Pony Commentaries on Leadership

I’ve just finished collaborating on another article for Rural Heritage magazine with my friend Doc Hammill.  This one is about the incredible opportunities that our daily interactions with our equines present for improving our relationships.  Doc is adamant that when we improve our relationship with our hooved friends at feeding time, at haltering time, when leading, and when grooming, we will ultimately see improvement when we work together.

Doc has produced a video called Gentle Training 2: Daily Opportunities that illustrates the practices that he has put into place with his horses.  While Doc and I have slightly different styles, I generally felt like I was looking in a mirror when I watched the video.  Doc has made a great contribution by capturing these techniques in a format that others can watch and learn from.

Doc’s discussion of teaching our horses to come when called reminded me of a humorous incident last fall….

In the middle of a wet cold snowstorm, with the wind howling, I pull up next to the pony pasture with my horse trailer to bring the last of the ponies home for winter.  I call for the ponies, but no one shows up.  I start walking in their direction, still calling, and still no ponies.  Finally I can see them, and their feet haven’t moved from where I first saw them when I drove by a few minutes before.  So much for leadership!

I’d been so flattered last summer when the ponies consistently came when I called, when they followed me without being asked as I returned to my truck, when they respected my lead across a river.  But their respect for me as a leader apparently wasn’t enough to prod them into activity during a snowstorm!

On the other hand, that day I was able to easily halter head mare Sleddale Rose Beauty and lead her across the river, even leaning on her as I stumbled on rocks in the riverbed.  And the other two ponies followed.  Once we were at the gate next to the trailer, the other two ponies let me halter them.  And because the wind kept blowing the door to the trailer shut, I had to hold the door while loading, which meant I needed to load both Jonty and Rose from the offside.  They followed my lead easily, letting me throw the lead rope over their backs and then follow them into the trailer on their near side to tie them once they were clear of the blowing door.

On his video, Doc says, “People often ask me what’s the secret to having horses that are well behaved.  It’s not sending them to the trainer.  It’s not having formal training sessions.  The thing that makes more difference than anything else in safe, willing, comfortable, responsive horses is what we do day to day, every moment we’re around them.  Why would they suddenly behave in the ways we want when we have them in harness if they’re not reminded and required to behave in ways that are acceptable, safe, and cooperative on a day to day basis.  That’s the secret.”

Even master horsemen like Doc are occasionally tested by their equines.  The true test of our leadership, of course, is how we respond to those tests and then how our horses respond in turn.  In the midst of that snowstorm last fall, there were lots of ways the ponies could have behaved that would have resulted in them not being home for the winter at the end of the day.  As it turned out, the relationship I had with them was sufficient that all three loaded safely into the trailer and subsequently got home.  I’ll take that as their final commentary on my leadership.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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