Training & Services

Who’s Leading Who?

By: Ann Kirk

Have you ever just stood and watched foals romp and play? Did you notice how much it looks like adult horses when they are truly fighting? Why do you think that is? It is because they are practicing the behaviors needed to establish themselves in the pecking order of the herd when they are grown. I once heard it said that “play is life practice” and we see this in all forms when animals are young. All the nipping, kicking, biting, mounting and chasing have a distinct likeness to adult behaviors.

Why is this an important observation? Last article, we talked about 2 dynamics that rule a horse’s existence; the prey animal instinct and the herd pecking order. You must take them into account every time you enter your horse’s space. You are seen as a part of his herd when you become familiar to him. Once he has determined that you are not an enemy, he will begin the process of seeing where you stand in the pecking order. He may use some or all of his “playful” behaviors while testing the leadership role between you and him. He will treat you as another horse if you let him. That is why a horse behaves differently when handled by different people. He is submissive to those who have established the leader role but not so to those who have not.

When a person learns the language of the herd, understanding and handling horses becomes a lot easier. Horses like being part of the herd; it makes them feel safe. They know that a horse alone doesn’t stand much of a chance against predators. So when you remove the horse from the herd, you must assume a role that encourages confidence in you as his leader. This is not always easily done. According to herd dynamics, you are allowed to lead only if you have proven yourself to have the best leadership skills. You do this, not by being mean and rough, but by acting like a leader and taking charge.

But, how does a leader behave? For a lesson in this, watch your herd interact sometime. Just pull up a fence post and hang out. It is quite amazing! The lead horse can move the other horses any where at any time, usually with no more than a look or suggestion. Most horse to horse interaction is non-contact. When contact is used, it is firm enough that it does not have to be repeated constantly. The lead horse is relaxed and confident but seldom tolerates any behavior that ignores its leadership position. Even if frightened, the other horse would never run into or over the lead horse to get away. The boundary has been clearly established. And that is how I want my horse to view me when I am in his presence. To not establish this type of “respect” in our relationship leaves me at the mercy of his instincts, desires or fears.

This leader position is one of respect and trust, not fear and intimidation. You want your horse to be secure enough in your presence that he can leave the horse herd and not be afraid. You must spend the time to establish this trust. Otherwise, you might become harsh and demanding or frustrated and afraid when your horse lets you know that he does not see you as the leader and wants to return to his herd or place of safety. This will just reinforce the horse’s concern that he cannot trust you to keep him safe.

We tend to view training from a “classroom” mentality and think the lesson doesn’t begin until we get to the round pen or the arena or get on the horse’s back. But to a horse, the lesson begins when he sees us coming whether with a halter or food. The horse is always learning how you are to be viewed in his eyes. If you allow your horse to push you with his body, drag you around on the lead rope, eat grass whenever he feels like it or refuse to stand quietly, you will have a hard time getting him to do the things you need him to when necessary. These are all signs that you have not gained the leadership role in the horse’s mind.

To truly enjoy your horse and remain safe, this position needs to be defined. Even if it doesn’t seem a big deal to you, I can assure you it is to your horse. John Lyons says “It never doesn’t matter to the horse”. He is happy to assume the leadership role and you will eventually get hurt when the horse has a good enough reason to ignore your presence.

Go spend some quality time with your buddy if you can do so safely. Groom and pet, hug and love on them but insist on boundaries. Teach them to move away from pressure and to lower their head when asked. Anything that asks and receives is a good way to begin the journey to becoming a leader that your horse will follow. Until next time – Ann

For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Program, go to

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