work project that required grueling hours worked with a team of dedicated co-workers and a hands-on supervisor, and how miserable you were with a similar workload but a boss who only decreed deadlines and criticized mistakes without doing any of the work or logging a single hour of overtime with the team.

Perhaps the key to deciding what is the best way to build relationship with our horses is to consider how we’d like to be treated at our jobs. For my part, I like a supervisor who teaches me what I need to do patiently and methodically, then gets out of my way and lets me create my own system for accomplishing the task my way. I want her to be available if I should need help or clarification, but basically I need to be left on my own to do the work. I want specific duties outlined, deadlines set and adhered to and I do not want to be micromanaged or treated like I need a babysitter. I want the expectations to be clear, specific and fair and I want to be consulted if those expectations change.

How much better would it be for the horse to have a say in what happens when we work together? To feel free to “tell” his rider he doesn’t know how to perform a movement, even though the rider thinks he has taught it adequately. To be able to “ask” his rider for a clarification when a cue is unclear. To require the same focus of his rider that the rider expects of him. To have the satisfaction of having earned praise instead of only working to avoid punishment.

  These two horses are playing together. Can you tell from the body language that the grullo likes the sorrel to stay behind him?

Let Your Horse Teach You
Through their responses and reactions, our horses are telling us things all the time. It’s only that humans aren’t well versed in the nuances of body language. Many of us barely live in our own bodies, let alone having the subtle perception to interpret the differences between several versions of an ear flick. Learning to understand horse body language is just like learning any language – it takes practice and requires that we sometimes be brave enough to make mistakes in order to learn.

For example, all my students at some time do some lessons learning to move a horse at liberty in a round pen. And they all inevitably ask the same questions: How close do I go to the horse? How much should I wave the whip to get the horse to speed up? How loud should I say “whoa” when I want the horse to stop? The answer to all those questions is the same: The horse will tell you. He’s the body-language expert. It’s your job to learn to listen and to respond in ways the horse understands clearly and consistently.

If you say “walk” in a timid little voice and the horse stands staring at you, clearly you haven’t communicated effectively. Saying the same word over and over in the same tone isn’t likely to have an effect. So, what do most people do then? They yell “walk.” And then are surprised when the horse leaps into the air and gallops around. Many people would jut quit at that point, some blaming themselves for doing something “wrong” but many blaming the horse for being lazy or disrespectful. These people believe that because they said the right word, they gave the right cue. In neither of these examples is the human acting as a leader; in the latter, he’s trying to be the boss.

But what if instead of assigning blame, the person simply viewed the horse’s responses as information. The first cue was too small; the second was too big. The challenge now is to find the cue that’s just right, Goldilocks. And to do that, you have to get over the idea that you’re the boss and you somehow have the right to expect certain responses whether or not you manage to communicate effectively with the horse.

Present the same novice student from our example above with a horse already moving in the roundpen and instruct her to use a combination of voice and body position to cue the animal to quiet and stop. Most people will, instead, get the horse a bit worked up. Why? Because they don’t realize that their tone of voice and the energy of their movement is what the horse is listening to more than the word “whoa.”


This student uses calm, clear body language to ask her horse to back at liberty.


Even for a horse well trained to voice aids, say the word too softly or loudly, in a shrill voice or with an implied question mark at the end and a solid halt is unlikely. Likewise for those whose students whose body position doesn’t give the horse space to stop and those who end up running to get in front of the horse on the circle, turning themselves into a chasing predator. A calm voice, deepened a bit for some, and quiet movements without an emotional charge are called for, as well as a deep “listening” to the nuances of the horse’s posture and expression. The horse will stop when the person’s movement and energy mean “stop.”

In this exercise, who is the boss? The human initiated the activity, but the horse/body-language expert assumed the role of teacher, showing the student when he actually succeeded in conveying the intended message. Using ones body intentionally is a learned skill and our horses are master teachers for those willing to tune in to the subtle give-and-take that results in true connection and communication. Think of it as a conversation in which both parties both ask and answer until each understands the other

But someone intent on being the boss will be so busy issuing orders he’ll never pay enough attention to the horse’s responses or experiment enough with his own kinetic “vocabulary” to accomplish more than a crude display of predator vs. flight animal. If all you want to do is chase your horse around a roundpen to tire him out, that’s fine. But that’s not partnership. There’s no agreement, no connection, no understanding. Stacey Kollman

© 2014 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman





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