Protector Leadership and Horse Agility


Lynn Acton, author of ‘What Horses Really Want’ tells how she sees a positive connection between Protective Leadership and becoming really good at Horse Agility.

‘Show a horse he can trust you to take care of him, and you have a willing partner who takes care of you.  It’s an age-old concept.  I call it Protector Leadership because that reflects the most important element of it – being a horse’s protector.  While dominant leaders focus on obedience, Protector Leaders focus on meeting horses’ intense need for security.

Protector Leadership is not a training system.  It’s a relationship that engages horses’ innate intelligence, shows them that we respect their needs, and encourages them to express their personalities.

Below are brief descriptions of five actions that build this trusting relationship.  If you are familiar with Horse Agility, you will see the parallels.

Listen to what horses are saying.  Horses’ body language is their only means of communicating with us.  Instead of focusing solely on what the horse is doing, Protector Leaders focus on what a horse’s body language is saying about his emotional state.  Is he confused, anxious, trying to escape?  Or is he relaxed, confident, engaged, understanding, ready for more?

Communicate in ways that make intuitive sense to horses.  When we understand how they interpret our body language, we send fewer confusing signals.  We can use our body language to convey messages that tell them we are trustworthy.  We can also use body language that invites them to copy us.  This provides a foundation for learning with less pressure than conventional horsemanship.  “Synchronized leading”, as described in The Horse Agility Handbook, was the first clear explanation of this body language I found.

Encourage curiosity (Investigative Behavior).  Horses are naturally curious; their wild ancestors couldn’t afford to be afraid of everything.  Engaging horses’ curiosity is a powerful way to turn anxiety into confidence as they learn that the suspicious thing is not dangerous after all.  Their default assumption about new things shifts from “Strange new thing; better run,” to “Strange new thing; let’s check it out.”

Provide Positive Experiences.  Positive experiences make a horse feel successful.  Success builds confidence.  A confident horse is less anxious because his experiences tell him he can cope with different life situations.  When we provide these positive experiences we earn trust.

Reduce stress.  Life is naturally full of stress, but conventional horsemanship routinely creates unnecessary stress because it relies on pressure and negative reinforcement.  Horses are more resilient to life’s inevitable stresses when they see us as protecting them from stress instead of causing it.

More than any other equestrian sport, Horse Agility inherently turns humans into Protector Leaders.  New obstacles provide opportunities for Investigative Behavior.  We use clear body language to show horses what we want them to do, and watch their body language to interpret their responses.  Each new obstacle and skill a horse masters provides a positive experience.  Horses’ stress is reduced when they know they can trust people to guide and care for them.  This makes Horse Agility a splendid foundation for both a positive relationship and future learning in other areas.

My book, What Horses Really Want (Published by Trafalgar Press , explains Protector Leadership in detail, including the science behind it, and practical instructions for how to apply it.