Who Is Responsible? (part 1)

(Original post – August 2015, updated April 2023)

Loretta’s question was asked in a recent Horse Talk webinar at The Horse’s Advocate™. It was free, and no one left the meeting during the first hour!

“I was wondering if there is a sure proof way to expose your horse to everything and keep him/her calm when doing so. Thanks”


I loved this question and may dedicate a future Horse Talk webinar to this topic – “Who Is Responsible For Your Horse’s Behavior?”

I see this happen everywhere because we are now a reactive society. What I mean by this is that we constantly react to stimuli in every aspect of our lives.  Advertisers depend on us not to think but to react.  Drive this car, and you will become: envied, responsible, courageous, sexy, powerful, etc.

Look at our relationships starting as children.  “Mommy, he pulled my hair!”  Why tell Mommy?  Tell the puller of the hair to knock it off.  Later in life, we master our language to manipulate those around us.  Using words as weapons more powerful than bullets, each of us has used words to create reactions from those around us.  This applies to lying, cheating, conning, seducing, begging, preaching and pleading.

We use words and actions efficiently, usually with measures learned from actors from the thousands of TV shows and movies we have senselessly watched.  It has become so rare to find someone who is themselves and not a mix of actors from our past.  From Beyoncé to John Wayne, we all pretend to be someone else to get something from someone else.  In other words, we are all manipulators.  Some of us are very good at this and achieve much success, usually at the expense of others.

What does this have to do with the question Loretta asked?  Let’s take a look.

I suggest that most of us become manipulators because of the countless hours we have been exposed to professional manipulators.  Actors on the screen, lyrics heard in songs, and articles written by agenda-driven writers.  A picture cropped just right can tell two completely different stories. Manipulation is everywhere.

So what happens in a stall or a field with a horse?  First, we try to manipulate the horse.  How well is that working for you?

Horses have yet to be exposed to our style of learning things.  Their rules of engagement are entirely different from humans.  For example, if a colt gets fresh with a filly and nips her, does she run to Mommy?  Usually not.  She settles it right then and there or ends up lower on the herd’s pecking order.

Leadership v Dominance

How is the pecking order in a herd determined?  Through leadership. However, many confuse the word leadership with dominance.  They are not related at all, but often dominant bullies become the “leader” through strength and assertion.  Depending on the power of the following crowd, this dominant leader will last a long time (weak followers) or quickly be relieved from the leadership position (strong followers challenge the position).  As a result, the dynamic between the individuals in the herd is tense, uneasy, and quick to change, with tension being standard.

In Loretta’s question, is there leadership?  Or is it a herd led by a poor leader?  It is essential to understand one concept of life according to the horse.  It is irrefutable that the horse includes the owner, the trainer, the vet, the farrier, and every other human that comes into its’ life as part of its herd.  And in every herd, there is always a leader.  Here is the catch – not every person or horse is a good leader.  Let’s look at some definitions.

A good leader empowers those around them to do more than the followers think they can do.  A good leader clearly describes the end goal of a project (or a life or a relationship).  A good leader is also willing to help those around them not only be on board with the goal but also help them learn the skills necessary to play their part in achieving that goal.  The goal is usually in everyone’s best interest, and the leader gains something only when those around him also gain.

A bad leader dominates those around them and demands things they may be incapable of achieving.  Then, rather than support them, they denigrate them through physical or mental means.  While the lousy leader may have a clear goal, the goal is usually self-serving and doesn’t inspire those around him.  He’s in it for himself and doesn’t care about those helping him.

There are four possible combinations of leadership between a horse and a human.

Horse good leader / Human good leader |Horse poor leader / Human good leader
Horse good leader / Human poor leader |Horse poor leader / Human poor leader

The horse is a good leader, and the human is a poor leader: This combination has much frustration for both parties because the good leader wants desperately to lead the human, but the human isn’t listening.  Bad leaders never listen or listen poorly.  How frustrated do you become when those around you either don’t listen or dismiss what you say because it doesn’t fit their agenda?  The horse usually loses in this combination and is called dangerous or unworkable. The horse fights back, and the human gives up and gets rid of the horse.

The horse is a poor leader, and the human is a good leader: This combination also leads to frustration depending on how good the human’s leadership abilities are.  The better they are, the better the relationship will be.  Unfortunately, this combination causes the fighting between my associate and me as we fight over who gets to work on the stallion.  Most stallions have some sort of leadership, good or bad, that exceeds most geldings and mares due to the testosterone hormone that causes stallions to become more assertive.  Leaders love bold horses because much communication is exchanged, allowing for easy engagement with tremendous success.

The horse is a good leader, and so is the human: We all live for this relationship as long as both parties agree on the goal.  If not, then there can be some tension.  But I’ll give you all a hint here.  Good leaders empower those around them, so as long as there is good communication, and there always is with good leaders, then compromises can be reached.  When I work on a horse with good leadership, I often say to them, in plain English, that I respect them and that I only need a short time of cooperation to do this one thing.  I am clear on what I will be doing, the goal of this effort, and the benefits he will receive.  Many owners are amazed as the usually fractious stallion stands there while I float the teeth, walks me to the door when done and thanks me for my time.  It is freaky and addictive to become a better horseman.

The horse and human are both poor leaders: This combination leads to chaos and unpredictable behavior.  Unfortunately, it is the most common combination at the root of Loretta’s question.  What would happen if humans improved their leadership in this combination?  The horse would look to her for direction when something new appeared.  But there really is something more to this, which isn’t that simple.

Continued in part 2 next week…

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