Is being the boss really the best way with horses?

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Friday’s Opinion

I’ve seen so much written lately about how critical it is to “be the boss” with your horse. Granted, I don’t have a degree in horse psychology, nor do I have the learned qualifications of some who have studied the horse brain and journals extensively, but I’ve sure had a chance to watch horses and herd dynamics for a good number of decades. I find it interesting to see how horses respond to a “boss.” They don’t like her (it’s almost always a mare).  Bosses in the herd are unnecessarily aggressive and often not trusted. Sure, she gets them to fear her, yield to her wishes and move away when she approaches, but that’s not who they follow when given an option.

Alpha boss or teacher?

I have two alpha mares in my herd right now (and one precocious three-year-old vying for the title).  “The boss” has won out in the pecking order, but she’s not who the herd follows. Most choose to avoid her throughout the day. If I want to move the herd, I grab the “teacher.” They trust, respect and like Midge because she’s fair, but firm when necessary. She’s not looking to dominate other horses, but instead, steps in to school a bad actor when they are disruptive.  It’s usually a quick schooling that only requires a single lesson, and leaves the student unharmed (except, for perhaps, his ego – I don’t care what they say – horses have one) and better equipped to deal with what life will require of him (yes, it’s usually one of the boys).

Respect or domination?

Interestingly, a lot of the horses that come in to Halcyon Acres® (we work primarily with young horses – either starting them under saddle or reaching horses that have been “broke” and quickly deemed dangerous to their riders and handlers) tend to be strong alpha types. Reaching one of these characters is incredibly rewarding. They also tend to be the biggest achievers after they leave the farm. Often, they’ve never found a horse or a person they could respect. So, they melt when they find a leader that is fair, steadfast and not intimidated by their bravado.  What I’ve found with these horses is the worst thing you can do is be combative. You must stand your ground and be prepared for some very long and often exhausting showdowns, but if you get aggressive or create a win-lose proposition, you’re toast. It takes a lot of courage and a good deal of talent to fix an alpha that has learned to have it their way all the time, but it’s not about being a dictator. Instead, the key is to customize an approach that allows you to reach to the horse on their terms and work up from there. Offering yourself as a confident leader that hears what they try to say and responds accordingly is a lot more effective than being the boss.

Bully or leader?

So, I’m not a big believer in the boss theory (nor any of the current popular stimuli intensive or dog training approaches that tend to rob the horse of their mind and heart)  if the goal is standout performers. There’s a big difference between being a leader that’s confident, clear and patient, albeit unflinching in your insistence on accepting a request and adopting a boss posture that expects your horse to submit to your demands. I guess it comes down to whether you seek a partnership or a puppet. Sure, you can win some of the battles with manipulation, but this can be costly if you lose the fire that makes your horse outstanding in the process. I’ve seen how the herd here reacts to bullies. I’d rather be a Midge, who rules quietly with understanding and rapport – even if it moves me down the hierarchy to number two (I always liked Spock better than Kirk anyway).

Nanette Levin

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