Don’t Ever Let a Horse say ‘No’?

"Lion Attacking a Horse" by George Stubbs
“Lion Attacking a Horse” by George Stubbs

This lion is a symbol for anything that ‘devours’ a horse, mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually. In today’s world, horses often say ‘no’, but their communications are missed, misinterpreted and ignored.

I’ll never forget the words of a Natural Horsemanship trainer. ‘Don’t ever let your horse say ‘no’. They learn to defy you. They learn disrespect .’ Somehow, this didn’t resonate with me.

This Natural Horsemanship trainer added emphatically, “Be the ‘Lead Mare”.

Note: This was not the first time I’ve heard this specific advice from the Natural Horsemanship community. Once again, it was without any scientific and reliable source elaboration upon its meaning, its essence or how, in fact, we are to assume that role. It’s actually a common, meaningless clichè that evokes the idea of leadership without clearly defining what it means. It assumes EVERYONE KNOWS AND AGREES what a lead mare is all about, and there is no need for any individual interpretation or discrepancy). Yet, the use of these words totally miss the mark, and no one notices.

She had a contemptuous look on her face as she instructed us. I’ve been on the receiving end of abusive people before. My gut twisted, and my body squirmed. These horses must have felt it, too. They weren’t ‘allowed’ to express any personality, intimacy or input. Nor was I respected as an experienced horseman with credentials and tremendous references when I challenged the premise.

We were not there to experience growth as individuals. In this situation, we were all there to be subjugated. People paid money, horses paid the price.

Her gestures were aggressive, not suggestive. The personal wall she erected was impenetrable, her determination and certainty too lofty to be disturbed. The horses quickly complied but none of them were happy. I wasn’t happy either. I felt this trainer was ‘projecting’, and promoting a form of inhospitable dominance rather than authentic leadership.

In my view, this ‘lead mare’ notion was a grave misinterpretation. It was a projection of a fictitious ‘lead mare’ as having no compassion or protective responsibility whatsoever.

“It has long been believed that horses have a dominance hierarchy, much like primates, where if anyone crosses the dominant horse they would be reprimanded. In actual fact, this dominance theory in wild or feral equines does not exist, it is instead a man made concept.”

~Beth Gibbons – Reconsidering Natural Horsemanship https://www.bethbehaviourist.co.uk/articles/just-another-deluded-cowboy

However, auditors and participants were convinced this was some sort of magic; difficult horses were ‘tamed’. They believed the ‘correctness’ of the approach and were convinced that this was now the only way to relate to their equine counterparts.

They were able to look the other way in alarming and complete denial when the method they invested time, money and emotion in, involved the use of a whip, a chain, a corner, a round pen, abusive voicing, and a variety of other tools to confront, demand, exhaust and intimidate their horses.

This method coined and justified the lead mare syndrome that has infected countless horse owners. It has promoted the incredible growth – in numbers – of Natural Horsemanship trainers who practice the ‘method’ without questioning the health and well-being of their subjects.

I’ve seen horses shanked mercilessly by ‘expert’ and ‘certified’ ‘Natural Horsemanship’ instructor/trainers, and I’ve seen horses submit because of fear, dis-empowerment and exhaustion.

Those horses didn’t have any other options…

“Something I hear often is that natural horsemanship methods use positive reinforcement by making the horse go to comfort. Essentially this means that the trainer stops applying pressure when the horse does the right thing, and now that we know the definitions of the reinforcers we know this is in fact negative reinforcement. I argue that there is no pleasure in not being hit, poked or prodded- at best perhaps relief.”

~Beth Gibbons – Reconsidering Natural Horsemanship

Horses find the best way to comply. It tasks all the systems of the horse in order to endure this treatment; something the horses know and feel, but the ‘Natural’ trainer remains oblivious to. In fact, it calls into question the authentic and intended use and meaning of both the words ‘natural’, and ‘horsemanship’.

Note: Even though these people were using rope halters, the thinner ropes can still cut like a saw, and can still be very ‘sharp’ and painful to any horse. Ironically, the criminalized leather halter covers more surface area and in fact is kinder to the facial nerves that are so close to the surface. In fact, any halter can be used as a device to confine, control and harm, or to teach, guide and facilitate compassionate communication. It remains true that any piece of equipment can be abused, therefore the equipment is neither ‘good nor bad’. The way in which people use equipment should be under very close scrutiny and objective discernment.

One could argue the veracity of the title, ‘Natural Horsemanship’, which is, of course, another human construct that is intended to ‘market’ a technique and/or method.

It is fair to say that there are abuses in all disciplines including Dressage, Jumping, Racing, Rodeo, Endurance, etc., etc. It is also fair to say that all disciplines and methods have been commercialized and marketed to the point where those who benefit are incentivized to keep things the way they are.

Humans employ this construct based on an authoritarian or dogmatic foundation, with horses that are neither authoritarian nor dogmatic!

The fact remains.

There are valid reasons a horse should say, ‘no’, and when they do, that message needs to be heard, respected and most of all understood.

Horses are fluid, empathetic, telepathic creatures, just like us…EXCEPT…

Humans haven’t considered participating in a conscious ’emergent’ community. Instead, we’ve invented a narrative that excludes empathy, spirituality, and the subtle world of indelible connectivity, and engage in an unconscious emergent behavior that is enormous in its scope and influence.

“Emergent norm theory is a theory used to explain collective behavior. Turner and Killian argue that the norms that ultimately govern a situation may not be initially apparent to the participants. Instead, norms emerge through a process of social interaction in which people look to others for cues and signs indicating various possibilities of what they might expect.”

~ Ashley Crossman – What is the Emergent Norm Theory? https://www.thoughtco.com/emergent-norm-theory-3026305

“What is the phenomenon known as emergence? Birds, atmospheric disturbances, and city dwellers self-organize, giving rise to flocks, hurricanes, and distinct neighborhoods.”

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/emergence-examples.html

Note: It doesn’t take that much effort to understand that the emergence of a ‘well branded and marketed method’ labeled with the emotionally and collectively valued words ‘Natural Horsemanship’, would be so widespread, generally accepted, adopted and systematically promoted as fact.


Picture a herd of wild horses running from a serious threat. There are all ages fleeing together in a coherent mass. With an obstacle before them and a predator behind them, they leap over a small brook.

Youngsters who have never attempted or experienced a jump are surrounded by their friends and relatives who have. They trust. They ‘see’, they mimic, they do and they learn – in the moment. A new skill adds to their experience and confidence. Their brains are equipped and geared in this way, and they remember it for the rest of their lives.

If any youngster balks and is left behind, one or some of the herd members will quickly adjust and retrieve the individual. ‘Lead Mare’ doesn’t say, ‘too bad kid, you said ‘no, and now you’ll pay the price’, and rigidly make all conform to her will. Horses simply aren’t like that. ‘Lead Mare’ is more likely to put her life on the line to protect her loved ones.

She is ‘ONE’ with responsibility, and before anyone can wrest that from her, she would HAVE to know, beyond all doubt, that she and her community will be safe under new management. She is devoted, full of love, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, and thousands of micro-assessments that take place every moment of every day.

Herd members will bolster the youngster with support. He now makes a monumental effort because they all know it IS a matter of life and death…

He jumps because he is encouraged. He is not alone. He is never forced.

There is one jumping effort, more running, and perhaps the danger ceases to exist because the threat tired and broke off the chase. The jumping motion the youngster is learned and stored forever as valuable, not stressful – even if the action was learned during a stressful situation.

Now there is rest. There is time for recovery after an intense effort. There is Protection, there is Safety. All is well.

Published by Adrienne

Author of "Coherent Horsemanship: Combining the Quantum and the Classical", and "Legendary Hearts of Horses" | Classical Dressage | Equine Energy Practitioner | Digital Artist | Illustrator | Researcher | Writer

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