Ask A Teamster Who's the Boss part 2

Ask A Teamster: Who’s the Boss? part 2

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


In Who’s the Boss? part 1 (Small Farmers Journal, Fall 2008, Vol. 32, No. 4) I addressed the following topics: A Kinder Gentler Way (Traditional Horsemanship versus Natural Horsemanship) and The Importance of Being the Boss (For Safety, For Consistency, For a Pleasant Comfortable Relationship, Dominance and Leadership in Horses). Since some time has passed I suggest re-reading part one before continuing here with part two.

I’ll continue here with a discussion about the essential role of trust in our relationships with horses and other equines.

Ask A Teamster Who's the Boss part 2
A mule with trust, respect and no fear choosing to stand for the leader.


One of the primary goals of natural horsemanship is to get our horses to trust us 100 percent. Great horsemen and horsewomen throughout history have known that in order to become truly and completely accepted as a friend, companion, boss, leader, and/or trainer to any equine we must first gain the animal’s trust. In his book, Colt Training, Jesse Beery, the famous 19th century horse gentler/trainer, author, and founder of the Jesse Beery School of Horsemanship states, “The first lesson we give a colt is simply to teach it to have confidence in us and that we are its best friend and don’t intend to hurt it.”

Why is earning and maintaining the complete trust of our horses so important? There are several reasons, the first of which for me is safety. Just as I talked about with dominance, a horse that is forced to accept things and do as he’s asked by the use of intimidation, punishment, and often pain, will learn to behave, comply, and perform to avoid those harsh consequences. His motivation is fear of punishment and he will never trust completely or perform as willingly and comfortably as a horse with complete trust developed through the principles and techniques of natural horsemanship.

I see and work with horses like this all the time. Many of them are considered to be well broke and often have worked in harness for years. But what do you think happens with such horses when something frightens them more than their fear of the punishment they know they will receive for not complying? That’s when they fight or flee – two behaviors that can be tremendously dangerous to them, to us, and anyone around us.

Conversely, horses who completely trust and respect another horse – or human – will look to that leader and do as the leader does when something frightens them. When the leader tells them to stand, the horses will stand because of their trust in and respect for their leader. When the leader tells them to move, they will move because of that same trust and respect. If the leader stays calm, the horses are calmed. If the leader becomes frightened the other horses do so as well.

What is trust?

I believe 100 percent trust goes well beyond a mere lack of fear. Trust means complete trust in and reliance on the leader. Trust means depending on, relying on, having faith in, counting on, and having confidence in another being. Ultimately, trust also means the freedom to act without fear of harsh consequences.

What does 100 percent trust look like? When an equine truly trusts and respects you, he will follow you anywhere because he feels safe and protected by you. He relies on you to not get hurt – essentially trusting you with his life. He trusts that you won’t force him to do something he can’t handle, but will instead lead him through it, or break it down into small steps he can handle, or leave it for now and instead ask him to do something he can willingly and comfortably do.

He trusts that you won’t be unreasonable (by his definition). He trusts that you will start with soft verbal and physical cues, and gradually strengthen your messages, if necessary, to give him a chance to respond rather than surprising him with harsh demands. He trusts you will tell him yes, or no, or to go away, and so on, in a reasonable way that he (and other horses) can understand. He trusts that you will ask for what you want in a reasonable way and give him a choice and time to respond, or not. He trusts there will be no unreasonable consequences or harsh, inconsiderate surprises from you.

With horses (and people) I believe we should be aware of trust as it relates to both physical comfort and safety, and to psychological and emotional comfort and safety as well.

How do we earn and keep 100 percent trust? Real communication and trust is established between human and horse largely through touch. We earn and keep trust by using gentle, soothing touch and sounds. By not lying to horses, by being honest, consistent, quiet, dependable, patient, playful, and paying attention – the way they do if they trust and respect us. We earn and keep trust by immediately rewarding appropriate responses, and behavior – even if at first they just try, reward the “try.” By staying engaged in “conversation” and communication with them, horses are constantly “talking to us” – that is, communicating with us. They are always asking questions and telling us how they feel about things. Things like, “This is too much for me, I can’t handle it, help me,” “I want, I don’t want, I like this, I don’t like this, I’m curious, I’m afraid of that, etc.” We earn and keep trust when we eliminate our fear, impatience, or anger, and by never getting upset or holding a grudge.

How do we damage trust? We damage trust through inconsistency, confusion, harshness, anxiousness, impatience, speed, anger, force, violence, pain, and fear. We damage trust when we ask for too much, too fast, and too soon. We damage trust when we ignore their instinctive fears, such as the fear of entrapment, or we make them claustrophobic, or cause them to flee to avoid pain or – in their minds – death. We also damage trust when we ask a young horse to do the same thing again – right away – after he has already done it for us once.

It’s always a mistake and very damaging when we blame the horse. Whenever things are not going the way you want with a horse ask yourself, what am I doing or not doing that is causing or contributing to this situation?

We can trust horses to be horses: They are flight animals, timid, fearful, claustrophobic, curious and playful. They are gregarious herd animals that need companionship and become uncomfortable alone. They are easily dominated, need a leader, and are comfort seekers. They communicate their feelings openly and honestly, don’t lie, easily become excited and anxious. They have an amazing ability to put aside fearful responses once they learn a frightening stimulus is harmless.

Unfortunately, horses can typically trust people to be variously impatient, in a hurry, inconsistent, confusing, emotionally variable or volatile, quick, loud, demanding, controlling, forceful, harsh, violent, distracted, and not in the moment.

What horses really need in order to trust is for us to be patient, slow and deliberate, consistent, emotionally stable and positive (or at least neutral), non-violent, accepting, understanding, attentive, in the moment, honest – and everything listed under the section called, “How do we earn and keep 100 percent trust?”

The history of traditional horsemanship leaves no doubt that horses, mules and donkeys can be made to respect us and do as we ask through the use of harshness, intimidation, force, punishment and pain. Such practices, however, cannot produce the levels of trust we achieve using the gentle principles and techniques of natural horsemanship.

Residual memories of harsh treatment, a measure of associated fear, and a level of mistrust — if not outright resentment — will always reside somewhere in the far reaches of the equine brain. Over 2500 years ago the great Greek horse master, Xenophon, laid down the golden rule of horsemanship – “Horses are taught, not by harshness, but by gentleness.”

Force and harsh training methods might make an animal respect us and do as we ask, but force cannot make any animal, including humans, like or trust us. If we want horses to completely trust us, we must consistently behave and treat them in ways that convince them we are trustworthy, reasonable, and safe to be with at all times. Even then, equines regularly require us to reaffirm our trustworthiness from one day to the next – sometimes from moment to moment – just as they do with dominance.

As with dominance, trustworthiness is best communicated to horses by appropriately and consistently mimicking their behavior and body language. Monty Roberts, master of the round pen states, “Communicating in the horse’s own language establishes trust. Once we have trust the whole process of learning is accelerated.”

However, no matter how well we learn and mimic the gestures, postures, angles, distances, movements, and timing of equine body language, we need to consider other critical components for success. We will not be perceived as trustworthy by horses until we consistently and consciously have the appropriate attitude, perceptions, opinions, and emotions around them. It’s not enough to “fake it,” although while we’re learning to master these difficult skills we may need to start by faking it. I have long ago forgotten the source of a favorite quote, “We are always sending external and internal messages to our horses – they always hear the internal messages the loudest.”

Building trust

Maintaining a positive attitude, visualizing success, adopting the perception that “there are no problems with horses, only opportunities,” and staying emotionally positive – or at least neutral – with horses are huge challenges. However, they produce amazing results.

Noted natural horsemanship trainer and clinician, Mark Rashid, on trust: “… the three things we found that helped more than anything else in keeping their trust were to be quiet, consistent, and dependable at all times – much like that passive leader that horses choose to follow when they live in a herd.” The term “passive leader,” which Mark coined, refers to a leader who does not gain the position of dominance by intimidation, force, or fighting but instead by remaining calm and finding quiet solutions to problems. As Mark explains, “… the leader that other horses want to be around and look up to.”

It is very easy to unconsciously interfere with gaining a horse’s trust by letting things like inconsistency, confusion, harshness, impatience, speed, anger, force, and/or pain slip into our interactions with them. These behaviors will just as quickly violate the trust you’ve already established with your horse. “Every time you break trust it becomes harder to build up again,” said Monty Roberts. With mules, establishing and maintaining trust can often be even more challenging than with horses since they tend to be more suspicious, self-protective, and less forgiving than horses.

The challenge with trust

A couple of factors make it very challenging for equines to trust humans. First, like many other prey animals, horses are by nature extremely timid, suspicious, and fearful creatures – basically cowards. Since horses have no formidable weapons such as horns, sharp teeth, or tusks, they have evolved and survived predation for eons by jumping and fleeing at the first hint of possible threat. Better to flee unnecessarily from a false alarm than to hesitate and be eaten. Those that spooked and ran the soonest, fastest, and farthest were most apt to survive – and pass those tendencies to their offspring. In the psyche of horses everything, they encounter is suspect until it proves itself to be otherwise. This includes well-intentioned humans.

Because horses have no “real” weapons, they have evolved into the ultimate flight animal. They have incredible memories and categorize everything as either “things to run away from” or “things not to run away from.”

Second, although we hear about horses and other equines being afraid of predators, it is actually predator-like behavior that frightens them. When lions have full bellies and are lounging about with no intention of hunting, Zebras will graze and hang out quite close to them. But let a lion get up, stretch, and start thinking Zebra steak, and the Zebra heads come up and the feet start making tracks.

Despite our enchantment with, attraction to, and affection for horses, we humans typically do a poor job of hiding the fact that we are the ultimate predator. Though we may not think of ourselves as looking and behaving like predators, we don’t fool horses one little bit. After all, humans hunted horses for food for over 100,000 years before domesticating them only 6,000 years ago. It’s obvious to horses that we look, think, and act like predators, and we remain suspect in their minds until we thoroughly convince them otherwise.

We can convince them otherwise and earn their trust by consciously thinking, speaking and behaving in non-threatening ways. Dr. Robert M. Miller, widely respected guru of the natural horsemanship movement says three things that damage trust and sabotage our ability to work with horses are impatience, fear, and anger. He asserts that if you start to feel any of these emotions when working with horses, STOP immediately and walk away until you get your emotions under control. Don’t get angry with the horses. It’s not their fault that someone made them afraid – perhaps you inadvertently did it. Avoid aggressive fear at all cost.

It is very hard for people to free themselves of such emotions or to STOP once they have committed themselves to a particular goal for the day. However, as practitioners of natural horsemanship we must consciously train and discipline ourselves to stop without hesitation when necessary.

One beautiful fall day as I started spreading manure with a team it became obvious I had little patience for the mare who, on that particular day, was anxious and pushing hard on the bit. I’m certain her behavior reflected my internal state. I soon realized that my efforts to relax, be patient, use finesse, and stick to the principles of natural horsemanship were about to fail – so I unhitched and put the horses away rather than subject them to my impatience, or worse.

Pat Parelli, who coined and popularized the term natural horsemanship states, “The attitude of a natural horseman is that principles are more important than the purpose – that adjusting to fit the situation is more important than rules.” My original purpose that day was to spread manure, but I quit rather than jeopardize my relationship with my horses and their trust of me. In his book, “The Art of Horsemanship,” Xenephon states, “The one great precept and practice in using a horse is this – never deal with him when you are in a fit of passion.”

Learning to skillfully use our bodies to mimic equine body language and behavior is a great accomplishment, and if we can add to that the mastery of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, we have the potential to take horsemanship to amazing heights.


Maintaining an appropriate mixture and balance of attention to trust, respect, dominance and leadership with horses is an ongoing and endless process.

Whenever I’m around horses and mules I am constantly asking for them to trust me and accept things that I do, but I’m also asking them to do some things and telling them not to do others. This is all accompanied by appropriate rewards or consequences based on their responses. I often refer to this as “training every minute” and it is definitely the most important aspect of “training” that I do. It happens in the moment and in every moment, but it is far more than simply training. I want it to mimic the communications and interactions that horses in a group have constantly with that ‘passive leader’ that Mark Rashid writes about.

One minute I either take advantage of an opportunity or create one to strengthen the trust, friendship, and companionship aspect of our relationship. The next moment might involve working on respect and leadership. Generally this happens as part of my daily chores and time around the horses rather than in a formal training session. It typically involves only a few moments at a time on any given “conversation,” but is actually a continuous interaction and “discussion” process. I believe this type of communication and interaction is the most important training we can do, because when trust, respect, and leadership are an integral part of all our time with horses, then willingness and cooperation become a way of life.

My teacher Monty

Many years ago, I learned a lot about mixing and balancing messages of respect and dominance with friendship and trust builders from a Quarter Horse named Monty. Before 5-year-old Monty came to live at the ranch, he’d been owned and ridden most of his life by a young girl. During his time with her they rode trails together but he had very little contact with other horses. Consequently, Monty’s social skills with other horses were a bit crude. But he had no issues trusting humans and was basically a gentle, fairly well broke horse when being caught, led, tied, or ridden. However, when he was turned loose it was a different story – especially if feed was involved.

The first time I went out with hay to feed the bunch he was with, he warned the other horses off and came charging toward the hay cart. He needn’t have warned the others to stay back as they were trained to do so, and I’d already reminded them with body language. The other horses all heeded my request but Monty had no intention of letting me be the boss of the feed.

As he galloped towards me I snapped my eyes on his and faced squarely at him. Seeing that it would take much more to turn him I puffed up, threw my arms up with fingers spread and made erratic, predator-like body and arm movements – all the while staring directly into his eyes and confidently advancing towards him. When Monty was about twenty feet from me, he finally hesitated slightly. Still advancing, I threw my hat at him. It missed him, of course, but surprised him enough that he took me more seriously. In a flash he spun, jumped ahead, and kicked out behind in my direction with both hind feet.

I soon realized that the turn, jump, and kick maneuver was Monty’s distinctive way of expressing his displeasure and defiance – and a very dangerous one at that. This was a scene that was replayed in various forms and degrees over the next few weeks, as he repeatedly challenged me and just as often learned that he would not be the boss of the hay, or anything else when I was present.

Monty quickly became first in the herd pecking order (dominant), and watching him boss the other horses in various situations taught me techniques that I then used to my advantage on him. For example, after hay was distributed across the meadow in more piles than there were horses, Monty would go from pile to pile taste testing them all, and leaving a wake of displaced horses to find a new pile to munch on. Then from time to time he would stop eating and move to another pile for no apparent reason other than to remind its occupants that he was in charge and could move them any time he wanted. Many times this involved his characteristic charging up, spinning around, and “firing with both barrels.”

The other horses quickly learned to move off as soon as Monty started in their direction, made eye contact, put his ears back, dropped his head and “snaked” it back and forth at them. By responding, early they avoided more aggressive behavior on his part, and at the same time conserved energy and adrenalin.

Soon I began to do the same things with him that he was doing to the others – making him leave the hay he was eating for no reason except to cause him to submit. And when he roughly chased another horse off of a pile I would drive him away from it and sometimes keep doing it with each pile he went to. If he was particularly mean to them I would keep him away from all the piles while they ate, and not let him eat at all until he became humble.

After he started moving away when asked “without complaining,” I started expressing approval with a verbal “good boy.” Gradually and with consistency and persistence on my part his reactions to my bossing him became less resentful and determined.

As things continued to improve with respect and dominance and leadership, I found more and more opportunities to reward him for appropriate behavior and work on our friendship and companionship. I did this by approaching him with a non-threatening, non-dominant, non-go-away attitude and body language – casual, indirect approach rather than straight line; looking at the ground rather than at his eyes; hands together at my waist with fingers closed; relaxed and comfortable posture and gait. I would approach his shoulder, pause till he sniffed me, then pet him, and talk softly. Sometimes he would walk off in spite of my using appropriate body language to ask him to stay and let me approach. At those times I would immediately switch to drive-him-away mode as a consequence of his moving when I had asked him not to move.

Remember that dominance and leadership among horses is attained by controlling the movement of other animals in the herd. It may seem illogical to drive a horse away when what you really want is for them to stay and let you approach, but that’s how you gently tell him he made a wrong choice – needs to comply with your requests.

I would follow him to let him know he could not avoid dealing with me. If he turned and looked at me I immediately broke eye contact, dropped my head and shoulders, closed my hands and brought them to my waist, and turned away at a 45 degree angle. In essence, I was inviting him to come to me.

If he chose to come he got rubbed, if not I would go to him indirectly and passively. If he stayed and let me touch and talk to him we were done, if he walked away again I resumed my pursuit. Since I remained emotionally neutral no matter what happened, it was for me a pleasant game – quality time with a good horse – a normal horse.

With Monty, as with all horses, I was not just looking for compliance, but also willingness and a good attitude. I played my games with Monty for many years as I do with all of my horses and mules. He was a good horse but he was not easy. That’s why he was a great teacher.

Doc Hammill D.V.M.

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