To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.


Real Leadership – Leaders versus Bullies
By Chris Forté

We can learn how to relate to horses by observing how horses relate to each other. Just like humans, horses have rules that provide order, unity and safety. We have, laws, good manners, and the golden rule. Horses have similar concepts by which they live.

In the wild, a typical horse family has a stallion, one or more mares and several youngsters. They roam a specific territory stopping off at particular watering-holes and pastures at regular intervals. There may be neighboring families or bands of young males who make the same or similar trek.

The cadence of horse families is leisurely. The dominant mare marks time and suggests when to move on. The stallion generally takes up the rear and makes sure no one is left behind. As the youngsters grow older the young females leave to start their families with young stallions from a nearby band. Young males are eventually ousted when they become too rambunctious and join one of the bands until they, too, find mares of their own.

The bands of young males dance to a different rhythm as they exercise their wit and strength on each other in spontaneous sparring games. In between grazing and napping they will nip, rear, and race each other. Less aggressive males stay out of the way and turn-tail to kick those who threaten them.

Domestic horses display similar behaviors even though they are grouped differently. If geldings are pastured with mares and their young, the mares will ensure that their children eat the bulk of the available food and will not make room for geldings. Young geldings who attempt to engage older horse in play are often ostracized for bad behavior. Although horses will run with a startled horse momentarily, as a rule, they will look for guidance from a mature, wise horse.

In my own band of five, old Jack has been the true leader for over two decades. Jack attracts other horses. He is intelligent, calm and kind. Horses look for him in the pasture and gravitate around him. When something alarming occurs they look to Jack for direction. If Jack walks, trots, or gallops, the others will follow his lead. I have never seen Jack pin his ears back, nip, or strike at another horse. Horses trust that Jack will keep them safe. Occasionally Jack will even play with frisky young Luke for a few minutes. However, Jack tires quickly and will turn his tail to Luke when he has had enough.

Although intelligent, Luke is very much Jack’s opposite. His pasture-mates barely tolerate him. Luke loves movement. He tries to engage the other horses to play with him by nipping. If he can, he will drive his victim around the pasture until he or the other horse is worn-out. One of his favorite activities is to have a rearing contest with the other horses. When they become annoyed with his bullying antics they turn their hind-quarters to him so that they can kick him if he doesn’t calm down. Eventually, they send him to time-out away from the group until he is ready to graze with them peacefully.

In many ways this behavior reminds me of recess on the school play-ground. Children enjoy playing with their best friends and will happily engage in adventurous schemes created by a friendly leader. The last thing they want is to be harassed by the play-ground bully.

Whether horse or human, the key characteristics of leaders and bullies are:

  • Leaders attract – Bullies repel
  • Leaders are safe and dependable – Bullies are hurtful and unreliable
  • Leaders create relaxation and fun - Bullies cause tension and disharmony
  • Leaders encourage – Bullies force
  • Leaders guide – Bullies drive
  • Leaders think of others – Bullies think of themselves

We have much to learn from horse behavior. If we want to develop a positive relationship with our horses it is important that we take an honest look at how our horses perceive us. Does your horse think you are a leader or a bully? If your horse thinks you are a leader, good for you! If your horse thinks you are a bully, work hard to change the relationship.

Chris Forte is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, January, 2013.


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