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Horse Training: Establishing Your Role as Herd Leader

Last updated: October 23, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Horses have survived for many years because they follow strict hierarchy systems that herd members respect, trust, and cooperate with leaders. If you want to teach horses effectively, the key is establishing your role as a leader.

The best way to establish a leadership role over your horse is through calm, assertive, and confident actions. You do this by using appropriate body language, claiming your personal space, being consistent in your actions, rewarding good behavior, and punishing bad behaviors.

Horses see you as a member of their herd and constantly try to figure out your place in the hierarchy. They observe your behavior and determine where you fit into the pack based on what you do or how they perceive it.

This article is part of a series I wrote on horse training. The primary article is Horse Training: Step by Step Guide for Beginners; In it, I cover establishing your dominant role, mastering groundwork, saddle training, and mounting for the first time.

In this guide, we will cover:

  • What is the purpose of establishing hierarchy in horses?
  • How do you establish dominance with a horse?
  • How do you gain respect from a horse?
  • How do you get a horse to stop nudging you?
  • Tips for bonding with your horse.

What is the purpose of establishing a herd hierarchy?

Picture of a woman working with a horse.

A horse herd, defined as a social group of horses living together, operates within a clear hierarchical structure, often called a “pecking order.” This structure not only determines each horse’s rank in the group but also plays a crucial role in the collective safety and well-being of the herd.

Within this dynamic, no two horses hold the same rank, ensuring distinct roles and responsibilities contributing to the herd’s overall functioning. When a new horse is introduced to the herd, it doesn’t automatically assume a specific rank.

Instead, it generally starts at the lowest level in the social ladder. Through various interactions, displays of dominance, and social cues, the new horse gradually earns its position, ascending in the hierarchy based on its assertiveness, age, strength, and, occasionally, its personality.

This hierarchical system among horses didn’t just randomly materialize; it evolved over centuries as a survival mechanism. In the wild, equine leaders, often the oldest and most experienced mares or occasionally a dominant stallion, assume critical roles.

They’re tasked with making life-preserving decisions, including navigating terrains for resources like food and water, determining when and where the herd should move to avoid predators or harsh weather, and choosing the direction of flight in case of threats.

These pivotal decisions can signify the difference between life and death for both individual horses and the herd at large. In this context, leadership is paramount. If you own horses, especially if you only have a two-horse “herd,” assuming the role of a confident, calm, and consistent leader is essential.

Establishing this sense of leadership doesn’t mean you should be domineering or aggressive; instead, it’s about providing assurance and guidance, akin to the natural leaders in wild herds. By setting up this hierarchy, you foster a relationship based on mutual respect and trust, and both you and your horses can experience numerous benefits, including:

1.      It helps your horse feel comfortable.

Horses thrive in a stable environment with clear-cut hierarchies. Without consistent leadership, horses often struggle to take charge and establish their role within the herd or on their own accord. This can cause behavioral problems for themselves and anyone working with it. Even in your micro-herd, you and your horse need defined roles. If you aren’t the leader, then the horse is.

Establishing the hierarchy early on will set the tone for many things about its future training.

2.      Establishes mutual trust and respect

By being a benevolent yet assertive leader, you can build a relationship of mutual trust and respect between you and your horse.

3.      It helps your horse tune in to you mentally.

Horses use their senses and understanding of your body language to communicate with you. In the wild, a horse looks up to its leader for its survival and safety. The leader, in turn, can direct its herd by merely flicking its tail, moving its ears, or changing its posture.

For domesticated horses, you take on this role. By establishing hierarchy, your horse uses similar herd dynamics to understand your commands better.

4.      It helps you read your horse better.

Training your horse creates a two-way relationship where you learn how to understand one another. Because you’ve established yourself as the leader, it becomes easy for you to read subtle cues from the animal and make changes to help with training.

Understanding and embracing the natural hierarchical system of horses is vital for anyone looking to create a harmonious and thriving environment for their equine companions.

Picture of a man training a horse.

Horse training: Establishing dominance with a horse. Four important rules.

Horses have a highly structured social framework essential to survival in the wild. And, when you work with them, they see you as part of this structure, which you can use to build trust and communication.

Some horse trainers start the process within 72 hours of the foal’s birth, using the “imprint training method.” With “imprint training,” foals begin learning to interact with you before they even stand alone.

This is a valuable way to establish your dominant role, gives you a head start on conditioned responses, and makes training much easier. Dr. Miller developed this program and theorizes that foals learn more in the first 72 hours after birth than at any other time of their life.

If you want to learn more about this technique, I suggest you check out his book, Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, or visit Dr. Millers’ website.

There are many ways a horse can view your role within the group, so even if you don’t use imprint training, you still must take charge early and prove you are the leader of this herd.

If your horse bites you, walks all over you when you are leading it or wanders off while you saddle it, it considers you lower in the pecking order than he is. The key to establishing dominance over a horse is not worrying about establishing authority.

This may sound confusing, but the truth is that it does not matter what you think; what matters is what your horse thinks. Here are some rules you can use while trying to establish yourself as the leader in your micro-herd:

Rule # 1: If it is important to you, it will be important to the horse

Suppose your horse steps on you; immediately reprimand him and make a ruckus. The incident should not be pleasant for him either. If it isn’t important to you, why would it be important to your horse?

Rule # 2: Claim your space

Horses assert their dominance and territorial rights to maintain balance in the herd. They communicate through body language, eye contact, posturing, and vocalizations. So when a horse tries to crowd your space, calmly but firmly, move them away and make sure not to let it take control. They will get the message and respect your authority.

Rule # 3:  Be mindful of your expressions and body language.

Stand tall with your head held high. Walk boldly and confidently around your horse, knowing that you are the leader. The more confident and self-assured you appear before your horse, the sooner it will recognize your leadership role.

This brings us to the third rule…

Rule # 4: Accumulate as much knowledge and experience in dealing with horses as possible.

You can become confident and self-assured by learning all you can. So keep doing courses and educate yourself about horses and training methods. Attend riding clinics and complete the appropriate practical work.

Rule # 5: Be consistent and assertive

Consistency and assertiveness will help you establish clear guidelines for your horse. If your horse is dominant, it might seize any opportunity to get its way. It will get confused if you allow your horse to have its way one day but do not allow it the next day. The horse will not only stop trusting you; it might even lose recognition of your rank in the hierarchy. So, be consistent.

Picture of a horse with its ears pinned.

How do you gain respect from a horse? Four important tips.

In the wild, horses earn respect by demonstrating intelligence, strength, and foresight. In your micro-herd, you need to use the same intelligence, strength, and foresight values and be consistent about it if you want to earn your horse’s respect. Here are some tips:

Tip #1: Work on the ground first

Get your horse to respect you on the ground first if you want to earn its respect in the saddle. So, get your horse on a rope halter and 14-ft lead rope and progress it through a series of exercises designed to have him move in the direction you want.

Check out my guide on three basic horse-training groundwork exercises for your horse. As you advance in groundwork, your horse’s respect for you and your leadership will increase.

Tip #2 Show him you are the leader

In the wild, the herd’s lead mare and head stallion have to work hard to earn the trust and respect of the herd. If the lead mare cannot take her herd to good water sources and food supplies and the lead stallion fails to protect the herd from predators, it must step down so another more capable pair can take over.

Show your horse you are not a wimp or a barbarian. Do the right thing.

Tip #3 Rewarding isn’t the only way; make your horse uncomfortable for unwanted behavior

Many people think that the only way to gain the horse’s respect is by rewarding it when it gets things right. However, that is only 50% of the equation. People simply ignore wrong or bad behavior. That is not the right way to go about things.

If you use this method of training, your horse could get inconsistent. That is why it’s vital to make your horse uncomfortable when it does something wrong.

Tip #4 Expect respect and stop making excuses for your horse

People often make excuses for their horses’ mistakes. That is no way to earn your horse’s respect. You must expect respect, which is as simple as getting your horse to move forward, backward, left, or right and rewarding it even if it tries to do those things. So get busy and earn respect!

How do you get a horse to stop nudging you?

A horse nudges its human when it wants something: food, a turnout, treats, etc., and wants you to hurry up with it.

Nudging means that your horse is getting in your personal space. If you’ve read my Step-by-Step training guide for beginners, I explained in it how a rider’s personal space is an imaginary 360-degree circle around them.

If your horse nudges you, you allow it in this circle and must stop it in its tracks. Failure to do so will escalate this bad behavior to the point that your horse might even cause bruises or hurt you.

The best way to get a horse to stop nudging you is to nudge it right back or tap it on its nose. You can also say a stern ‘NO!’ loudly and ask it to back out of your personal space. It would be best if you also stopped treats for a while until the behavior stops.

Don’t forget to check its food. If you have recently changed its pellets or treats, some ingredients might make it hyperactive and trigger bad behaviors like nudging.

Here are some more tips on bonding with your horse.

There are many simple steps to bond with your horse. These include scratching behind its ears, grooming, feeding treats, brushing, and stroking along the neck area. They are all positive reinforcement tools, and your horse should be able to enjoy these moments as much as you do.


Establishing a hierarchy early on in the micro-herd of you and your horse can help provide a proper foundation for a great relationship. You need to establish dominance over your horse by being assertive, self-assured, and confident and by rewarding good behaviors and correcting bad behaviors right away.

You can earn your horse’s respect and trust through consistent, positive groundwork training. Check out the other resources on this site to help you get started or advance in horse groundwork training, saddle training, and mounting a horse for its first time.

Below is a helpful YouTube video with tips showing you how to establish a proper relationship with your horse.


What are the different methods of training horses?

Different horse training techniques include classical dressage, natural horsemanship, positive reinforcement, and clicker training. Traditional methods focus on control, while modern techniques use rewards to encourage desired behaviors