Does your horse ever bump its head into you? Has your horse ever pushed you out of its way with its body? Does your horse pin its ears when you approach it? How about tried to run right over you when you are leading it through a gate or when it gets spooked? If so, then it’s very likely that your horse doesn’t have enough respect for you and knows that it can dominate you.
To be a happy and successful horse owner you can take action to prevent these situations from occurring by showing your horse that you have the ability to be the alpha horse. By doing so you will gain your horses respect. The best way to do this is to be able to herd the horse. If you can herd your horse in the same fashion, as another more dominant horse would do, it will accept you as the leader and will willingly give you respect.
Horses constantly play the dominancy game with each other through herding. This creates hierarchy in the herd. The better a horse is at herding the more dominant they are. There is no single quality that determines if a horse is more dominant than another but rather a combination of abilities. A dominant horse proves to the herd that they can move quicker, reach out and make contact quicker, all with confidence. A horse that is good at herding will be able to do all these things effectively using the least amount of effort. By doing this, the dominant horse gains respect and does not get pushed around by the other horses. If you can show the horse/s that you have these qualities without being aggressive like a predator, they will view you as the alpha horse and will give you respect. They will also look to you for leadership, which will build confidence in them.
To be good at herding it is necessary to have the proper tools and know how to effectively use them. This takes practice so don’t be discouraged in the beginning.
Here is a picture of a young mare attempting to herd another horse. Is apparent that she hasn't quite figured out how to use all her tools effectively.
The basic tools to use are ropes in different lengths and a horseman’s stick. These tools allow you to signal or touch the horse from a distance so they can see what you are asking without being scared of you. The tools allow you to prove to the horse that you have more speed than they do because you can move them around quickly and easily. This also allows you to keep a safe distance away from the horse.
When horses are establishing the pecking order in the herd they will attempt to herd each other so if you are herding a horse it might decide to herd back. By keeping a safe distance away you can fairly establish your hierarchy with the horse but also prevent from getting injured. If you allow the horse to have a fair chance at herding back they will feel on the same level and won’t be intimidated and will also show that you respect them. This is not implying to let the horse herd you but to give him the opportunity to challenge you for leadership and if he does decide to, you can quickly and confidently herd back and be more effective which will prove to him that you are a better leader and will gain his respect.
You also want to be aware of how you are applying the tool to the horse. To be fair to the horse when herding we need to first signal with the tool that it is coming and if the horse doesn’t respect that signal by getting out of the way, then we can be effective by touching the horse with it. Horses use this same signaling technique with each other when herding by pining their ears, swishing their tail or moving their body. If the other horse does not respect and yield to this signal they will follow through with a bite or kick. By touching a horse with a tool you are simulating a horse biting or kicking them. You never want to bite or kick the horse harder than another horse would do. Also, it is helpful to have your signals rhythmic. Do this by signaling to the horse with your tool, if they don’t yield then gently touch the horse with the tool, if they don’t move from this you can touch the horse deeper until they respond. It takes lots of practice to understand when, where and how to touch the horse properly with these tools. Once you are able to do this successfully the horse will respect and yield to your signals without you having to follow through with contact. It is necessary for the horse to understand that the tools are an extension of your body so you want to touch them and rub them with the tools so they are desensitized to them as an object. (Look for a future blog on how to desensitizing your horse!)
You can be extremely effective at herding a horse using a 45’ rope in a round corral. This will allow you to reach out and touch the horse with the rope anywhere they might be. You can also herd the horse by throwing the rope out in front of them or behind them. If you can herd the horse from the middle of the round corral using the rope it will show the horse that you have an extremely long reach and also that you have the ability to out maneuver them.
A horseman’s stick is also a great tool to use because it can extend your reach, which will allow you to drive and touch the horse without having to use your hands. If a horse is approaching you and invading your space you can use the stick for self-defense by herding them away with it. Be aware of how you handle the stick and what the horse perceives of it. You want to make sure the horse understands the difference between a neutral stick position and an active position. This will help give the horse a clear signal of what you are asking. Horseman sticks also show the horse that you are as big as them. You can extend your reach out towards their hind end to show you are just as long as they are, and you can also extend your reach directly upward to show that you can reach higher than they can. This way if a horse tries to show its dominant by lifting its head up overtop your head, you can extend the stick high enough to block them and show them that they cannot dominate you. When you want to move the horse’s head away, it is good to be able herd the horse’s nose away. A horse’s body follows the direction its nose is pointed to, so if you are able to control their nose you can be better at guiding the horse in the direction you desire. Their nose is also a sensitive area so you do not need to use as much energy to herd the horse’s front end if you are focused on the nose. When you are able to herd your horse’s nose away without them trying to avoid you by lifting it, you have gained confidence and respect in your horse.
Horses communicate to each other through body language so it is important to be aware of your body language when herding a horse. When a horse signals to another horse to back off, they straighten their neck, lower their head and pin their ears so we want to try and mimic this with our body language when herding and driving horses around. We want to project enough energy to send or drive a horse effectively but too much where we scare the horse.
Horses try to herd humans at times and can be quite successful at it if we let them. A big reason people allow their horse to herd them is because their size is intimidating. This is why it is important to use tools that make the horse think that we are just as big, if not bigger, than they are. To prevent a horse from dominating you, you need to change its perception of you. Eventually you want to be able to herd the horse from all directions and ultimately after you have become an effective herder, your horse will view you as the 2-legged alpha horse. This will take courage on your end but once you gain confidence in yourself and your ability to herd, the horses will gain trust and respect in you. Now, the next time you walk your horse through a gate, it will think twice about running over you.
Horses are always aware of where the alpha horse is. So you will receive many benefits of being the alpha horse. It will respect you by moving out of your way with little effort on your end. It will stand calm when you are relaxed. And will look to you for leadership, safety, confidence and comfort.
Just a little note: A good way to learn to communicate with a horse is to go out in a herd situation and observe horses during feeding time. You will see how horses communicate to each other from their settle expressions to thier full energy actions and everything in between. They will herd each other through body language and physical contact by biting and kicking. You'll learn how horses try to bluff and out maneuver each other. You will see horses yield and show respect and you will see the friendships.