Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party. People are milling about with their drinks, making small talk in low voices as jazz music plays in the background. You’ve just met a lot of these folks and suddenly, you start whistling and tapping your glass and, once you’ve got the attention of the room, you explain to everyone that you’re the leader of the party and all must obey you and follow your lead or you will whack them into line.

Yikes. You won’t leave that party as its most beloved attendee. And you probably won’t be invited back … ever again.

But that’s essentially what you need to do with horses if you want to establish good relationships with them, because—as we’ve discussed in our last two blogs on pecking order—horses build relationships on respect and structured hierarchy, rather than likeability.

Part of being a good horseman or woman is understanding how horses think and using that knowledge to give your horse the structure he needs. While it might not work so well in human circles, establishing dominance with your horse is a necessary step toward building a relationship with him.

You two may have a partnership, but to your horse, there is always going to be a leader and a follower in that partnership—and the leader had better be you. Establishing dominance with your horse isn’t mean—it’s crucial. You have to show your horse that you are the smarter one who deserves to be the leader. Once he respects you, he’ll be happier to follow you. He’ll even be relieved to know where he stands.

That said, horses continually test the pecking order waters and some do this more than others. They’ll do little things to see what they can get away with, including pushing into your space when you’re leading them, bumping you with their heads and refusing to move or yield to pressure.

When this kind of stuff happens, do not allow it. It is a “give him an inch he’ll take a mile” sort of situation. Remember, as the dominant herd member, you are allowed to invade your horse’s space (politely, of course!) but as the submissive one he is not allowed to invade yours.

Moving or stopping your horse’s feet and changing his direction are all ways to tell him you are higher than he. When he appears to forget the rules about these things, he is testing you.

When he does this, don’t take it personally or get emotional! He is not being naughty but rather engaging in natural behavior, essentially asking for this kind of reassurance! He needs to know that he can depend on his leader to be smart and capable. So it’s not being “mean” to remind your horse about his place and your place. If you nip his tests in the bud, both of you will be happier and your life will be a lot easier in the long run.

If you address each little test with a non-emotional “No, that’s not the rules,” and you are consistent, the tests will grow fewer and subtler over time. He will learn to trust you as a good leader, the Alpha in the herd, and your partnership will grow.

Questions, comments? We’d love to hear your thoughts!