Leader or Follower? How about Leader AND Follower?


“You need to be the boss! Show him that you are the leader!”

Most of us have heard some rendition of this at the barn. When a horse and human are struggling to connect the blame is often put on the fact that the human is not being bossy enough to make the horse do what they are supposed to. In my experience, people believe that a human needs to be a strong leader for their horse (who should always be a solid follower) 100% of the time that they are together. They claim that the horse needs a leader in order to function because the leader creates safety for the horse, which is interpreted by the human to be the horse’s first priority. I do not disagree that leadership is necessary in the horse-human relationship, but I think instead of thinking about being a leader OR a follower, we should consider being a leader AND a follower.  Good leaders are respected and are trusted in stressful and uncertain situations, but so are good followers. 

Great leaders & Great followers

Sometimes being a great follower makes someone a great leader. In my relationships with horses, sometimes I am the leader and sometimes I am the follower; my role depends on the situation at hand. If I am riding in the dressage ring in full tack, I am usually the leader, if I am sitting in the pasture enjoying the company of my horses I am usually the follower. If I am trail riding and we come to a creek, I am the follower. My horse knows how to cross it and knows what he needs to do to get us safely across. 

For me, part of being a good leader AND a good follower is being a good listener. If you listen, you know what people/horses need and if you know what people/horses need you can fulfill either role. Being a good listener is also knowing what questions to ask to seek out the information you need. Many of us will ask questions to our human peers, but how often do you listen or ask questions of your horses? It is important to ask questions and even more important to listen to the answers. Maybe in order to approach that scary corner in the arena, they just need back up or maybe they need you to lead the way.

Why do we feel the need to always be the leader?

Most of the reasoning behind the person always needing to be the leader (sometimes the boss mare/ lead stallion) is the study of herd dynamics. The interesting thing is that as studies of herd dynamics evolve, scientists are realizing that herd hierarchy is actually very different than we had originally thought. Ethologist Lucy Rees is on the forefront of this evolution and offers significant insight into leadership within herds of wild horses. Check out her work for more information. 

What makes a great leader? A great follower?

For a moment, consider the qualities of great leaders in your life (both human and animal) what are some things that stick out to you? Are the leaders confident, safe, clear and knowledgeable? Are they aggressive or assertive? Do they listen? Or do they run the show and boss you around without considering your needs? 

When you work with your horse, what type of leader are you? I challenge you to think about the leader AND follower qualities of both you and your horse as you work alongside them this week. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

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