Horse rider, role-playing gamer, and science fiction and fantasy fan. Also married for fifteen happy years.
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.
KatBurl on September 10, 2019:
I love this article. I have a mare which is totally dominant as described here. And I have another mare which is rather a follower. So it is not the rider/handler. Thing is that horses are really different - like people.
Rohitkumar on September 03, 2019:
Lisa on April 20, 2019:
I don't think u should get rid of a horse if it is not easy to deal with that's just mean they have trainers for all problems would u get rid of your child because he is a brat I hate the thought of people just give up on animals horse people get rid of horses just because u should own a animal if u think they are disposable
Aisling on January 11, 2019:
Thank you so much for this article. I have finally realized that my fella has been displaying dominant behaviour all along and found a way to deal with it that actually works for him.He is improving already and its only been 3 days of using these techniques.
jenniferrpovey (author) on January 26, 2017:
I never said there were not dominant animals outside those types. It's a tendency, not an absolute.
I recently rode an Arabian mare with a lot of cow - and she was very dominant on the cow and quite dominant on her handler too. Herding/stock horses need to be dominant to do their job. I have handled animals of a large variety of breeds, although I will be honest and say I have no direct experience with Rocky Mountains - I've heard good things about them but I haven't met one.
Also, they've recently done studies - VERY recently - that indicate that wild herds are led more by consensus and it's not always the "alpha mare" who moves the herd - http://www.horsechannel.com/horse-news/2016/11/do-... - is that what you meant by "follow the leader" rather than "follow the dominant"? (I found it very interesting because it does say that if you let the horse lead when it's the right time then you won't necessarily lose control of them in the long term, as some people seem to think).
Kris Mcclure on January 26, 2017:
Dominance has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with breed type. I have a dominant mare (the reason for me reading this article) and she is a Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. The herd leader will often be the most dominant horse but that is not 100%. The leader could be very level headed and there could be a rouge gelding within the herd that is dominant and must be dealt with by the lead mare. I happen to have a mare that is dominant and the leader of her small group. She is not always level headed and will quickly lose her temper with the other horses. Being dominant within a herd is a behavior Plain and simple. It has little to do with sex, nothing to do with breed, and little to do with leadership. Horses play "follow the leader" not follow the dominant. Usually the leader is the oldest mare. "Usually", not always.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 28, 2016:
Jennifer, congrats on HOTD! This was a great hub dealing with dominant horses. Very interesting and useful to know for all horse groomers and riders.
cat09tailz on December 19, 2012:
I totally disagree with this hub and I can't believe your laying all the blame on the Western horse and the pony. It's utterly ridiculous and immature. I have seen "dominant" horses in all disciplines. It's not the horse, its the rider/handler.
If you let the horse get away with bad behavior he's going to walk all over you, no matter what the past training, bloodlines, breed or sex.
Ponies do not have "Napoleon Complex", they have "People are Stupid" complex. People buy a perfectly fine pony for their child because they think its the perfect first horse for their green rider and the pony learns that it can walk all over this kid, and so it does. Learning all kinds of bad behavior in the process. The pony gets sold to the next person and earns the reputation of being a "bad seed", so an adult that's too big for it has to get on it and "bring it back around" so it can be sold again to another green rider and the process can happen all over again. Ponies are the most abused equines on the planet in my opinion.
Same with horses. Green riders get a hold of a nicely trained horse, it progressively learns how to get around doing the work its supposed to be doing, he gets a bad rap and ends up being sold as a "dominant horse".
Yes, some horses have stronger dispositions than others, yes there are alpha mares that balk, but don't blame the western horse or the pony for YOUR lack of skill, instinct, discipline and or training.
cavallo from Newmarket,UK on December 14, 2011:
Agree. Very much a breed trait. Even if they have not DONE the work. Also as you say there are plenty horses being used NOT for what they were bred to do.
jenniferrpovey (author) on December 14, 2011:
I've found that it is ponies and ranch-bred horses, not necessarily ones that have DONE ranch work, but ones bred for it.
My assumption is that the strong roping and cutting lines have these tendencies bred into them so they have a strong 'eye' and can dominate a steer.
(Ponies probably just have Napoleon syndrome. It seems that the smaller they are, the more they're inclined to test their rider/handler :P).
The problems start when these tough-minded horses end up in English barns, reining barns, as trail horses or otherwise in situations where there is no channel for their natural desire and need to control other living beings. Similar issues are often found when people try to keep herding breeds such as the Border Collie as family pets.
The *real* problem is when they end up being handled by somebody who doesn't know what they are doing or is ill-suited to deal with such an animal correctly. This usually results in them backing down or giving up, teaching the horse that she CAN dominate humans. Once they have learned that, they will never unlearn it...it is hard enough to retrain a more normal equine personality that has been allowed to dominate humans, let alone one that is inclined to try it in the first place.
cavallo from Newmarket,UK on December 14, 2011:
Interesting Hub. The only dominant horses that I have come across in the world, have been ex-rodeo and ranch horses. It is what they have been taught to do.