A horse that obeys you does not necessarily respect you. A horse may obey commands out of fear if he was trained with punishment as a motivator. Many times, such fear later translates into aggression. Observing horses in a herd provides you with insight into how they demonstrate respect for their leader.
“Joining up” is when your horse follows you at your side untethered. The first instance it typically occurs is in ground training -- you’ll know you have successfully established a learned partnership when, after you walk up to him to praise and pat him, he complies when you invite him to move with you. You could walk in circles or in a zigzag pattern and he still would stay by your side. Your horse has learned your cues and respects them. Note that he should not be invading your personal space or touching you. It will appear to the observer that you are leading him -- except you don’t have a lead rope.
When you advance toward your horse, unless you use a verbal cue to tell him to stay, he should respond by backing up away from you, not turning away from you. Backing up is the beginning of respecting authority; yielding to the pressure of your advances is a sign that your horse looks up to you. You can see this behavior in a herd setting with a dominant horse as she approaches another and asks him to move. When she asks, he complies. He does so because ultimately he seeks approval from other horses in the herd and especially his leader.
To teach your horse to back, hold the lead rope high and wiggle it. As soon as he takes a step back, praise and pat him. If he doesn’t respond by backing, keep wiggling more and more aggressively, but always reward him immediately when he backs up.
When your horse respects your personal space he is showing respect. A respectful horse will not invade your space unless and until he is invited to do so. When you're leading, he should not bump or crowd you. If he approaches you, he should stop within a distance that you have defined as acceptable and stay there to await your next command. If your horse does not respect your space, you risk him stepping on your feet or running over you.
No Displaying Vices
If your horse displays vices, or bad habits, like turning his hind end toward you, threatening to kick you, rearing and pawing at you or biting you, he is being both disrespectful and dangerous. These are aggressive, authoritative behaviors that he uses with other horses to show dominance; by using them with you, he is insisting that you respect him rather than the other way around. By learning to curtail these instincts, he is demonstrating his respect for you and understands that you are his leader.
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Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.