California Riding Magazine • January, 2010

Randy Byers Horsemanship
Active Versus Passive Horsemanship

In a world full of horse trainers, clinicians and equine professionals competing to make a mark for themselves, many find new ways to reinvent the wheel. However, several try to put their knowledge into some package where we may identify with it all. In the equine world, leadership is the key to survival and many of these professionals communicate their opinion of equine behavior and how we should cope with this dynamic. The question now becomes, what form of leadership is right for us?

In the human world, some people define leadership simply as getting people to work to achieve common goals and giving people a reason (motivation) to work (active leadership). Other people hold that leadership is the ability to influence the behavior of others, to set up goals, to formulate paths to those goals and to create and guide toward good behavior (passive leadership). Isn’t that what we want to accomplish in the equine world: to influence and motivate safe behaviors?

Many leaders have always wondered how active or passive they should be. The active leader risks exacerbating the problem by tackling it. The passive leader risks being overwhelmed by a problem that festers unchecked. Peace, order and good government are noble aspirations, but they should not dictate passivity in a treacherous world. Sometimes, the only way to achieve peace, order and any kind of reasonable government is to be proactive, even aggressive, as demonstrated by the many wars that have been fought.

Which Form of Leadership?

In an article entitled Passive Leadership: Challenging the Alpha Theory, Mark Rashid, a well-respected clinician, presents very simply and nicely his definition of passive leadership in this way: “There are two types of leaders in a herd situation. The alpha, or lead horse, that rules by dominance, and passive leaders that lead by example. The passive leaders are usually chosen by other members of the herd and are followed willingly, while alphas use force to declare their place in the herd. Passive leaders are usually older horses somewhere in the middle of the herd’s pecking order. They are quiet and consistent in their day-to-day behavior and don’t appear to have much ambition to move up the ‘alpha’ ladder. As a result, there appears to be no reason for them to use force to continually declare their position in the herd.

“Alphas, on the other hand, are usually pretty far from being quiet and consistent in their behavior. They are often very pushy, sometimes going as far as using unprovoked attacks on subordinates for the simple reason of declaring their dominance. As a result of this behavior, the majority of the horses in the herd will actually avoid all contact with the alpha throughout the day.” 

What Rashid is trying to convey is that it does not need to be an all-out war of aggression and wills to get a horse to comply with an unwanted behavior. Leadership was broken down into two forms: active and passive. If a horse decides to push, bite, squeal or kick out at you, how would you set the example to teach it that was not appropriate behavior? I am sure your behavior was exemplary and you did not kick the horse or push it out of the way first, so how does setting an example fix that behavior? Rashid would rather out-think the horse and go with the flow than against it.

One of the tenets of natural horsemanship is “be soft as possible and firm as necessary.” Nowhere does it say “be firm unless the horse is the alpha and he should have his way” then walk away. The alpha horse expects that you or other horses will be subordinate to him. Even the passive leader is in the middle of the order. When you are leading a horse or on a trail ride and the horse bolts, kicks out or rears up, do you want to be the subordinate and just do what the horse wants? Who is the more frail species? Who is more likely to get hurt?

Do you see the danger in being a passive leader in this situation?

Dangers & Balance

Here is the danger in passive leadership and the importance of this article: There are many types of personalities in both humans and horses. Many horses have very strong outgoing personalities (extroverted) and would rather challenge, while others just go with the flow (introverted). None of us want to pick a fight with a sumo wrestler, just as we would not want to challenge an ill-tempered horse. If a person owns a horse that has a strong, willful personality, passive leadership would not suit well with this situation. On the other hand, active leadership could effectively motivate and influence both a willful horse and a mild-mannered horse. The passive leader will do well only if the passive horse is more passive or submissive than the leader. There is still a pecking order, regardless of whether you are a passive leader or not, and the passive leader will never be an all-encompassing, true leader because he is not at the top of the order.

Horses do not constantly battle each other to establish dominance. mThe subordinate horse acknowledges the leader’s role and will come back another day to try his luck. Similarly, they will ”alpha check” you to make sure you are still the leader from one week to the next. It comes down to survival for the horse. At the opportune time, when we assert our leadership and get the desired response (active), we then step back from the line and simply lead with the full knowledge that we are in our rightful position as leader (passive); this displays confidence and consistency in our leadership to the horse.

Because of the demographics in the horse industry, where women and recreational riders make up more than 80 percent of equine activities, it is no wonder why the idea of passive leadership is so popular in some circles. It is easier to market the idealism of “let’s not scold the horse, let’s be touchy-feely and lead by example” attitude. Many new and inexperienced recreational riders are disillusioned about the true nature of the horse and think that “assertiveness” is a bad word meaning the use of forceful persuasion through violence toward the horse.

When we go for a trail ride, we are always admonished to be an active rider not a reactive or passive rider. The reason for this active position is so that we are always prepared to take the lead to control or correct issues that need attention if the horse displays an unwanted behavior. When you go to buy a horse, do you know if the horse has a more passive attitude than you? Many people get hurt or die each year because they did not take a more an active role in leadership with their horse. Whether you see yourself as an active leader or as a passive leader, you had better be the horse’s leader.

Simply put, leadership is established by moving and controlling the feet or body in six directions and at three major gaits. The degree of leadership is in the degree of your ability to control the horse through active or passive leadership. The key to this leadership issue is a sound balance to your approach and understanding through education in sound principals. God did not give horses dominion over humans, but gave horses to us, as their stewards, as a gift.

Article provided by Randy Byers Horsemanship. For more information call 253-444-8946, e-mail or visit