Understanding Your Horse: The Human's View of Control

By Dan Sumerel

When people are around horses, it is my opinion that the people should be in control of the horses. Not the other way around. Most people would agree with that statement, but I have found a lot of people to be a bit put off by it. They are put off because to them, it sounds just too controlling! Many people find the ‘controlling' idea to be unpleasant and even offensive, because of how they relate to taking control of a horse. They associate the act of taking control with getting physical or even violent, and using forceful equipment on a horse. They are uncomfortable with force or violence and therefore shy away (no pun intended) from ever really getting control of their horse. Their rationalization for not controlling the horse better is the all too common statement, 'I would never do that to my horse!' There are many times it would be valid to say that, but in this context it is both logical and incorrect: logical, because no one with any compassion should want to inflict pain upon a horse; incorrect because the assumption that you must inflict pain to gain control is based on a lack of information. The information lacking is that the best way to control a horse is NOT dependent upon force at all! Since we all too often see people using force to control a horse, caring people begin to consider that method to be the only last resort, once the bribes (carrots/grain/treats) or the 'C'mon sweetie pie, you know mommy wants her baby to get in the nice trailer' have failed. In other words, most people are unaware that there is another, better choice when it comes to getting control of their horse.

I often tell people, 'There are facts about horses and there are opinions about horses. When you want opinions, ask the people; when you want the facts, ask the horses.' So if we want to know how to get control of a horse, let's ask a horse how he would do it! I often talk about ‘The Horse's View of Control' and how horses control other horses by getting animated and ‘herding' the other horse around - in other words, controlling its movement. The horse with the strongest character will end up controlling the movement of the more submissive horse, and in most cases with no physical contact. The dominant horse earns (by his actions) the respect of the more submissive horse, which in turn gives the dominant horse more control than he could have taken with mere force, in the first place! All horses know they need a leader. Most people just misunderstand how horses go about deciding who leads.

Now before you start writing me about how violent horses can be, and telling about the time so-and-so's horse kicked the heck out of your horse, let me clarify my point. I'm not saying horses never get physical; obviously they do. But as with people, some horse leaders are better than others. And the fact is that if you spend hours watching horses interact and establishing who is in charge, you will see hundreds of issues decided with no physical contact for every one where force is used! It's just that that one violent action makes such a dramatic impression on us, that we remember it all too well. The more subtle actions of the horses get overlooked completely, and therefore their significance can be lost. In fact it is the significance of those hundreds of non-violent acts of control that we should be focused on and learning to duplicate! To make the point further, go to any horse show or event and watch the people handling their horses when things start to go wrong for the person - in other words, when they start to lose control of the horse. 99% of the time, when people start to lose control of a horse, their FIRST reaction will be to get physical with the horse! They'll jerk on a rope or chain, use a whip, go to a more severe bit, and so on. Those actions are, again, logical but incorrect. Logical because we are trying to control our horse (which means controlling the movement of his body) and so we go after his body when things go wrong. We make it physical. Incorrect, because the actions of his body (that we are trying to control) are really determined by his mind, so we should really be trying to influence his thinking rather than to hurt his body. We should be making the struggle for control a mental exercise, not a physical struggle.

It is here that I would like to interject WHY it is so important that the human be in control of the horse rather than vice versa. First and most important, we are too little, and a thousand pound horse can hurt a two hundred pound person quite easily, even without trying. (When the horse steps on your foot, does it hurt any less if he didn't mean to do it?) If you can't control that thousand pound horse, you are at risk of serious injury, so in my opinion you MUST have control.

Second, if you can't control your horse, your horse is at risk. The millions of years horses survived without us was done in a natural environment. Your horse is well prepared to survive in the wild, with his herd and his instincts. But he is not prepared for plastic bags, confinement, and hundreds of other things your horse must deal with in a human environment. He can learn about them, but he is not naturally prepared to deal effectively with them. Especially when he does not have the security of a herd to depend on! He will most likely panic and run, which in the confined areas that we handle horses in is not likely to be a good choice of action. So HE can get hurt, due to your lack of control.

Third, you need to be in control so you can succeed in whatever competition or activity you do with the horse. Obviously whether you show or jump or do dressage, those activities are all about control - often very precise control. We don't often think about it in such a basic level, but EVERY thing we do in competition with horses relates directly to control of the horse! Most of us understand this control thing, fundamentally, but what is important here is HOW we maintain the control. The more you understand your horse, the more options you will have for getting control. Most of what I do, day in and day out, revolves around giving people more and better options. Unfortunately we have been so conditioned to rely on equipment (tack) or words (our language, not the horse's) or bribery (carrots and treats) that we overlook the simpler, more effective approach to gaining control: do what horses do. It's better, safer, cheaper, easier and most of all, fun!

About the author:

Dan Sumerel is a trainer, author, and lecturer, best known for his work helping people with problems involving horses. His first book, "Finding the Magic", is sold all over the world and has been called, "The owner's manual for the modern horse." For more information visit the Sumerel Training website at sumereltraining.com.