Most horses are born to be a follower and born to be submissive, because there can only be so many herd leaders. Therefore horses do not want to be your equal. They are looking for a leader.
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 docile, obedient and accommodating.
By nature, horses instinctively seek leadership.
The alpha horse provides that leadership and security to all others in their herd. The alpha or leader of the herd is usually a calm, stable an wise old mare. She helps to keep the other horses safe and leads 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 an ‘alpha’. However, a stallion ‘owns’ the herd and is the ‘group coordinator’, but he is not the leader or alpha. His role is to keep the herd together and to keep intruders and predators away from the herd.
The alpha mare is the most dominant horse in a herd to whom all of the other horses respect and are submissive to.
In a herd the horse lives in a strict dominance hierarchy and each individual has his place in the pecking order. This provides clarity and peace in the group.
If there are for example eight horses, there are eight grades in the dominance hierarchy:
- number 1, is the alpha mare that can dominate everyone else
- number 8, the omega individual who has no influence on any other horse
The stallion is not the most dominant horse in the heard and 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.
The alpha mare is the most dominant, but this has very little to do with power and strength. Usually a wise, older, mare is the most dominant horse in the herd, even if she is not the strongest! The alpha mare is never dominant because she enforces obedience or aggressive, because that would create fear and confusion, which makes the heard unstable and vulnerable. She is dominant because the other horses feel dependent upon her so they will never stand in her way or hurt her.
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 ‘alpha’ 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 alpha
- it takes certain qualities to deal with the responsibilities associated with the alpha 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, dominant 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.
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 products of the human’s lack of leadership.
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 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 'alpha' and the 'group coordinator' and see their as our rol model!
A mentally balanced horse is at ease and is a calm, docile, and submissive herd follower, who is fulfilled:
- psychologically with clear boundaries and rules set by a dominant but gentle and respectful human who provides safety and takes care of him.
- physically with gymnastic exercises that makes him balanced in his body;
- emotionally with love from and connection with his owner and other horses.
Signs of mental balance are:
- a relaxed posture,
- the head and neck low,
- one ear focused on the leader,
- and a nearly instinctual response to the leader’s commands.
How can you tell if your horse is the leader?
- If he bumps in to you and ignores you when you stand next to him, he is the 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 in a split-second turned 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 nicely 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 and 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 he is the leader.
Tips to establish and confirm your leadership
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 place your horse where he 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.
Walk as a leader! Stand tall and walk with your head up and your shoulders back.
Position matters! Walking in front allows you to be seen as your horse's leader. When you lead a horse on a rope, your horse should be never out in front. Let the horse know you have a consistent pattern that you expect him to follow.
Keep an eye on the surrounding! It is important that you as trainer always keep an eye on the surrounding. 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 calmely and give the horse the feeling that you have the situation under control and that you protect him.
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 voltes you want to turn left and turn right etc. Change often hand if your horse is not docile and concentrated enough. This ensures that you show leadership.
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.
Only reward positive, balanced behavior! Avoid nurturing your horse’s fears or unstable mind. Don’t reinforce or encourage fearful or aggressive state of mind! Only stroke or reward your horse when your horse is calm and in a relaxed state of mind and when he is submissive.
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 is the leader.
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 that he can not, because then we are fit again.... Don’t expect your horse to follow rules that are inconsistently enforced. Inconsistent leadership leads to an inconsistently obedient horse.
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.
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.
Use dominant energy! If your horse misbehaves, don’t react with frustration – use calm, but dominant 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. Dominance is not an ugly word, it is a feeling of skilfully controlling the situation.
Stay in the leadership position! You can’t be a leader only some of the time. Alpha mares never waver from their leadership role, and neither should you!
- 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.
- Be the alpha leader!
- Leadership is the key to a healthy horse-human relationship.
- You are never too young or too old to become a good leader!
- Leadership is a full time job. Don't clock out!
- Challenge yourself this week and establish leadership!