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Horses have survived for many years because they follow strict hierarchy systems in which followers respect, trust and cooperate with leaders. If you want to be effective at teaching horses, 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 herd 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?
A horse hierarchy defines who is in charge and who isn’t. No two horses in the herd have the same standing. When a new horse joins a herd, it starts at the bottom of the hierarchy and has to earn its way up.
The hierarchy system evolved as a way for horses to survive. The leaders of a herd help keep the other horses safe and fed. It is their responsibility to provide guidance, experience, and protection for those around them.
Leaders make decisions like whether or not they should travel for food and water and what direction they’ll all run if they’re attacked; these are vital safety-related choices that can mean life or death for both individual members as well as entire herds!
Horses naturally seek a leader, and you need to be the leader of your two-horse herd. By establishing a hierarchy, both you and your horses should reap the following benefits:
1. It helps your horse feel comfortable.
Horses thrive in a stable environment with clear-cut hierarchies. Without consistent leadership, horses will often struggle to take charge and establish their role within the herd or on its own accord.
This can lead them into disarray and cause behavioral problems for themselves and anyone working with it. Even in your micro-herd of you and your horse, needs defined roles. If you aren’t the leader, then the horse is.
Establishing the hierarchy early on will set the tone for many things as far as its future training is concerned.
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 tails or movement of its ears or a change in 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 both 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 that will help with training.
How to establish dominance with a horse? 4 important rules.
Horses have a highly structured social framework that is essential to their 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.
There are many ways a horse can view your role within the group, so you 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 walks off while you saddle it – it means that it considers you lower in the pecking order than he is.
The key to establishing dominance over a horse is to not worry 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
If your horse steps on you must 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 do this by communicating 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.
Which 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.
If you allow your horse to have its way one day but do not allow it the next day, it will get confused. The horse will not only stop trusting you; it might even lose recognition of your rank in the hierarchy. So, be consistent.
How do you gain respect from a horse? 4 important tips.
In the wild, horses earn respect by demonstrating intelligence, strength, and foresight. In your micro-herd, you need to use the same values of intelligence, strength, and foresight but also 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 to do with your horse. As you advance in groundwork, your horse’s respect for you and your leadership will increase as well.
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, they have to step down so another more capable pair can take over.
Show your horse you are not a wimp, nor are you 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 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 is very important 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, and it 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 are allowing it in this circle, and you have to 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!’ in a loud voice and ask it to back out of your personal space. You must also stop 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 be making it hyperactive and trigger bad behaviors like nudging.
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 it 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 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 also earn your horse’s respect and trust through consistent and 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.
- Behavior of horses
- Arnold S. Chamove, Ocean J. E. Crawley-Hartrick & Kevin J. Stafford (2002) Horse reactions to human attitudes and behavior, Anthrozoös, 15:4, 323-331, DOI: 10.2752/089279302786992423
- A Review of Learning Behavior in Horses and its Application in Horse Training: Journal of Animal Science, Volume 68, Issue 1, January 1990, Pages 75–81,