Ask A Teamster Who's the Boss part 1

Ask A Teamster: Who’s the Boss? part 1

Gently Becoming Your Horse’s Trusted and Respected Leader

by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana


Hello Doc,

First, let me thank you for all the help you have given me through your horsemanship video series. The information has made a difference in the way I interact with horses. I recently realized an adult dream by purchasing a well trained 12 year old Suffolk mare. I used her to plow my garden plot this spring, to harrow her pasture on a forecart, and have driven her for pleasure. I know she was well trained in ground work and in harness when I purchased her, but apparently this training thing takes more maintenance than I know how to do. There are some unwanted behaviors that are creeping into her repertoire. For instance, walking up on me when I am leading her, crowding into my space when I have feed for her, avoiding me as I go to catch her with the halter (by turning her head away and walking off). These behaviors in themselves are not a big deal but I get the feeling they are increasing.

I’ve never considered myself a horse trainer and I don’t know what to do about these behaviors. I grew up in a family that had horses. The common horse discipline was physical and quite harsh. And frankly, I was so uncomfortable with the harsh training measures that I avoided discipline with my horses. From a young age I have felt there could be a better way. I’m again avoiding discipline with this horse and the consequence is behaviors that are becoming unpleasant and I suspect could become unsafe. Sadie is a nice mare and I enjoy being around her but I don’t know how to manage these behaviors.

Doc, I know you are a practitioner of natural horsemanship, would it help me with this horse?

Thanks, Jean


Hi Jean,

I appreciate your kind comments. What you are experiencing is natural, normal behavior for horses among their own kind – that is to challenge authority and try to have things their way, and ultimately become the “boss.” That way they can do what they want to, and not do what they don’t want to do. Isn’t that the way we’d like it for ourselves too? You are right, as horses increasingly “test the water” and find out they can have things their way, inappropriate behavior escalates.

I commend you for realizing as a child that there could be a better way than disciplining horses with harshness and force. However, as you are experiencing it is also inappropriate to go to the opposite extreme and make our horses gentle but not respectful. We now know that what has come to be called natural horsemanship is that kinder, gentler, better way. Volumes have been written about the ancient principles that natural horsemanship embraces today. I will share some of my perspectives on the subject with you in detail here, and also refer you to my recently completed DVD set “Gentle Training –The Round Pen” where you can see these principles and techniques in action.


For horses being part of a group and interacting with others in the group is very important for comfort and safety. It is natural and important for horses to both rely on a leader and to have trusted companionship. We can be a friend and companion to our horses, but only if we earn and keep their trust. One of the primary principles and goals of Natural Horsemanship is 100% trust (others are 100% respect and 0% fear). It’s relatively easy to gain a horse’s trust if we use their language and logic and play by horse rules rather than trying to communicate and behave in ways that are natural and seem logical to us as humans.


For centuries horses have been controlled by humans and made to work and perform for them through the use of intimidation, force and often painful punishment. There is no question but what these coercive methods do work. Countless horses and mules that have served man for work, war and recreation over the last 6,000 years, and multitudes of performance champions have been trained this way as well. They attest to the success of these “traditional” methods. However, horses and mules trained with such heavily coercive methods always end up with some level of mistrust and fear of humans in their minds. On the outside they are usually friendly, perhaps they even act loving, but horses have incredible memories. They simply do not forget things – especially if it involves fright or pain. Unfortunately, most horses are still trained and used this way today.

Once handled and trained by intimidation it is typically necessary to revert to coercion from time to time to re-convince the horse to cooperate. There is, of course, the moral issue of humane or inhumane treatment, but we will put that aside for now. Consider instead that many, if not most, of the equines that have been taught to behave and perform through the use of intimidation, coercion, force, punishment, and pain are considered to be generally well behaved, trained (broke), and safe. Deep inside, the reason they behave and perform well is because they have been shown and remember and fear what will happen to them if they don’t. But what about when something happens that is more upsetting, more frightening, or more painful than the punishment they have been conditioned to expect if they don’t ignore that something and behave/perform? Once frightened beyond that point we are at risk of having them ignore their training, abandon all reason, and flee or fight. Once horses become confused, upset or fearful beyond a certain point they CANNOT reason, learn, or obey. Escape can become an irresistible impulse, a reflex reaction, a shortcut that bypasses all reason. In my opinion it is extremely unfortunate when humans try to control and boss horses in ways that make perfect sense to the people, but make no sense whatsoever to the horses – it happens all the time. Fortunately, rapidly growing numbers of Natural Horsemanship converts are proving that there is a kinder, gentler, safer, better way.


Since antiquity, in all cultures with horses, there have been certain rare humans who have exhibited extraordinary abilities with horses. In the past such “power over horses” has been looked upon as an inborn gift, and often considered to border on magic or even be supernatural. Such individuals have been referred to as “horse tamers,’ ‘horse gentlers,” and “horse whisperers.” More recently this art has been revealed as a learnable, teachable skill, based upon subtle communication with horses. The “magic”, it turns out, is to use their silent body language and to interact according to the principles of their nature. By gently doing so it is possible to very quickly gain their trust, their respect, and their cooperation. With Natural Horsemanship horses are persuaded and rewarded rather than intimidated, coerced and forced. To truly understand horses it is imperative that we not only learn and use their language, but that we also understand flight and dominance in horses.

At this time in history the widespread understanding and application of these ancient secrets has resulted in what noted veterinarian, animal behaviorist, author and clinician Robert M. Miller DVM has labeled, “The Revolution in Horsemanship:

“Originating in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, a revolution in horsemanship has swept the country, and has reached the far corners of the earth. Actually there is nothing new about the kind of horsemanship we are talking about. It has always been used by some talented horsemen; but, now for the first time, this non-confrontational, humane, swift, and effective training philosophy is becoming popular worldwide. Why? It is because today’s horse owners are better educated, more receptive to the science of psychology, and because of the information explosion that is occurring in most technologies.

“Video, publications, and jet travel which allows clinicians to travel rapidly are spreading the word. Below are some of the better known trainers who are masters at behavior-shaping in the horse. These people have produced books and videos and also do clinics all over the world.

“If you are involved with horses, professionally or for recreation, I urge you to become familiar with as many of these fine horsemen as possible. After 6,000 years of domestication, these people are advancing the art of horsemanship so rapidly that most of the traditional methods of the past have become obsolete.

“This list is by no means complete. There are other progressive horsemen, but it is my policy to only recommend those whom I have personally seen work with horses and students, and are using scientifically correct training methods, rather than various traditional techniques.”

(For Dr. Millers list please refer to the back of his book, “The Revolution in Horsemanship.”)

As we proceed more of the principles and techniques of Natural Horsemanship will be explained.


FOR SAFETY: For me this is the big reason. No matter how sweet your horse is most of the time, how much you love him, or how well “broke” she is, any horse that gets away with dominant behavior towards you and/or other humans is a danger and a liability. Far too many horse owners do not even recognize the initially subtle communications from their horses that are at first just floating a question, “I wonder if I can do as I please today?” And then, after progressively concluding that since repeatedly no one has said no, “I guess I am the boss (dominant) today.” This can be as simple and subtle as the horse taking a step towards you when you are at her side grooming. If you take a step back and keep grooming you have told the horse, “I will move for you. You can control my movement. You are the boss.” However, if you make the horse step back away from you, or better yet prevent her from moving in the first place, then you have said, “I control your movement. Do not move without my permission. I am the boss (leader).”

People often unconsciously send signs of submission to their horses – it can be as simple as diverting your eyes at the wrong time. Doing so invites challenges and dominant behavior, and tells horses they can do as they please with us. Ultimately it can become dangerous.

Our horses are constantly “talking to us” – telling us how they feel about things and asking us questions. Unfortunately, many folks miss all but the most obvious and extreme of these communications, and then wonder why their horse suddenly and unexpectedly misbehaves. Most of the time the horse has actually been questioning, asking, complaining, warning, etc. for some time before they decide they are apparently free to do as they want. As you know, horses that don’t pay attention to and heed warnings from other horses higher on the pecking order can ultimately be the recipient of aggressive biting or kicking. We too should expect to receive such treatment sooner or later if we don’t notice, understand, and counteract their earliest attempts to test our dominance (leadership) over them. Be assured that all such challenging behavior will eventually show up in harness or under saddle if allowed to go unchecked on the ground.

Horses that do not accept their human as the leader (dominant, boss) develop the habit of repeatedly trying to make their own choices on the ground and while being driven or ridden – an aggravating and often dangerous situation for both horses and people. Trust, respect, and acceptance of us as the leader (boss) are all best developed and made rock solid with ground work, and then reinforced continuously and maintained when driving or riding. If a horse or mule does not comfortably and completely trust us, and willingly and completely respect and obey us on the ground, why would we expect them to do so when hitched to some contraption with us attempting to control them from behind? Far too often we torment our equine partners and ourselves by neglecting this all important leader/follower part of the relationship.

When we are truly looked upon as their leader our horses are safer because in horse society all the horses in a given group take their cues from the leader.

FOR CONSISTENCY: Any relationship works best when all parties know what the rules are and interact in consistent ways with one another. Constantly adhering to the principles of gentle/natural horsemanship, for example, makes it very clear to horses that they can trust us not to use coercion, excessive force, or cause them pain – but also that there will consistently be gentle consequences for misbehavior, challenging our leadership (dominance), or not doing as we ask. The key is for us to be communicating to and with them at all times – this includes paying attention to their communications to us. They are always expressing themselves, asking us questions, and generally “talking” to us. By constantly and consistently giving horses gentle reminders of what behavior or performance is desired, and who is in charge, we help them resist the temptation to make little choices on their own. Those little choices have a way of growing into bigger choices which can quickly lead to behavior that doesn’t work for us, or them, and might be unsafe.

It is unreasonable to expect horses to not try to do what they want to do. Nor is it reasonable to expect them to want to do what they don’t want to do (have you noticed people are like this too?) The longer we wait to remind them that we are calling the shots, the more they think about what they want to do (or don’t want to do), then they hope to do it (or not), then they assume it’s okay to do it (or not), and then they do it (or not do it). Things work best when we are diligent about communicating yes (approval/pleasure) or no (disapproval/displeasure) to them. This needs to be done early on and in ways that make sense to them, that they understand, and that they know how to respond to. In other words, we need to use their language and logic. This is what the leader of any herd or group of horses does. If we don’t do this then we are at fault when they try to do things their own way.

If we are inconsistent in how we communicate and relate to our horses – asking them to accept us as the boss (leader) part of the time and letting them do as they please and/or boss us at other times – they easily become confused. They often become resentful, resistant and challenge us when we try to be the boss again. Remember, them doing as they please and/or trying to boss us can be very subtle early on. There is an important distinction to be made here. I don’t want to give the impression that I am militant about controlling every move my horses make. But, like the leader in any group of horses, I do try diligently to keep them informed of when I want their attention and when I don’t, when I want them to do something and when I don’t, when they can move and when they cannot, when their behavior is acceptable and when it’s not, etc., etc., etc. As the boss I consider it my responsibility to constantly keep them appraised of how they are doing. This means rewarding them for desired behavior and performance, and preventing or creating a consequence for undesired behavior/performance. If I communicate with them gently, early, clearly, and consistently there are usually discussions rather than upsets or battles. If I wait too long to ask, remind or correct, then things easily get frustrating or even ugly. Being the boss is not always easy, but it is vastly preferable to ongoing challenges – sometimes even battles – over who is really the boss.


Horses that are accustomed to, accepting of, and comfortable with, humans dominating them are not only safer, more respectful, and less apt to challenge our leadership, but are also easier to care for and work with. If you doubt this ask a farrier, veterinarian, or horse trainer for their opinion. However, this it not necessarily the case if they are accustomed to being dominated by the use of intimidation, excessive force and/or physical punishment.


There is more cooperation and less conflict when horses know what the rules are and that you are the boss – a gentle boss who consistently behaves in ways that make sense to them even if they don’t particularly like what they are being asked to do or put up with. Having a relationship that is comfortable and successful for both you and your equine partner(s) – whether your animals are youngsters, seasoned performers, retirees, pets, or whatever – is dependent upon you being the leader (boss), and upon you making sure that the rules and boundaries are appropriate, clearly understood, and consistently maintained. That way you can have fun and play together instead of fighting on the playground.


Webster defines dominate as, “to rule, control, sway, be the most powerful or influential member or part of something;” and leadership as, “the act of guiding, persuading, or directing.” Submissiveness,” is defined as, “compliant, obedient.” For many people the terms dominance and dominate have connotations of intimidation, aggressiveness, coercion, force and even cruelty. Leadership, on the other hand, suggests a more positive and amicable arrangement.

Regardless of terminology, dominance and leadership are important concepts and a way of life in any group of horses. Although horses are by nature friendly, gregarious herd animals that live in groups and tend to be willing and cooperative, they all operate under a strict system of dominance and submission. It is completely natural and normal for horses to be dominated by and try to dominate other horses, and it is unreasonable to expect them to interact otherwise when dealing with us. In general, horses are easily dominated but they do vary in their individual determination to dominate and their willingness or reluctance to be dominated (submit). It’s important to understand that horses don’t really do things for us merely because they like us or just because we are nice to them, but rather out of submissiveness and respect. The test of this comes when horses that are gentle and affectionate but lack respect are asked to do something they really don’t want to do. How many horses like that have you seen that refused to willingly follow their trusted owners into a horse trailer – that would not even go in for a coveted bait of grain? To truly understand horse behavior, and to be able to gently and skillfully influence, control, and reshape behavior in our horses, it is essential that we understand how horses conduct this dominance/submissiveness (pecking order) and leader/follower business.

The pecking order within any group of equines is a dynamic, shifting, changing set of dominance relationships. A horse, mule or donkey may be dominate over another at one time, or in a particular circumstance, but subordinate (or equal) in another. Individuals are constantly testing and challenging other herd members in attempts to move upward in the hierarchy. They regularly test us too, giving us frequent opportunities to prove we are worthy of bossing them, or not worthy. The pecking order was formerly considered to be a rigid, linear (#1, #2, #3, etc.) system but it turns out to be much more complex than that. At one time in my own small herd Monty was dominant over Barney. Barney was dominant over Misty and all the other horses. Misty was also dominant over all of those other horses that Barney dominated. However, although Monty dominated Barney and Barney dominated Misty, Misty was dominant over Monty. To top it off, Dillon who never challenged another horse, and was always on the bottom of the pecking order, had a special affiliation with Monty. Though Monty threatened and was mean to all the other horses he never bothered Dillon. He allowed Dillon to be close to him, and let Dillon eat at piles of hay that he otherwise claimed for himself.

Once we understand the language and behavior horses use to negotiate their dominance/submissiveness relationships it becomes relatively easy for us to mimic what they do and thereby gently and effectively dominate and control them. But first, perhaps we should decide what type of dominant horse behavior we want to emulate. Do we want to imitate the horses that dominate and control other herd members by intimidation, coercion, meanness, force, and pain? Or, do we want to mimic the behavior of equine leaders that other horses willingly respond to, follow, and defer to because those leaders are gently persuasive, wise, and make good choices for the group? Which type of boss would you prefer? Which type do you think your horse would be most apt to trust and cooperate with?

In a band of horses the true leader is most often a mare – generally a wise, experienced, older survivor. Leadership among horses is not determined by strength or gender but rather by life experience. In a natural family group or band of horses the stallion’s job is to herd the mares and keep them together. The lead mare is up front leading the group and the stallion is herding them from behind.

In any bunch of horses, as with all other animals that live in groups, the order of leadership (dominance) is established by controlling movement. The reason we as a weaker species don’t have to physically overpower or inflict pain to dominate horses is because in horse society the hierarchy is based upon controlling the other animal’s movements. Animals that stay in groups will attach to surrogates and we can become a surrogate to horses. As a “one of the herd,” so to speak, we can become a friend, affiliate, boss, and leader to horses even though we are a different species and much smaller, weaker, slower than horses.

To be continued…

Doc Hammill D.V.M.

Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series.