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


Becoming the alpha mare

“Respect” is an often used word when natural-training methods are discussed. When I think of “respect” I always think of Patches, our alpha mare. Horses and humans alike respected Patches. She did not try to gain respect by force or causing anyone to fear her. She was never cruel and never herded or bullied horses needlessly. She earned respect with her kind but firm nurturing.

When she joined our family she was a twenty-five year old, big boned, 15-hand, brown and white pinto of undetermined breeding. She stepped into the pasture that first afternoon, surveyed her new home, put her head down and began grazing. The geldings were excited to find a mare in their midst and galloped down the hill to meet her. Without looking up, she pinned her ears back for a second and they slowed to a courteous walk. She may have been old and not very fast, but the bachelor band quickly fell under her spell. For the next twelve years, she ruled her geldings with a maternal air.

She was always fair, dependable and wise. The horses were content in her company; they felt safe, they ate well, she made good decisions for them, and she maintained peace.

Patches had a confidence that was unshakable. On the fourth of July, when the air was filled with the noise of exploding fire-crackers and bottle-rockets, Patches was unperturbed. The other horses found shelter from the auditory hail-storm by gathering closely around her like chicks under the wings of a mother hen.

She always knew the best places to graze. Wherever she wandered, the other horses followed and grazed around her. The horses moved when and where Patches asked. All she had to do was point her nose, nod her head, and swish her tail, and they would walk calmly in the direction she indicated without a moment’s hesitation. There was no fear in their movements. They simply respected her judgment.

One day Jumping Jack Flash (a.k.a. Jack) could not find the gate to the pasture where Patches was eating. She looked up, pointed her nose toward Jack’s right shoulder, and nodded her head. Jack understood and immediately turned around to his right and walked out the gate behind him and turned the corner to reach Patches’ side.

Remember the quiet authority of the yard-duty teacher who protected the smaller children from bullies and whose disapproval meant time-out on the benches for the rest of recess? Patches also put misbehaving youngsters in time-out. Once, a youngster disrespectfully trotted too close to Patches. She stood motionless but, at the last moment, swiftly reached out and nipped his butt so hard the shocked horse ran away. He returned to her side a few minutes later walking slowly with his head dragging near ground-level in submission.

When two youngsters were playing roughly, Patches quietly meandered in their direction nibbling grass along the way. By the time she was within sixty feet of them, they calmed down and resumed grazing.

Jack was her favorite companion. Even though Jack was a full hand taller than Patches, they adjusted their strides so that they matched feet as they strolled across the pasture like a King and Queen among their subjects.

Patches taught me much about the role of the alpha mare. Some of the key lessons I have learned are:
• Consistently provide horses with security, nourishment, and gentle, but firm, guidance.
• Make yourself into the person your horses want to be around. Be the person they want to come to, not the bully they avoid.
• Horses like a calm environment.
• If a horse thinks you are his playmate he may not respect your boundaries. In fact, invading a person or other horses’ personal space is the strategy many horses use to initiate play.
• It’s handy to have a dressage stick to act as your tail, lengthen your body, or define your boundaries.
• When you want a horse to go somewhere, stretch your arms out wide, point with one hand in the direction you want the horse to go and wave as vigorously as needed with the other hand (you can wave your stick instead as long as you don’t strike your horse).
• When you are the alpha mare, if a horse over-steps your boundaries, sending your horse away from you to “time-out” is the only punishment necessary. When you say “No” mean it. Do not allow a mischievous horse near you until he has put his head down in apology.
• Matching feet with your horse is a sign of friendship and unity.

Most importantly, Patches demonstrated that respect grows out of trust, it cannot be forced. In fact, force creates the opposite of respect. Force creates anxiety and fear. Horses naturally respect the alpha mare. She is the gentle leader with the uncompromising spirit. Be your horse’s alpha mare.

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


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