The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Horsemanship


Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a fantastic model for people getting along with people. Using his model, I have taken the liberty of applying his ideas to horsemanship to share a perspective on how riders can perhaps get along with horses a bit better.

Habit 1  Be proactive
The sometimes bitter pill to swallow is that we, as humans, are entirely responsible for the success or failure of our horses and our riding experience. Riders are supposed to be the superior intelligence, yet it is common to see riders adopting the role of helpless victim or forceful dominator when essential communication breaks down.

The magic of the horse whisperer is that he is proactively approaching and communicating with a horse in such a way that it makes perfect sense to the horse and is completely non-threatening. Ray Hunt often said, A horse is just a fact, the human is an opinion. By consciously changing our opinion to better match the fact of the horse in the moment, we can improve our riding experience and move in the direction of success. By stubbornly ignoring the facts or not taking responsibility, then struggle, fear and danger are the results. It is the rider’s choice to work with the horse as it is, or not.

Habit 2  Begin with the end in mind
It is easy enough for the rider to set goals for himself, but what about the horse? What is the end picture for the horse? Is the horse going to be happy, healthy and sound in performance and into old age or will it simply become a vehicle for the rider’s goals? Unfortunately this choice is entirely up to the rider. No matter what the final goal is for the rider, a solid, basic goal for the horse is a foundation of emotional, mental and physical balance. Beginning each training session with balance in mind still allows for goals within a particular sport. Balance and a friendly working relationship are goals that are important to the horse and can fit tidily into any performance goal.

Habit 3  Put first things first
Foundation training, with the end result of a horse working in balance is finally putting the horse before the cart. So much of training is focused on the rapid achievement of sport performance or the pleasure of the rider that the very basics of time tested, classical horsemanship are largely overlooked. By not putting the horse and basic horsemanship first, the risk of problems and/or injuries is greatly increased. It is like watching the stock market bubble. Investors who put time into education first and investing money second reap huge rewards by getting into and out of the market appropriately. Investors who skipped the education part and just started investing, lost their savings. It takes education to become a horseman. Otherwise it can become like gambling. If we do not take time to understand the horse we really don’t know what to expect in any given situation. A gambler turns around and blames the horse, the market, the economy or politicians, but it was actually the gambler that decided not to put first things first with a solid education.

Habit 4  Think win/win
Thinking win/win with a horse will challenge the emotional, mental and physical balance of the rider constantly. When the rider’s safety or ego is at stake, fear becomes the dominant emotion with fight, flight or freeze behavior as the result. All to commonly it is heard in barnyards around the world, “Do not let that horse win!” This is the human’s instinctual predatory response in action. When a rider believes that a relationship with a horse involves win/lose or lose/win outcomes then he is not thinking like a horseman. A horseman has compassion and understanding for the horse plus the ability to get a job accomplished. This is a win/win outcome. The rider gets what he wants and the horse feels better for it. Riders are quick to take up the sport of riding but slow to understand what the needs of the horse really are. If the horse gives the rider the pleasure of riding, what does the horse get out of the deal? The two things that a human has to offer a horse are basic care (food, water, shelter, health) and the ability to become calmer, smarter and stronger than it could ever be without the human. Asking the question, How can I get what I need while providing the horse with what it needs, is a good way to wind up with a win/win outcome.

Habit 5  Seek first to understand then to be understood
This habit is probably the most useful during the actual process of training. It turns into the ubiquitous question, Why? that will lead a rider into appropriate action. Horses are non-verbal communicators. It is only their expression, body language and behavior that communicate what they are thinking or feeling. Behavior problems are simply the horse’s way of clearly telling the rider that it cannot cope anymore and feels fear (flight, fight or freeze). The problem may have an emotional, mental or physical root, but the horse is saying, I cannot handle it. The rider or handler does not have know exactly why the puddle or tarp (or challenging object) is so frightening, but he has to understand why the horse is acting out with undesirable behavior by remembering that horses are prey animals and born skeptics. As a leader, the rider fails the horse if he panders to the fear and removes challenges or if he forces a horse into a situation that escalates the fear.

The role of a leader is to understand the fear, respect the fact that the horse is demonstrating fear and then offer assistance so the horse can overcome what it fears. When the horse comprehends that the rider understands and then wants to be understood in order to help, true leadership is gained. Seeking to understand, walking in the horse’s shoes for a few minutes, shifts the rider’s perspective into the horse’s perspective. This makes room for compassion and meaningful leadership. It is never what a person says but what a person does that conveys understanding. When a rider is training in a way that develops the emotional, mental and physical balance of a horse then the horse feels the benefits of training daily. When the rider meets the needs of the horse first then the horse invariably responds with trust, willingness, try and a desire to be with that human. Imagine the relief of finding a compassionate mentor who could competently help you out of fear or destructive habits and into empowerment. Your desire to be with that person would not require a halter and lead rope!

Habit 6  Synergize
When two or more independent (balanced) individuals come together in partnership the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is synergy. For example, Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers were both skilled dancers in their own right. But, the effect of Fred and Ginger dancing together was more powerful than when either of them danced alone. The beauty and power created through relationship is what allows horses and riders to become a magical example of power and grace (or not). To master the sports associated with riding or simply because a rider wants that feeling of synergy with a horse, the rider must take on the roles of managing partner and personal trainer. Leading requires that the rider is competent and skilled by himself. Personal trainer is the role of helping the horse become independently competent. What is complicated about riding and unlike other sports, is that the horse has thoughts, feelings, needs and opinions all its own. To synergize, both the horse and rider must become independently skilled and then work together to create something more special than either could achieve on their own.

Habit 7  Sharpen the saw
Education, ideas and insights from experienced riders are always of value. The most legendary of horsemen are usually the most humble. Often quotes run along the lines of… still learning.While horsemanship is simple, that does not make it easy. Sharpening the saw with new information, a new perspective, a different coach or just taking some time out to think, analyze and reflect, enhances skills and helps the rider gain more perspective. At each stage of development a horse comes along to show a rider what he does not know yet. The rider has to just expect it, get over himself and be willing to learn. One of my favorite horsemen Buck Brannaman said it perfectly, Horsemanship and life, its all the same to me.

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