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Calm Assertiveness in Horsemanship

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My definition of assertiveness in relation to horsemanship:

Assertive behaviour is about calmly, confidently communicating your message using the language of the herd. This is without aggressively disregarding or threatening the rights of the horse. It is not about dominance or not considering the horse. It is not submissively permitting the horse to ignore your conversation. It is a state of mind, how we feel and how we act. Being assertive involves taking into consideration both your own rights, wishes, wants, needs and desires, as well as those of the horse.  Assertiveness means listening to your horse, taking in their opinion, views, wishes and feelings, in order that both parties act appropriately. Assertiveness is about listening, understanding and honest open dialogue. It is learning to see eye to eye, treating your horse as a partner. Assertiveness is about being flexible and willing to compromise. There are times you should choose to be passive and times it is essential we are assertive. There is a scale of passive to assertive it is like fine tuning what you need at any given moment.

Watch how horses use assertiveness in their communication. Often a horse is chosen by others in the herd as one they take direction from. This horse’s behaviour is characterized by calm confident clear statements without using aggressive behaviour. A harmonious herd has a calm assertive horse that others like to spend time with. Watch closely and the horse that is aggressive and dominates others in the herd is not the one the herd look to for guidance and reassurance. We should aspire to using a calm assertive approach with our horses. 

Aggression: In its broadest sense is behaviour that is forceful, hostile or attacking. It is an intention to cause harm or an act intended to increase relative social dominance. Aggression can take a variety of forms and can be physical or be communicated verbally or non-verbally. Aggressive people do not respect the personal boundaries of others (human or equine) and thus are liable to harm others while trying to influence them. Aggressive behaviour is based on winning. Who the heck sees a relationship with their horse as one winning or losing? In my opinion this is a terrible path to go down. Aggression is taking what you want regardless, and you don't usually ask.

Aggression is a natural behaviour in horses and can involve bodily contact such as biting, kicking or pushing, but most conflicts are settled by threat displays, body language gestures and intimidation that cause no physical harm. Horses may use aggression to help secure territory, including resources such as food and water. Aggression between males often occurs to secure mating opportunities. Aggression may also occur for self-protection or to protect offspring. As attack is the best form of defence.

We have several behavioural drivers we can apply, passive, assertive, aggressive or manipulative. So to help you see the picture more fully, what are passive and manipulative behaviours? 

Passive Behaviour: Passive people tend to comply with the wishes of others at the expense of their rights and self-confidence. Many people adopt a passive response because they worry they will be disliked or will upset others (humans or their equine friends). They place greater weight on the rights, wishes and feelings of others. Being passive they hand over decision making and responsibility. Horses find comfort and safety by knowing you are the reliable, consistent and will be the one they can look to for guidance and reassurance. So by you being passive your horse will have to step up and make the decisions. Fine if your horse is confident and makes choices you agree with. There will be times your horse will lack confidence, feel fearful, anxious, etc…and look for guidance. At these times being passive will not help your horse. Without a trusted, calm assertive partner the horse will revert to instinctive behaviours, flight, fight, freeze, etc… Passive people have trouble in saying no and setting boundaries. If you own a very respectful and well educated horse being passive may not cause you many concerns. However with young horses, poorly educated horses, horses with negative past experiences, dominate horses, high spirited horses etc…you will have a problem if you are passive. Passive behaviour is often linked to poor self-confidence and self-esteem. In the herd horses use passive behaviours, you will observe this in many situations. It enables harmony. This is why being passive is an essential skill to learn with horses as there will be times you need to be passive.

harry finished

Manipulative Behaviour: You will come across manipulative behaviour much more with humans than horses. In humans manipulative behaviour is about hidden agendas or motives. It is often very subtle and may be easily overlooked, buried under feelings of obligation, love, or habit. It is often controlling in nature and intent. In horses manipulative behaviour is very rare in the wild. However the behaviour can be learnt. For example the horse can learn to manipulate their human. Many horses I get called out with behavioural problems have effectively trained their human and manipulated the relationship to their advantage. This is because the horse lacks a respected, trusted, calm assertive partner. I also see humans trying to control their horse by using manipulative behaviours. In terms of the language of the herd and desirable human behaviour using manipulative behaviour is not healthy in any relationship.

In horsemanship I do not see it as a question of dominance and submission. In horsemanship any interaction is always a two-way process and therefore your reactions may differ, depending upon your relationship with the horse. You may find that you need to respond passively or assertively when you are communicating in different situations.  

Assertiveness helps us to:

  • Control our anxiety…as anxiety and assertiveness are polar opposites
  • Build confidence and self-esteem
  • Create clear boundaries
  • Increase awareness of personal rights and rights of others
  • Be appropriate, as you will know the difference between passive, assertive, aggressive and manipulative behaviours. 

Most of us women are not raised to be assertive. Many struggle to know what assertiveness means, what it feels like, sounds like and looks like. Assertiveness is a skill you can learn. It is about learning both verbal and non-verbal assertiveness skills within our own language and species. As well as understanding assertiveness in terms of the language of the herd.  

Assertive behaviour in horsemanship includes:

  • Being open in expressing wishes, thoughts and feelings and encouraging your horse to do likewise.
  • Listening to the views of your horse and responding appropriately, whether in agreement with these views or not.
  • Accepting responsibilities and being able to delegate to your horse.
  • Regularly expressing appreciation of what your horse has done or is doing.
  • Being able to admit to mistakes, it is part of learning, apologise and move on.
  • Maintaining self-control.
  • Behaving as an equal with your horse.
  • Putting the relationship first.

Assertiveness is a communication style and strategy. It is about how you deal with and view personal boundaries, your own and those of your horse. In horsemanship being a calm assertive partner is about setting clear boundaries using the language of the herd. This is along with being able to say no to your horse without feeling guilty. A small inner voice may know what is going on with your horse is about you setting boundaries and saying no, but because you lack assertiveness you find it impossible to put it into practice. It is often hard for people to say no to the ones they love, this includes their horse. Remember it’s not your horse you are rejecting, or not loving your horse. Being a calm assertive partner to your horse you will have acceptance and love in your heart. It’s about saying no to a behaviour and setting relationship boundaries. You are not rejecting your horse. 

A calm assertive partner is open to criticism from their horse. As horsemanship is open dialogue. Learn from what your horse tells you. Natural horsemanship gives you the skills to understand your horse’s communication. Many people are paralysed my perfection. You will make mistakes, so will your horse. When you get it wrong, listen to the criticism from your horse and view it as an opportunity to grow. Some people I go out to, are out their depth and don’t understand the criticism from their horse. Getting help, practical advice helps with how to do things differently. Think about your horse as a resource in helping you to develop. 

A calm assertive partner builds confidence in their horse. Giving your horse positive feedback, target and reward with positive reinforcement the things you liked / wanted. Help your horse to learn new skills, or change behaviours. Focus more on the positives and be generous with praise. Be clear and direct in your communication with your horse. There are assertiveness techniques you can use with your horse. Here are a few examples. 

The Broken Record

This is one of calm persistence of repeating the same horsemanship message again and again to your horse, without becoming angry or irritated. Consistently and calmly repeat the request, do not up your energy or engage in argument. Stay calm, clear and keep the message simple. You are able to compromise using the broken record technique. For example the smallest try for what you are looking for can be rewarded lavishly. Often the smallest try will be the first step in happily achieving the outcome you are looking for.


Fogging is a useful technique when dealing with horses that are upset, angry or aggressive. Rather than arguing back, fogging is about giving a minimal, calm response. It’s about letting the horse express himself. We remain centred and calm, not arguing or being defensive or agreeing with the horse. You allow the horse to throw his arguments into a wall of fog that absorbs and has no bounce back. By not providing confrontation often it enables the horse to cease the behaviour and calm down. Then you are best able to look for the truth in the situation and suggest to the horse an appropriate direction to take.

Take Your Time

Very few things in horsemanship are emergency situations. A great assertiveness technique is to stop, centre yourself and take your time. This is a great tip, especially if you are feeling too emotional. It’s ok to time out and come back to things when you are calm and composed. It enables you to come at the communication more thoughtfully.

Calm Escalation

This type of assertiveness is sometimes necessary when your reasonable requests that your horse understands, is capable of doing are being ignored. I use low grade irritation, just like if you get in a car and try and drive away without fastening your seat belt the car pings at you until you fasten your seat belt, then rewards you by going silent once you comply. With horses I use a bridge noise that equals low grade irritation is coming. The low grade irritation can be as tickly a fly, using the ends of your reins, the end of your rope, or tickle with your stick. I do this in a cycle of three, first three tickles are so soft, then the next three a bit more, and the next three firmer and so on. As soon as the horse complies I quit the annoyance and reward generously.

Empathy and Compromise

With assertiveness it is essential we recognize our horse’s views the situation. If the horse is having problems, listen to understand and the path of the middle ground will open up before you. Humans tend to have all or nothing thinking and there is nearly always some middle ground that is the stepping stone to longer term success.    

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