What does Leadership mean to a Horse
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What does Leadership mean to a Horse

Published by: Lisa Wright (4)
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Over the years I have witnessed a variety of approaches in horsemanship
to matters such as leadership, control and persuasion with regards to
horses.  Establishing yourself as the
leader in this partnership is essential because someone needs to direct, ask
and decide the parameters in terms of what is acceptable behaviour when it
comes to an equine/human relationship. 
Often a horse has been purchased for a specific purpose and therefore
specific objectives will need to be set in order to train the horse
accordingly.  Getting them to “sign up”
and agree to what is required of them helps considerably if they see you as the
We all have differing perspectives on what we deem
acceptable behaviour from our horses. 
Some people appear quite happy to be dragged around or barged by their
horses whilst I have seen others strike their horses for displaying natural
equine behaviour such as joyfully going to nip another horse’s bottom!  Over the years I have accepted that we may
all have slightly different parameters when it comes to what’s acceptable.  After all lots of personality types can make
effective leaders.  However, good
leadership in horses is based on some consistent and basic principals
regardless of whether we are autocratic or more persuasive and democratic in
our approach.
On one hand we have the leader who says “do what I say or I
will hurt you” to the other extreme where the leader is so wishy washy and
inconsistent that the horse never knows the parameters or what is expected of
them which can lead to all kinds of problems. 
Neither of these approaches is acceptable or effective in gaining your
horses respect or trust.
How do horses view leadership? 
In their world the “boss” isn’t the one who shouts the
loudest, strikes when cross or gives unconditional love and spends hours
grooming.  In the wild horses very
quickly establish a pecking order.  They
know who the leader is and where they are in the pecking order.  It is absolutely essential to their
survival.  They will respect and look to
that leader for direction, guidance and security.  Horses also have an ability to synchronise
with each other (again essential to their survival) so if one spots a potential
predator the others follow suit and react accordingly.
When horses meet they blow down their noses as each other
and usually one will give a squeal and one of them will be moved and therefore
establishing the one who did the moving as higher in the pecking order.   Leadership
in horse terms comes down to a very basic principle – Who moves whose feet?  It’s a
question I keep in my head when I am working under saddle or on the ground with
any horse.  In both scenarios and at all
times the rider/trainer should have control over the horses pace and
direction.  If this isn’t the case, the
likelihood is that the horse is leading you.
If you have a horse that crowds your personal space, barges
or drags you when being led then the chances are they probably don’t respect
you as a leader and going back to some basic groundwork will certainly
Click on this link for examples of groundwork exercises;
Ensuring the horses attention is on you, lead them over
ground poles and back them up.  If they
have no respect for your personal space, using the appropriate pressure, you
need to back them out of your space.   Backing a horse up is something that most of
us overlook as we obsess more about getting our horses “going forwards” but
unless we can back a horse up we won’t have complete control over their
feet.  Very often if a horse doesn’t want
to do something (and we haven’t got control of backing them up), they will back
up to evade going forwards or doing what is asked.  Taking the time to establish some basic
ground rules makes a world of difference and will go a long way to earning a
horse’s respect.
Trust is another essential ingredient in leadership.  Trust is something that both parties will
gain in each other over time but trust from a horse’s perspective can only be
established if the trainer is fair, consistent and are able to control emotion.
Fairness and consistency are essential to gaining trust.  If we are inconsistent with our training, it
will breed confusion and will result in behavioural problems – Horses need
things in Black and White – Yes or No. 
They do not understand “this is ok when these conditions apply but if
this, this, and this, are present, then it’s not ok”.  They need to understand that “when you do
this – they do that” and they know to do that until you give a different aid or
signal.  Being consistent about encouraging
wanted behaviour and discouraging unwanted behaviour is crucial.  It needs to be simple.  Yes and No – Black and White.
A good leader must be fair. 
As trainers we need to understand horse psychology and how their
instincts play a part in how they respond and learn.  Fairness is also about allowing them to make
mistakes as it is fundamental to their learning process.  As trainers we positively re-enforce the
behaviour we want (releasing the pressure for example) and negatively
re-enforcing the behaviour we don’t want.  
We are fair when we are able to see things from a horse’s point of
view.  We are being fair when we can ask
“what have I just done that has given me that behaviour” or “what is it that my
horse is unsure of?”  When we do this we
can ask the question in a different way and we move away from the belief that
our horse is “trying to show us up” or being difficult without just cause.  Horses don’t have motives, agendas and are
completely incapable of plotting revenge (scientific fact).   Horses
respond and react.  It’s about being able
to see things from their perspective and to consider how much of what we ask of
them goes against their every instinct but it’s that fact that we can play to
their instincts that makes them trainable.   From expecting them to load into a confined
space (the horse is a flight animal that certainly doesn’t want to be trapped
in a confined space), to being calm on a cold and blustery day (wind distorts
their hearing) to being ridden by a nervous rider and being expected to take
charge, be brave and go forwards calmly! 
Horses’ acceptance of what we ask of them and their stoicism never
ceases to amaze me.  Regardless of our
abilities, every person who sits on a horse’s back impedes them to a greater or
lesser extent.  There are a few talented
and intuitive people who get close to total harmonisation.  
Horses are highly emotional animals and they synchronise
their emotion and energy with people and other horses.  Being able to control our emotions is another
quality that is required if we are to be effective leaders and trainers.  Scientific studies have proved that if the
owner/handler’s heart is raised, the horse’s heart rate will be elevated too
and visa versa.  This ability to
synchronise is part of their survival kit.  
Being nervous, getting angry, lashing out, beating or shouting at a
horse is counterproductive because this gets their adrenaline up, the flight
side of their brain is on high alert and their ability to learn decreases.  Also a frightened and stressed horse is a
potentially dangerous animal.
Understanding the psychology of the horse means that we are
able to evaluate why certain things work and why certain things are
counterproductive.  Understanding what
leadership means to a horse, means that I don’t think he sees me as a worthy
leader just because I prepare his meals and make him a nice bed and groom him regularly.  When working with horses they are three
questions I always have in my mind:
Who has just moved whose feet? (Have I just moved his feet
or has he just moved me?)
If he doesn’t respond to what I’ve asked of him – What do I
need to change in myself to get him to give me the response I’m after?
Is his behaviour different today than yesterday?  How could my feelings/emotions /energy be
affecting him?
Happy leading!!!
Lisa Wright - About the Author:
Lisa Wright is
one of the founders of hoofon.co.uk. hoofon.co.uk is the Uk's 1st Equestrian
search engine that brings together horse advertisements from the main UK
publications into one convenient place. Currently hoofon.co.uk has over 15,000
horses for sale. Registering with hoofon.co.uk will allow you to save your
searches and your favourite horses so that you can re-visit at a later date if
Lisa Wright has over twenty years experience of working with horses. She
currently owns a couple of horses and regularly completes at local and county
Source: https://www.articleswrap.com/article/what-does-leadership-mean-to-a-horse.html
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