Success With Horses Begins and Ends with One Word: Leadership
By David Shoe

David Shoe

Have you ever sat and been amazed by a trainer or clinician as they work with a well-behaved stallion? Have you ever asked yourself how did they attain that high level relationship? I had someone ask me once, “Will that stallion do for me what he does for you?” I replied, “He will if you treat him like I do.” In that one statement you can find the key to success with a horse - it’s leadership.

Many people today are selling what I term ‘warm fuzzies’. It’s the new feel-good image of horses and while I think that bonding with a horse is a nice first step, it still must be understood that to accomplish what most people are searching for in a horse and rider relationship you must be in the leadership role.

My goal in this article is to help you explore what leadership represents, the reason and logic of its importance, why the proper approach is often misunderstood, and your responsibility as the leader.

First, let’s examine how leadership has been viewed over the years. The definitions alone cast light upon problems that have existed in the past. Some examples include:
1 A group process
2 The inducement of compliance in followers
3 The exercise of influence by one person
4 A power relationship between leader and led

This is by no means a complete list, but it lets you see that leadership means different things to different people. However, with horses leadership boils down to one thing and one thing only. Horses only understand one definition of leadership. That definition has been derived from genetic memory, instinct and environmental adaptation. It is referred to as the pecking order. As humans and especially Americans, people generally try to see everyone as equal. Horses however, are predisposed to one line of thought. You are either above or below the horse. His world will always work that way, and the horse will not experience remorse or regret by placing you below him.

The following is my definition and description of what leadership should be between horse and rider.

“Leadership is a dynamic process between horse and rider which involves interaction and recognition of and acceptance of leader / follower roles by horse and rider within all situations.”

Leadership is a dynamic process. This refers to the fact that leadership changes constantly; it is never stagnant. In any setting leadership fluctuates based on internal and external factors affecting the horse / rider relationship. It is also a process that evolves over time.

The term ‘interaction’ refers to reciprocal actions, which occur between horse and rider. A reciprocal action could be something as simple as applying light pressure to a rein and the horse responding by giving his head.

In order to be a leader you must be recognized as the leader. If the horse does not see you and accept you as the leader then leadership does not exist. Whether in a herd or a group of people, leaders and followers fulfill different roles. As the rider you have chosen the self-appointed position of leader. It is now your responsibility to fulfill that position.

At this point it is important to understand the balance that must be achieved to maintain a successful relationship with your horse. The international dressage judge Norma Ridi refers to it in her article “Reflections on Horses and Relationships with Humans” as an “iron fist cased in a velvet glove”. In my clinics I refer to it as “not too much of any one ingredient”. Regardless of the analogy, it is important to understand the balance required to maintain an effective leadership role.

To accomplish your role as leader you need to understand the following four factors affecting leadership.
1 The leader / rider
2 The led / horse
3 The situation
4 Communication

Most of us are very anthropomorphic which means we assign human qualities to non-human creatures. This is a very common practice, but when you try to influence your horse the same way you influence people, you are destined for failure. Think of it in this way: intellectually humans are more intelligent than horses so you must move to their level instead of expecting them to come to yours. That translates into: you must lead your horse in the manner they understand, the language of the herd.

I believe the best way to use the language of the herd is through the use of a round pen. In the paper “Using Equine Behavior to Expedite and Simplify Initial Training in Horses”, Brian D. Nielsen and Adroaldo J. Zanella from the Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing do an excellent job of giving a scientific explanation of why the round pen works. It is also the reason I teach people all over the country the specific techniques required for success. Use of the round pen gives humans the perfect opportunity to speak to the horse in a language he understands. It creates a controlled environment where you are able to act as the alpha of the herd and convey to the horse the hierarchy of your positions.
It is also important to understand what type of leadership style you use. There are several different styles with many shades between them, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The three major types are
1 Autocratic
2 Democratic
3 Laissez Faire

Each of these can work when dealing with people. The problems begin to arise when you try to lead horses as you lead people. Remember you must come to the horse’s level and communicate in a language the horse comprehends. Recognition of your leadership style will help you understand where you need to make changes in the way you communicate your desires and goals to your partner, the horse.

The only answer for better horses is knowledge, hard work, and dedication. Leadership is the first step in the journey to creating your own All-Round Horse.

About the author:
David Shoe gives energetic and empowering clinics throughout the country. He believes you must teach individuals so they can teach their horses. David’s “Natural Leadership” and “No Secrets” philosophy are based on the principles of truth, respect, honor and leadership. Visit David at

All-Round Horse
Lasso the Moon Ranch
3051 Beckerdite Road
Sophia, North Carolina 27350