Straightness training is most effective when the horse sees you as a leader, because your horse will follow you, respect you, trust you, feel safe and he will be willing and cooperative.
But before we dive into the concepts of 'leadership' and 'dominance' first some points to note:
Words are symbols
Words are only symbols to define something, but some riders feel uncomfortable with the use of the words 'leadership', 'dominance', or 'submission'. The association we as human have with certain words is based on our past experiences, on our beliefs, and on our perceptions of the world. I respect these views, however it seems to me more of a 'word choice' or semantic discussion, than a practical one. You could also replace the word 'leader' for 'guide', and 'dominance' for 'having influence', and 'submission' for'willingness'; We could still speak about the same concept, only using different words. The words I use and the concepts I describe are only meant to create awareness for the complex reality horses live in.
Concepts create awareness
This article forms a representation of reality, it's a concept, it’s a model or map of the horse’s world, to explain his natural way of life and his needs while being with humans. Since there are still people who don’t know that a horse is a herd animal and keep him isolated and for 23 hours a day in a stall and work with him for only 1 hour a day, it’s important to share concepts to create awareness for the benefit of the horse. And since there are still people who have horses who enter their personal space way to much - until the level that it gets dangerous! – it is still important to share concepts to create understanding and awareness first! And since I've met many, many students in my life, who came to me for Straightness Training, but they couldn't walk next to their non-controllable horses, well, for these people it is important to present an understandable model of the horse’s world, to give them a grip to take the first steps in Straightness Training safely.
The map is not the territory
In this article I describe some concepts about 'leadership' and 'dominance', but on every concept, there is always at least one exception, there are always small nuances, there is always a situation where the concept does not apply. And yes, the material is not complete, scientists gain new insights every day and discover new nuances and exceptions every day. So if someone says that a concept is not true or slightly different: I agree!! Reality (the territory) is much more complex and can not be expressed in a model (map). But that’s the beauty of working with horses in real life! However, we have to start with some concepts and then you can fill in the details!
So here we go! 😉
By nature, horses instinctively seek leadership. Leadership involves choosing the direction for the group and providing security to all others in their herd. Leading horses are usually calm, stable an wise. A leader can be an older mare, and she helps to keep the other horses safe and lead them to food. The other horses respect her very much for her wisdom, experience, guidance and providing safety. Her wise decisions to travel to food and water or to run in case of emergency literally mean the difference between life and death.
A lot of people think that a stallion is in the ‘alpha’ position, but a stallion acts more like a ‘group coordinator’ as he 'owns' the herd. His role is to keep the herd together and to keep intruders and predators away from the herd.
In a herd the horse lives in a hierarchy and each individual has his place in the pecking order. This provides clarity and peace in the group. But the position in the pecking order can differ whereas the context changes. So when all horses are very hungry some specific pecking order can be visible, but when the horses are not hungry you'll see another pecking order.
A lot of people think that the stallion is the most dominant horse in the herd, but he may even be number 3 or 4 in the dominance hierarchy, if there are a few dominant mares. This becomes clear if there is only a small pool of water available for drinking, then the highest ranked horse will drink first, then the second, then the stallion and then nummer 4,5,6,7,8.
Being the most dominant horse has very little to do with power and strength. Usually a wise, older, mare is the most dominant horse in the herd, even when she is not the strongest! Also little Shetland ponies can rule over a big horse, because of their confidence and attitude.
So dominance has nothing to do with size or gender and it has also nothing to do with aggression in the horse world. Because agression would create fear and confusion, which makes the herd unstable and vulnerable. A dominant horse will be dominant, only because the other horses feel dependent upon this horse for safety so they will never stand in the way or hurt this horse.
Occasional Dominance & Leadership
When a naturally submissive horse has to deal with an owner who does not lead, this horses tries to be the more dominant one and even to be the leader.
In the absence of a clear leader, a horse, even a submissive one, will seek to fill what they see as the vacant leadership role. When a naturally submissive horse doesn’t have a clear leader, he tries to fill that vacant role. This is called ‘Occasional Dominance & Leadership’.
This kind of dominance and leaderhip can lead to stress and behavior problems, because:
- The horse will miss the safety of a higher ranked one;
- It takes special mental (inborn) skills to be a real leader;
- It takes certain qualities to deal with the responsibilities associated with the leading role;
The stress can manifest itself in fear and aggression and this may cause a lot of problems. Aggression is also often misinterpreted as if the horse is a real leader.
If a horse doesn’t trust 'its human' to be a strong, calm, assertive and consistent herd leader, he becomes unclear about his correct role within this 'two-headed' herd.
A horse that is confused about who is in charge is actually concerned about the ability of the herd to survive, so he attempts to fill in the missing leadership elements, often erratically. This can cause:
- anxiety, fear,
- bumping in to you to literally take your place.
Remember, in their natural world, animals even attack instability.
The confusion, uncertainty, inconsistency and irregular leadership of his owner can be perceived by a horse as instability.
Remember: the most confusing thing for a horse is not knowing when he has to lead and when he has to follow.
Horses that live in a constant state of confusion, fear, or aggression are unbalanced and often products of the human’s lack of leadership. I've seen it many times in my life. A horse often changed in a heartbeat once I offered him clear, calm, authentic leadership.
So take the early signs of behavior problems such as aggression seriously. Aggression is a symptom of an unsatisfied horse; a horse whose life is not being fulfilled. Horses become aggressive out of dominance and dominance often comes from a lack of leaderhip.
You can help your frustrated and confused horse return to a balanced state by being a good leader!
As humans we should copy the great qualities of the 'leading mare' and the 'group coordinator' and see their as our roll model!
A Balanced Horse
A balanced horse is at ease and is a calm, willing, cooperative animal, who is fulfilled in several areas:
- Physically, because of gymnastic exercises that makes him balanced in his body;
- Mentally, because of clear boundaries and rules set by a dominant, but gentle and respectful human, to provide safety and clear communication.
- Emotionally, because of the strong loving bond he forms with the trainer and other horses.
- Spiritually, because the trainer will never take away his dignity and always makes sure he will feels proud and confident.
Signs of a balanced horse are:
- A relaxed and confident body posture.
- A calm and focussed mental state and a nearly instinctual response to the trainer’s requests.
- Feeling excited when you arrive, but feeling secure, safe, calm, playful while at work. There are no signs of stress and frustration.
- The horse is not shut down, or performing like a robot, but has an open spirit and he expresses himself wisely.
How Can You Tell If Your Horse Takes Over?
- If he bumps in to you and ignores you when you stand next to him, he is the (occassional) dominant one.
- If you are holding your horse and he starts to move and he pulls you, then he is the leader, because in the wild the leader decides when it's time to move.
- If your horse is frightened, and you are looking at your horse and the horse is looking at the surrounding, the roles are turned in a split-second. and he is in charge of the situation. Because in the wild, leaders scan the environment and the followers scan their leaders who provide safety.
- If you are holding your horse and you are chatting with someone else and your horse takes a step forward and stands on top of you and you step backwards in order to restore the distance ....... then it is 1-0 for your horse and the roles are reversed unnoticed.
- If you arrive at a competition venue and your horse is coming of the trailer and immediately pulls you to the grass and starts to graze, then he is the leader because in the wild, the leader of the herd decides, when it's time to eat!
- If he threatens, or wants to bite or to kick you, he is the dominant one.
- If the horse determines the direction and the gait, and he is the one who decides where to go and how fast to go there, then experiences it that he is the leader.
13 Ways to Establish and Confirm Leadership
1. Claim your space! In nature, horses claim space by asserting themselves in a calm, confident way, and then communicating through body language and eye contact. A horse who understands that you, as the herd leader, own the space in which he lives, will respect your asserted authority.
It must be your second nature for you to protect your own space! Also, you must register this subconsciously (as when you are chatting with someone), and you can still just talk, but you must keep your horse in the position horse was.
This process does not start upon arrival in the arena, but already in the daily handling in and around the stable! Your horse may never come uninvited into your space, even during brushing, saddling, going to the fields, going from the fields etc. The more consistent you are, the better.
2. Walk as a leader! Stand tall and walk with your head up and your shoulders back.
3. Position matters! When you lead a horse on a rope, your horse should be never out too much in front, and definitely he should not pull on the rope. When you are walking in front, the horse could perceive you as a leader to follow. But it could also be that the horse experiences this position behind you as he is chasing you! So who's leading who? Walking shoulder shoulder is often referred to as you are walking in the 'foal' position. But with dominant horses this is a perfect position. Whatever position you choose, let the horse know you have a consistent pattern, and that you expect him to follow when you are in that position.
4. Keep an eye on the surroundings! It is important that you as trainer always keep an eye on the surroundings. Make sure that you stand between the danger and the horse. If you become fearful in front of an insecure horse, you are displaying a weaker energy than him. That gives him leverage over you. Breathe calmly and give the horse the feeling that you have the situation under control and that you protect him.
5. Have a plan! Some riders take their horses from the stable or into the arena and do not really know what they want to do, or where they want to go to with the horse. In a situation like this the horse can take over the lead easily. Make sure that you have a plan, so plan in advance, then you clearly know where you want to go. When training, know how much circle you want to turn left and how much to turn right etc. Change often hand if your horse is not willing and concentrated enough. This ensures that you show leadership.
6. Don’t stop leading! When you get back from training, don't stop leading. Have your horse wait patiently while you put off his saddle or take off your helmet. Remember: leading doesn't start and stop in the riding arena. You cannot NOT communicate and you cannot NOT lead.
7. Only reward positive, balanced behavior! Avoid nurturing your horse’s fears or imbalanced mind. Don’t reinforce or encourage a fearful or aggressive state of mind! Only stroke, pet or reward your horse when your horse is calm and in a relaxed state of mind and when he is submissive / willing / cooperative / focussed.
8. Set the rules! As herd animals, horses look to a leader to set the rules for the herd. If you don’t set the agenda for the things you do with and for your horse, the horse will take over the lead.
9. Be consistent! Send your horse a clear message – be consistent when enforcing the rules. The lead mare is very consistent, A is A and B, B, always. We humans are sometimes a lot less consistent. Sometimes the A is an A, but tomorrow the A is a B. One day we let the horse patiently wait for his carrot, the next day, he can rummage in our pocket, because we really are too tired to say something about that. The day after we decide to be more consistent again, because we are fit again.... Don’t expect your horse to follow rules that are inconsistently enforced. Inconsistent leadership leads to an inconsistently obedient horse, and an imbalanced, frustrated mind.
10. Be a balanced leader! Horses look to their herd leader to create stability. Horses don’t follow unstable herd leaders. Frustration, fear, anger, or anxiety will only reinforce unwanted behavior in an uncontrollable and unbalanced horse. Understanding and projecting a leader’s calm and dominant energy will create a positive and lasting connection with your horse.
11. Know yourself! You cannot create balance without self-knowledge, and you cannot achieve leadership without balance. If you are a balanced leader, a happy and successful relationship will come naturally.
12. Use assertive energy! If your horse misbehaves, don’t react with agression or frustration – use calm, but assertive energy. If a mare sees something she doesn’t like, she stops her foal by moving it out of the way in a calm, but dominant manner. Never discipline your horse out of frustration or anger. Think of one of your favorite teachers in high school, Oprah or a famous sportsman once you set clear borders. Dominance is not an ugly word, it is a feeling of skillfully controlling the situation.
13. Stay in the leadership position! You can’t be a leader only some of the time. Leading mares never waver from their leadership role, and neither should you! Remember: leading doesn't start and stop in the riding arena. You cannot NOT lead.
14. Use several leadership styles! While training your horse you can use the 'telling style', the 'coaching style' and the 'hand over style'. Good horse trainers use all three styles. Click HERE for more information about the 3 Styles of Leadership >>
- Nature tells horses that someone’s has to take the wheel! If you don't, your horse will!
- To horses, there are only two roles in a relationship: leader & follower / dominant & submissive. (You can use roles as coach & coached / guide & partner if you prefer).
- Be the leader/ guide / coach.
- Leadership / guidance is the key to a healthy horse-human relationship.
- You are never too young or too old to become a good leader / guide / coach!
- Leadership / guidance is a full time job. Don't clock out!
- Challenge yourself this week and establish leadership and clear guidance!