What a relief: training horses without ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’

Secret of succes is ...

Positive reinforcement training or clicker training. This was not just “another method” to me. To me it was a completely different approach to training horses. I was told, and I believed, that I had to “dominate” the horse otherwise he would dominate me, I had to be the “leader” to my horse and that horses “had to respect me” and I never could “let the horse win”, whatever that meant.

A step-by-step program
Then a  Natural Horsemanship method came along in my world. I was thrilled: finally a step-by-step- program that taught me “games” I could play with my horse, that sounded like fun. Yeey!

The voice in my heart
I wasn’t too happy with building up the “phases” and building more and more pressure on my pony until he moved away like it was described in the pocket books. I think I confused Sholto by starting with this NH method and clicker training tricks at the same time. Sholto tried to tell me in many ways that he didn’t agree with this “natural” training method, but the books said: “Don’t let him win“. So I kept going. I heard a little voice in my heart that said: “I don’t like this accumulating pressure thing“. I ignored that voice.

I practised my new Natural Horsemanship method with a many horses. I didn’t have a real passionate connection with these horses because I hardly knew them. I found it a lot easier to apply accumulating pressure on them, but this voice in my heart kept telling me that this wasn’t really “partnership” nor “friendship” and I didn’t create “harmony“.


Clicker training changed my pony’s attitude completely
Since my pony was about 20 years old, I decided to let the NH method go and take a lot more effort in researching information about the clicker training/positive reinforcement training. After all: he was already ‘old’ and he was not suppose to learn new tricks anyway. He surprised me by learning new things so much quicker as I added a marker signal wit reinforcements of his choice instead of pressure. Wow, my old pony got really engaged in my training.He started to greet me with loud whinny’s and started cantering towards me in the pasture! What a difference!

Instead of “dominating” my pony and what just felt to me as forcing him into new behaviours with accumulating pressure I had to outsmart him with clicker training. Set it up for success, was very useful advice from the NH method. I still use that one, but now I set us up for success, both of us. Notonly me.

Learning another jargon
It was really difficult to “Set Sholto up for Success” because I hardly knew what I wanted and I didn’t have a training plan to follow. So I struggled along for a few years and gained lots of knowledge during this process. I didn’t know at that time that I could let go of terms regarding “dominance”, which apparently doesn’t even exist, inter species wise speaking. New studies have proven that horses make a lot of herd decisions in a democratic way. Which makes total sense.

I don’t want other people to struggle as much as I did, so I developed a step by step  training program over the past 15 years. I call it the Key Lessons, your key to Success in Positive Reinforcement training. Click on “Key Lessons” at the top of this page or put them into the search engine in the right to find out more about the Key Lessons.

I am so relieved that I now can be my horses teacher instead of his “herd leader”, be his friend instead of being “the dominant one” and just be his “human” instead of being his “alpha mare/stallion”.

Positive reinforcement training has been truly a wonderful journey. It is not “just another training method” it became a “life style”. It is truly the journey that counts, not the destination.

Read more: 5 Tips for Starting Clicker Training

Read more: Clicker Training 101: How to introduce Your Horse to the Click


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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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    9 thoughts on “What a relief: training horses without ‘leadership’ and ‘dominance’

    1. Hmm, quite interesting actually… I never feel like “dominating” or “pressuring” my horse into doing things when working on Natural Horsemanship, I think it partially also depends on what works best for you and your horse. But hen you put it this way, I might start considering trying clicker training as well…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ah, ik krijg helemaal een dromerig gevoel van je post, heerlijk zeg! Ik ben zelf nooit in de NH geweest met mijn paardje, maar kan me wel heel goed voorstellen dat het voor veel mensen (en dieren) werkt! Vind het echt heel leuk om te lezen!


    3. Another great blog, this echos many of my experiences of natural horsmanship. I hated going up the phases, especially when an instructor told me to smile whilst hitting my pony on the chin with the rope snap. Why do we have to intimidate instead of giving them options and freedom to say either “yes” or “no”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know. Maybe it is “just” a fear of loosing your position, your power, your dominating rank to “something” lower in the food chain? Maybe it is “just” an ego thing. That something is to me a wonderful, beautiful living creature who’s intelligence is perfectly adjusted to the world he is supposed to live in.

        I remember sometimes enjoying a powerful feeling when I dominated my pony. A feeling of victory which can be very addictive. Not a feeling that can exist in a friendship. And a friendship or a fair relationship is what I am looking for. With fair I mean: both must have the freedom to be who they really are: one human, one horse.

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    4. I was instantly turned off of Natural Horsemanship as soon as I saw what the ‘games’ were. Those weren’t games to me. They were cues that didn’t look fun for the horse. I’m blessed in that I was introduced to clicker training as a teenager, and didn’t get my first horse until I was 34 and pretty damn confident in myself. (I’ve had a buzz cut for four years, because it’s cheap and easy and I don’t care what anyone thinks.) So starting my untrained 10-year-old gelding with clicker training was a no-brainer. I wouldn’t change a thing, and he’s happy and we’re both learning so much. I’ve had him for a year and our idea of a game is running together in the pasture.


    5. Yes, relief was one of my favourite feelings after discovering clicker training! For too long I’d soldiered on, battling my through in my (futile) attempts to ‘show him who’s boss’…..’make him’…..’hes just taking the p***’! I felt almost defeated, that I just hadn’t got what it took to be a dominant leader, & then found clicker training – the internet can be wonderful 😊

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