Aggressive or Assertive?

She was a breathtaking draft-cross mare who I met at Duchess Sanctuary this year. There was just a presence about her that made it impossible to look away. She came up for a closer look but didn’t pander. Standing her ground, there was nothing she wanted from me and I asked nothing of her. I haven’t always had great female role models in my life, but I’ve learned so much from working to understand mare behaviors, that I translate in a somewhat unscientific way, into my experience. This mare was someone; the whole herd had an undeniable strength about them. Intelligent and curious, just the very things I admire most.

I was asked about the difference between aggression and assertiveness. It made me smile; it was a horse training question but a dinosaur feminist like me will always hear those words with nostalgia. Could women be assertive without being called aggressive? Historically women were valued for being quiet and demure with good domestic skills, made even better if you played the piano. Things that some horsewomen flunk out on before we’re even grown, because if you were like me, you wore jeans and learned to drive a tractor before starting grade school.

Classical horse trainers, like James Fillis, wrote that women had frail temperaments, only fit to ride the oldest and dullest of horses, but before you call him misogynist, he also wrote that Italians were too emotional to ride. He apparently felt fine with blanket generalizations.

We almost instinctively judge temperament in people along with their message, and usually women a bit differently than men. A man might be called passionate while a woman might be called temperamental for the same behavior. Now compare your descriptions of Arabians and Quarter Horses. Of dressage and trail riding. Word choice reveals our preferences and prejudices.

Words like aggressive and assertive may fall into a similar category. Are these words interchangeable? I always hear the word aggressive to have an emotion attached, like anger, insecurity, or frustration, whereas assertive has more of a feel of stating your point with clarity, purpose, and perhaps bluntness. Truthfully, both create some level of social discomfort.

I enjoy a spirited, assertive talk; one filled with passion and clarity that challenges my mind to think more deeply about my beliefs. Recently, I listened to a speaker who had a passion for their topic, but somehow it came across aggressively. Listening to that speaker felt a bit like being sent to the principal’s office for a lecture and maybe a paddling. I checked the others sitting around me. We were adults squirming in our chairs; we looked away, checked our phones, or stared at our laps. We acted like we were in detention. The calming signals I saw humans use in that situation were more instructive than the information that I resisted hearing.

In the practice of training horses affirmatively, theoretically, we don’t get aggressive. We shun trainers whose horses show the whites of their eyes or have tense, ringing tails. Again, calming signals seen in the horse’s body language tell the truth, perhaps more than the words of the trainer. We allow ourselves a bit of pride. Instead of fighting with our horses, we aspire to negotiate.

There are certainly exceptions, but if I were to make a Fillis-like generalization, frequently women are passive-aggressive. Perhaps we might have learned it from our mothers, “Honey, are you really going to leave the house looking like that?” Or, “Well, bless her heart, she’s as mean as a snake, God love her.” What does that even mean?

“A passive-aggressive rider keeps all the fighting inside. It starts reasonably with the fear of the things a rider should fear. And there’s no shortage of true danger to consider. Then anxiety creeps in; we think about everything that might happen on the horse but also worry about how we will be judged, especially in our own minds. Then most of us like a little more control than we can have on a horse. But that’s wrong, so we stifle our fear and anxiety. We pretend we aren’t frustrated and that we don’t get angry. We say we have no ego, but instead, we have an unsteady center of worry, anxiety, and regret. With a dollop of compulsive apology on top, and the cherry of self-loathing that we all learned as teenagers.”

The biggest challenge we have as riders is to find the middle path in this world of chaos and extremes. Where is the sweet spot between being an aggressive monster and a passive-aggressive bowl of worried oatmeal? The balance between blustery non-stop lecture-training and listening so hard that we are silent non-participants?

Both extremes aren’t helpful to horses and they don’t care much about word choice, they read body language. Humans can be a bit contradictory; we smile when we aren’t happy, and that’s just the start. Word choice should matter to us. If we could tack our behaviors to a word, maybe we could demonstrate more consistency.

I believe how we cue is more important than what we cue. In dressage, we believe the art of riding exists in a calm and energetic transition. Most horses don’t have all that much opinion about trotting but they do care how they are asked. If the cue causes fear or anxiety in the horse, he’ll be tense and physically uncomfortable. With such a jagged cue resulting in an unbalanced gait, a horse is more likely to spook or injure himself with a bad step. If the cue is too mumbled, mushy, or vague it’s possible they’ll be confused and just ignore it. Then if we nag it just dulls the cue more. Nagging demeans both the horse and rider. The horse might drag his toes to a resentful trot.

Clarity is kindness. I think horses are looking for an honest request. They don’t understand indirect communication. Ask clearly, with bright energy but no extra emotion. Just a calm declaration, “Walk on,” with the confidence in yourself and the horse that you don’t need to repeat yourself. Let your word stand with no apology as if bluntness was a virtue.

Consider that regal mare again. I’ll call her assertive. I won’t pretend to be her, but I’ll strive to match her natural energy.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

39 thoughts on “Aggressive or Assertive?”

  1. And all dogs are born knowing how to sit. It’s the asking of it, human to dog, that stymies us. I loved this, all of it. And for the record I did leave the house nearly always dressed like that. Despite our parent’s doubts, we survived.

    • It was a miracle they way we managed, wasn’t it? Teehee! I love this comment, thanks, Sandy. Especially the idea that we would need to teach a dog to sit!

  2. Yes yes yes

    You have such an amazing capacity of boiling things done to their essence. Thank you.

  3. That photo… gorgeous. I love me a mare! Thanks for another insightful, beautifully expressed piece of art–the photo and the writing.

  4. It is truly amazing how you detail so well the experiences and thoughts of so many! With humor injected so I can try to laugh at being a bowl of worried oatmeal, this is another favorite, Anna. Thank you!

  5. Lovely post Anna. My own definition of aggressive is “pushy”. Assertive is more like standing up for oneself, or one’s ideas. Aggression I think is founded in fear, assertion more in confidence. I often have to back down and apologise, being assertive, somewhat misunderstood, but rarely pushy. If push comes to shove, let them have their way, horses or people, but I come back either gentler, or maybe not at all. With dogs, the truly aggressive dangerous dog is in fear. A good dog fronting a stranger may simply stand his ground and assert himself with a low warning growl; one word from his boss should put him at ease. Thank you for your valuable observations.

  6. Yet another wonderful one I’ll be passing along.

    I’ve always identified myself as a mare person, despite not having a “special” mare in my herd any longer. But my heart and soul mare who taught me more in the 8 years she was mine – I got her when she was 22 from the riding program I belonged to when it folded – she was lead mare of the herd of 36 horses at that program. Years before she was mine, I used to take groups of lesson kids out to the pasture to do lessons on conformation, color, and markings as the horses grazed. Those lessons ALWAYS evolved into lessons on the equine language. I used to love it when one of the girls would “get” the subtle body language which almost always began with my mare twitching an ear, swishing her tail, maybe wrinkling her nose or squinting, or very rarely snaking her neck, causing a ripple of effect through the herd. “yes ma’am, I’ll move. NOW.”

    Always so exquisitely subtle, but amazingly clear signals. Definitely assertive, but escalating over the line into assertive then back in a nanosecond. Like a single flash of a hummingbird wing.

    I loved that mare with all my heart and soul. She taught me about horses, about myself, about observing other people. Lessons I realize I’m still building upon 20+ years after she left me.

  7. Okay, I’ll take the bait and dissent. I think assertion and aggression are on a continuum and I think context decides if there is negative connotation. Assertion can be strident. And maybe I’m more comfortable with some aggression, but when a mare corrects an errant young colt, it can be pretty aggressive. But it generally is short-lived and fits the crime. I think a tap with the crop is aggressive, but should be short-lived and timed correctly, followed by a pet of approval or verbal caress when the horse responds correctly. It’s all in the context. A horse can be a bully too, but humans are unfortunately more skilled in this.

    • In the context of “Horse Law” I see the mares as assertive, they have the last say, the right to say “No”. When colts challenge a stallion, they are aggressive, the stallion assertive. Stallions living with their herds can be very indulgent of their young, and as the colts grow, will give them boxing lessons, assertive. The bigger and stronger the youngster, the more likely the stallion will become aggressive. When a mare protects a foal, aggressive (she fears for her baby). When foals race and play at sunset, the mares watch passively, like moms at the play park, but look out if a stranger intrudes. Assertive can become either aggression with a win, or defeat and a complete back-down. The bullies are the ones who lack the social skills of being raised in the herd, and free in the paddock, in fear because they don’t know the law, and spend most of their time in gaol/jail, which makes them worse!
      And I think that “Horse Law” is one of the most vital parts of a horse’s early education.

      • Therese and Louise, for both of your comments, I wonder if horses would call it aggression? I wonder what their standard is, whether it means the same to them. I doubt it. Meaning I don’t know that those are feelings that they have, any more than love for us. I think there are similar behaviors that we misread in cats and dogs, too. Who knows for sure.

        • I don’t think they are analysing much, more into self protection, and protection of their young. I think if assertive, firm but non-threatening, doesn’t work for them, they can become aggressive, surely a much firmer form of assertion. Given the chance, they’ll simply run. Horses don’t “love” as a dog does, but they know in this modern age of fences and stables that we are their providers. Mine always knew I could save them, a tangled tether, a slipped pack, and a word would still them. I don’t know mules and donkeys but have heard they can be very devoted. My dog is devoted, the cat at the hay shed just wants feeding. My dogs don’t leave my side. Dogs have owners who are their gods. Cats have staff. Cats choose their people, this cat arrived across 2 paddocks from next door, was not at all happy with arrangements there. We agreed I may as well feed her. I really love cats, but may not have an indoor one here. Way back in the 70’s a party at a friend’s place, she bred show Siamese cats. I took a nap on the lounge and woke up with 7 cats on me. Go figure, I was a total stranger. Just my own thoughts, I wonder what others think?

    • I agree there is a continuum and when I think of that mare-colt correction, I think that “volume” usually gets matched, a friend of mine used to say, “YOu be as rude as they are.” I’m better at seeing pain now, so I don’t uniformly agree but you are right about bullies. I think I’ve improved with dealing with bullies over the years. Horses, not humans. 🙂 Thanks, Therese

    • Thank you for this, Anna; it’s a fine distinction difficult to articulate to people used to following their predatory instincts, and you address it so well. I’ve always felt that aggression emanates from an emotional state (which the horse rarely understands), while assertiveness comes from a thinking place. Thus, your point that “clarity is kindness” implies thought and focus, which results in the ability to be clear, both in communication and evaluation of the result. I tell my students to check their emotions and their expectations at the gate (and not the arena gate, but the gate to my place!), and use clarity, consistency, and firm focus to stay in the moment. Sometimes, they get it….

  8. My take is assertion and aggression exhibit distinctive body languages. Aggression, to me, is more physical. Assertion, to me, is more cerebral. That’s what these two words mean to me. As said above, in the herd I’m guessing it takes aggression to become the alpha. After that, it can just take assertion to keep them in line, i.e., the twitch of an ear or a slight lift of the head.
    I wonder if this would help to explain the differences between conspiracy and collusion?

  9. BEST YET – I keep saying that but I think I’M FINALLY GETTING IT!!! Thanks so much for changing my horse life for the better….I have learned so much from you and from Ima, Pogo, Pashcha, Sam, Smitty, and especially Lexie (my horse colony)!!!

  10. Anna, your words lift me up. I have been learning about my 2 rescues for a little over a year now. When I am centered, confident, and not letting life’s unending challenges beat me down; I see these 2 as using assertive language to meet their needs. Other times I may perceive them in a less flattering light. I have no knowledge of their lives before rescue from the auction, but i guess it really doesn’t matter. I am dealing with the here and now as are they. What I have taken away from your writing today is that when I do perceive aggression; perhaps I should ask myself what lens am I looking at them through. Thanks.
    And…..there was something very special about Shelly’s post; how lucky both she and her mare were to find each other.

  11. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a web cam on a heard, so we could all observe, learn and discuss examples of assertiveness, agression, calming signals and the differences between true horse behavior and our anthropomorphic interpretations?

  12. That IS a great idea for those of us who will probably never get to an Anna clinic.

    Is that a possibility for something at The Barn?

    • I was thinking videos of different forms of communication between horses, from the subtle physical to vocal to…?

      Maybe folks could contribute clips and members and you could comment on what you’re seeing for us visual learners.

      I’m not a member of the barn yet, so maybe you have this already.

      • This is one of my favorite parts; we do have those videos. Now that The Barn has been going for a while, we are seeing the change in the horses, too. It’s been great.

        • Awesome! Hope to join soon. Vet bills and excavator costs for our sweet Harry have thrown off the monthly budget a bit.

  13. I like that equestrian authors are writing about this. It reminded me of assertive and aggressive definitions from a human therapy model:
    Assertive: I honor others and I honor myself.
    Aggressive: I dishonor others and I honor myself.
    Submissive: I honor others and I dishonor myself.

  14. A great post with much valuable food for thought. Thank you Anna!

    By the way, this mare looks so like the one who lives with us! She’s not so assertive but a very beautiful soul who teaches me so much.


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