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Many riders have been told that the only way to be successful with horses, to be able to teach and train them, is through first “being the boss”. It is often taught that aggression is a necessary part of working with horses because of their social structure and need for a clear “pecking order.”

I disagree with these statements and believe there is a big difference between being aggressive and being assertive.

If you have ever struggled getting a horse to respond and have been told to just “show him whose boss”, you may find a sense of relief watching this video. Working with our horses shouldn’t be about who is bigger and stronger, as we will lose that battle every time! Rather it is about being clear and consistent, taking the time to create a relationship with the horse while always looking for the best way to communicate and teach them what it is we want.

Watch the video below and then scroll down to leave a comment!

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Comments

42 Responses

  1. Hi, Callie,

    Great post as always. This is something I struggle with. My riding instructor’s philosophy of training aligns with yours, and she has worked hard to help me understand the difference between assertion and aggression, but I still get confused about which is which. For example, if I’m doing groundwork, sometimes I let the horse lag, and my instructor will say, “get after him. He’s blowing you off,” whereas I might have interpreted his behavior as coming from a lack of clarity on my part (another problem I have!) and feel I shouldn’t get too assertive when the problem is my lack of skill. On the other hand, I might behave in a way that feels assertive to me and then realize that I’ve been aggressive. I think part of my problem is that I’m not naturally assertive or aggressive and so I sometimes overcompensate one way or the other. What has helped me the most is coming to understand the meaning and effectiveness of pressure, a concept that seems simple but I think can be hard to put into practice when you’re new. As soon as I began to equate assertion with applying and releasing pressure, things started to come together for me.

    The other thing my instructor has helped me with is controlling my emotions. I get frustrated with myself and then that spills over onto the horse and pretty soon, we’re both a mess. It’s a fine line between frustration and anger. I do a lot of deep breathing while I’m riding and doing groundwork to control my emotions if I find myself becoming frustrated. It helps if I remind myself that I’m not just hurting myself when I get down on myself during training. There’s nothing more magical than having a horse respond positively. I think I’m the one who is being trained.

    Thanks,

    Annie

  2. I definitely grew up with the idea that the horse is being “bad” or “good”, that I need to whack him if he didn’t do the right thing. How many times did I see a horse refuse a jump only to have the rider aggressively steer him back to it and hit him while standing in front of it. Hmmm. I hate the thought that maybe the horse was hurting in some way, or the rider sent a mixed message approaching the jump, or he just wasn’t in the right place for a safe take-off. There was a reason he didn’t jump.

    Currently I have two horses that had underlying health problems I wasn’t aware of. Not one of the several instructors I worked with made sure at the onset that I had consulted with a vet to rule out physical problems, but they all focused on behavioral issues and how to solve them. Turns out, one of the horses had kissing spine (hence his sudden rearing), and I am treating my other one for hind gut ulcers after two years of going over him carefully, following a gut (no pun) feeling that something is not right with him. Fingers crossed this is it!

    I’ve also found that I need to trust my gut and keep prodding my vet(s) to look for answers.

    This is such a good message Callie and I wish everyone everywhere could see it, believe it, and adopt it.

    1. I am so happy you were able to find out the physical issues your horse is dealing with. Bravo to you for taking the time and trusting your gut.

  3. Callie,

    This is such a valuable video. It’s so true that many of us got our start at lesson barns where we were told that horses need a strong leader and that you need to be stronger (ha!) than your horse. Oh boy, have I had quite the journey from finding Carolyn Resnick online and others who have totally changed my way of thinking to friendship and partnership. I’m still working on this as in my regular lessons it still occasionally pops up if I’m having some difficult behaviors pop up. I’m still working out saddle issues with the horse I lease and believe that is more likely the cause of some of the more recent difficulties I’ve been experiencing. Things seem to go better when I ride in a bareback pad.

    1. I’m still very new at this as I’ve only been riding 18 months. Buy I have to agree that once I earned my OTTB’s respect I started building a true friendship and partnership with him. Fortunately I got him green off the track July of last year so I didn’t have a lot of past issues from others to deal with.

      What I will say is that by building this relationship with him I’ve spent an hour or more trying to get him to do something without him ever getting to the point of misbehaving. He tries so hard for me, I can feel it in his demeanor and people on the ground can see it watching him.

      What I’ll say it means for me is I know when he being a jerk or lazy, and I know when he’s confused out doesn’t understand/know how to do or what to do what I’m asking of him. For me it helps with the frustration that comes from spending huge amounts of time with no success. I know I’m lucky to have my boy and I love him with all of my heart. And I know I’m lucky to have people like Callie to help guide us on this journey. Callie is amazing and has helped me in so many ways!

  4. For me, it is difficult to sum up horse training in one word. But I wouldn’t even say, “assertive.” I would say, persistence, and of course the patience that is implied in persistence. That combined with rewards and praise is what has worked for me. Words and expressions like a horse is being “bad” or he/she isn’t showing “respect,” only create an adversarial, confrontational relationship between horse and owner/trainer/rider.

    1. I appreciate your comment. I like the different ways of looking at it. Yes, assertive is better than aggression but to your point there is something very “me” focused in being assertive. I think it boils down to being a true leader and true leadership is not about dominance or aggression. It is about that persistence, patience, clear communication, building trust, having mutual respect for each other and as other people have posted, don’t assume the horse is being bad or difficult.

      1. The “other” word I would add to this is “consistent”. If there’s not a clear and consistent “ask” followed with a clear and consistent reward for doing the “right thing”, the horse may never figure out what you want. (“Punishment” for the “wrong” response should also be consistent, but it must be at a level of “bigness” to suit the “crime” – not understanding is not punishable, unless the response goes to “dangerous” levels – then you need to get as big as you have to to let the horse know a particular response is not desired; if the response is not doing anything because the horse doesn’t understand, it might be that no punishment at all is warranted, simply a “clearer” version of the ask or breaking the “ask” for the desired response into smaller steps – move one foot in a particular way, rather than get all 4 feet and the body doing the “end trick”)

  5. Reading Mark Rashid’s early books “Horses Never Lie” and “A Good Horse is Never a Bad Color” clinched it for me.

  6. Callie,

    We know that very much of the time when a horse seems to be noncompliant that it is due to lack of understanding or confusion , often poorly timed or administered aids and cues. No serious rider can honestly say that he/she does not make significant errors frequently while riding. After all, we are people, not machines. If our horses could converse with us, they would most surely fill our ears with complaints regarding our riding abilities. If we gave our horses our whips and let them whack on us every time we were out of sync, poorly balanced, inappropriately pulling on the reins, etc., we would be much more sympathetic to our horses and better able to exhibit patience and understanding. I agree with Robert Rio. Patience and persistence will win out over dominance and intimidation every time.

  7. Callie, I agree with you on training horses using assertiveness, consistency and repetition, and NOT aggression…and I also like Robert Rio’s take on this when he says “persistence”! You need to be the one “calling the shots” or “in charge of the explaining of what to do and where to go and at what speed” so to speak, or the horse will take over that role. And we all know that this would not be safe for us if a 1000 lb. animal takes over with his own agenda! The “HOW” we do this is the what matters. You must teach using consistency and persistence and reward the slightest try by releasing pressure immediately when the horse gives even a small hint of “getting it”.. .. then building upon this try until it’s the one you want (it doesn’t have to happen in one session, or even in one day, but the horse will be learning that he/she must give you more each time until the correct response is achieved consistently. Difficulties and frustration (that can lead to aggression on the human’s side) sometimes happens when the level of EXPERIENCE, timing, and knowledge, of training is inadequate (you can only get experience through experience and we all start with NONE in the very beginning!) That’s exactly why your courses are so valuable!!! Keep up your great teaching for the many riders who are getting the help they need through your courses.
    Oh, the part on horses being very social is very true, but I’m pretty convinced that when the herd leader is taken out of the group, the herd misses her (the leader is usually a mare). Observation of my own horses (as well as other people’s) over 50+years (I’m 70 now) has shown me that when I take the leader away, someone back at the barn/or turnout always whinnies “come back, where are you?”…this is my interpretation. All is well when the leader returns! Happy trails to all.

  8. Thanks Callie! It is SO frustrating to be told to”be the boss.” I like your idea that what’s important to the horse is togetherness, consistent expectations, and friendship…not necessarily leadership.

  9. What I hear in the subtext of “be the boss” is “you’re a wimp and as long as you’re a wimp you’ll never succeed.” I left a stable because of that attitude from some of the instructors. It just didn’t seem right to me. Maybe I’m not a very confident rider. I’m timid when asked to do something new and anxious on a horse I know spooks, but “be the boss” never encouraged me! Quite the opposite, in fact. At the stable where I am now I feel I’m in a partnership with my instructor and the horse. If my lesson horse isn’t responsive to my aids I can say, “What should I do to change that?” And the instructor usually says something like I’m inadvertently giving contradictory messages or the horse I’m riding that day was taught a different aid or maybe is sore on one side or whatever. So as we fine tune the issue things often improve, and I feel like I’ve learned something new through mutual cooperation. That’s what I find fun and challenging about riding. Thanks for this video!

  10. I find a lot of people use “be a better leader” as a nicer way of suggesting dominance. 🙂 I’m never sure what they REALLY mean. My question is what suggestions you may have for dealing with a highly sensitive distrustful horse. They can “handle” even less pressure than the average, so I’d like some tips on clear signals on when it’s still too much pressure and when we should retreat or reduce. 🙂 I have a flighty, sensitive head shy type. Just getting the halter on is a challenge sometimes. It seems almost impossible to stay within her comfort level sometimes.

    1. Hi, I’ve been working with a BLM Mustang the past 5 yrs. when I first brought her home she was painfully shy, no trust in people, had been beaten into submission and abused terribly by being roped and tripped. I too remember what it was like, not to be able to do the simple things, like getting her halter on, gather her from the pasture, put fly spray on her legs, groom her, have her hooves trimmed, or just touch her ears or nose, or sponge her eyes. Giving her a BATH was a real journey! Ha! I could go on and on about our past! But I think you got the idea?! I’m here to encourage you… LOVE CONQUERS ALL!!! Love, time, patience, kindness, persistence, & the willingness to be open to a relationship like no other! and never never ever give up on your horse!!! I believe it’s never the horses fault, look deep within yourself and follow your gut! You can do it! Believe in the power of communication between the two of you, create a bond by loving her no matter what! Today, I rode my “wild” Mustang Sally out in the forest with 5 other experienced riders. I was so proud of her! She can lead the herd, hang in the middle or lag behind, we are a team. Yesterday, we climbed mountains for hours! I’m so grateful for the experience and the gift of time. Patience is a virtue… study it and remember we always have the choice to be kind! Good luck to you and don’t give up!

      1. Suzanne, I so love your message. I am very new at “Training” my horses and have been floundering around, constantly seeking the correct method. And all the while, my inner
        self was urging me to just trust in my own relationship building skills and go with it. Be yourself. Be natural. Allow the relationship to grow. Believe in it.
        thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. It has greatly encouraged me.

  11. Thanks Callie, just starting to get the ‘be friends with the horse’ approach, always have treats in the pocket, gentle coercion and much verbal praise, he loves it and really appreciates the rub down afterwards. We now have that mutual expectation, even if I make the odd mistakes.

  12. Someone did tell me not too long ago to “be the boss.” I don’t think he meant to be dominant or aggressive. I think that could have been his way of saying let the horse know what I wanted in an assertive way instead of being so passive the horse wouldn’t listen to me at all, instead of it being a two-way conversation. So I think it depends on how the word is used.

    That’s interesting about being a friend versus a leader. The way I can make sense out of that is that it’s not one or the other. Maybe it’s more like both at the same time. Horses probably feel safer with us if we show leadership if they’re in a situation, such as outside of their pasture, on a trail ride, but I’m thinking that if they’re contentedly grazing in their pasture, with their horse herd mates, and we’re hanging out with them, that could be the time to be more in a friendship role than a leadership role.

  13. I do agree with you. I don’t have a lot of training experience but by watching others it is obvious that being aggressive is a short-cut to obtaining what you want the fastest way possible. And when being aggressive doesn’t work, they simply use more severe equipment. I do love the training method of the Pignon brothers (former trainers of Cavalia).

  14. So my horse hates grooming and will repeatedly turn and try to “lip” me. My trainer told me to keep working, don’t back away at all, but give him a swift pop in the mouth and keep on going. When she grooms him, he doesn’t dare give her the same “lip.” He was one of her horses for years and I bought him from her. What do I do to get him to stop this? I do a natural horsemanship class with him about 3 times a month and ride him at least twice a week. He’s very well trained. The only issue is this irritated grumpy horse during grooming. Thoughts or advice?

    1. I heard that horses skin is 7 times more sensitive than ours. My horse doesn’t like to be brushed with a stiff brush and she shows me her dislike by backing away. So I use the soft brush and go very slow and respectfully. She calms down and allows this quieter approach.
      As Mark Rashid suggests,”Consider the Horse”.

    2. Is he being “grumpy” or is he offering “mutual grooming” behavior? If he’s truly grumpy about grooming, it may be he’s sore someplace or the brushes you use are causing him some sort of discomfort (I have some that in some weather result in major static charges – goes from the brush to the horse to my free hand if I’m touching the horse with it). Try grooming less or differently or try different brushes. Try “mini-massages”, firm strokes and gentle “pokes” to see if he’s sore some place.

  15. I have absolutely moved away from the idea that I have to be the “boss” which is what I learned. I am not naturally a passive person and so being too passive is not where I go. What is clear to me is that if I want my horse t respond to me I have t be clear about what I want. If my message is muddied because I am not saying what I want my horse will not be “cooperative”. If I want a trot, I need to ask for a trot – not just for faster – which might mean walk faster, might mean canter. Trot is a specific message

  16. I remember being told as a kid at English riding school to ‘show her/him who’s boss’… Looking back now I can see my relationship was never good with any of the horses I rode as a child.

    When I returned to riding 5 years ago, I knew that I didn’t want to go down that route again. I was pleased to discover trainers such as Warwick Schiller, Buck Brannaman and the like, I’ve found a much healthier, enjoyable and rewarding lifestyle with horses. I’ve got my own 4 year old who is coming along beautifully and responds so well to a kind, assertive way of training.

    And a week ago I came across your videos, Callie, and I’m glad to have subscribed and be enjoying all of them.

  17. Callie, I agree with you that we have to build up a good relationship with our horse based on trust and good work willing. I think we have to try to understand the way the horse thinks and that is probably hard for some of us specially for people who is less emotional and more rational in the way they see their own human world.
    We have to be assertive and “open mind” to read the horse body language but specially we have to be very kind and act with compassion.

  18. Using aggression and dominance will only produce a horse that is defensive and resentful. Those who work for a boss or had parents who barked at them every chance they got know what it feels like to be at the mercy of an aggressive individual. Imagine how a prey animal experiences that situation! It is important to not let emotions get in the way of “pressure and release” – with the horse, it’s nothing personal. It’s mission in life is to find release, your responsibility is to show him how to find release in a productive manner that works for all.

    I’m a novice rider, just about started to canter poles, learning on a lesson horse. Still, I make it a mission every lesson to make his responses to my aids lighter and lighter, meaning that he always gets a chance to get it right with the least amount of pressure I can muster. He absolutely respects me because I can ride and control him (at the walk) with dropped reigns without problems.

    What you say in your video has been said by Buck Brannaman, Clinton Anderson, and everybody’s favorite YouTuber Rick Gore. It’s great to hear you say it, too, as your audience may not exactly overlap with theirs a lot.

  19. I believe by showing assertion and respect you can get results. Train with compassion, love and understanding. See if the horse actually has an issue as to why he will not complete what was asked of him/her. My horses act out occasionally, and if I stop and check out what is going on, 9 times out of 10 there was a problem, once solved, they act better. Correction or fixing of that problem, results in a calmer behavior. Praise in their reactions for showing correction and acceptance is given and they respond positively to the action. I agree that horses learn by trusting us as leaders and companions in and outside their safety zones ( pastures).

  20. In addition to Callie, I really enjoy watching Manolo Mendez working with horses. He is so gentle and understanding. He emphasizes the horses well being and physical condition and is careful to not to overload body or brain. Check him out!

  21. Hi Callie,
    Jessica here in California.
    This topic couldn’t have come at a more perfect moment for me. I have written to you about Sparrow the qh that I work with at a local rescue barn. We work only from the ground as my back is not very flexible after a few big crashes. We hike trails and do some round pen work and Sparrow will halt and refuse to walk forward occasional, and sometimes frequently. The barn manager has chastised me a few times for not being aggressive enough and that the horse is just being a brat. She will get Sparrow to move forward after some pretty intense smacks with the end of the lead role, but I am just not comfortable using pain as a motivator. The barn manager tries to convince me that horses are much harder on each other than she is being, and this technique is required for Sparrow to respect me. I have been told I am not firm enough as a leader for most of my riding experiences too.
    I find it ironic that when I try to be more aggressive with the lead role, Sparrow will move but not happily, and when we then move into round pen work, she is sullen in her movements and does not walk to me with me pulling on the lead role.
    Our round pen work is often a pleasant interaction with Sparrow listening to me and moving in response to my movements without a halter and lead rope. But following a more dominating walk, she is distant and aloof.
    I want Sparrow to respect me and keep us both safe, but I would prefer a more cooperative relationship.
    I really am at a lose here, I am not comfortable smacking her with the lead rope, but Sparrow is an opinionated horse, confident in her ability to be a bit intimidating when asked to do something she would rather not do.
    Do you have additional suggested learning ideas for me, I have watched and benefited from your videos, it working from the ground with a strong minded horse has me still a bit a drift.
    Thanks

    1. Hi Jessica, this is a tough thing to answer here in the comments, and this would be a great topic to do another video or article on. I think the key is to be blue to adjust our approach as necessary. Sometimes we need to be very bold and assertive, but then in the next moment we need to soften and give the horse space to offer something different.

  22. Questions from Norway (pardon my English:):

    I have just started riding this 10 year old mare. Until last year she had never been ridden and her “main job” was to keep her mother company in the fields. This tells me that she probably have very little experience and I have very little experience on how to handle inexperienced horses.

    So I have 3 questions for you:

    1. How can I teach her to stand still when I try to make a halt? She stops for half a second and then she starts to move sideways, always to the right. It doesn’t matter if there are bushes or trees in the way, she just walks straight into them. This makes it very difficult when we are out riding on trails and we have to stop waiting for the other horses to catch up. We end up walking in little circles to prevent me being pushed of under some branch.

    2. When out riding on trails she often tries to turn around to run back home. This often happens out of the blue and I’m not able to pick up the signals that she’s going to do this before it’s to late. The result is us almost crashing into the horse walking behind us, which is not very pleasant for them or us. I’ve managed to take her in on a little circle so we can get back in the correct direction, but I’m afraid the problem will escalate if I don’t find a better way to deal with this.

    3. When transitioning from trot to canter she is always bucking. Any ideas on how to make her stop doing that?

    1. There is a saying in the horse world: “Green on green makes black and blue!”, meaning that a green horse and a green rider make for a volatile combination.

      Anything that you want your horse to do under saddle you should teach from the ground first. It’s easier to communicate your intentions, and it’s much, much safer. For example, if you want to teach her to stand still if you are not applying any aids, just have her stand facing you, eyes on you. When she starts squirming, make her sweat a little by moving her feet…if she’s calm and relaxed, reward her. Expect little at first, more later. Your horse has to understand the pattern of pressure-and-release/discomfort-and-comfort you apply in order to master the skill, and the easier you make it for your horse to be a “winner”, the more she’ll want to do more of the same. (This applies to wanted and unwanted behavior, by the way.) Then you move on to teach the same thing under saddle. Do this in a controlled, safe (for the horse) environment that is free from distractions. A horse that is looking out for dangers on the trail will not be open to learning a lesson.
      As for my qualifications: I’m a rookie. I have watched Clinton Anderson’s “Training a rescue horse”, Buck Brannaman’s “7 Clinics”, and I’m taking actual groundwork *lessons* with an 8-year old TB (a.k.a. ‘Psycho Pony’) at a rescue farm under the guidance of an experienced horse trainer. And I still wouldn’t yet take on the responsibility of having my own horse, let alone a green one.

    2. Hi Marie, thanks for your comment and questions! I’ll do my best to give you ideas here to get you started on resolving these issues.

      For the first one, I would teach her to move away from this leg pressure. Here’s a video that may help:

      For the second, this is a tough one to give advice without knowing more, it could be your riding skill that needs more advancement for this situation or it could be that the horse is over faced and overwhelmed. It can also be that this is just a habit for the horse where again, the key in terms of rider skills is likely sensing and redirecting it early.

      For your third question, first check saddle fit, this is the most common cause of bucking in my experience, then make sure that your horse is moving forward easily at all the other gaits.

      Hope this helps!

  23. very nicely explained difference between aggressive and assertive .the more we know about the nature of the horse and theyre biomechanics the better we are able to understand how to work with them.

  24. Great video – and many useful comments. I agree – in my riding circles, being the boss doesn’t mean being aggressive, but it does mean being assertive and, as Dorothy said, “being a true leader and true leadership is not about dominance or aggression. It is about that persistence, patience, clear communication, building trust, having mutual respect for each other”. I’ve had three horses now and learned the hard way with horse # 1 that if, when we are establishing a relationship, I don’t set firm ‘ground rules’, they may well make their own. In horse #1’s case, this meant pushing past me when I was leading her, etc, etc – it took an experienced horseman friend to be very assertive with her – he directed me to Warrick Schiller’s wonderful Andalusion video – it’s free online, google it – to help me re-establish boundaries and from there everything got easier, right down to picking out her hooves. Horse #2 looked set to try to put herself higher in the pecking order as well but this time my gentle but firm guidance set us on a wonderful path. Horse 3 – we’re onto day six now – same deal.

  25. Thank you for this information!! i’ve tried the dominante approach for some time and it just does’nt work ! when i saw this video i almost ran out to the barn because i’ve felt so useless and stuck and hopeless and sad, it just was’nt fun anymore.. Now my horses are so more relaxed and enjoy when i come to take care of them, and i ‘m sooo more relaxed and happy! Thank you again dear Callie! Best regards from Rosie in Sweden

  26. Hi Callie!

    When I started riding as a kid the reason I stopped was because of this focus on “being the boss” and dominating the horse.

    I have gotten back into riding having learned about these alternative, ethical approaches to horses. Trying to find a riding instructor that uses this approach seems almost impossible. I don’t believe that any one *thinks* that they themselves are being aggressive— they think they are using the necessary force in order to keep safe. However, I have my doubts. As a green rider I don’t feel like they appreciate me questioning their methods! I need to know that my instructor has the same philosophy—does this way of being with horses have a specific name? Is there a way you can check if a horse is used to be handled aggressively rather than assertion?

    1. Christine, this is an awesome question! I think the best way to sum up the way of thinking Callie shared here is science-based training. It is really hard to tell since horses can change ownership and training methods several times during their lives. However, horses that have been trained to not have a lot of choice in the process tend to be very internal and they won’t often offer different behaviors in fear of them being the ‘wrong answer’.

      – Julia, CRK Training Community Manager

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