Dominance is irrelevant….

Dominance is irrelevant....

Thanks for being so patient while I have been away – I have been busy thinking about the questions you sent me before the holidays, and taking care of family commitments — and am ready to hit the blogging trail again!

Here is one question that caught my attention:

“I have been told that I need to be the dominant one in the horse-human relationship – but it doesn’t feel right – what are your thoughts?”


I am sure I can come up with a really long article on dominance and so on – some of you may recall my earlier posts about how to be a leader without being confrontational, so you can probably guess the direction my thoughts are going in…

An interesting thing is to ask ourselves about the difference between leadership – and dominance.

To me, a leader is someone I CHOOSE to follow – a dominant person is someone I HAVE to follow….

Some time ago I read a lot of Mark Rashid’s books – they are great for anyone who likes horse stories – and in one he explores the difference between an “alpha” horse who bosses everyone around – ie is dominant – and the Passive leader – the horse the others choose to follow because they have good ideas, not because they are aggressive…..

The reason I chose this particular photo for this question is it shows three horses happily sharing hay – even though there is a hierarchy, these horses work and live together harmoniously most of the time….


In humans, dominant behaviour is usually displayed when people are worried, insecure about their position, or frightened.  We often recognise this – and when we see someone posturing and appearing dominant and aggressive, we find it easy to say “ah, they are insecure”.    With people who display dominance, it is often the somewhat counterintuitive response of reinforcing their power, boosting their self esteem that gets them to a place where they can feel secure, relax and be themselves.

In humans, the desire for dominance over the horse also comes from fear: if we don’t feel in control, if we are scared, don’t feel safe – then we feel the need to dominate, overpower and overwhelm the horse so WE feel safe.

And the most likely response of the horse?  Well some horses will just sigh, and get on with things, accepting their lot in life.  Others, the ones I get to see,  will see the over assertiveness and feel they have to protect themselves, they become defensive – start appearing dominant themselves as the strike out first to keep themselves safe and secure from the attempted dominance – and a vicious spiral begins.

Many of the horses I am asked to see to help with “dominance” and “aggression” issues – are, in fact, just like the dominant, aggressive people: fundamentally insecure and worried.

Building a relationship with them where they don’t NEED to act that way turns out to be the key to changing their behaviour.  The key to them seeing us as leaders worthy of following, and so whether we are dominant becomes meaningless.  It’s whether we are someone our horse sees as intelligent, and worthy of following that is the main thing.

When we are with our horses, almost all our desire for dominance comes from fear.  Frustration comes from a lack of control – and if we are not “in control” most of us feel unsafe, and so are tempted to act in a dominant way to make ourselves feel safe again.

If we feel safe, then we can feel confident – we don’t NEED to be dominant when the horse chooses not to do what we think we are asking them to do.  When we feel safe and confident, we can laugh instead of being upset, we can smile and wonder how we can ask the question in a different way….

We start thinking about how we can set ourselves up for success, and make every interaction a positive one for our horse AND ourselves.

And we start having fun with our horses again.


When our horses have confidence in themselves, and in us; when we have confidence in our horses – and ourselves – well then the whole issue of dominance falls away, it’s not necessary anymore – dominance is, in fact, irrelevant.


I am not sure if this answers the question – but these are my thoughts….


What do you all think?


Yours, in confidence




8 thoughts on “Dominance is irrelevant….

  1. I’m begining to sound like a broken record, but this is one of the best articles I have ever read, really. Thanks a lot Cathy….wow…………

  2. Another thought provoking blog Cathy. I read Mark Rashid’s books before I became involved with natural horsemanship and they planted the seeds in my brain that maybe there was a better way to interact with my horse. The first time I read them I thought ‘well, what’s the point of that story?’ , so I re-read them and found the point and kept trying to learn more about this ‘bettter way’. Still learning, still growing.

  3. Cathy, just what I needed to read at the moment. As usual it is all about managing myself, my emotions and ideas, not dominating the horse. Thanks a mill.

  4. Good blog Cathy. I’ve kept and often look at a sheet which I found on the internet, it’s the differences between a BOSS and a LEADER, here it is for you 😉

    Drives Employees Coaches Employees
    Depends on Authority Depends on Goodwill
    Inspires Fear Generates Enthusiasm
    Says ‘I’ Says ‘We’
    Places blame for the Breakdown Fixes the Breakdown
    Knows how it is Done Shows how it is Done
    Use People Develops People
    Takes Credit Gives Credit
    Commands Asks
    Says ‘Go’ Says ‘Let’s Go’ 😉

  5. Agree with what Cathy has said. I have read and continue to read Mark’s books too. I have wanted a better partnership with my horse and so have explored the Dorrances, Rashid, the Brannamans and continue to do so. I love reading Cathy’s blog – so much sense! Helps keep me on track.

  6. Good point. You also demonstrated in this article that horses reflect their handler/owner. If you are “dominant” or aggressive with your horse, that is exactly what you’ll get back whether it be a “passive-aggressiveness” or out-right aggression. Leadership is so important. But, so is choosing a horse that complements your energy level and skill level. I think horse owners get worried or fearful and try to dominate when they have purchased or adopted a horse with whom they are not well-matched, in many cases.

  7. I have a dominant horse- actually for real dominant – and it’s a pretty interesting thing to live with. He will push back hard against anything you ask from him and you have to make a very compelling case to persuade him to go along with you. He’s taught me a huge amount about firm, consistent, boundaries, but he’s also really unusual. Almost always when you meet a horse that people think is dominant, they’re just anxious and unclear as to who needs to be making the decisions that affect their life.

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