Alpha mares and fillies can present some interesting challenges where training and handling are concerned. They also become some of the most loyal high achievers you’ll ever encounter if you learn how to reach them. All seem to have heart beyond the norm, smarts and a wilfulness about them that will test your fortitude. Try to dominate these gals without an ear and eye toward their communicated needs, and they’ll give you a schooling you won’t soon forget. In the truly sad cases of dominance and violence, some will give up and yield, but lose the qualities that made them so special in the process. When you give a strong alpha horse the opportunity to choose to respect you the results are awe-inspiring. Below are eleven quick tips for dealing with alphas.

  1. Choose your battles very carefully. You can’t back down with alphas if you want to gain their respect, but plan on hours of combat if you pick the wrong activity. Better to spend some time watching and listening to the horse prior to training to gain some insight on their nature, needs and passions prior to deciding on a training approach.
  2. Make sure you can be fearless or get the help of another who can. These equines are used to calling the shots, but usually relish the opportunity to find a leader they can respect. They’ll test you to see if they can intimidate you or if you will hold your ground. Fold and you’ll spend weeks gaining back ground.
  3. Don’t get combative. Alphas rarely tolerate violence or unreasonable requests and will ratchet up the stakes if you challenge them. Most already recognize their weight and strength advantage and respond in kind if you pick a fight.
  4. Build rapport and respect on the ground prior to trying to teach lessons under saddle. It’s a lot easier to communicate with any horse, especially alphas, when you can both see the full range of communications tools. Lessons implemented prior to getting in the saddle will be remembered once you put your foot in the stirrup.
  5. Don’t be in a hurry. It’s better to skip the lesson than rush a plan. You’ll wind up getting frustrated, encouraging a possible stand-off and missing your meeting. Or, if you give up prior to finishing the request, you’ll pay for it the next day.
  6. Be firm, but fair. When you do decide to tackle an issue, make sure you’re clear about what you’re asking and then proceed until you get the response you set out for. Alphas can be very kind until you ask them to do something they don’t want to do (for some this can be something as simple as standing still). It’s a big mistake to start a training direction and give up when an alpha objects. You’ll wind up teaching her to train you as a subordinate and will never gain the respect or bond afforded only to perceived peers and embraced leaders.
  7. Make your alpha feel special. It’s OK to spoil an alpha once in a while so long as you’re not teaching her bad behavior in the process. These horses are smart and will show you what makes them extra happy (it’s rarely a click or a treat) if you pay attention. It might be as simple as calling her over for an extra rub in her favorite spot or letting her jump after a well done flat lesson (it depends on the horse – it’s up to you to figure out what gives them great pleasure). Most alphas will try extra hard to please if you acknowledge their effort with a reward.
  8. Vary the routine. Alphas are easily bored and if you spend too much time drilling a point when they’ve already done what you requested, they’ll protest. As quick learners, alphas expect to get on to something new and exciting once they think they’ve mastered a task. Mix it up enough to keep them interested and engaged.
  9. Pick one issue to tackle in a day. Consider it a great day if you chose the right lesson and are able to end on a good note. Sometimes it’s a five minute success; other days it may be hours before you accomplish that simple task request she’s decided to turn into a call for war. Regardless, particularly with young horses, don’t be tempted to finish the week’s plan for training because you seem to be having a good day. It’s better to end quickly on a good note than risk ruining a day of great rapport.
  10. Learn to read your horse. Alphas are extremely telling if you pay attention. Come to recognize when she’s having a bad day and be ready to change or cancel training plans if you can. Watch her when you’re working with her to pick up on when she’s getting irritated or when she’s feeling proud about an accomplishment. There’s a difference between being insistent and pushing too hard and/or failing to recognize an effort when she needs to be congratulated.
  11. Have fun. Alphas are some of the most rewarding horses you’ll ever work with. When they finally find a leader they choose to respect (and they’ll give you some physical and ego bruises to show for it getting there), they can be the most dedicated, trusting, loyal, eager pleaser equines you’ll ever encounter. Once you’re able to get past the bravado by demonstrating you are a worthy leader, they’ll repay you with 110% effort toward performance requests, a love for training few horses exhibit, a determination to take care of you at all costs and a sweet and gracious temperament you never imagined possible.

6 Responses

  1. Hi Nanette,

    I love this article! Interestingly enough although you are writing about the mares, you have described my two alpha geldings right down the the last detail. I wish you had written this post two years ago – your advice would have saved me a lot of time and grief with my younger one. It took me quite a while to come to the conclusions you make in your article – your philosophy and methods are spot on!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Laura. You’re right, so often the assumption is that the girls are the alphas, but that’s not always the case, is it? Strong-willed, smart and confident horses, no matter what the sex, are wonderful to work with once you build a rapport and a process that they can embrace. Interstingly, some of the strongest alphas I’ve worked with have not been agressive or hostile to members of the herd – those seem to be the true leaders and often are the most challenging to reach, but once you do, it’s an experience beyond words. I’m so glad to hear you’ve found success with your geldings!

  2. Thank you! I have just read your quick tips and everything you say sounds just like my mare (TrekhanerXTB age 7 this month!) I had not heard of alpha mare until this week when I went to a clinic and she was extremely anxious and jogged/piaffed for 50mins as a stable companion was in the same group and she seemed to be worried that the other horses were some kind of threat to her or her friend. The clinic ended with us in a muck sweat and then the lorry loading was positively dangerous! Today, at home, alone she has been delightful and worked better than ever before!! I know I have a special little horse but she is very challenging and I am learning to be very patient but I also understand that I have to be firm and fair!

  3. Hi Mary,

    I appreciate your stopping in to read the blog. A lot of horses will be anxious at clinics and other events away from home – rider’s too – which can add to the horse’s concern. It can be difficult to deal with these issues during an event. Since it sounds like she’s OK at home, you might want to consider some short trips to nearby places (friend’s facilities) to begin to get her (and you) used to different surroundings and circumstances. So glad to hear you had a good ride later at home.

  4. Hi Nanette,
    Not sure if you are still following comments on this blog as it’s a few years old. Your blog has given me hope and confidence and a giggle! I have a rising 8 year old warmblood who has recently decided she will put in a good buck every now and then at home – she’s testing me as I am asking a bit more of her now. She is a beautiful soul but definitely an alpha – she knows what she wants, is brave but does protest when asked to do something she is not overly keen on, or if she is not asked politely (please). I look forward to our partnership developing and the time when she comes into her own but I know already ‘she’s got my back’.

    1. Hi Mel,

      I’m still here ;-). I’m glad you’re having fun with your mare. Those warmbloods can be a bit stubborn at times, can’t they? So glad to hear you’ve found hope, confidence and giggles from this website (and blog). Thanks for stopping in and taking the time to comment.

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