I’ve seen a lot of chatter – and some interesting convictions – concerning the alpha equine. Some base their comments on alleged scientific fact culled from published and apparently credible herd observer gurus and others either expound on what they’ve been told or make it up as they go. Admittedly, I’ve logged many years as part of the “don’t know what I don’t know” crowd of horse handlers, but like to think I’ve crossed over to a place that has me watching, thinking and learning more while defending precepts a whole lot less.

Does a boss make a leader?

These days, there seems to be a lot of agreement that alpha mares need to be bossy and aggressive. Interestingly, this hasn’t been what I’ve observed with the herd here. Sure, there’s always a nasty mare in the mix who intimidates the herd so she gets first dibs and dines alone, but she’s feared and not respected, nor followed. There always seems to be another mare (or filly – my four-year-old took over the biggest herd last year) that quietly and kindly gains the respect of the herd by being confident and fair. Horses in the herd gravitate to her not because she rules, but instead, because she doesn’t.

True leaders attract and don’t demand

I’ve changed my mind a lot about alpha mares in recent years. In fact, I wouldn’t define the bossy bitch as an alpha at all anymore, as I’ve come to see that most of these characters’ behavior comes from fear, not confidence. The leader, on the other hand, rarely inflicts any pain on the others in the herd. They choose to follower her willingly, relishing the opportunity to choose a leader who doesn’t demand subordinates. Her calm, unflappable and fearless demeanor seems to encourage the herd to gravitate toward her naturally. Sure, she’ll jump in occasionally if another is being harassed and will stand up to a horse that attacks her, but otherwise, she does little to discipline or control the herd. Yet, she’s seen as chief without asking for the job.

Horses in the wild may be a different story – I can’t speak to this dynamic as my first-hand experience has been limited to animals coming through the domesticated systems. Even so, humans have been breeding horses for millenniums and I wonder if some of this intervention makes for a different kind of alpha mare than what might be ideal for a predator-rich setting.

Herd lessons learned for horse training

What I have learned from watching all this unfold in the herd is training techniques modelled after a dominance approach do little to encourage respect and camaraderie from the horse. Even with alpha mares. Instead, I’ve discovered the best approach to horses that are wilful, smart, blessed with tons of heart and/or belligerent, is to not only be steady, consistent, unflappable and clear in your requests, but also responsive to the horse’s comments with understanding. This requires a human ready with an approach that shows no fear, but also, no aggression. I do believe horses seek a leader they can respect – especially alphas. Interestingly, as with humans, horses seem to respond better to a leader who deserves respect vs. one who dictates compliance.

The next time you encounter a strong-willed horse (or human), think about how much more effective you may be taking some tips from a mare the herd chooses as leader.

11 Responses

  1. My daughter has a 3year old filly (AQHA & APHA) registered. Apparently, she has become an alpha. Can’t be turned out as she is aggressive with others, and now bucks & is unridable. Last horse show she was scratched due to her bad behavior. She is just 3 years old sitting in a stall. My daughter had her heart set on this mare as the “perfect horse”…we have had several others. Barn owner says she has become “cinchy”. Any suggestions? She is beautiful. ME in NY

  2. Hi Nanette. I’ve just bought a Percheron x TB. She’s so sweet and shy and lazy with me but when I leave her at the pen with other horses, she becomes so alpha to the point no other horses hand out with her. Like 2 different personalities. Should I intervene in the pen? Or let them set the rules?

    1. Hi Ana,

      Congratulations on your new purchase. Honestly, most of the horses (not all) I’ve seen being aggressive in the pasture/paddock aren’t alphas, but are actually afraid and/or haven’t been socialized. Sadly, there are a lot of horses out there now that have spent majority time in a stall with occasional individual turnout. There’s a big difference between establishing a pecking order and being hostile without cause. I’d be curious to know what she’s doing that causes you to call it alpha behavior. Regardless, no, PLEASE DON’T put yourself between two fighting horses. That will only get you hurt and isn’t going to change behavior. I’ve found it best to introduce a new horse to just one other initially. This avoids a lot of problems that tend to happen when you throw a new one out with a gang. Once in while you encounter a horse that simply doesn’t want to be out with other horses. For those, turning them out alone can reduce ulcers for both you and the horse.

      1. Nanette, thank you so much for suck good advise. Today I put her outside the pen where 3 horses where hanging out. Even with a pipe wall in the middle she wanted to scare the others. They come to her like curious lovely creatures that they are but she scared them away. My natural reaction was to shout to her to knock it off. I certainly might be confusing this with alpha behavior :/

  3. I have a mare, I bought her a yr ago in September. She does not let my husband’s horse get near her. She will let her get so close, close enough to do there nose greet thanks they squeal, buck, kick, get away from each other than there fine. They are the same way with the fence between them but without all the drama. We have been keeping my mare in with the cows & she does great the you would wish her to do with 1 or more horses. I am being forced to get rid of her I don’t want to cause after a yr we are starting to bond, I have become very comfortable with her! I keep hoping there is away to fix this problem because when winter comes on they have to stay in close quarters & they would be in a small space outside together. It’s when they are in the barn in the manger stall “not the individual stalls,” it makes it hard to the feeding & all cause she goes off on the other mare. Do You have any advice for me or is it a loss cause?

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