Riding Well Grounded – The Alpha Application

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by Marilyn Pineda

We often hear the phrase “be the alpha mare” when given the description of how to relate to our horse if we desire its respect.  But what does that mean, and why is it important?  Are you the “alpha” with your horse and, if not, how can you obtain that status?

In a horse’s world there are no equals within the herd and you, my friend, are a member of their herd!  Many people think they are the leader in the relationship they have with their horse, but that is only true if the horse is thinking the same thing. Quite often true leadership status is exposed when the human asks the horse to do something out of his normal comfort zone, such as executing trail challenges like the ones we have at Fire Mountain Trail Course.  It’s worse, however, if the truth of your herd status is exposed in an unexpected way when out trail riding.  If a horse balks, panics, or refuses to move forward when you ask him to cross a trail challenge, then you may not truly have the alpha status with your horse like you think you do. There is a simple trail challenge exercise I like all new visitors to Fire Mountain Trail Course to perform during our 90 minute orientation. It is a preliminary analysis of the existing alpha status between horse and handler, and it is one you can try at home. I call it “leading with communication.”

After some practice on a shorter rope allowance, Bud Weber is now leading Gemma through the small pond at Fire Mountain Trail Course with a more generous length of rope. Photo credit Marilyn Pineda

Using a rope halter and lead rope, walk your horse carrying the lead rope in your left hand and leave a reasonable “belly” of slack in the rope (as it hangs between you and your horse). The hard part of this leading challenge is to not touch the rope with the right hand except for necessary corrections! As you execute it, remember that in a leader/follower relationship the leader needs to be in front. I suggest that the horse’s nose should not come any further forward than your shoulder when you are walking together. Also, you need to walk at your pace, not at a pace set by your horse. Otherwise your horse has an element of control, and he knows it!

As you walk forward with your horse, be ready to correct him if his nose passes your shoulder.  If it does stop, plant your feet, grasp the lead rope directly under his chin with your right hand and firmly, without jerking, pull him back to a point where his entire head is slightly behind you. Then, keeping your hold by his chin, pivot around to look him in the eye, and step towards him to push him back two more steps as measured by his front feet.  Release your hand from his chin, and turn back around to continue walking as though nothing happened.

Don’t scold, reprimand or discipline; don’t make a big deal of it at all. Just let him know what you want and then continue forward. Remember not to touch the rope with your right hand except for correction and maintain that manageable belly in the rope throughout.  You want your horse to have the opportunity to stay in his position by choice, as that is what helps to establish your alpha status.  Use timely consistency with your corrections and you’ll see he will soon choose to position himself where he knows you want him to be. 

And what is the reason for planting your feet in order to implement the correction? If you walk forward to get in front of him and correct, after you have stopped him, then your feet have been manipulated. You moved your feet first! It may sound petty or silly, but it isn’t to a horse that communicates almost exclusively in body language. Small things can have profound meaning in the equine world. Using the alpha application to communicate with your horse on a lead rope is a great way to practice riding well grounded.


Published February 2014 Issue

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