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What to do when your Horse is the Boss Mare

By: Galadriel Billington

5:09PM Apr 11, 2004

How do you know when your horse is the Boss Mare in your relationship? (A horse does not have to be a mare to be a Boss Mare--just bossy.)

Well, how is he to handle...does he stay out of your space, does he come up to you in the field, does he permit you to touch him all over and even perform painful acts (like cleaning wounds or giving shots) quietly? Does he load calmly into the trailer? Will he walk into water if you ask him?

Or do you have to chase him all over or lure him with grain, drag him or avoid his barging, twitch him to give him shots, and keep stepping back because he's always stomping your toes? Does he mug you for treats? Is he a terror to load and impossible to ride into water?

A horse demonstrates respect by staying out of your space, not attempting to direct your movements (never pushing you out of the way or dragging you around), permitting you to direct his movements, and obeying your directions. He will follow your lead even when unsure of himself, and will turn to you when he is nervous. He may even refrain from expressing pain when he should, in order to do as you ask, until he can't stand it anymore. If, for example, your saddle doesn't fit well, he may just tolerate the discomfort until it is so great that he cannot stand it anymore. Try to be sure that you eliminate pain as a reason for resistance, before deciding that you have a "problem horse."

A lack of ground manners is an indication of a lack of respect. When your horse has no ground manners, he is also not likely to respect you under saddle, either; if you were "worthy" of telling him what to do, he'd listen to you on the ground. Improving his manners is likely to improve his ridden performance as well.

If your horse is a "boss mare," then you may have some hard work ahead of you. To convince him to relinquish the position of boss mare, you have to convince him that 1) you want the position, and 2) you deserve it. If you alter your demeanor and treatment of him, then you may be able to regain a leadership status without any direct confrontation.

If you are hesitant or timid, it will be impossible to convince him that you even WANT to be boss; as far as he can tell, you're asking him to take the lead. You must be self-confident; you must believe in yourself and in your ability to take charge. If you can't even convince yourself, how will you convince him?

But as well as being strong-willed and believing in yourself, you must also be kind and consistent. If you are too demanding, if you overreact, if you change your standards from one moment to the next, then he will not be able to trust your actions. If you let him mug you in the morning, but punish him for mugging you in the afternoon, he will be confused and will not be able to understand the punishment. You must be consistent all of the time. "Horses don't know when it doesn't count," so you must make every interaction "count." This sounds very severe, but truthfully it is much more kind to the horse to allow only a certain set of actions, and to correct him every time for any transgression.

If you have a horse who is very happy to follow, then he will mend his ways after a few weeks of firm, consistent, confident treatment.

Sometimes the horse has gotten to like his status. In these instances you sometimes have to take a little more direct action. The action you take will depend on your particular situation: how your horse is acting, what you feel safe in doing, and what you feel you could do effectively.

There are quite a few "Natural Horsemanship" type trainers out there, each with his own style. What most of these have in common is that the trainer has studied equine interactions, and put together a method of establishing dominance in a herd. The reason there are so many is that there isn't one true answer; each may or may not work for any individual human/equine relationship. Everyone has a different style of learning. One of the interesting parts of teaching riding is finding a way to re-state a concept until the student understands. There is no "One True Way," and you have to find what works for you.

I bought a Boss Mare a while ago. She was pushy; I pushed back but I didn't insist that she stay out of my space. Our relationship gradually deteriorated...then one day I realized that she had become dangerous to handle, because she demonstrated no respect for the handler. Oops. I had to knock that mare down a peg, and I had to do it fast, because every time she was handled (bringing in, turning out, feeding--multiple times a day, every day) she was doing precisely as she pleased, with no concern for the puny little humans involved.

The method I used was a variant of "join-up," as described by Monty Roberts (among others). I have since had to be wary in all interactions with this mare, never to inadvertantly give her the upper hand. If I slip up at all, she'll try to grapple her way into the Boss Mare position again. However, as long as I make sure to project self-confidence and assertiveness around her, she's perfectly happy to follow me. As long as I actively demonstrate that I am worthy of the leadership position, she is willing to believe me.

That's the method that worked for me. If you look around, you'll find that there are quite a few--too many to count. Your interaction with your horse on the ground is the most fundamental aspect of your relationship. I urge you to find a method that you find clear and uncomplicated.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.