Does Leadership Mean Domination Now?

From a Reader: “Anna, you articulate the dance between horse and human so very succinctly. I wish it were easier to “just be” with horses, but it’s a constant struggle to eliminate formerly learned patterns of behavior. I started to learn about horses with a woman that spoke of partnership with horses and that has always been my focus, but some of the tools I learned over time were contradictory to partnership. Is it possible to lead in partnership? It is a fine line between leadership and domination.”

Great question. It can seem hard to find a workable balance, the middle path between extremes. It’s why I write more about ideas than hard-set techniques.

To begin, trainers all use pretty words, promising the perfect horse. No one brags about using brute force and intimidation and when you look at the frozen eyes of the horse, maybe it looks good compared to the challenges you have with your horse. If you are frustrated or embarrassed by your horse, or just stuck, the idea of showing them who’s boss is almost appealing. We are predators after all and we’ve been fighting training animals for so long it’s like muscle memory in our DNA. Horses do respond to fear-based training and if you don’t read body language (calming signals), it can almost pass for okay. Who hasn’t seen a high-spirited filly panicked on a lead rope or a puppy who has unpacked a sofa, and had a fleeting thought about military school? But scared straight is a tag line, a sales pitch. And when it comes to horses, we may have watched too many cop shows and westerns.

Most trainers avoid talking about the small print: working with horses takes time. It’s easier to sell a Get-Trained-Quick approach and riders want it to be true. It’s a fantasy. Even if you had all the money in the world, a good relationship with a horse won’t happen in a year. It will be an ongoing process for the life of a horse. We love the old campaigner and are frustrated with the youngster, but they are the same horse. We have to adjust to each year of change in that horse’s life, which is way more complicated than colt starting. Then add to that complicated equation, some horses, (like two of yours, dear reader) act as if it’s all abuse whether it is or not. It’s as if they are still living in the past, which once we understand some brain science about the power of memory and the lack of critical frontal-lobe thinking in horses, is truer than not. The memory of their start in training is always in play.

As for the horseperson who wants to do better but wrestles with old tools, most of us have learned techniques that are based on intimidation, most long-time horsepeople started that way. Evolving takes energy and commitment. And way longer than we want to acknowledge. Any rescue horse will tell you that it’s hard to relearn new things when you’ve been brought up differently.

I believe some part of this quandary is about language. Leadership was a word we liked at one point, but has it been hijacked? Is leadership a “dog whistle” word for fear-based training or showing a horse who’s boss, in the same way that the word partnership is a code word for non-violent training? If you believe in domination, then everything else looks like weakness. If you believe in giving the horse confidence and training affirmatively, old-school equine pros look like bullying predators. Humans are the most divisive herd animals ever. No wonder we confuse horses.

Can I take a moment here for a personal rant? I’ll try to use my indoor voice. The most common thing people tell me is that as they are trying out a more affirmative approach, railbirds are giving advice to get louder, larger, and more aggressive. And yes, some of the railbirds critical of your horsemanship are roosting in your own head, but just as loud. Like Romans at the Colosseum, cheering for more violence, they want you to make that horse respect you. We’ve all seen it; we’ve all lived it. I want to let loose an unladylike yell shrill enough to scare humans, “HOW DO YOU THINK THE HORSE GOT THIS WAY IN THE FIRST PLACE??!!” But I don’t. Picking fights doesn’t work when trying to win the hearts and minds of humans any more than it does horses. 

Has anyone even checked with the horses? We plan their lives as if they had all the intelligence and awareness of a dirt bike. They’ve been trying to tell us that fear-based training doesn’t work for a flight animal. It seems like simple logic to them, but they would also try to show us that herd dynamics aren’t about domination but rather cooperation. Herd animals don’t generally seek conflict and that’s a cue we should respect. This is where partnership rules; it takes two voices to partner and also to lead, so first, we let go of our plans and listen to horses. We stop talking about them and start talking to them.

Instead, I suggest we all mount up and ride into their camp at night and rustle back the word leadership. Then, let’s brand it ours again. 

  • Horse aggression or resistance is frequently pain. Leadership is listening beyond behavior.
  • Anxiety is expressed in calming signals. Leadership is understanding that frightened horses can’t learn calmness.
  • We don’t always get our way. Leadership means negotiation.
  • Asking a question, followed by correction is contradictory. Leadership is shown in consistent kindness. 
  • Humans are as flawed as horses. Leadership is forgiving yourself and trying again.
  • Fear and domination go hand in hand. Leadership is mentoring safety for all.
  • Never punishing because violence betrays trust. Leadership means getting along.
  • You are the animal with choice. It can be a dance or a street fight. Leadership chooses the high ground: Peace.
  • Horses mimic behavior. Leadership is being the change we want to see.
  • It takes the time it takes. Leadership is patient.
  • Constant correction is uninspiring and soul-killing. Leadership is saying yes. Simply, yes.
  • Trust your skills and intuition and worth. Leadership is carried with confidence.
  • The ideal expression of the art of partnering with a horse should always be lightness and beauty. Leadership means you go first. You lead the dance.
  • Finally, trust the horse to understand the caring advice of someone who only wants the best. Leadership is love for our horses.

Now patiently watch the world change, one horse at a time, as other human animals grow to envy your leadership. Actions will always speak louder than words.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

32 thoughts on “Does Leadership Mean Domination Now?”

      • Will do! She’s starting to like getting scratches. We’re making progress–did you see I had a saddle pad and surcingle on her? Our new farrier is coming every 3 weeks to help get her used to him.

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  1. Extraordinary concepts conveyed in clear and concise words. Of course they choked me up, as your counsel often does. Thank you Anna Blake.

    With admiration,
    Humans and Horses

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  2. Amen! For me these days – horse(wo)manship is a daily struggle to lead by example – as it is generally my behavior/self-control that requires tempering.

    Started trying to meditate around the time the plague descended. Today’s emailed daily quote – “Self-criticism isn’t the same thing as self-awareness. One goes on in the over-thinking intellectual part of the mind and the other feels things in real-time like a horse does.” was especially thought provoking. It reminded me about one of the key lessons in meditating. When you become distracted, your monkey-mind runs away with you, you float away on a daydream, you full on fall asleep – the answer is simply to start over.

    No self-recrimination, disappointment, shame… mistakes are opportunities. We should extend as much kindness to ourselves as to our horses.

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  3. Thank you for this. I will read it again and again. I love this definition of leadership. It is useful for more than just our relationships with horses, though so useful for that.

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  4. Anna, there is so much to assimilate after reading this today. THANK YOU! So very timely also, as your quote, “Leadership is understanding that frightened horses can’t learn calmness” brought to mind an interchange with a friend this morning. After witnessing Ferd explode at liberty in the arena and then come to me and obsessively crowd me, a friend who was watching asked “Why does he act this way?”, and I said “Because I think he’s anxious”. Then she said “Then why don’t you have him on anti anxiety medication?”, and I honestly didn’t know how to answer because this never occurred to me. I guess the question that comes to mind is, is it reasonable to consider supporting a horse chemically in terms of anxiety and fear so that he can be calm enough to learn that there is nothing to fear?

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    • I don’t have extensive experience with calming supplements but have never known them to work. I understand some horses are on prozac, again no experience. I don’t know that I’d trust the reliability, but it might be worth talking to a vet. Ferd is complicated, I don’t know that he’ll ever be “normal”. You will never be able to let down your guard around him. I’m not sure that there isn’t something internally that causes him undiagnosable pain. For all that I don’t know about his health and his past, I can be certain that if you breathe and cue almost invisibly, and go relentlessly slow, redefining patience week by week, that he will improve as much as he can. Good question, thanks, Laurie

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  5. Thank you Anna. Your response is so thoughtful and extremely helpful. I am committed to continue on the path of being the best we can be (whatever that is) and I’m OK if that is never normal. I’m glad that I can provide a safe place for him to live his life. I am always inspired by his good days and puzzled by his bad days, and thanks to you, I am beginning to be kind to myself in terms of expectations and accomplishments. (Happy face emoji)

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  6. Anna, I appreciate this essay so much. I thought maybe I had commented on it earlier, but that was only in my head so you didn’t hear that ! I do think “leadership” as a word has been hijacked by the domination horsefolks, such that it’s challenging to not have a negative response to it. ( Just like the word de-sensitize).

    Love your bullet points in describing leadership more accurately, and in horse-friendly, affirmative terms. Perhaps we can take it back as you say !!! Just today, watching my 2 horses from my window, I see Bear sometimes lead the two of them to the woods, then I see Cash lead them to one of the pastures. There is essentially no fight between them, just cooperation. Any disputes, or requests from one to the other, are settled in a nanosecond, just a shake of the head, or with an ear. We have so much to learn from the horses !!!

    I think many of the natural horsemanship folks are victims of the patriarchial viewpoint. It seems that viewpoint sees the world through the lens of the toxic masculine… with a focus on hierarchy and domination and is ego-centric. I also read somewhere that many of the “theories” of NH was due to watching horses in situations where resources were scarce.

    Anyhow, let’s take the word back and refresh it with a more balanced definition and implementation !

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    • I hadn’t thought of scarcity, but what I do think is how “boring” cooperation is while watching. Do they skip all those hours and wait for something to happen, when the truth is that it’s happening all along, but wouldn’t catch an eye in our world? I think your geldings are right, and so are you. Thanks Sarah

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  7. Excellent point you make that something is happening all the time in a herd if we have the eyes to see!

    If one only provides food 2x daily, to horses in a pen, well, there may be competition amongst them, and some say most observations about dominance, hierarchy etc were made in those kind of conditions.

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