Elizabeth Krueger, mother of 10, and author of Raising Godly Tomatoes, is also a horse owner. She recently shared some great thoughts about training horses to recognize a rightful authority and how it can be similar with children.
I thought Elizabeth’s observations were extremely insightful and she graciously agreed to let me share them here:
I have two horses. One is confident and trustworthy and I always feel safe riding him, while the other is nervous and spooks about 10 times every time I ride him. So…. in my efforts to cure the spooky one’s spooking problem, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on regarding bombproofing horses.
Well, I stumbled across some material written by a guy named Marv Walker and it really struck me as not only being a step in the right direction for the spooky horse, but also a good picture of how children operate.
Here’s the story: Marv explains that horses, whenever they meet, are only interested in one thing: Who is higher than who in the herd pecking order. So that’s the first thing they work out and once they determine who is the leader and who is the follower, they happily either lead or follow.
Now when I read that, I thought about how God designed the family and how children are designed to be UNDER the authority of their parents and how they too, test and rebel until they find out who is in authority (who is higher in the herd/family pecking order).
Now rightfully, parents ought to be in authority (higher in the pecking order) over their children and humans ought to be higher than their horses. If things are the other way around, there’s trouble. In the case of horses, a person could get hurt. In the case of children, their lives could be ruined.
Anyway, ol’ Marv had an answer that rang true. Marv said to simply establish with your horse that YOU are higher than he is in the pecking order. You are his rightful authority. Once the horse is convinced of that (believes that), then many of the problems you would otherwise have with him, will disappear.
Spooking, for example, will be greatly lessened. Why? Because the horse, recognizing you as his leader, will naturally trust you to make wise judgments for him, just as he would trust the judgment of another horse who is higher than he is, in the herd. (If you want a horse to cross a scary creek, for example, everyone knows that although he might be afraid to cross on his own, he will almost certainly follow another horse across the same creek without any concern at all.)
I hope you are still with me.
Now if a horse gains contentment and confidence when he knows he is the follower, so a child will become happy and content once he knows he is the follower in the parent/child relationship. Both a horse and a child will become more obedient and less rebellious, as soon as they understand and accept their role as being UNDER a kind and just authority.
So how does Marv get his horses to understand that he is the boss, not them? All he does is start with an individual horse and ask him to do something simple, that he knows he can make the horse do. Like make him move when he’d rather stand still. Or make him stop, or turn when he’d rather go on, or go straight. That’s it. The horse may test and protest, but as soon as he figures out that he can’t change Marv’s mind and that he must obey him, the horse accepts him as his leader and “bonds” with him, quickly (usually in less than an hour) becoming very closely attached to him and far more easy to handle in every way.
(My non-spooky horse, I believe, has bonded to me already, in this way. Not sure the spooky one has.)
And so it is with children. As soon as they become convinced that you are their rightful authority, they will become much happier and more cooperative overall, and will stop virtually all testing and rebelling and will become closer to you.
How to convince them? Do just as Marv does: See that they obey in whatever you tell them. Start with something you know you can make them obey in, and require them to obey. Repeat, repeat with each thing that comes up, until they are convinced that they must submit to you always.
No need to be harsh, by the way. Marv never even touches his horses when he does this. He doesn’t whip them (unless they were to attack him of course), or even try to wear them out. He just indicates to them what he wants them to do (something simple like “go”) and then keeps them moving until he says to stop, repeat, repeat, requiring them to obey him completely, rather than do their own thing. He says he usually succeeds in convincing them that he is their rightful authority in an hour or less. Children might take longer or not depending on the child.
Anyway, I hope you all could follow what I was saying. I found the parallel very interesting.
Follow-up: Today I rode the horse that I feel is “bonded to me”. I don’t know when that happened, I did not put him through any special bonding exercise, but yet he seems to trust me and recognize me as his leader. To ensure that things stay this way, I always make sure he obeys when I ask him for something, and I make sure I only ask him for things he can do.
But, although he is obedient to me, that doesn’t mean he is that way for everyone.
Here’s an example: The other day when I had my 14yo son go get him out of the pasture, he let my son walk up fairly close to him then said, “Nope, I don’t respect him, I don’t even know him, I’m out of here”, and trotted off. From the sidelines, I quietly coached my son on how to calmly get his respect, but since my son was new at this and not used to horse body language, he was giving the horse the message, “I don’t know what I’m doing”, and the horse just kept walking away from him when he’d get close. I kept telling my son, “If he starts to move away from you, TELL him (via body language) to move, and keep him moving until he turns and looks at you (saying, “Wow, this guy won’t give up, maybe I better start respecting him”)”. Well, since my son was inexperienced, my horse “Leo” eventually began respecting him even LESS and would walk a little ways away then start grazing (“Hah! you don’t scare me at all”).
So I decided to step in and show my son how to “keep him moving”. I was 30 feet at least, away from Leo, but as soon as I picked up the lead rope and swung it gentle in a circle by my side as I walked casually toward his hip, Leo’s head flew up and he brisked trotted a short distance then turned and walk AROUND MY SON and quickly up to ME! He still didn’t respect my son, but he sure showed that he respected ME! LOL!
BUT WHAT ABOUT IF THEY TEST YOU?
In my opinion, if you want to end “testing” in a younger child, usually all you have to do is “be consistent”. Stop the little things every time. Now with an older child I would also add “be sure to be just, kind and not a hypocrite.”
None of my middles or teens EVER tested me. Not once. Sure, they did a few dumb things and made mistakes, and they needed to learn good habits and character and wisdom, but they never “tested” me, as in “seriously tried to get away with something”. We were on the same side. They trusted us even if they wanted to do something we said no to.
I’m told that many horses never test either, once they respect you. I don’t think my Leo ever has. As long as he knows what I want he will try to do it. I don’t ask for things that are emotionally or physically or mentally too much for him. I wouldn’t do that with a child either but they are smarter and so I expect more than from a horse.
A NOTE ON MAINTENANCE
I’m not a perfect rider, but since Leo seems to believe that I am his rightful authority in general, he still respects and obeys me even if I make mistakes here and there. If I send mixed signals that confuse him, he thinks to himself, “Hmm, what was that? I must have messed up somewhere. I’ll wait for her to explain it to me again.” He is very generous in taking the blame for everything, and he keeps trying to please.
Now, despite his good disposition, if I were repeatedly unfair or unkind to him, he would eventually say, “I’ve had enough of this, maybe she’s not my leader after all. Maybe I ought to do the leading.” At that point he’d throw a fit and I’d be in big trouble.
I think it’s the same with children. Once we earn our children’s respect (by consistently requiring obedience), we can usually keep it despite occasional mistakes here and there on our part. Children are very forgiving. BUT, if we constantly send them mixed signals, they will eventually start wondering if maybe we aren’t really their rightful authority. And if we are repeatedly unkind or unfair, they will almost surely rebel.
Great thoughts here, yes? The last paragraph was a very convicting reminder for me, as we move toward the teen years.