The Boss Mare
Have you ever given much thought as to how a horse learns? How do you teach your horse to do something? You can learn a lot from watching horses interact with each other in the pasture. The boss mare, or lead horse in the herd, will move and direct the herd as she pleases. The rest of the herd follows her lead and is thus set in her herd dynamic.
If there is a unruly youngster in the group that pesters, or gets too close to feed or water, the lead mare will pin her ears and charge after him with some serious meaning. If that youngster backs off and goes somewhere else, she's done her job. But, if he comes back, she will up her pressure on him with another stronger charge maybe with some good strikes or kicks involved this time, until this young horse understands he is to wait his turn around the feed.
This is an example of pressure and release as well as an increase in pressure until the desired response is attained. Horses interact with us in a similar manner. They are constantly pushing on us, testing the waters of what is allowed and trying to figure 'who is boss mare?'. If a horse gets pushy with you and you are quick and use enough pressure, similar the boss mare, making him feel uncomfortable for doing so, you will be in good shape as leader and get your point across. But, if you just push back or worse yet, move out of his way, well.... I'd bet the roles are reversed.
Now the boss mare is very black and white isn't she? She is happily enjoying her feed, but as soon as the youngster shows up it's like she flips a switch and goes ballistic until he backs off. Only until then, will she go back to quietly munching away. This is what I call being black and white. You are either allowed over to the feed or you are not. Simple. The part where we get into trouble sometimes with our horses is we allow too many shades of gray. Sometimes, your horse is allowed to nibble in your pocket for a cookie, other times you don't allow it. Sometimes you want your horse to stand still for mounting, other times you just hop on and go as hes walking off into the sunset. Or, you give your 1000lb beast a good physical shove in the belly to move over, rather than trying to convince him to move his feet on his own with just a light suggestion....
Horses learn from the release of pressure. The second you take a pressure away, you have either taught them to do the right thing, or you taught them to do the wrong thing. The second that youngster jumps and runs away from the feeding ground, the boss mare returns to eating and the pressure is taken off. She taught him some clear black and white boundaries around the feeding ground, there was no shade of gray. It usually only takes one or two times of this and he will be unlikely to challenge her again or will proceed with caution.
I would say we all need to learn from the boss mare. Please don't get me wrong, I am all about loving on my horse and I do not believe we have to use the same extreme pressure as the boss mare, but I do believe in consistent boundaries and expectations. I love for my horse to be close to me, but I feel I have established some black and white ground rules (over weeks/months), before allowing all the loves and snuggles to happen. I feel confident I can ask the horse to move out of my space without much pressure.
I am hoping after reading this you will think more about your interactions with your horse. How can you be a better leader? How can you teach your horse what you would like him to do? Ingrain in your brain what your expectations are and start to chip away at them. Each interaction with your horse is a training opportunity. Try and be the best human boss mare for your horse!