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Passive leadership

After writing entry Building on trust I felt that I'd like to write another piece from a more theoretical viewpoint. Also, I wanted to openly give credit to Mark Rashid and his book Horses Never Lie. That book greatly helped me clarify my thoughts about authority, trust and leadership. Actually, Mark's concept of passive leadership has become a central part of my own way of thinking about horsemanship. So, this entry is about passive leadership, illustrated with pictures taken at a horsemanship clinic by Noora Ehnqvist.

It is often thought that in a herd of wild horses they have an alpha leader - a horse with such a great authority that nobody questions it. When the alpha leader comes, the others give him way. When he tells the others to move, they move. And when he tells a horse not to move, the horse won't move. And that is about it - with domesticated horses the human should be in the alpha position, as otherwise the horse will be, making the human submissive. Luckily enough there are different ways to gain the alpha position, and a horseman should always remember to maintain his position.

Well, this might be true. In his work Mark Rashid had opportunity to watch the behavior or free roaming domesticated horses on their summer paddock. Watching herds of about 40 - 60 horses he saw that indeed one, two or three alpha leaders take control. But what does the rest of the herd do? After a week they had formed groups of five or six horses. The smaller groups spent most of their time away from the alphas. And Mark realized that those smaller groups are formed around a "passive leader" - a horse who doesn't claim to be a leader. Instead, he is just confident, peaceful, and relaxed. Soon the other horses decide to place their trust in such a horse, they want to be with him or her. So, the question is: as a human, do you want to take the alpha position and make your horse to afraid of you - or do you want to be a passive leader and let your horse to join you of his/her free will? Mark doesn't even say one of these options is right and the other is wrong; no, he is calm enough to say that it is up to each individual to decide what kind of connection he or she desires with the horses.

So, by nature a horse wants to be together with the others. But it is uneasy to be close to the alpha leader, so most of the horses decide to stay away. They begin to look for such a company which would offer feeling of safety. Usually a passive leader is a horse who is not afraid to be alone, who knows what he/she is doing, and who has no need to bully others. The others soon find it easy to stay next to such a passive leader. If they get scared or if they feel unsure, they can always look at the passive leader to see if they should run or pack together. They enjoy company of their small group, they respect their chosen leader.

Being a passive leader starts with being calm, peacefull, open and honest. If you have some hidden emotions or intentions, the horse is sure to sense that, and feels uneasy. But if you are completely open, with nothing to hide, you make it easier for the horse to place her trust in you. It is of no use to demand the horse to show trust and respect - it is always up to the horse to decide of her free will. Not being the alpha does not necessarily mean being weak and submissive - on the contrary you are allowed to be so confident about youself, that you don't have to be a macho. There is no need to start a fight, and usually it is just enough to show that you have a certain sphere of personal space around you. With gentle gestures you can tell the horse where your personal space is, and if you allow anyone inside your sphere or not. That is the language a horse understands. Just leave the horse with a freedom to decide if she wants to stay away from your space, or if she wants to question your condifence - and pretty soon she will decide to respect your space, and feels safe about staying with you. If the horse gets nervous, you just stay calm and peaceful - offering the horse your peace, so that she can find her safety in your presence.

Being a passive leader does not mean being passive in the sense of not doing anything. On the contrary, it means maintaining your peacefull and open frame of mind when moving around or doing work. Or even when facing a difficult situation. Mark gives some inspiring examples of how a peacefull and non-violent approach works with the troubled horses. It might take some time, but once the horse feels safe to be with you, you can begin to build on trust. There is a certain difference if the horse is obeying you just because she is afraid of being punished - or if she wants to do things together with you just because she feels that is safe, nice and uplifting to be together with you.

Well, in my life I haven't had an opportunity to watch a big herd of horses on a vast paddock. But what little I have seen with my own horses, I must say that I pretty much agree with Mark Rashid. I remeber a situation when my black gelding Velmu met a mare called Pleikkari. At her previous place the mare had been dominative, especially towards a submissive gelding. When she came to my place, she tried to start a fight with Velmu, jumping, kicking and leaping around. Velmu calmly looked at the mare, without fighting back, just standing his ground. It was as if he was saying: "Oh, you can kick and you can leap, but I see inside you - you are afraid, but I'm not. Your kicking doesn't threaten me." After a while the mare grew tired or her agression, and went to eat grass. Soon Velmu started to move, and with a small but firm gesture of his head told the mare to give way. Velmu took the place where the mare previously was, eating there and seemingly forgetting about the mare. The mare was confused and upset, and again tried to fight, but got no response. And this was repeated for couple of times. Without a single kick Velmu had showed that he doesn't let the mare to dominate him, nor does he want to fight with her. After that there was no more fighting, Velmu had gained respect in the eyes of Pleikkari.

ps. for the sake of being open and honest with you readers I'd like to tell that no, I haven't been in contact with Mark Rashid. He doesn't pay for me writing this blog entry, I just want to give him credit, because I found his book well-written and inspiring.

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