Monday, 13 June 2011

Taking the Lead

Thinking like a horse causes us to see that a horse’s desire for companionship stems from survival, not compassion. As a prey animal to be alone is to be vulnerable.

In people friendships, there’s a give and take – a time to serve and a time to receive. A time to take the initiative and a time to selflessly allow the other to make the decision.

In the equine world it is lead or be led. Life is good when there’s a stable hierarchy. The sentinel or Alpha horse calls the shots, deciding when it’s time to eat, time to change location and time to run from danger. If humans are going to ride, groom or transport a horse, we’re the Alpha. Nothing messes with a horse’s mind more than letting him “lead the way”.

Suggestions to take the leadership role: 
  • Be clear in your body language. Be readable in all your cues. Horse show nerves cause us to deliver mousy signals. We’re distracted and our legs and hands send mixed messages. In the absence of leadership your horse will fill the void. 
  • Guard your personal space. Periodically ask your horse to defer to you by yielding his personal space. Back your horse up from time to time when you’re leading your horse around the show grounds. Transitions and leg yielding under saddle are small ways to confirm your leadership role. I slip moments of collection or half halts into every trip in the show ring – periodically connecting the horse to me. 
  • Be the decision maker all the time – how deep are we going to ride into this corner? What length of stride to I want to trot? Where do I want my horse to face when I mount? How fast do I want to walk back to the barn? Unauthorized decisions must be methodically corrected or they’ll multiply and end up in a contest of wills. 
  • Keep emotions out of the picture. Any discipline is swift, appropriate and over within a second. Alpha horses don’t hold grudges.


  1. Your statement that 'a horse’s desire for companionship stems from survival, not compassion' does not take into account the 'horse buddy' relationship.'

    This is well documented by world renown equine ethologists as affiliated pairing, nonsexual bonding, peer attachment, pair bond, mutually beneficial coalitions or preferred associates.

    It is also well documented in seven different countries that this type of relationship can be shared by a horse and a human.

  2. Great comment. Horses do indeed form pair bonds with other horses. But is this bonding based on compassion , a horse’s concern for the welfare of the other? Or, as a prey animal is it his genetic predisposition? Instinct tells him that there is safety in numbers and in following the reactions of the sentinel horse.

    Drs Paul McGreevy and Andrew Mclean noted in their recent best selling Equitation Science.“Empathy is the ability to simultaneously experience another being’s emotional state. It is a characteristic of human thought processes…However, if empathy results in the projection of our own personality onto the object of our empathy, it may be the first steps to our own misunderstandings between man and horse because it deprives the horse of his own ‘“horseinality”’

  3. it has been proven that horses and dogs do not have an alpha, it's a myth. It would be like saying that a prison yard is a microcosm of human society. Limited resources force animals to do that which is not natural. We can never be a horse either, we punish too hard too late and for all the wrong reasons. I have watched horses lick another's wounds, if that is not an example of empathy then what is? the horse would have to understand the other horse is in pain and injured and know that the licking is soothing and helpful. You talk about -R but never +R which is the best form of communication there is for everyone.