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Alpha? It MUST be you! — IS IT?

I often meet riders on the trails who don't understand why their horse won't obey their commands. They complain their horse won't leave the farm when they try to ride alone, won't canter when they give the command, won't even let them lift a foot when they try to clean a hoof. If I ask what's wrong, they'll say something like: "my horse doesn't want to canter right now" or "I guess she doesn't want to go in this direction".

In any case when a horse resists what we want to do, our first responsibility should be to evaluate our horse and the situation to assure he's ok. Examine your horse and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is he in good health?
  • Does he have any injuries?
  • Is the tack fitting ok?
  • Is he afraid? If so, why? The cause must be addressed.
If everything is fine, then it could be a leadership issue. If it is, then the underlying problem is much more than just a horse that doesn't feel like doing what his rider wants — it's a more dangerous situation in which the horse believes he's in charge and that he can and will do what he wants. And we can never forget that most horses weigh at least 900 pounds and have massive strength and power. If a horse wants to, he can seriously injure or kill someone.

Fortunately, most horses won't try to lash out unless a rider pushes them quite hard and harshly to do something they don't want to do. But this still is a totally unacceptable situation. Such riders may as well go play with the lions or bears in a zoo, because what is a rider going to do if not tell the horse where to go, when to go, when to turn, speed up, slow down, or stop? That's what riding is.

All horses MUST respect their rider or a dangerous situation develops. The rider must gain that respect — must become part of the horse's "herd" and become his alpha — his leader — there is no other way to be safe and in control. This certainly doesn't mean to abuse, frighten, or threaten the horse. And it has absolutely nothing to do with yelling, whips, or anything similar. It does mean the rider needs training in understanding basic equine body language and assuming the leadership position so the horse recognizes that position and follows accordingly. To take on that position, the rider must know what to do and be confident doing it. If the rider "wimps out" or has any fear or crisis of confidence, the horse will know it immediately and will take on the position of leader himself.

Why are horses like this? Because horses are herd animals. We all say that phrase; we all believe that phrase. But how many of us interact with our horse with that fact driving the interaction? If it really is true and we really do believe it, then we riders MUST learn to understand herd social behavior. If we're trying to get a horse to do something, they must see us as part of their herd, a "herd of two". Horses see people in only one of three ways: 1) not part of the herd; 2) leader of the herd; or 3) subordinate to them in the herd — which are you?

If you answer that you're the leader, are you sure? Are you really sure? More importantly, does your horse believe that?

BECAUSE, if he does, he'll be happy to see you when you arrive at the farm and will often come over to meet you at the gate or his stall door (while not expecting any treats for doing so).

If he does, he'll never run away from you in the pasture when you go to halter him.

If he does, when you bend over beside him and touch the back of his large metacarpal or cannon bone above the sesamoid to signal that you want to clean his hoof, he'll immediately lift his foot for you.

If he does, when riding him, he'll walk, stop, turn, or transition to whatever gate you request as soon as you provide the signal. Is this what your horse does?

If not, consider the following truisms about dealing with horses:

  • EVERY time you're with your horse, you're training him. If you're consistent about being his leader, then you're training him to trust in your judgment, and therefore, to do WHATEVER you ask of him WHENEVER you ask him. If not, you're training him that he shouldn't trust you — there's NOTHING in between.
  • Your horse will not listen well if he feels you are lower in the herd's pecking order than he; and he'll be harder to control.
  • If you are your horse's leader, you WILL STILL have to constantly prove to your horse that you are. Every horse will test this assumption every time their rider approaches — this is done amongst horses themselves every time you return your horse to the pasture or another horse is placed into that pasture. By doing so, each horse assures that only the most qualified and confident is worthy, can be trusted, and will be followed. This prevents the wrong horse from leading the herd.
Through the ages, those horses that trusted the wrong horses as leaders died premature deaths — natural selection at work culling those having inadequate survival skills that led them to follow incompetent leaders that couldn't protect them. So, it's all been sorted out. The horses alive today are the descendants of those that adequately tested and found the true, competent leaders and followed ONLY them. And they tested them every time they got together to assure they still were worthy.


But generally, once you've proven you are the leader, you'll be minimally tested for the duration of that session or day, as long as you're consistent. However, the next time you get together with your horse, you'll be tested again. You must be consistent; consistency allays your horse's concerns and convinces him you're still the leader, will make good decisions for his herd, and will protect him.

Essentially, you MUST be your horse's leader to be safest, to truly be trusted by your horse, to truly be in control of your horse, and to truly be able to train your horse.

Also, we humans all need to understand that our horses are not bad and are not trying to give us trouble. Therefore, there's no reason to be mad at them, no reason to yell at them, no reason to hit them or abuse them in any way if they don't listen to us. They're acting as nature intended and if we're not good leaders, it's OUR fault - not theirs. If our horses aren't listening to our commands, we need to get professional training for US to learn equine leadership skills - they don't need training in how to be horses.

Finding a proper instructor to teach these skills is a hard challenge unto itself. If an instructor yells at a horse or is abusive, he's attempting to control by fear — that's unfair to your horse and may result in a dangerous situation. And horses treated this way certainly aren't happy horses — we need to get another instructor.

Keep in mind:

  • Horses cannot speak to us;
  • They cannot tell us what they do and don't understand;
  • They cannot tell us that they're in pain from something we're doing or something unrelated;
  • They cannot tell us when they're afraid.
When we understand the foregoing, it becomes obvious that it is WE who must learn their language. They are not trying to be difficult, they just cannot directly communicate with us. And if our brains are as capable as we often like to brag they are, and that we're really at the top of the intellectual ladder (as especially we males seem to egotistically need to believe), then we really are the ones that must use our brains to solve this problem. That means we must learn their body language to understand them and we also must use it to communicate with them. Doesn't that make a lot of sense?

Finally, believe it or not, most horses really don't want to be the leader — that's a stressful position for them, they just want to be safe. If you do become your horse's leader, you'll actually find that he's much more willing to learn everything from you. He'll also be more relaxed and more at peace when you're around because he feels you're taking care of and protecting him — don't let him down!

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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