California Riding Magazine • December, 2013

The Power of Why
Clinician offers lessons in leadership.

by Chris Irwin


Chris speaking at a sold-out lecture at the University of Utrecht. The five young ladies lined up with him represent a horse. The one in the back being the hindquarters - the one in the front the neck and head. In between are the ribs and shoulders. Chris has an interactive session with the audience - many different exercises like this where people take on the role of the horse and he has them experience what it is like to be "controlled" in different ways.

Greetings, California friends and kindred spirits, from the land of cheese, tulips, windmills and incredibly well-bred horses. I'm so happy to be writing once again for California Riding Magazine as I send this first column your way from The Netherlands. 

I just arrived in Holland after finishing a very rewarding weekend clinic in Belgium. And I'm proud to say that I had a sold-out lecture at the prestigious University of Utrecht with the Veterinaire Hippische Vereniging (Dutch Veterinary Equine Association). I was asked to speak about horse body language and psychology and how veterinarians can learn how to improve the "bedside manner" of their body language when handling their four-legged patients.

I mention my lecture because, whether we ride english or western, drive harness horses, train race horses or compete with polo horses, whether we are veterinarians, farriers, chiropractors, massage therapists or equine assisted facilitators, we all are asking, to one degree or another, the same thing from our horses.  


Chris out for a slide with his grey gelding Thunder. Born on a PMU farm from Manitoba, Chris found Thunder as a weanling at 6 months of age. Now 16 years mature, under saddle or in the carriage, here is a wonderfully reliable horse both in the arena and out on the trails.

So, on that note, please take a moment and ask yourself this simple but profound question ... What do we all ask of our horses?

What was your first response? Respect? Trust? Control? Partnership? 
With a slight dose of humor injected in here I'd have to say that most, not all, but most horses probably view themselves and horses in general as passive-aggressive, attention-deficit, hyper-disorder, paranoid victims waiting to happen. Whereby the horses probably see so many human beings as romantic control freaks in denial. I say this because the horses know this is definitely not about partnership.

A partnership could be two parents raising their children. The parents are partners with each other but they are not partners with their children.

So, if not partnership, what is it that our horses know we are truly asking of them?

We want our horses to embrace the unknown. We expect our horses to willingly accept vulnerability and allow us to lead them.

As just mentioned, horsemanship is not, as many have been mislead to believe, an exercise in partnership. Horsemanship is an exercise in leadership. And a leader is someone who first and foremost manages his or herself in order to better influence and be of service to others. As Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt both said, "You're not working on your horse, you're working on yourself."

True horsemanship does not begin with the mechanics of "how" to perform a specific exercise or maneuver with a horse. The essence of Horsemanship begins with why we want what we want from our horses in the first place. Why?

Our horses read our behavior like a book. And when we approach horses assuming that we are going to be a trainer who pretends to be a partner but in fact is clearly out to control, break, or school a horse into giving us what we "want," then the horses are naturally obligated to resist us. Wouldn't you if you were a horse and someone was trying to convince you that you should allow him or her control over your body, mind and spirit?

On the other hand, if we approach our horses with an empathetic and ethical mandate to truly be of service to them by adapting our behavior and training methods in order to demonstrate that we are leaders that they can rely on to receive what they "need" from us, then they can clearly perceive the difference in our behavior.  


Chris riding his 3 year old Friesian x Hanoverian mare "Ekwa." This is only Ekwa's seventh ride of her young life and she is being ridden alone, without the company of other horses, on her first trail ride into nature.

If we approach horses with illusions to take what we want, they give us the resistance we deserve. However, if we approach horses with authentic awareness to give them what they need, then they give themselves to us unconditionally with willing cooperation.

And what do horses need from us? They need from us what many of us would like to see and hear from ourselves, and each other.  They need us to have a calm, focused assurance. They need us to be both strong and compassionate. Horses need us to be consistently, consciously aware. In short, horses need us to be our best selves.

I look forward to sharing over the coming months what I have learned over a lifetime as the essential distinctions in training and schooling method with horses. With a keen eye for quality we will look at the many differences between training concepts that are assertive as opposed to aggressive. We will look at the balance between decisiveness and receptivity and the very fine line between empathy and enabling. We will look past illusions and marketing and look honestly at true leadership as seen and experienced in the mind of the horse.

In the most practical terms possible, this column will have an ethical mandate to clearly distinguish between asking not what your horse can do for you – but rather, what can you do for your horse to give it what it needs to calmly, confidently and willingly embrace the unknown.
Until next time, all the best for healthy, happy and prosperous trails!

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement.  It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at www.chrisirwin.com.