Skip navigation

The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range

One trainer

No tools

Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.


This blog entry is a musing stream of thought. I don’t claim to have the answers here, just a desire to find some. In the last few weeks I have been putting a lot of thought into the why behind aggression in horses.

We can be continually grateful that horses are prey animals, not predators. For the most part they are gentle creatures and we can easily lose sight of how intensely powerful they truly are. Drafts have been bred for generations to be docile and easygoing; ponies can be hellions, but they are still prey animals, and small enough that people can usually manage them one way or another.

When we see a horse angry with ears pinned, nostrils flared, teeth or hooves at the ready… I find human response falls into a couple of categories.

One response I see is to ignore it, saying things like: the horse is just in a bad mood, woke up on the wrong side of the bed, he is just being a jerk, or he doesn’t really mean it.

The other response I see, makes statements like: he is being a punk, knock some respect back into him.  He is looking for a leader, show him who’s boss. Don’t let him get away with that kind of a bad attitude.

I want to look a little deeper here. Why or how does a horse decide offensive aggression is the right answer in the first place?

I think we can start with the premise that horses, like people, just want to feel good. What if aggression is a habit created as a coping mechanism, when life felt too horrible to tolerate and the horse knew no other way to feel better? What if, in desperation, in that moment he got threatening or struck out, and things got better, even just a little. Wouldn’t it make sense that next time he was in a similar situation he would try it again? Pretty soon, with enough repetitions you have a habit- a broad spectrum solution to be applied any time life feels confusing with no way out.

Let’s face it, horses live through a lot of situations with no way out. They don’t get to choose when, where or how they are ridden, they don’t get to choose where they live or who their pasture mates are. If they have ever been hurt mentally, emotionally or physically, they become hyper vigilant about trying to make things better before anyone makes them feel worse. If aggression is the only tool they know how to use, can we really hold it against them?

So let’s say we have a horse for whom aggression is the only tool they trust to keep their life in control. Let’s look a little closer at what a horse needs before we blame him for his aggression. A horse, first and foremost, needs to feel safe. Safety for a horse instinctually means he needs a herd with a hierarchy.- a leader who will get the herd to food and water, and herd mates who all care about and look out for each other.

Leadership comes in all varieties and styles. A brilliant leader uses attention, focus and timing to communicate with the herd, instead of brute force. What if no one in the herd has those skills? The herd still needs a leader, somebody has to come up with some way to move horses around, and keep everyone working together. Aggression seems to become a viable tool at that point. Safety lies in having a herd. A herd needs to pay attention to each other. If there is not attention and focus to create that sense of safety… then perhaps aggression needs to step in as a coping mechanism.

So let’s imagine we have a horse who feels attached to his habit of aggression to feel safe. If we ignore it, I wonder if this leaves this horse feeling the lack of attention and acknowledgment as a loss of herd, and therefore safety, making them even more desperate to use the only tool they know of…. Aggression. Then we look at the flip side. We use aggression to counter aggression- make it clear that that attitude is unacceptable. Now I have seen this work on the surface. The horse feels better because he has gotten the attention he needed to feel safe and part of a herd. Unfortunately, I think it also reinforces the horse’s idea that aggression is the tool of choice to use when feeling insecure or unsafe.

What if we can take a middle road? What if we were to take the time to pay attention to a degree the horse feels safe in partnership with us; take the time to show the horse attention and yielding are tools they can use to cause the herd to attract to them, pay attention to them, and make them feel safe.

I like the idea… but the question remains: are horses any more willing to embrace change and new ways of living than we are as people. Might we really be able to cause a horse to learn new ways of interacting with the world? I think it is a question worth asking.

I would like to live around horses who understand attention, yielding, and draw as tools- far more pleasant tools than aggression to define family and a sense of safety.

Elsa Sinclair


  1. Elsa,
    Thought-stimulating, as a communication project. Working through the language of aggression to find and cure the worry behind it has been my life-long quest. Trust you to clarify this, in a kindly, yet analytical way. 😉 Michael

    • I think you are right on Michael, it isn’t the aggression that is the problem… it is the worry behind it that needs soothing. Then we just need to dig a little deeper and figure out what is behind the worry 😉

  2. Hi Elsa, this is a question that pre-occupied me with my now-not-so-new horse. His initial aggression was frightening and eventually downright dangerous but it seemed likely in his case it was insecurity – I was his sixth owner in his 8 years! I had to treat him regularly for sweet itch and he was a wonderful horse to ride, but until he found his place with my two older horses and accepted we weren’t ever going to go away or cause him harm he stayed on the offensive. Sounds trite, but now he trusts he is the “cuddliest” of the three. I completely agree about their “hyper-vigilance”. Maybe, like humans, the ones who trust most readily are more easily alienated when hurt?

    • I think you are right, just like humans, horses also have to get smart about who to trust and who to watch carefully. I love hearing that your horse was able to make that change and become so trusting of you over time. Change can be challenging… so I love to hear stories where it was really successful to the betterment of everyone.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: