The General, Gardener and the Guide

I just got back from mucking out my stable and paddocks, a time many horse people know is the perfect time for reflection and thought!  Some of my best ideas came to me when engaged in simple repetitive activity, like long distance driving, poo picking, or trail riding.


I have broken my own little tradition, I had until now labelled all my blogs with a one word title, a challenge to myself to be precise and concise after a lifetime of being told I speak too much, write too much and think too much.  Perhaps condensing my thoughts and ideas into a brief title was a way to help people understand me?  In some cases, this was very useful.  It is also not being true to myself.  My brain works in detail, and processes complexity quite quickly.  Often I can come to a surprising conclusion much faster than is commonly acceptable and for this reason many people who know me personally, can find my ideas jarring.

Nevertheless, detail is one of my few gifts that is unique to me.  I should not be afraid to use it.   If you have a short attention span, or find that any blog over 400 words is too long, this is the point I will lovingly invite you to check out.  Those that remain with patience, curiosity and an appetite for detail… welcome to my world!

This blog I have wanted to write for several weeks.  Delayed because I have since moved countries from Poland to Southern Spain.  Including a 3500km drive, with my fiance, our five animals and of course my horse.  It has been stressful and scary like I have never experienced before!   The dust has more or less settled for now and though I want to write about our big life change soon, this blog is overdue and it is time to write it.

I want to introduce to Horsemanship practise:

– The General

-The Gardener

– The Guide 

But first, let us together commonly understand LEADERSHIP

When I say the word Leadership in relation to horses it can be a trigger point for many.  Some see the word ‘Leader’ fall from the mouth of a horse trainer, especially a male horse trainer with a habit of wearing a wide brimmed hat and they are triggered.  Triggered frustration and distrust by memories of those rough old cowboys, with paternalistic tendencies, telling ‘little ladies’ that they are spoiling their horses by not being a ‘strong leader’, criticising them to be more dominant or assertive.  Many horse people, especially women, are vocally outraged by coercion and aggression and rightfully so!

If you fear I may be one of those old school Horsemen, please don’t worry!   I may wear a wide brimmed hat but a paternalistic cowboy I am not.   I come from an artistic background and my desire to wear a wide brimmed hat has everything to do with being practical for the type of work I do; waterproof, sweat soaking (wool hat), sun shading, warm in winter, cool in summer, shielding eye contact from nervous horses etc.   Donning a wide brimmed hat has nothing to do with trying to be a dominance loving cowboy wannabe!

A patronising cowboy I am not, despite my love of wide brimmed hats.  Ladies (and gents) you are SAFE here.  PHOTO:

As I write this I am smiling and laughing a little to myself!   Sometimes I have found myself putting on a baseball cap when meeting a certain type of client… because I guessed they would likely not trust me if showed up in my favourite wide brimmed hat!  They label a baseball cap and jodhpur wearing horseman as ‘one of us’, and a wide brimmed hat and wrangler wearing horseman as ‘one of them’, or the reverse, depending on what kind of stable you’re walking into; Classical versus Western, Dressage versus Recreational.    All that ‘Us versus Them’ costume analysis is rather boring and irrational.  I wish people were less shallow about surface symbolism and identity bias… but alas, we live in a world where costume is an everyday fact of life.  We all put on clothes in the morning and whether we like it or not the clothes we choose are a statement about our attitudes and practise.  Sometimes even I must follow unwritten social rules!

Leadership has NOTHING to do with dominance.  Dominance is a word I have never used with a client or in regards to a horse, because I don’t have to.  I never have to dominate the horse.  The horse never feels the need to dominate me.  Dominance, I feel is a form of aggression, impatience in communication and of dark fear, it has no place in hopeful horse training.

Dominance is a abusive form of false leadership.  PHOTO:

So… do we even NEED leadership in horse training?  My short answer is, yes.  The long answer is, yes… but how?

The Three Modalities of Leadership is a concept in horse training I borrowed from a certain school of thought in regards to child rearing.  There may be some who don’t agree with me and that is absolutely fine.  I am not trying to convince or convert anybody.  I am presenting a point of view.

Each Modality of Leadership corresponds to three highly generalised states of behaviour and emotional display in horses.  In many cases individual variances absolutely will apply.

For the same horse, at different points in its life, the leadership he/she needs will look, feel and function differently.  Being able to give the horse the TYPE of leadership they need at the right moment, is a really important skill to master.  Get it right, and you have flow and easy development.  Get it wrong and you will come up against some trouble.


This state of leadership can be easily misunderstood.  If your horse needs ‘The General’ I am not advocating for you to become an overblown Hollywood Cinematic General in some shoot-em-up action film, screaming at his soldiers and barking violent orders.  NO!

The General does NOT use dominance.  Not the Good General.  He doesn’t have to!  The Good General walks into the room and it is instantly understood by everyone that this person does not need dominance, because he has no fear, he is effortlessly understood and has the ability to create clear boundaries without violence.

Boundaries are essential.  Not only for simple safety, but to establish all basic communication parameters for both horse and the human.  We need to understand each other.  If we don’t have a common ground, how can understanding occur?

Just like with children -especially young children- if you never set a boundary, teach them the meaning of YES and the meaning of NO, the child eventually becomes spoilt and miserable because they have no idea what is expected of them!

Same rule applies with horsemanship, in my opinion.  Without being abusive, we can set clear boundaries for the horse.  They need to know non-violent, non-abusive forms of discipline in their life.   A life without non-abusive discipline is disorienting and confusing.   Even ‘passive discipline’ such as ignoring bad behaviour and rewarding the good, is still a form of discipline!
I use the word Discipline here with a NEW understanding… it is not about obeying commands or punishment.  It’s about knowing the difference between right and wrong.  It is the mutual dedication to horsemanship, the mutual dedication the human and horse have towards their time spent together.  Honouring each other and giving BOTH parties, the horse AND the human access to safety, understanding and communication.   Discipline is a clear two way street.
Confusion from a lack of boundaries can lead to all kinds of awful things, from panic and anxiety, to aggression, to the worse thing of all… indifference.

If you are able to be The Good General and say NO to a horse, then your YES becomes so much more meaningful.  Being the ‘Good General’, you teach the horse basic life skills for their interactions with people.  Like how to be an easy horse to handle so they can have an easier life with or without you.

Horses who never had a Good General, who lack basic life skills and basic education, can become spoilt and unmanageable.  A spoilt horse is not a happier horse!  An absence of boundaries is not a kindness, it is a cruelty to the horse through neglecting  your horsemanship responsibilities.  Nobody enjoys saying NO to a horse.  But sometimes tough love is true love, and accommodating a horse who is choosing behaviour that is non-productive is not being kind and loving towards that horse.  This is a subject too many Positive Trainers are absolutely afraid to talk about, lest they be labelled a dominance loving (hat wearing) cowboy (or girl).

For example; would it be appropriate to teach a child about Classic English Literature before they have mastered the alphabet and children’s books first?  With horses, I have found it is inappropriate to teach them dressage elements before they understand LIFE basics first, both in ground handling and in their first steps under saddle.  I have seen horses who know Spanish Walk, or lateral leg yields but struggle to understand transitions from stop to walk, or stop in general and have absolutely no concept of ‘Stand still’.  This is a horse who needs a Good General!

Simplicity before Sophistication.   The Good General teaches these basics, with kindness, with absolute and simplistic language and with clearly defined borders of acceptable and not acceptable choices and behaviour.

To be a leader in the form of The Gardener is a bit more fun to talk about, because it is one step up from The General.

The second Modality of Leadership, The Gardener, applies to a horse whom has had a solid education in basic life skills: they can be caught and haltered, can be lead safely without force or fear, they stand nicely and calmly to be groomed and cared for, they accept all basic horse management practises, from vet and farrier visits to understanding the purpose of fences and gates and trailers and saddles and bridles.  This horse can also be safely and calmly tacked, and ridden around through most basics, essentially forwards, backwards, turning and standing, safely but without much quality yet.   This horse might not be very sophisticated right now, they may not be highly educated, but they are a good citizen.  More times than not, they are well behaved and calm with their emotions.  It is now appropriate to be a Leader for this horse in the form of The Gardener.

The Gardener teaches the horse the ways of the world.  They say to the horse;
‘Come here, let me show you something.  If you take this element, and do right by it and plant it.  Provide the right conditions, and wait, it will grow for you.  Once it grows you may harvest the bounty and use that bounty to built yourself up, and feed your future!’

This is a time of growth, of learning, of curiosity.  It is a time to teach the horse not only tools for their toolbox, but to teach the horse how to make their OWN tools… if you understand my meaning.  This is the process of learning how to learn.  It is a fertile time of discovery.

The Gardener still says to the horse basics such as ‘This is Yes and this is No‘ but sophistication is slowly introduced.  Sophistication means you can put conditions on a boundary.  For the first time you can say to the horse, Yes there is a boundary here, but we can make an exception in certain circumstances and move the boundary if we need to, so that we may grow!

For example; If a green and untrained horse nuzzles you vigorously, rubs you with their nose perhaps quite strongly,  pushing you off balance, or perhaps makes an exploratory bite at your clothes or skin, as The General we may say to them -without violence- No.  That is enough.  Don’t try that now.
The same situation, but this time not a green horse, but a horse who has had excellent basic life skills training.  This horse is a good citizen.  They understand yes and no.  If this horse comes to you, and puts their head on your shoulder, even vigorously, or wants to play with your clothes, and they do it nicely, we may smile as The Gardner and say to our horse, ‘Normally this is a boundary where I would say NO, but I see you are well behaved, you are being kind and gentle… so we may laugh and play and enjoy each other here.  I can make an exception IF THE CIRCUMSTANCES ARE RIGHT.’  Similar behaviour: nosy and playful horse, two totally different leadership needs!  Being able to distinguish the difference is a skill that comes only through observation, experience and a lot of gut instinct.

In the above example, if you behaved as The Gardner to a horse who needed The General you are essentially placing an unfair burden of responsibility on the shoulder of a green horse which was NOT their responsibility but yours.  Many horses cannot abide by sophisticated and flexible rules if clear ones have not yet been fully digested or understood.

The Gardener is a leader that really does so much for the horse.  They bring them through all the middle levels of education.  It is the trainer I miss the most in the Horse Industry these days!  We see plenty of Generals, and plenty of ‘Guides’ (the next level) and not enough Gardeners!  Many want to try and dominate, control and manipulate the horse (General).  Just as many want to pick ONLY the ripe fruit, the most fragrant flower, wanting to ignore the dirty parts and have ONLY elegance and beauty and sophistication (Guide).   Very few are willing or able to get on their knees in the dirt and BE WITH THE HORSE as they learn how to learn, how to grow and how to succeed.

This last state of leadership is almost everybody’s favourite.  As The Guide we have passed far beyond the early days of creating boundaries and establishing common ground.  We have progressed through learning how to learn and understand growth mindset, understanding how to be patient and follow the process.  As The Guide, the trainer has earned the ability and privilege to step back!  To step out of the horses way, and allow them to perform the job, the movement and the work you have so carefully dedicated thousands of hours to show them.

As The Guide in Horsemanship leadership, we show the way, and then let them do it unmolested.  If the horse asks us questions -and they will ask questions because questions are essential to growth and The Gardener has already shown the horse how to grow-, we answer them.  We do not then perform the answers FOR them, we allow them to figure it out.

The educated student knows how to implement the answers by themselves.  The Horse has learned AUTONOMY, by the time they need The Guide.  Autonomy means ‘self-government’.  The Autonomous Horse absolutely does not require The General.  To be a General to an autonomous horse… even the Good General… is rude and offensive to an Autonomous Horse.   It is inappropriate to show clear boundaries to an Autonomous Horse because they ALREADY KNOW THEM.  No drill sergeant is needed here, not even a kind and effective one.  No.
The Guide has to step in very little, and only at the most critical and tricky moments.  A very good Guide knows exactly when to step in and when to step back and allow the horse his/her space.

Perhaps those of you who have stayed with me to read this far in (and well done for that and thank you, not a small task as this is not a small read!) can remember a horse in your past that was so good you only had to point in the general direction of a known activity and they calmly and excellently did the rest themselves.  You stayed with them to enjoy the journey and the ride.  You were by no means a dumb passenger, because this horse is not indifferent or broken!  Yes, this horse feels alive, vital and energised!  But at the same time you are soaking in this horses confidence, experience and vast knowledge of their life with Horsemanship.  This horse has been beautifully educated and is still able to receive instruction and be educated further still… no horse is ever finished in their training, the training merely changes Modalities.  The difference between the horse who needs The Guide and the horse who needed The Gardener is that the horse you merely guide knows already how to learn!  They understand their place in the world and have comfort and security with their humans.

It is always an exciting time with a horse when you feel their needs change and you realise it is time to introduce a new Modality of Leadership to them.  I am always on the watch with horses to upgrade their Leadership and only go backwards if I really must, if I discovered a hole in the training and must go back and patch it up.

Watch a horse who needs The Guide be ridden by The General and you will watch something uncomfortable and ugly.  Watch the horse who needs The General ridden by The General and you will see flow and harmony and understanding!   Often a horse can display In-between States where all three modalities of Leadership are required by the trainer even in the same training period!  This horse is in a state of revolution and growth and will often switch between testing of boundaries one minute, to confusion of the a new idea the next, to performing effortlessly known tasks, sometimes even in the same minute.  It really depends on the individual!  It depends on how expressive they are, their character and their background.

I have said it before, but I say it again, working with horses requires a flexible mind and ability to adjust in a micro-second, without fear of making a mistake.   We need to be able to make a confident judgement call about what the horse needs, moment to moment, and provide accordingly.

Leadership is about meeting the needs of those who need you.  It is not about control or manipulation.

One day I wish you all the pleasure of riding a fine horse whom has come through all Three Modalities with you, The General, The Gardner and the Guide,  as you enjoy the thrill of being merely their humble companion going forwards together.

Not sure where your horse sits on the Three Modalities of Leadership?  I have developed unique training methods designed to address exactly this issue.  Contact me to arrange a private consultation. 🙂

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