Natural Horse World

Leadership with horses

by Cynthia Cooper

Natural Horsemanship has increased our awareness of relationships with horses – the terms partnership, respect, leader, alpha etc. have become common but their meaning can be as varied as the meaning we give to those terms in our human relationships.

Horses love to follow a good leader.

Good Leadership is recognised as being an essential part of the equation. So what is good leadership?

The dictionary defines leadership as a) the position, function, or guidance of a leader b) the ability to lead.

A typical definition of leadership is stated by Richard Maxwell:

“A horse must understand his place under the leadership of a human handler, and to do that, he must be trusting and respectful. Maxwell iterates, “In a herd situation, lives depend on knowing who’s in charge, and the boss horse has to have the respect of the entire herd.

“If you are a student of leadership, there is no better study partner than a horse. You can’t dazzle them with words. No chain of command will cause a horse to follow you; its devotion can only be earned.”

Most often, its “whoever controls the other’s feet wins” and this is how leadership can be gained.

Unfortunately, leadership is often equated with control and dominance – with most methods of horsemanship insisting that control and dominance are absolutely necessary for leadership and a partnership.

I prefer the definition Carolyn Resnick gives – ‘. A leader is someone who makes a request – ask, don’t tell. Leadership is flexible. ‘

Carolyn Resnick says in this blog excerpt “As horse owners, we need to shape a horse’s behaviour to fit in harmony with us because of practical reasons and keep their pecking order personalities social and respectful. We need to set an example for our horse in the kind of leadership that we would like him to offer us. This way, the horse learns to treat us exactly like we treat him in regards to leadership. This creates a 50/50 partnership, with the exception that we are the ultimate leaders of our horse because we are setting leadership by example. Captivity requires leadership.”

“Remember that torture is not determined by our standards but by what the horse feels. As trainers and owners, we need to be able to read when this happens so we can adjust our leadership to work best for us and to be inviting. If you are being persistent and the horse is not willing, you are in danger of stepping into negative dominant behaviour in your leadership.”


At the other end of the spectrum are those practicing the ‘art’ of horsemanship. These are usually quite experienced horse people who are adept at ‘reading’ horses and are able to truly listen to and communicate with their horses on many levels.

In her book ’Empowered Horses’, Imke Spilker offers a new perspective on the relationship with horses and says “Togetherness is the foundation for which everything else proceeds. Togetherness – not hierarchy – puts us on the same level. Togetherness is the prerequisite for influencing each other from within the depths of our being.”

I think most people strive for that ‘togetherness’ or feeling at one with their horse, so why would we want to overly control and dominate our horses. Isn’t partnership about listening to the perspective of the other, taking each other’s feelings into consideration and adjusting our requests/desires accordingly?

Why should we have all the say? Sure, for issues of safety we still need respect, and trust, so can that be achieved without dominant, negative leadership?
I believe it can with positive, passive and calm, assertive leadership.

Mark Rashid explained the notion of passive leadership in his books through observing herd behaviour. He noticed that the herd often had a dominant leader, and a passive leader.
The horses generally avoided the dominant leader who used aggression to retain their place in the pecking order (generally at the top), but were happy to follow the passive leader and spend time with her. What sort of leader would you like to be? One that your horse wants to spend time with, or avoids, for fear of dominant bossy behaviour.

I also agree with Deidre Sharp when she says in her article on All Herds Need a Leader:
“A good leader is fair, consistent and effective. Most lead horses are assertive but not overly aggressive, dominant but not mean. In order to create a relationship that is enjoyable and safe, we must establish and maintain our position as the alpha. We must be effective and benevolent leaders. We want to build our relationship with our horse based on trust, respect and compassion (for the horse).”

I believe leadership is something you earn through being consistent, calm and fun to be with by asking and suggesting, gently correcting any pushy behaviour without being critical.
One of the biggest lessons I learned during my early horsemanship journey was to be particular, not critical.
So what’s the difference? When you are particular, you keep aiming for the goal you have in mind but you take the horse and the situation into account – you will probably need to make some changes to reach the goal.
Being critical is when you continually pick on the horse without changing anything until you achieve the goal and in the time frame you had in mind – not the time frame that suits the horse.

As Lesley Skipper says in her article on The Myth of Dominance:
“So long as we are not seduced by some feeble vision of ‘boss and subordinate’, and instead think of the relationship as more of a partnership, with ourselves holding the controlling interest, but with ample room for input from the horse, we shall not go far wrong.
If instead of trying to subdue the horse, we start from concepts of co-operation and friendship, all kinds of possibilities become real. As Marthe Kiley-Worthington has said, “we should make sure we are liked, not dominant!

If we truly considered the horse to be our partner, then think about what sort of human leader you would choose to spend time with?
I know I’d rather be with someone who was brave, thoughtful, respectful, interesting and calm as a leader. Above all, I’d want them to be my friend.
Can you be that for your horse?

For further reading, Valerie Cornille from Equistyle in Belgium explores ‘What is True Leadership’ in her article here. 


2 thoughts on “Leadership with horses”

  1. linda fuerniss

    I love your perspective and strive to attain it. How would you correct a horse jigging and approaching kicking as their hooves are being cleaned?, going beyond patient holding and the situation moving towards dangerous…of course without any contributing factors such as pain, etc.

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Linda, I’ve always used an extension of my hand like a training stick, sometimes with a glove taped to it, to gradually rub the horse’s body and then their legs to get them used to the approach and feel of a hand. When they are ok with that, I progress to swinging and touching their legs with a rope, which I then loop around the pastern to ask for a rhythmic short lift and release. This allows you to then extend the lift and hold period so you can touch with your hand and eventually, the horse will accept your hand only.
      The other thing to keep in mind is horse’s don’t like the feel of something ‘grabbing’ and encircling their legs, so try to pick up the hoof by asking with a gentle squeeze to the chestnut or point of the hock, then holding the hoof, not the leg. I hope this helps 🙂

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