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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
30 60 90 Days Training
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Establishing Leadership
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How Horses Learn
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Establishing Leadership 

[You maybe be interested in reading Are all horses trainable]


Horses learn as a result of the reinforcement that follows a behavior and not because they sense the social rank of the human nor her/his strong leadership skills. Horses respond positively to training as a result of positive reinforcement during which correct responses are clearly and consistently rewarded!  Horses react negatively to training as a result of humans using dominant methods will trying to attain higher social status and a leadership role. Knowledge of horses' Natural Survival Instincts, behavior traits and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes!   and the application of dominance concepts can jeopardize horse welfare and human safety.  Establishing a leadership role should be obtained by positive means of interactions (e.g., immediately rewarding desired behavior) and by consistently setting clear boundaries to influence horses to perform behaviors willingly. Furthermore, the use of proven sound learning principles to train and/or modify behavior is emphasized. However, given the complexity and various definitions of leadership in social sciences, using the term “leader” if not clearly defined can become blurred in a training context. Furthermore, if horses are to become followers we must allow and assigned them a more active role in the leadership process. If dominant concepts are consistently used during the handling, training or riding process they are merely followers with little autonomy and no understanding of what we are asking them to do!  Most important how can they do what we ask willingly without fear?


Many horse owners seek training advice and the most common questions are usually about how to get a horse to do something that they’re asking it to do or how to fix a problem. While it is not the true picture of what the problem is without an assessmentHorses are normally relaxed and receptive when they have and understand their role in relationships with humans. Horses recognize a leader and they are happy to follow.  If Good horses are displaying negative behavior, we need to take a look at our handling, training, riding and most important our leadership style. In most cases, the root causes are:


·         Lack of respect - Respect must be earned. Difficult horses often lack both trust and respect. Fear makes them want to escape from what they feel to be danger. This reaction can have serious consequences, such as pushing, knocking over the handler or kicking.  The horse must have boundaries; this is a lot easier when we can control one or more of its five body parts; Head, Neck, shoulder, barrel or hindquarters!  Establishing solid foundations of Ground and Mounted training using horse specific training plans will inspire your horse’s respect by teaching him to respond to your requests with consideration and not fear.

·  Lack of trust and confidence - If your horse is afraid, help him to work through its fear. Break up an exercise so he can understand it and succeed in doing it. It’s useless to ask him to do too much too quickly and push it too hard. Exercises must be done according to the horse’s unique rhythm, not at the speed you prefer. Help the horse where he is, not where you want him to be.

·      Loss of connection/deterioration of the bond -  Contact and connections are not only physical. Whenever you interact with your horse, you need to be really present. Linking your mind and your horses mind to exercises on the ground first is a must if you are to connect your mind to the horses mind doing the same exercises in the saddle.  The link and connection between you and your horse goes beyond the physical - it is also mental and emotional. If you cannot help your horse in difficult situations then the horse will find its own solution and it likely will not be one you anticipated.

If portions of the foundation training are overlooked, skipped, missed because they were deemed to be not important or the handler was in a rush to ride the horse it was not trained properly. The foremost thing that clinicians and trainers will tell you is if you can’t get a horse to do something on the ground they’re not going to miraculously do it for you under saddle. Ray Hunt is quoted as saying “The Horse is Never Wrong” and I agree the horse is not prepared; Emotionally, Mentally and physically on the ground so there is nothing to transfer into the saddle so it can be ridden safely!  If the horse is not educated properly how can we expect not to be anxious or confused when we ask it to move?  We have no method to help the concerned horse work through whatever trouble it is experiencing; the horse lacks confidence, trust and reacts rather than responds to our ASK! If we cannot ASK the horse to do something with the lightest pressure;  than we have to use the TELLING style of leadership; by increasing the pressure of our cues by using aids such as using; harsher bits, a whips, spurs, etc.  If we increase the pressure to the point that the horse reacts out of fear who will loose the horse's trust, confidence and whatever leadership we may have had!  Telling is the authoritarian style of leadership and is probably the most often used; using this style alone is the least effective because it does not give the horse the opportunity to understand what we are asking it to do.  I must say that the modern horse person has come to recognize its limited usefulness.


The source of the horses natural character is lightness.  This is the way the horse uses his strength and collects its self for those graceful, lightning moves and the way he maintains an attractive, gymnastic self carriage.  It is the energy, the instinct and the ideas inside of him.  If your horse is not well prepared to understand, what you expect of him on the ground these inborn qualities will not be available to you when you ride.  The easiest way to preserve the horse’s Natural Character and the source lightness; his way of being is not to take it out of him in the first place! 

Horses are herd animals

Horses are highly social herd animals that prefer to live in a group.  There also is a linear dominance hierarchy in any herd. They will establish a "pecking order" for the purpose of determining which herd member directs the behavior of others eats and drinks first, and so on. This behavior pattern also applies to their interrelationship with humans. A horse that respects the human as a "herd member" who is higher in the social order will behave in a more appropriate manner towards all humans than a horse that has been allowed to engage in dominant behavior over humans.  Horses are able to form companionship attachments not only to their own species, but with other animals, including humans. In fact, many domesticated horses will become anxious, flighty and hard to manage if they are isolated away from other horses.  Although we can become part of our horses herd and be recognized by horses as their leader we can not replace the social relationship horses have with other horses or its herd!  Horses kept in near-complete isolation or particularly in a closed stable where they cannot see other animals may require a stable companion such as a cat, goat or even a small pony or donkey to provide company and reduce stress.  When anxiety over separation occurs while a horse is being handled by a human, the horse is described as "herd-bound". However, through proper training, horses learn to be comfortable away from other horses, often because they learn to trust a human handler, essentially ranking humans as a dominant member of a "herd."

Horses need leadership from the owner.

Without it, they develop behavior issues ie: they become insecure, spook, herd-bound etc...  It is up to you to convince the horse that you are part of his herd and his leader.  Spookiness can instinctually manifest itself as “flight or fight” behavior particularly when you start exposing your horse to unfamiliar things by putting them in strange environments. In addition to environmental exposures, you should plan on working with your horse on the ground to continue his exposures and experience. Before starting “in hand” work spook-proofing your horse, it is important to understand how a horse’s mind works. Then, using this knowledge, you will be able to choose how to approach each horse in a way that will help him to be confident and calm.

Horses are instinctively herd bound

In addition to having a natural “flight or fight” tendency, the horse is instinctively herd-bound another of its Natural Survival Instincts. In the wild, horses live and move in groups and their safety and survival depends on co-existence within a herd. They graze together, go to the watering hole and drink together, and run from danger together. The stragglers (the young, lame or injured) that get separated from the herd, are vulnerable to attack from predators such as wolves or mountain lions, and usually don’t survive long.  Horses sense this, and so the herd takes on an exaggerated importance to the horse, one that can mean the difference between life or death.

Horses cooperate with each other

Horses as social animals tend to cooperate with each other. Each herd has a strong social hierarchy. Horses are totally reliant on their leader, and they fall into place within the herd based on their rank. Each horse’s behavior is determined by how he/she ranks within the herd. Rank plays such a big role in horse behavior, that at the watering hole, the horses will line up in order of rank, and wait to take their turn to drink.  Some people think that a stallion is the leader of the herd, but the stallion’s job is mostly breeding, protecting his herd from other stallions and predators. The stallion will also chase away the young colts when they are old enough to breed, and will sometimes baby-sit and play with the young. The role of leadership, as far as day-to-day survival; (where to eat, when to go to the watering hole, etc.) usually falls on a mare.  In a sense, the stallion and highest ranked mare co- lead, each with defined duties of their own.

Leadership to a horse is absolute

A horse’s respect for his leader is absolute, but that leadership is constantly challenged anyway. This is nature’s way of preparing for a replacement should something happen to the one in charge. The leader must earn the right to leadership, and must have enough strength to sustain it. If the leader falters, due to lack of strength or for any reason, the second ranking horse will automatically take over. The other horses will know this and readily accept the change in leadership without any confusion at all.

So how does this instinctive behavior affect you and your relationship with your horse?

Let’s start by examining what happens when you take a horse away from his herd and his buddy.  If you take a high ranking, confident horse that has natural leadership tendencies away from its herd, s/he may not become overly anxious, but s/he will step into a leadership role and start making choices for itself. S/he may feel the handler is irrelevant and ignore her/him. After all, s/he’s thinking in a herd mentality, and since its herd leader isn’t present, s/he’s got to take charge of itself.  As the leader, the horse’s behavior will change and s/he:

  • May start pulling against you when you lead her/him. S/he will feel like s/he needs to guard her/himself, becoming tense and keeping its head elevated and nostrils flared to sense what’s going on around her/him.  
  • May be restless when contained, and may have trouble standing still when tied.
  • May refuse to pick up her/his feet, unwilling to compromise her/his ability to run.
  • When ridden, the horse may be reluctant to focus on her/his work, staying alert and watching out for any perceived danger.
  • May stop going forward, changing gaits even refuse backing up
  • S/he may even get distracted to the point of tripping as s/he moves, since a/he isn’t watching where s/he is going.
  • May become spooky about things that don’t normally affect her/him.
  • May refuse to load in a trailer
  • May buck, rear and even bolt

A horse that is lower in rank, when removed from the herd, will develop even more anxiety and difficult behavior. Without the confidence needed to lead himself, his main concern will be to find a herd, any herd, as long as it means he doesn’t have to make choices for himself. In some cases when separated from other horses, he may break ties, and weave, paw, buck or kick in his stall. He may whinny loudly calling for help, knocking into you with his head as he frantically looks from one direction to another. When ridden, the horse may refuse to leave his herd-mates, or the barn area, and may rear, spin or buck to avoid doing so. In either case, a horse that finds himself without a leader can become extremely difficult to handle and ride.

Horses need Education!

In natural horsemanship, we use ground work (round pen and lead-line) to control the horse’s space so that he becomes subordinate. Beyond just controlling his space, we learn to communicate with the horse through our own body language, gestures and even audible, to develop a strong bond and trust between leader and follower through consistent communication and discipline.  The communication must be two way and not dominating.  The horse must be treated firmly but with kindness and above all, your interactions with the horse must be consistent so that he can learn to trust you. This kind of relationship with the horse is the ideal, but one that many horsemen find illusive.  To have a horse that is happy, respectful, confident, trusting and obedient, who willingly does whatever you ask and responds to the most subtle cues, you must first become his leader and earn his respect. Learn to control your horse’s space and communicate with your own body language in a way that he understands, and you will not only earn his respect, but his admiration as well. Even though a horse has strong natural survival instincts it is born with, it can be conditioned and educated to behave in a controlled manner. But, for the horse to overcome these instinctive responses, it will need to feel secure in its relationship with you and will need to learn to respect you as his leader.  Just like the equine herd leader needs to earn its right to leadership, you too will have to earn the right to become your horse’s leader. As your horse’s leader you will need to:

·          Be educated on “Establishing Leadership on the Ground and transferring it into the saddle”

·          Take the responsibility of making decisions

·          Lead your horse down the right path

·          Communicate expectations clearly

·          Educate patiently on the ground and continue to work the same way in the saddle

·          Set and enforce boundaries and rules of behavior

·          Build a positive relationship

·          Offer praise, rewards and incentive

"If a horse fails to do something that is because he was not trained to do it.  If a horse fails to do something properly that is because he was not trained properly and/or the rider was not trained properly!”

What are your Goals?

Before you ask your horse to do something ie; lead, backup, stop, circle, yield on the ground or in the saddle – ask yourself how you want the horse to complete the maneuver.  Do you want the horse to stop quickly, circle quickly, circle quickly?  Or are you more interested in lightness, balance and body position?  Most of the time; most people have more than one goal!  They want the horse to do maneuvers such as; turn, stop, circle, in the correct position and they want it done as quickly as possible.  Then we should ask ourselves which goal we should concentrate on First?  For example; a rider and a horse need to learn to be light, calm, balanced to turn in the correct position before he learns to make the maneuver quickly!    If you want your horse to stop and your top priority is to get the horse to stop forward motion; you can get the horse to stop but it won’t necessarily be a good, correct stop!  Maybe you need to think about how he feels.  Is be soft, is he leaning on the bit, is he pushy, is he initiating the stop in his hindquarters or in his front end? 

Your horse?

Once you have a progression of goals in mind, and then consider what your horse will have to do to accomplish those goals.  Will he have to learn to slow down when you say whoa or will he have to learn to slow down in a new way?  In the perfect world some horses have a clean slate but some horses have bad habits caused by improper training and you might need to deconstruct those habits first.  Other horses have physical or mental barriers to overcome.  Each horse has different desirable and undesirable traits; so work with each horse and his individual traits or problems, one at a time.  There isn’t one recipe you can use for every horse. 

Your body language and your Cues

When you understand the progression your horse will go through to learn the maneuvers, consider how you are going the cue him.  To do any maneuver on the ground or in the saddle you need to ask [the aid] him first, give the horse time to respond, if he does not apply pressure [cue], release the pressure [this is how the horse learns] and praise to let him know he did it correctly. 

Horses need on-going Leadership

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually quite a big job and responsibility to be a leader in any capacity. Yes, I did say job- and jobs do involve work! And you thought that horses were supposed to be relaxing and fun! Well, they can be, but only when they are safe to handle-which is the end result of hard work.  A lot of people feel that once a horse is trained properly he will be calm and safe for anyone to ride and handle. But even a horse that is professionally trained still needs to have ongoing leadership and proper handling to retain his conditioned behavior. If handled incorrectly, over time, a trained horse’s behavior can regress to a fairly untrained state.

Confidence is very important and is a two way street!

A horse ridden by a skilled and confident rider may seem confident and calm, but when ridden by a fearful person, the same horse can lose his confidence and seems to forget his training. The horse’s confidence doesn’t originate from the training process only, but also from the feeling the rider gives the horse. The horse can tell when the rider takes charge, when he’s brave and sure, and he will respond to that rider with confidence. The horse can also tell when the rider is fearful or unsure, and will respond accordingly, with insecurity and reluctance. The horse responds to whatever feeling he gets from the person that is handling him.  The owner needs self confidence, the horse needs self confidence and you both need confidence in one another! 

Offer correct leadership on the ground and in the saddle

Before a horse can be trained to respect you and trust you as a leader, you will have to offer him correct leadership starting on the ground and in the saddle that is easy to understand. It your leadership is appropriate and strong, the horse will be respectful and controlled. If the leadership offered is weak and confusing, the horse will start filling in for you, and take control. A kind and mannerly horse that has had consistent training and handling may fill in for you in a positive way, but an evasive horse, or one that hasn’t had any consistency, may take over in a negative manner becoming dangerous to handle or ride.  Regardless of how much training your horse has had the key to his behavior rests in how you handle him on a routine basis. This puts the burden of the responsibility on you and how you handle your horse! To override your horse’s natural flight or fight instinct and herd-bound tendency, you must become his herd and leader, and earn his trust and respect. And, if you want your horse to behave with consistency, then you will need to be consistent as his leader, enforcing the same rules, the same way, and all the time.

Horse will challenge your leadership

Keep in mind that horses are hard-wired to challenge their leader and at some point, your horse will challenge you.  He may do it in a small way that would be easy to miss. You must stay aware of every small disobedience and test of authority and act on it immediately.  If not checked, the challenge will increase. Whenever you are challenged, immediately re-assert yourself as the leader. Don’t let these challenges discourage you, and keep in mind that the more consistent you are with correct handling, the less you will be challenged.  The amount of difficulty and challenge the horse will give you in regard to spooking, anxious behavior and being herd-bound will be partly determined by the horse’s previous experiences. A horse that has worked with a variety of people that have consistently offered good leadership and correct handling and training, will be more willing to accepting leadership from anyone. The horse has learned that people are the leaders and are to be trusted and respected.

Horses handled by many people

In contrast, if a horse has been handled by many people who haven’t learned to establish leadership, each using different methods and rules, (some not having any rules), the horse will learn that he can challenge us and take control most of the time. It is much harder to influence a horse like this with an inconsistent background to accept our leadership, although with time, it is possible. Once we convince the horse he should follow our lead, the likelihood of challenge still exists, as he will fall back on his memories of taking control. He will have to be reminded over and over who is in charge. A horse like this may learn to accept you as his leader, but will still challenge every other person that handles him to determine who’s in charge.

Selecting the horse for you

Some horses are more suited to be leaders then others, and the same holds true for people. Some people find leadership enjoyable and thrive in it, and others find it difficult and stressful. To have a successful relationship with a horse, it is important to recognize in yourself your capacity for leadership and to select a horse that will compliment your natural personality and ability. If you are uncomfortable with leadership, then the horse described in the first example, one that has learned to consistently respect people as leaders would be more suitable for you. Selecting a horse that is lower ranking and more submissive will also makes it easier for you to be successful. If you are comfortable taking charge and deal well with challenges, then you might be compatible with the type of horse described in the second example, or a bolder, high ranking horse.

Will having a well trained horse solve Leadership Issues?

There are many other equine training problems that exist besides anxiety, spookiness, being herd-bound and the root of many of them are related to a leadership issues. To be successful and safe around your horse, it is imperative that you learn how to take the lead role. Buying a perfectly trained horse won’t solve the problem either, in the long run; you will need to learn leadership skills to maintain the trained horse’s good behavior. Planning to send your horse to a trainer to be educated and learn respect, trust, and obedience is also not enough. The horse will learn to respect and trust the trainer and follow his lead, but, when you take your horse home, unless you take the same role as the trainer, your horse will feel lost in his relationship with you. The best situation is to participate in the training process and study with a trainer that is willing to work with both you and your horse, teaching you how to be a good leader; to train on the ground/in the saddle and handle your horse correctly yourself.  Keep in mind also that developing good control on the ground will help you have better control when mounted. Please note; It is not about what the trainer can do with your horse!  ”It is about what you can do with your horse!”

IF you have any questions about this article or other training issues, Contact John