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My horse's equal

From: Sally

Dear Jessica, I haven't been able to get a good answer from anyone on this, so I'm crossing my fingers that you will have time to answer this question.

Can I be my horse's equal? What I mean by that, is can I train my young horse (sixteen-month-old TBxFriesian filly) to be my partner without having to order her around or dominate her. I want to be her friend, not her boss.

My trainer says that I've read Black Beauty too many times.


Hi Sally! How about this for an answer... "Yes and no." ;-)

You need to train your horse like a horse, not like another human. Horses are horses, and function best when understood and handled in terms of their own herd structure -- which is a hierarchical one.

In training terms, that means that although you don't have to dominate your horse in the sense of being her BOSS, you have to be the dominant herd-member in the sense of being her LEADER. In order to be safe, and in order to train your filly well, you need to have her attention and her respect AND HER TRUST.

People who get too concerned with their "alpha" position, and people who misunderstand the "alpha" idea, sometimes think that this means they have an obligation to push their horses around, whack them, yell at them, and generally act in an abusive way. Nothing could be more wrong. The true alpha horse is the lead horse -- the one that the others will follow anywhere, because they TRUST that horse. The best lead horse, like the leader in a military outfit, isn't the individual who makes life unpleasant for everyone else and is always saying "YOU, go THERE, and YOU, go over THERE, and YOU, get out of my way, NOW!" The successful leader is the one who can say "Right, then, come ON!" and start moving in a particular direction without even glancing back, because it's a "given" that everyone else will be following.

You don't have to get involved in a power struggle with your filly. You may have to remind her, once in a while, that you are still in charge, but you can do this quietly and politely. "Louder and meaner" doesn't necessarily equal "more effective", in fact it's usually just the opposite. If you build your filly's trust and confidence in you, so that she respects your leadership and feels comfortable and safe going where you ask her to go and doing what you ask her to do, you'll do just fine. Be clear, be consistent, and always be fair. Whenever you ask your filly to do something, be sure that she's paying attention to you, ask as clearly as you can, give her time to respond, and reward the slightest try.

At sixteen months, your filly is still very young. Take your time training her, give her a chance to grow up, and if possible, see to it that she is turned out with other, compatible horses as often as possible. If her own mother started her off well, and you can turn her out with a couple of older mares who will continue her education (at least in terms of manners and deportment), you'll find that you can slip very easily into the role of leader, because your filly will be looking for a leader, and all you'll have to do is make it clear to her that she's found one. ;-)

And as for your reading material... I recommend that you read "Thinking with Horses" and "Talking With Horses" by Henry Blake, and "The Body Language of Horses" by Tom Ainslie and Bonnie Ledbetter. These books will give you a better understanding of the ways in which horses interact with one another and with humans.

"Black Beauty" is a good book, I've read it quite a few times myself. ;-) And even though it's very anthropomorphic, it makes some excellent points, such as the fact that horses don't mind working hard, but that they become frightened when the demands made on them are unclear, or when there are no rewards, not even a moment of peace and quiet, to tell them when they've done something right, but only punishment. All of those things are true.


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