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“You have a leadership problem with your horse. Your horse does not recognise you as a leader.” Your trainer may have said this to you on occasion or something similar to it. As a result, you may have shrunk into your shell and seized the first opportunity to slink off quietly to find a quiet corner in which to lick your wounds or rap yourself on the knuckles for failing to be a leader to your horse. But what does this mean, “being a leader to your horse”? Does it really mean what they tell us? That your horse needs to respect you and do what you want them to do? More importantly perhaps, we may want to ask ourselves if there is any sense in the concept of leadership in relation to horses and, if there is, to what extent it is meaningful and useful in our interaction with our equine friends. After all, if the concept of leadership in relation to horses serves no purpose, why use it?


Please note that this is an unedited article which has since been revised and published in the book, When Horses Speak and Humans Listen. More information is available here: http://www.horsesandhumans.com/mainsite/whsahl.htm.


“Leadership” and its rationale

Within the domain of interaction between horses in captivity and humans the term, “leadership”, and its derivatives (“leader”, “to lead” and so forth) are usually employed by “natural horsemanship” practitioners or trainers who seek to identify with a “natural” approach to horsemanship. The concept is said to have its roots in studies of the natural interaction of horses with each other in the wild.

In its simplest form, the rationale advanced in support of the concept of “leadership” within equine communities is premised on the assumption that horses in the wild live in a homogenous herd. Such a herd, the rationale continues, is led by a single horse, who is recognised as “the leader” by all of the other horses in the herd.

This is where the rationale diverges depending on the stream within the “natural horsemanship” movement. The most simplistic rationale contends that the leader of the herd is an “alpha” horse, one that demands and receives acknowledgement of their “leadership” capabilities from their peers. This is the “psychology” underlying Parelli’s “Seven Games”, which – the official Parelli website argues – “establish a language between horse and human that enables clarity of communication and positions you in the alpha role – head of the herd, even if there’s only two in your ‘herd’” (http://www.parelli.com/the-seven-games.html consulted on 7 June 2017).

The notion of an “alpha” horse positioning themself as the “leader” of the herd also underlies the “join-up” approach adopted by Monty Roberts. According to the official Monty Roberts website, the fundamental question which a “trainer” asks the horse when employing his method is this: “Will you pay me the respect due to a herd leader and join and follow me?” And this question is asked after the “trainer”, working in a round pen … begins Join-Up® by making large movements and noise as a predator would and begins driving the horse to run away” (http://www.montyroberts.com/ab_about_monty/ju_about/ consulted on 7 June 2017), which is ultimately typical “alpha” horse behaviour.

Some streams within the “natural horsemanship” movement are uncomfortable with this simplistic approach and have accordingly developed somewhat more nuanced versions of the overall “rationale” for introducing the concept of “leadership” into the horse-human relationship. One such nuanced version is that presented by Marijke de Jong, the founder of “Straightness Training”, who, although not a typical proponent of “natural horsemanship”, has borrowed heavily from it in this respect. She has devised a fairly elaborate rationale in support of the concept of “leadership” (see http://straightnesstraining.com/the-rider/horsemanship/be-the-leader-with-your-horse/ – consulted on 7 June 2017). In her model an equine leader is “calm, stable and wise”, such as an old mare but definitely not a stallion, because his “role is to keep the herd together and to keep intruders and predators away from the herd’. The stallion, as she sees it, is the “group coordinator”. Yet she is a bit ambivalent, because she maintains that, “Leadership involves choosing the direction for the group and providing security to all others in their herd,” a description which in part covers the role she ascribes to the stallion. And it is precisely this ambivalence which De Jong subsequently holds up as the model of leadership which we humans should subscribe to in our dealings with our horses:

You can help your frustrated and confused horse return to a balanced state by being a good leader! As humans we should copy the great qualities of the “leading mare” and the “group coordinator” and see them as our role model!


How natural are the “natural horsemanship” leadership rationales?

If the rapidly growing influence of “natural horsemanship” is anything to go by, it is difficult not to conclude that the “natural horsemanship” leadership rationales represent a seductive narrative. Ascribing one of the most crucial tenets of “natural horsemanship”, namely “leadership”, to equine nature in the wild clearly holds great appeal to those of us who are actively seeking an alternative to conventional horsemanship with its emphasis on force or the threat of it, and who are increasingly turning back to nature in search of authenticity. Yet how natural are these rationales?

Equine ethologists, such as Lucy Rees and Victor Ros, have conducted extensive studies of herds of “wild” horses in Europe and still do so. Their findings are also corroborated by the observations of “wild” horse documentary makers, such as Ginger Kathrens, the cinematographer behind the legendary Cloud series, and reveal the following aspects, which largely debunk the claim that “natural horsemanship” rationales for leadership have their basis in nature:

  • in the wild there is no such thing as a homogenous herd of horses led by a single or even several horses. Rather, depending on its size, a herd is made up of several or numerous bands of horses, each of which is usually controlled by a single dominant stallion;
  • although there is a pecking order within each band, it is not permanent. On the contrary, it varies constantly depending on the circumstances and makeup of the band;
  • no single horse within a band constantly and consistently takes the lead in guiding the band to safety or resources such as water and forage;
  • the role played by the stallion is not merely to safeguard the security of the band but is predominantly geared towards maintaining and extending his equine assets, and this may occur at the cost of some of the horses comprising those assets.
Esperanza initiates connection - Is this about leadership?

Esperanza initiates connection – Is this about leadership?


Although it may be possible to produce more examples, we would do well to bear in mind that the herds of horses whose study constitutes the basis for the “natural horsemanship” narrative of leadership are not naturally wild but feral and, as such, we have no way of gauging the impact which captivity has had on those herds in the long term.

But perhaps the single most telling reason why the “natural horsemanship” leadership rationales are anything but natural lies in the fact that the horses with whom the “natural horsemanship” approach is pursued live in an absolutely unnatural environment, namely, captivity and the ramifications of this are so utterly fundamental as to completely negate the “natural horsemanship” approach. The chief differences responsible for this are as follows:

  • horses in captivity generally do not live in a herd;
  • where they do live in a herd, the horses comprising it may not form bands, which is often the case if the herd is too small or the space to which they are confined is too limited;
  • the membership of the herd depends on the arbitrary selection of horses by humans, with the result that no organic development occurs as in the wild;
  • in captivity up to half or more of the herd may consist of utterly unnatural horses. Here I am of course referring to geldings, which simply do not occur in the wild and it goes without saying that the nature of a stallion is completely changed by gelding them. This is after all the reason why humans mutilate (castrate) them;
  • as such, the development of largely harem bands around a controlling stallion usually does not occur;
  • similarly, there is little evidence of the emergence of “lead” mares in captivity;
  • what we do see in captivity and generally not in the wild is the emergence of “dominating” – so-called “alpha” – horses, which, as Marijke de Jong points out, is probably due to human influence rather than anything else.


“Leadership” practices in “natural horsemanship” training

By this stage it may be tempting to conclude that, if the “natural horsemanship” leadership rationales have no basis in fact, there should be no need to consider the “leadership” practices employed in “natural horsemanship” training. If we were to do this, however, we might risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. After all, it is at least remotely conceivable that perhaps one or more of such “leadership” practices may have some basis in the way that “equine leaders” deal with other horses in the wild.

So what would constitute “leadership practices” within the “natural horsemanship” approach? Here is a list that I have produced on the basis of my observations of “natural horsemanship” in action:

  1. “join-up”;
  2. aggressive behaviour and physical force;
  3. driving;
  4. psychological squeezing.


  1. “Join-up”

Introduced by Monty Roberts as the basis for his approach to “natural horsemanship” training, “join-up” is perhaps the most controversial of these “leadership” practices. Let us examine what it is based on a description provided by Monty Roberts, himself:

Working in a round pen, one begins Join-Up® by making large movements and noise as a predator would and begins driving the horse to run away. She then gives the horse the option to flee or Join-Up®. Through body language, the trainer will ask, “Will you pay me the respect due to a herd leader and join and follow me?” The horse will respond with predictable herd behaviour: by locking an ear on her, then by licking and chewing and dropping his head in a display of trust. The exchange concludes with the trainer adopting passive body language, turning her back on the horse and without eye contact, invites him to come close. Join-Up occurs when the animal willingly chooses to be with the human and walks toward her accepting her leadership and protection. This process of communication through behaviour and body language and mutual concern and respect, can be a valuable tool to strengthen all other work with horses.

 According to Roberts, “The result is a willing partnership in which the horse’s performance can flourish to its full potential, rather than exist within the boundaries of obedience”. For a moment let us suspend our disbelief at the notion that it is possible for a “willing partnership” to develop between horse and human which is based on the human “making large movements and noise as a predator would … driving the horse to run away”. In order to assess whether “join-up does indeed produce a willing partnership, it is important to understand precisely what is involved. Put another way, does the description of “join-up provided by Monty Roberts actually tally with his characterisation of it. First of all, we are told, the trainer drives the horse “to run away”. Is this true? Absolutely not. After all, this is taking place in a round pen. As such, the trainer is driving the horse along a fence-line which never ends and, horses being as smart as they are, pretty soon the creature learns that there is no end in sight to the movement which they are required to endure. So how would you expect a horse to respond to a situation of hardship (being driven) to which there appears to be no end? You would not be wrong if you were to conclude that you would expect them to give up, because ultimately that is the only alternative provided to the horse.

Monty Roberts demonstrating “join-up

So what does the horse do? They lock an ear on the trainer, lick and chew, drop their head and then walk towards the trainer. This, we are told, is “predictable herd behaviour”. Really? Recall the beginning of Monty Roberts’ description for a moment: “one begins … by making large movements and noise as a predator would”. Now we are asked to believe that a horse is not going to respond to the movements and noise of a predator with the type of behaviour that is characteristic of a herd’s initial response to a predator (flight or fight, in the first instance). So why does the horse not flee as it normally would in nature? Quite simply, because, unlike nature, the horse is prevented from fleeing as the predatory behaviour on the part of the horse occurs in a small, confined space with an endless fence-line. So why does the horse not stand and fight? Possibly because join-up usually never occurs with a stallion or, if it does, not without the human holding a whip in their hand while chasing the horse.

Instead of flight or fight, the horse locks their ear on the trainer? Why? Is it not because this is a typical response to anything threatening which is chasing them, namely, they need to be aware of the origin of the threat? Licking and chewing usually denotes some form of relaxation on the part of the horse following heightened activity or stress. In this case do the licking and chewing not suggest an awareness on the part of the horse that, although they are being chased, they will not be attacked? And when the horse drops their head and walks to the trainer, does this not suggest resignation to the inevitable rather than an embrace of the situation as a willing partner? And when the horse “chooses to be with the human and walks toward her”, is this behaviour really an expression of a willingness on their part to be with the human and to accept the latter’s leadership, as Roberts claims? Or is it not more tellingly, the first significant expression of learned helplessness on the part of the horse? After all, if the only choice available to the horse is to continue racing down an endless fence-line or to move away from it towards the centre, where else are they going to go? And just guess who coincidentally happens to be standing in the centre. Join up or give up?


  1. Aggressive behaviour and physical force

You are already aware that Monty Roberts’ join-up is based on human predatory behaviour. This he candidly admits himself. In this case though we are not talking about just any form of human predatory behaviour. More specifically, join-up relies on the form that is most threatening to the horse: the chase. Much of this type of predatory behaviour can still be seen in what passes for the “natural horsemanship” version of “liberty work”.

Taking their cue from a horse that puts their ears back and accompanies this signal with hard eyes and firm lips to elicit specific behaviour from a subordinate in the pecking order, following up that show of force with a lunge and bared teeth and more if it is not forthcoming (so-called “alpha” behaviour), “natural horsemanship” practitioners frequently also adopt an aggressive posture when training a horse to move away from them (including yielding their hindquarters), which is on most occasions. Pat Parelli’s instructions for “playing” the first part of the “yoyo game” (the fourth of the seven games comprising Level 1, the aim of the first part being to get the horse to move backwards in a straight line) illustrate the point. This version was published in Natural Horse Magazine (see http://naturalhorse.com/archive/volume3/Issue7/article_8.php?cmtx_sort=4, consulted on 23 June 2017).

After assuming a position in front of your horse with your 12-foot lead rope attached to your horse’s rope halter at one end, the other firmly grasped in your sweaty hand about an arm’s length from your horse’s nose, you are now advised to, “Give your horse a ‘Schwiegermutter’ look (German for mother-in-law!) like you are another horse laying his ears back”. In a horse this may be all that is required in order to elicit the preferred behaviour because of all the energy informing that signal. Energy, however, is not what “natural horsemanship” deals in, which is why the “Schwiegermutter” is not enough and the human is then advised to resort to a mechanical device to elicit the desired behaviour from the horse. And just what is that device?

Pat Parelli answering a question about the YoYo game

Well, it is the lead rope but it is just not going to be used for leading but for more aggressive purposes. While looking at your horse as the stereotype of a fierce German mother-in-law would, you are advised to lift your hand and wiggle your index finger at them. If everything remains at the mechanical level only, you may rest assured that your horse will stand exactly where he is and perhaps look at you quizzically. This means that you will probably need to move to the next level (“up the ante” is what Parelli calls this), which is to gently wiggle the lead rope sideways while still playing German mother-in-law with your eyes, the idea being that the moment your horse takes the smallest step backwards, you will stop glaring and wiggling at them. So what happens to the lead rope when you do this. The gentle wiggle created by your hand advances up the rope until it impacts against the halter and ruffles the jaw. If your horse still does not take a step backwards, you go up another level and increase the vigour of your wiggle. And as you do, notice how the lead rope amplifies the wiggle to create a wave which crashes against the horse’s jaw, especially if the lead rope is connected to the rope halter with a large metal connector, as is usually the case. By now your horse should seriously be beginning to consider a step backwards if they have not already done this. And if they have not, just up the ante.

By now there is probably no need to connect the dots. You get the picture, don’t you?


  1. Driving

Driving refers to the process of compelling a horse to move in a particular direction by exerting pressure on them to do so, using motions which may include physical force but which normally imply the threat of force, usually without touching the animal and more often than not in a forward direction, although it may be in a backward direction, as in the case of the first part of the yo-yo game. As such, it is more an expression of psychological compulsion than anything else. It is a technique which is most successful when coupled with psychological squeezing. The trigger for the exertion of such pressure may be refined to a subtle signal which goes a long way to creating the semblance of a spontaneously willing equine partner.

Driving is perhaps the only “leadership” practice which “natural horsemanship” has sourced from the wild. This is what a stallion resorts to in their efforts to keep their band safe and secure for their pleasure. In the wild this is also to a large extent effective in keeping the horses comprising the band safe from predators and other dangers.

In its most cynical form, driving in a “natural horsemanship” context is coupled with leading on a loose lead. Because the lead droops in a lazy loop it gives the appearance that no force or threat of force is employed. The lead is said to have a smile in it. Yet the only way the horse may be induced to move, is by driving them.

Learning to longe a horse via the Parelli variant of “natural horsemanship”

  1. Psychological squeezing

This is a term that I have coined to refer to what I personally feel is one of the most diabolical and unscrupulous forms of horse training ever devised. Essentially, psychological squeezing employs the driving technique coupled with intense psychological pressure designed to render every alternative form of behaviour other than that demanded of the horse so unpleasant that the horse will exhibit the form of behaviour required of them by their human “trainer” for no other reason than that every other available alternative has been rendered so unacceptable that the behaviour demanded of them becomes the only acceptable way forward. In this sense the required behaviour is squeezed from the horse very much as paste is squeezed from a tube through its opening.

As such, the technique of psychological squeezing is nothing more nor less than psychological manipulation designed to achieve human domination of the horse without the use of physical force. Because this technique is both exceedingly effective and simultaneously creates the illusion of compliance by a willing equine partner, it is also extremely enticing to the human who seeks to have such an illusion become their reality in their dealings with horses.

Psychological squeezing can be used in a variety of situations. It is also quite effective in not so subtly teaching your horse to load themself in a trailer. Simply ensure that the only attractive place to be is in front of the trailer and advancing into it, all other alternatives having been rendered unacceptable to the horse. In the saddle, if have seen this technique used to induce a horse to go forward. Simply spend some time bending the horse into the tiniest circle possible at the walk and, if possible, advance on to tiny figure-eights. Within a few minutes your horse will probably welcome the opportunity to walk forward briskly.


“Leadership” tools

Have you ever stopped to consider the tools which “natural horsemanship” practitioners rely on in their efforts to convince the horse that they should become a “willing” partner to the human while simultaneously accepting the latter’s “leadership”? Here I am referring to the rope halter, lead rope, “carrot” stick and in many cases also the round pen. At first glance these tools appear to be a far friendlier alternative to the conventional equestrian establishment’s reliance on tight-fitting bridles with their bit (or bits if you’re planning on competing at the most senior levels of the dressage hierarchy) and drop nosebands, not to mention the ubiquitous whips of all sizes and spurs. I know I had a warm, fuzzy feeling when I embraced these “leadership” tools during my relatively brief foray into Parelli’s version of “natural horsemanship”, convinced at the time that they and his approach were more horse-friendly.

Then I started learning more about the nature of the horse and I re-examined these tools of “leadership”. Let us start with the “carrot stick”, which is actually more stick than carrot. Indeed, the only similarity with a carrot in the case of the Parelli variant of such a stick is the colour. To all intents and purposes, a “carrot stick” is nothing more than a strong, relatively long rigid stick, capable of inflicting more injury owhomsoever”‘altional dayout”.n a horse than most whips, with a long cord attached to enable it to be used as a whip as well, giving the human two tools of control for the price of one. It is generally used in the pursuit of the “natural horsemanship” version of leadership to drive the horse outside of one’s bubble, to drive the animal backwards, to drive and control the hindquarters and to drive the horse in mindless circles around the human to demonstrate the latter’s “leadership”.

Then there is the rope halter. If ever there was sign that someone had “progressed” from conventional to “natural” horsemanship, then this must be it. Gone is the ultra-tight bridle and webbing “head collar” (a misnomer if ever there was one, a “collar” being by definition something which goes around the neck) in favour of the loose, “horse-friendly” rope halter. Indeed, the “natural horsemanship” practitioners even use it as the preferred head gear when riding. So is it really “horse-friendly”? Pick up one and examine it. Note the rope. It is usually quite thin. Note also that, when the rope halter is placed on a horse’s head, there is a good deal of slack and, when you note this, consider also what the effect can be when slack is suddenly tightened. Knot the rope halter as you would when putting it on a horse making sure that you have a lead rope attached to it appropriately, place the poll end over your shoulder and stretch your arm out until you can just loosely drape the “noseband” over the back of your fingers. It feels quite comfortable, does it not? Now imagine that you are riding or leading your horse, your shoulder to your fingers being their head. Suddenly a kangaroo leaps out of nowhere (I speak from experience) and you instinctively clutch the lead rope as your horse takes off like a rocket in any direction other than the one in which you were heading. As you imagine this, clutch the lead rope attached to the halter around your arm and pull it down hard and fast enough to give yourself some idea of what half a tonne of horse feels like when it moves in a different direction from you and your lead rope. Does the rope halter bite? And where does it do so? Right there: the equivalent of the poll of the horse with its collection of sensitive tissue and their equally sensitive nose, just about where the nasal bone thins to a very vulnerable wafer. Surprised? You should not be. This is what the rope halter is designed to do in an effort to secure “respect” for the human’s “leadership”. Now consider that this exercise presupposes the occurrence of an accident. What if the rope halter were also to be used as an effective means of control during training, as when driving the horse to the end of the lead rope until their rope halter digs in and forces them into a circle?

Well, surely if the lead rope is used without pulling or driving the horse into their rope halter, that should not hurt the creature, should it? This is where the “natural horsemanship” model’s reliance on driving to secure “leadership” comes into play again. Have you seen a “natural horsemanship” practitioner drive a horse with a lead rope? When this occurs at liberty, a small part of the lead rope is swung around the hand either in the direction of the horse or obliquely. Either way, if the horse does not yield to the swinging rope it will be whacked on whichever protuberance remains in the way, usually the rump or the nose. When the lead rope is attached to the horse through the rope halter, it is frequently used to drive the horse backwards. The human does this by swinging their end of the rope horizontally which creates waves in the rope that amplify as the zigzag in the rope heads towards the horses jaw just behind the mouth. For added persuasion of the human’s “leadership” qualities, the lead rope is usually attached to the rope halter with a relatively large, heavy connector and, when it connects with the horse’s jaw, as it often does, the horse is usually instantly convinced of the human’s “leadership” powers.

And so on to the round pen. Surely this tool cannot be as effective in persuading the horse to accede to the human’s “leadership”? Consider the fence of the round pen from the horse’s perspective. Where does it end? And when the horse is driven around the perimeter as they usually are, is the end ever in sight? And so we come full circle to Monty Roberts. Is it really join-up or is it not give-up, the horse giving up all control over their own movement, their body and their spirit? And if it is where does this lead? Learned helplessness?


Reinforcement and driving

If you have ever trained with a “natural horsemanship” trainer, you will probably have noticed that they avoid the use of treats as rewards or any similar form of positive reinforcement. Indeed, more often than not they will pride themselves on eschewing treats. Instead of treats or other positive reinforcement rewards, they insist that the horse show the human respect and yield to the latter’s “leadership”. But is it really the human’s “leadership” which the horse is required to accede to or is it something else.

The “leadership techniques” employed by “natural horsemanship” rely to a limited extent on pressure and release. This is a negative reinforcement training technique which entails the application of physical pressure to a horse’s body to induce them to exhibit a certain form of behaviour and which is released when that behaviour is exhibited by way of a “reward”. Although this technique is utterly alien to a horse (see my paper entitled Pressure and Release), it is also employed extensively in modern conventional equestrian pursuits.

Within the “natural horsemanship” paradigm, the pressure and release technique acquires more sinister overtones as a practice which is predominantly designed to obtain the horse’s recognition of the human’s “leadership”, often under the guise of an inspiring rationale replete with references to “respect”, “willing partnership” and the like. The Parelli method employs this technique both extensively and ruthlessly as a precursor to the preferred “leadership” practice of driving, especially in the course of the euphemistically termed “Seven Games”. An initial failed attempt at driving the horse to play such a “game” with the help of a so-called “carrot stick” is followed by instructions to “up the ante” with rising levels of physical force and aggressive energy.

Repeated often enough, the logic goes, the horse will learn to avoid the physical force and aggressive energy to yield to the initial attempt to drive them in a particular direction. Very soon then the horse will learn to respond to the human’s attempt to drive them immediately. The illusion of a willing partner responding to a slight request on the part of the human will then become a reality.


Leadership or domination

So far, human domination has largely been implied at most rather than explicitly mentioned in this discussion of horses and “leadership” with one exception, namely, “join-up”. At this point it is probably opportune to deal with it explicitly. In order to do so effectively, we need to agree on terminology which is specific to this subject matter. Accordingly, I propose to employ the following terms bearing the meanings assigned to them below.

“Dominate”, “dominating” and “domination” are terms which I use to describe the process involving a human successfully exploiting their power over a horse to control them usually by employing force or the threat of force. “Dominance” and “dominant” are terms which are unfortunately more ambivalent. This is because both of these terms may be used to denote such domination. For instance, “dominance” may be employed to refer to the process of domination while “dominant” may denote its outcome. Yet both of these terms may also bear a more neutral meaning in the sense of being higher up the pecking order, as it were. For instance, a human carer has a dominant position in relation to their horse in that the human controls the conditions of their horse’s accommodation, feed, care and training, amongst other things. This places the human in a position of “dominance” in relation to the horse to that extent. It is usually the context which reveals the meaning of a particular use of the terms, “dominance” and “dominant”. Unfortunately, the context may not always be clear.

Based on the definitions employed here, it should be clear by now that the human “leadership” practices described above are little more than techniques designed to make it possible for a human to dominate and control a horse. Similarly, the “leadership” rationales outlined above are no more than a sophisticated justification for humans to dominate and control horses. Or are there alternative explanations which I (and many others) just fail to see?

But is it so cut and dried? Take the “natural horsemanship” trainer, Buck Brannaman. Touted as the “Zen Master” of the horse world, Brannaman is admired as a man who has shown himself to be calm and in tune with horses, so much so that he has even become the subject of a popular documentary film. The “horsemanship” is indeed inspiring by many if not most humans’ standards. Yet, when I watch the videos, really look at the horse and ask myself just where  is the creature in all of this and just how willing a partner they are, I am left with questions? And you?

An introduction to Buck Brannaman, subject of the documentary, “Buck”


Deception on a massive scale?

In that the “leadership” rationales serve to legitimise human domination of horses and the use of techniques designed to achieve such domination, the question arises as to whether their employment and that of the terms used by those employing them to denote the techniques and tools of domination which they employ do not represent a widespread con job, deception on a massive scale.

Of course, such deception would only exist if it could be shown that it was accompanied by the intention to deceive. This would entail passing judgment on fellow humans. It is my experience that such judgment helps neither horses nor humans and, as such, is a futile exercise. What would be more beneficial, I suspect, is to find ways of relating to horses which benefit both them and their carers.



At the risk of shooting myself in my foot, as it were, I must confess that I have seen a tiny number of “natural horsemanship” practitioners manage to develop a fairly close relationship with their horse in spite of the techniques and tools that they use. They appear to have a close bond with their horse and are able to communicate with them rather than rely on conditioned behaviour or learned helplessness.

What these exceptional [I use the term advisedly here] “natural horsemanship” practitioners seem to have in common is, first and foremost, a profound commitment to the well-being of the horse. Secondly, this is coupled with a sensitivity to what the horse is communicating through both energy and signals and an ability to feel into what is happening between them and their horse. Thirdly, and as importantly, such humans tend to be content and the energy they radiate is that of quiet joy. Perhaps Buck Brannaman is also just such an exceptional “natural horsemanship” practitioner.



By now we have reached the stage where we may legitimately ask whether any concept of leadership does or should play a role in the relationship between horses and humans. Marijke de Jong contends that, if a human fails to show leadership in relation to their horse, the latter will do so and that this will inevitably result in a dysfunctional equine, one that may even become aggressive and dangerous. Perhaps this is true, although it could be difficult to prove as there are so many things that humans do or fail to do which create traumatised horses.

Drawing on his martial arts (Aikido) experience, the energetical interaction which it involves and the self-assurance which it confers, Mark Rashid, has become a champion of “lightness” in horse training. He has also advanced the concept of “passive leadership” (see http://www.markrashid.com/docs/leadership.pdf, consulted on 7 June 2017). This is how he explains it:

There are two types of leaders in a herd situation. The alpha, or lead horse, that rules by dominance, and passive leaders that lead by example. The passive leaders are usually chosen by other members of the herd and are followed willingly, while alphas use force to declare their place in the herd. Passive leaders are usually older horses somewhere in the middle of the herd’s pecking order. They are quiet and consistent in their day-to-day behavior and don’t appear to have much ambition to move up the “alpha” ladder. As a result, there appears to be no reason for them to use force to continually declare their position in the herd.

Alphas, on the other hand, are usually pretty far from being quiet and consistent in their behavior. They are often very pushy, sometimes going as far as using unprovoked attacks on subordinates for the simple reason of declaring their dominance. As a result of this behavior, the majority of the horses in the herd will actually avoid all contact with the alpha throughout the day.

By this stage we may have concluded that, if the herd actually avoids all contact with an “alpha” horse, then such a horse simply cannot be a leader, the implication being that horses only have a single type of leader, a passive one, according to Rashid’s approach. So what makes a “passive leader”? Here is Rashid’s answer:

Passive leaders have “earned” that particular title with the other horses by showing them they can be dependable in their passive behavior from one day to the next. In other words, they lead by example, not by force.

Mark Rashid demonstrating some of the techniques he uses

Yet assuming that Rashid is right and that this is the way that horses regulate issues of “leadership”,  assuming they have any, does this mean that we humans should try and emulate horses in our dealings with them. I do not know about your horses but ours are pretty smart. They have worked out a long time ago that I am not a horse. Indeed, whenever I have tried to emulate a horse in my dealings with them in the past, they have been less than impressed. So if this is not the answer, what is?



As Chuck Mintzlaff of “Friendship Training” fame has known and preached for a long time, by far the closest bond one horse has with another or even any other is that of friendship. Take a horse’s friend away from them and they will bellow in pain, abandon their food and pace, if not run, the fence. Although Mintzlaff has used this close bond as the basis for his Friendship Training programme, I tend  to agree with Michael Bevilacqua that “friendship and understanding have nothing to do with training”. You simply cannot train friendship! The flip side of this coin is that you can most certainly fake friendship with a horse through training.

The basis of any true friendship is a four-letter word: love. If there is anything that I would describe as the most profound truth about the relationship between horses and humans that I have ever learned from the horses, this would have to be it. As humans, we have the potential to be the greatest friend a horse could ever have, not because of what the horse can give to us but rather what we can give to the horse without ever expecting anything in return.

Vicki with new friends, Commanche and Thunder, inspired by Michael Bevilacqua

This is not a clingy, cuddly friendship that I am referring to here, although there will be times when a horse will want to do just that with their human friend. Rather, I am referring to the type of friendship in which the horse views the human as a friend who has no need to prove themself, who is content, solid, dependable, reliable, caring and trustworthy, who is the human they seem to be, who is capable of feeling and communicating with them, who does and shares nice things with them, who is empathetic and empowering, and who is all of this without ever asking anything in return. This is the basis of everything: friendship. For it is then that the horses give everything of their own accord and acknowledge their human friend.

So is this too tall an order for a human? When I look around me and see how much time, energy and money humans devote to trying to take the same or slightly different shortcuts with horses for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more and still feel frustrated in their dealings with horses, then I have to confess that friendship has turned out to be a far better option. It has been ten years since my lightbulb moment while watching Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling together with his equine friend, Janosch, in the wild. I suspected it then but I know it now: friendship is the basis for everything and anything that we wish to do with horses which is genuine and authentic.

The video that prompted the start of my journey with horses ten years ago


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11 Responses to “Horses and the Myth of Leadership”

  1. Elaine Mair says:

    Fantastic article! I have been on that journey….still on the journey! I have a horse called Heulyn, so messed up when I first got him nearly 3 years ago and I have searched through all these trainers. Starting out with Parelli, I knew I didn’t want the traditional approach. He was already 9 and so mistrusting of humans I wanted to find the kind of approach I knew instinctively as a child/teenager, I wanted to be his friend. I wanted to help him believe he would be heard. I have watched, eagerly trying to gleen the parts that resonated with him, my horse. Chuck Mintzlaf resonated with me the most but I’ve also seen there are so many that are on this journey of understanding the magnificence of these amazing beings. Anyway, just really wanted to say thanks for sharing all you have and explaining the whole leadership thing because it can be daunting. My horse was very headstrong and had rebelled so much that he had become dangerous. Initially, I used the parelli headcollar etc. but have since abandoned it and I’m experimenting with Liberty and a much more relaxed approach. This article has really helped me put some more peices in the jigsaw! Thank you , Elaine

  2. Greatly appreciate this article as truth-telling about where ‘natural’ horsemanship and the leadership/respect trend go astray. The human-animal bond has survived eons of obtuse, ignorant, insidiously savage, or downright cruelty and somehow horses and dogs and other social animals have forgiven us again and again. The relationship that we want with our horses must be mutual and the only leadership we humans should be bringing to it is to provide safe passage through the human world that so often is so treacherous to animals. I expect mutual ‘manners’ as befitting any safe, kind relationship; servile dominance, or a robot-like mechanical response is of no interest to me, and the death-knell on a true bond.

  3. Chris says:

    I enjoyed the article about Horses and the Myth of Leadership. I do wish you included more on the ethology and genuine nature of the horses in a natural herd. Also, there were no videos by Chuck Mintzlaff.

    I understand your compulsion to write about the people in the order that you did because that is the order of their commercial approach to training. You missed the boat when you didn’t write more about Mintzlaff. It might behoove you to watch, read and maybe even talk to him.

    Oh I have a mule. You can bully a horse but not a mule. You have to befriend a mule.

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Chris

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Chuck and I have had contact with each other on a number of occasions over the years and my partner did his Friendship Training programme for a while, so I am fairly familiar with his approach. I believe that he is making a fine contribution to the growing movement of humans who are looking for a new meaningful way of being with horses.

      Personally though – and it is a personal thing – I find my inspiration elsewhere, which is not to diminish or be disdainful of Chuck’s work.

      Be well!

  4. Courtney says:

    This is a very well written and detailed piece. I enjoyed reading it. But, I do feel inclined to suggest that your definition of leadership is your perception of the methods used to achieve the leadership role, to which you have a negative bias towards. Which I understand – I cannot stand seeing all these ‘liberty’ videos of horses who are shut down and sullen, alongside the heavy marketing campaigns and buzz sell of natural horsemanship.

    I don’t think you can form a strong argument between a study conducted of horses in the wild versus techniques we use to communicate ideas with them in captivity. A domestic horse is born with his biology already set to adapt to his environment, and even a natural style environment will stray greatly from that of the wild horse featured in the study you reference.

    This piece could have been strengthened with clearer objectives. On one hand it essentially seems like your goal is to refute the Parelli empire and Monty Roberts. However the article centers around leadership. The leadership you describe here sounds more like dictatorship.

    As a trainer, or “trainer” as per your article, I see the need for leadership. You cannot positively interact with a horse or impart any learning or training if you as the human are lacking in self awareness or esteem.

    In my experience with horses I would garner that leadership is vital in building the relationships we want with our horses, however our notion of leadership tends to take on a more dictatorship-like tone. Leadership with horses is about fairness, consistency, compassion, respect (you respecting the horse, first and foremost), and a bit of fun thrown in for good measure. These are qualities you embody, not something you practice through methods and techniques.

    I hope this has made sense as it’s quite early in the morning and I haven’t been awake long.

    In brief, I do believe that our domestic horses require some level of leadership in their interaction with humans, however that leadership differs greatly from how we innately perceive it to be.

    • Debra Sheffield says:


      I think you said it so well, there is a leadership when being with my horse. Whether he is in a pair in his field or a larger group, he is the leader. He can be aggressive, mostly small actions with ears or moving others off the spot. Sometimes, large with biting motions and charging the fence. He often watches over a larger group of mares further away from him. He was a stallion till 4 or 5, but gelded then. I have seen the quieter leader, the keeper of the fire, in the mare group and she rarely shows that side of herself to the onlooker. If I try just being with the horses, it can be a little dangerous as they want to be really close and even bump you (almost step on you) as they move. I would rather interactions be free from hurting them or any human that comes near them. The more I am quiet, consistent, but firm, the better the situation is for me and them. There is no confusion or what looks like resentment from them. My horse actually wants clear signals from me. His actions show me he is saying this time is different than the last time we interacted and I don’t like it. After fireworks were shot off a few houses down, both of the horses here were terrified running the far fence line. It took not just quiet methods, but rope halter and leading to quiet them down. If I take on the leadership of my gelding, he calms, loosens his neck muscles, he doesn’t have to be in alert mode. He was able to relax some. After 2 hours, he could stand, graze, and move slowly. He was still on alert, but so much better. I had to bring my energy, breathing down, as well as I stayed close by singing and talking to them. There is leadership, or whatever word you want to call it.

      • Andrew says:

        Dear Debra

        What you describe, does it not sound more like the kind of thing you would do for a good friend, especially one who relies on you entirely for their survival and well-being?

        Be well!

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Courtney

      To a large extent I agree with you that the dynamics at play amongst “wild” horses and those in captivity are very different and, as such, require a different approach, although I would hesitate to suggest that the differences extend to biology, especially if we bear in mind that, with the exception of the Przewalski line in Mongolia, all other horses that live in the wild are feral, that is, originally domesticated.

      If training extends beyond furthering communication between horse and human, do we not enter the realm of conditioned behaviour from which the horse as a spontaneous, sentient being is effecctively absent and the human has established their “leadership” in their absence?

      To the extent that we feel that we require leadership in our dealings with horses, I wonder whether this is not more indicative of some inadequacy in us rather than the horse.

      Be well!

  5. Well done. There are hundreds of permutations on this theme that can easily be culled out of our “training” methodologies. First, it helps to consciously address the Dominion Delusion that forms the basis of our errors. So long as the human remains in the throes of our cultural indoctrination around our dominion over all Life, we’re falling short. What I have witnessed over 37 years of employing companion critters, including horses, as co-facilitators in my psychotherapy practice, shows that their greatest contribution to human well-being is as mindfulness coaches. When a human masters being fully present in the here-and-now with their animal, the animal shifts consciousness dramatically. First, they release tension. Then, they soften, relax and become exquisitely receptive. When the human practices this daily, their nervous systems work out glitches, more new neurons form, which increases our brain power and resilience. The human-animal bond is invigorated beyond imagining.

    This takes us and our critters to whole new realms. Mindfulness has been recommended by every spiritual discipline around the globe that we’very accessed for the last 5,000 years. That’s a truckload of validation. Over the past 20 years, since we’ve figured out how to photograph working brains, we discovered that mindfulness generates new neurons that apparently form bridges around glitches. That just doesn’t happen when we take the role of dominator.

  6. Jean says:

    I have learned a lot from different trainers over the years, particularly from Linda Parelli. She and Pat both acknowledge many mistakes in their dealings with horses, particularly in the early years, and, like all of us, they occasionally still make them.
    I didn’t understand a couple of things…. “a “carrot stick” is nothing more than a strong, relatively long rigid stick, capable of inflicting more injury owhomsoever”‘altional dayout”.n a horse” or the difference is between a carrot stick and the stick Klaus uses. Color aside, they appear identical.
    I do want to say that in all the years I’ve followed Pat and Linda Parelli, they have been adamant about the carrot stick not being used to hit a horse, and I have never seen them use it that way. Maybe they would if an unfamiliar horse charged? I don’t know – maybe I would. Thank God that’s never happened to me. The first time I watched Linda with Remmer and Pat with Magic many years ago, both at liberty, was as beautiful a dance as your friend in the video I just watched – I respect that you perceive it differently, but it’s my truth and many many times I have witnessed the partnerships the Parellis and their students have with their horses since then. Is one always a junior partner in some ways? Sure. If a horse wants to turn left to the barn and you want to turn right to the trail, you don’t flip a coin like you might with a human friend – but all these years I have found that as our horses understand what we want, they want to do it. We in turn do everything we can to provide them with as natural a life as we can – barefoot trims, as natural a horse track system as we could devise (and we are constantly working to make it more like the wild), good shelter, free choice hay in slow grazers, never being put in prison- locked in a stall – and full turnout with their herd. As for us, we have a horse that a trainer told us 15 years ago (as she was quitting) was going to “really hurt someone, probably you.” Within a few weeks of applying what I was learning with the Parellis 3 times a week for short gentle lessons, I had a still-spirited but trustworthy and playful horse who is pretty close to perfect, prejudiced though I may be. If I had one wish here, it would be that you go and spend a week with them – if it’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that Linda and Pat love horses. Their work is dedicated to improving the lot of horses in the world. Maybe you could learn something important from them and they could learn something important from you.

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Jean

      I have studied and “done” Parelli to the extent that our horses have permitted it. At the time I was very grateful that for the first time in my life I felt entirely safe with horses. This feeling of safety facilitated further development until I threw out the carrot stick, harsh rope halter and methods designed to have the horse yield their hindquarters, finally realising that the greatest safety device I had at my disposal was trust: the horse’s in me and mine in the horse and myself.

      For every song of praise that a disciple can sing of their mentor, a critic can cite a video or other example of their shortcomings. It is a debate which is destined to go nowhere and consequently one which I do not wish to enter.

      Ultimately, what concerns me is the health and well-being of a particular horse in their special circumstances at a specific time and that of their carer. As I see it, the constant insistence on “leadership” on the part of humans, something for which the “natural horsemanship” movement bears great responsibility, is undermining our ability to relate to horses as caring humans. Why not just be a friend to the horse without expectations and the need to control? True, in that they depend on us for their survival and well-being, we are friends with a special responsibility.

      Be well!