Dealing With the Dominant Horse
Most horses are natural followers. They are at their happiest and best when somebody is clearly telling them what to do.
Every so often, however, you come across a genuinely dominant animal. Most horses, when told what to do, will do it as long as they understand you. The dominant horse is constantly responding with 'Make me' or 'Why'.
Dominant horses may resort to aggressive or intimidating moves such as shoving their handler, trying to scrape their rider off on trees or walls or even deliberately throwing a rider. In some cases, therefore, a dominant horse can rapidly become a dangerous horse.
Can You Deal With Dominance?
The first question to ask yourself when handling a dominant horse is whether you, personally, can deal with equine dominance.
A dominant horse may attempt to use force on you to get his or her own way (as a rule, most highly dominant horses are mares or stallions, but I have certainly encountered extremely dominant geldings). They may become aggressive towards humans or other horses...some dominant animals will pick fights in the pasture.
Not every human being is equipped to mentally handle a thousand-pound animal that is trying to dominate you. It is not a question of physical size...I know of five foot nothing women who can handle a highly dominant stallion better than large men. Rather, it is a question of horsemanship and also of attitude.
If your horse is constantly making you back down, it is time to seek professional help and it is, yes, time to consider selling the horse. I know that seems harsh but, again, dominant horses easily become dangerous horses.
First of all, when dealing with a dominant horse, always wear a helmet. Even for groundwork. I would also suggest considering wearing a vest.
Always carry a crop or dressage whip—one of the first rules of being able to deal with dominance is knowing how to correctly use a crop and not being afraid to use one. I am not advocating beating horses here...that is not correct use. But you need to be ready to deliver a sharp, immediate and if necessary physical correction to the animal.
Never work with a dominant horse on your own. Always make sure there is somebody else, who knows what they are doing, on the property.
Working On The Ground
Begin your work with the horse on the ground. Some people advocate round pen work with dominant horses, but make sure the area is large enough to give both you and the horse space.
I personally start with the very basics, and that is to lay down, right now, your expectations. The horse is to allow itself to be haltered. It is to walk next to you...and absolutely, under no circumstances, ahead. Never let a dominant horse drag you—in their terms, that puts them in charge. If necessary, stop them by either bringing the whip across their chest or, if you feel comfortable doing so, by placing your own shoulder immediately ahead of theirs. This second maneuver resembles the body language of a more dominant equine and I have found it extremely effective on any horse that tries to barge ahead.
When you tell the horse to stand, it does not get to move a hoof until you say so. Absolutely do not let the horse rush into its stall (this is dangerous). With most horses, you can allow some flexibility. With the dominant horse, the rules have to be the rules at all time.
When working with the horse, use quick, immediate correction. If need be, smack it, but only once per offense. Not only is beating a horse abusive, but it is also incredibly ineffective. Horses understand only immediate response. If, however, the horse starts showing extremely dominant behavior such as biting, threatening to rear, etc, then you need to hit back with everything you can. Once. Quickly. Then pretend it never happened. The converse is to also use quick, immediate reward. By giving the horse a treat when it behaves, you not only build positive associations but reinforce your own dominance as the person who gets to decide when it eats.
Working Under Saddle
Dominance behaviors under saddle often include taking off (which is completely different from 'bolting') and slamming the rider into a solid object. I know a dominant horse who will, every single time a strange rider gets on him, try to scrape them off on the wall of the indoor arena. Again, a dominant horse can easily become a dangerous horse.
A dominant horse will repeat any behavior that gives him the upper hoof. Dominant horses often learn that if they throw a rider, they get to go back to their stall.
It is absolutely vital that no matter what a dominant horse does, it does not get them out of work. For this reason, it is vital never to ride a dominant horse without a second person present who is equally competent and capable of getting on the horse if it manages to injure you. If the horse dumps you—and most dominant horses sooner or later will try to dump you—and you aren't hurt, immediately remount and continue working. If you do this, then in most cases, the horse will only try throwing you once, maybe twice, before she realizes that it gets her absolutely nowhere. Because of this, the ideal person to work with a dominant horse is somebody who has had proper, formal fall training and can handle taking a tumble or two. Again, this may seem cold, but if you cannot handle the risk of being thrown due to age or inexperience, you should not be trying to work with a dominant horse.
Dominant horses tend, on the whole, to be of above-average equine intelligence. When working with a dominant horse, keep this in mind. As much as possible, try to occupy their mind with challenging exercises and a strong focus on doing everything right, so they are not thinking about ways to get to you.
If after reading all of this, you wonder why anyone would bother with a dominant horse, you would definitely be forgiven. Why bother going through all of that and potentially risking injury when there are plenty of horses out there?
Here is the thing: Most dominant horses are either ponies or come from certain stock horse lines. Those lines are well known for being some of the best roping and cutting lines in the world. For working with cattle, a dominant horse is absolutely essential, because a submissive horse will back down to an angry steer rather than tell it where to go. These horses also need to be intelligent and often have a herding instinct as good as any dog's. The one I know has attempted to herd the barn swallows and (proving that although he's smart for a horse he isn't that smart) the barn cat.
For hunting, cross country or trail riding in dangerous country, a horse that takes initiative can be incredibly valuable. These horses will get you out of the trouble you got them into.
Once you do have their respect...without breaking them, but by teaching them that you are the boss and their partner, the dominant horse can be a dream. Instead of simply doing as you ask like a machine, these animals will work with you as partners. On top of that, once you have their place (and yours) firm in the hierarchy, many dominant horses will show distinct signs of affection and loyalty towards those - and only those - who have proven themselves worthy of them. They are a lot of work, but they are often well worth it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.