There seems to be a growing belief that horses want to be utterly and completely free, without being tethered by a human. Granted, horses would probably be better off without human interference. But that is not a viable option, for we live in a human-made world and it is our responsibility to facilitate the best lives possible for our animals in the world we have created.
Our horses very much rely on us for all the essentials of life, from the basic physiological need for food to the figurative hunger for emotional connection. This inherently causes an inequality between horse and human, one that cannot be explained away by the fact that "I love my horse as my equal." I would never doubt the love you have for your horse, but you are not equal beings.
I'm sure I have offended people by saying this, but it is not a bad thing to not be equal, by any means! So don't stop reading just yet 😉
Horses WANT a hierarchy like this! They will always naturally fall into a hierarchy within their herd, characterized by levels of dominance. The alpha mare will assert herself over the other horses, and the herd looks to the alpha as a source of reassurance and guidance. Notice I say "assert," not "fight for a spot." Being assertive involves showing others what you can do, why you are the best to do it, and why it would do them well to listen to you. An alpha mare is not often the strongest or most aggressive horse in the herd, quite the contrary, she is usually the most motherly, wise, and respected. The other horses feel dependent on her, to lead them to the best food, water, and safe places to rest. Does this sound familiar? Food, water, safe place. Sounds a lot like the basics of taking care of a horse to me!
Another part of being assertive is modeling behavior for others that you wish to see. We have all seen horses "correcting" other horses because they got too close, or were eating their claimed food, or simply because they were in the way! The herd hierarchy is what determines which horse moves for who, and who they can move around in turn. This is totally normal and expected behavior, and the horses are not offended by it because they respect the hierarchy. Were you offended as a child when your teachers asked you to sit at an assigned desk, or form straight lines with your classmates? Offering guidance and structure is not naturally a bad experience. It can be fun, even welcomed.
As your horse's person, considering that we have already established that you are their provider for life necessities, YOU must become your horse's alpha mare. I'm not saying to go push your horse around to assert your dominance, because that's not how the alpha would do it. She is just, and calmly confident, in how she distributes corrections to behavior. She leads by example, and demonstrates her will and desire to protect and love her herd members.
If your horse does not perceive you as their alpha, they will attempt to become higher than you in your little herd hierarchy. This can cause several problems, as you can imagine. If your horse does not have certain natural personality traits, she might not know what to do with this new power. This can cause many psychological insecurities, as she does not view you as being her protector, and will be flighty and "spooky." If they are natural leaders, then they will try to push you around like another horse, and if you are not able to stand your ground you could get seriously injured, or at the very least be unable to control your horse from the ground.
Now, let me get one thing straight. I am not saying you will be "controllING," I am saying you will be "in control"- of your safety, your horse's safety, and the safety of others. By gaining the respect of your horse, you will eventually not need controlling devices. No, not even a halter and lead rope. (Note: I still highly recommend these, or some alternative such as a neck rope, as a precaution; however, you will not need to use them in the traditional sense to keep your horse by you, because you will be using your leader status to literally and figuratively lead your horse)
Let me get another thing straight: being a leader is not the same as being your horse's boss. There has been a quote going around by Michael Bevilacqua:
One of the most common phrases in riding schools or standard training tips is "you are the boss." If one is the boss, then that includes dominance and if dominance is present, so is force. To get an open relationship based on free will and true effort for comprehension then you have to turn that old idea upside down.
It is entirely possible, and desirable, to be a leader without being "bossy." Being a boss implies telling your underlings what, when, and how to do a desired action. A leader SHOWS how to appropriately do a desired action and then allows their followers to complete that action. This is what you are doing when you are training. You are creating a structured environment wherein you are leading your horse to try new things, and rewarding behavior in the desired direction. This is why we say our best advice is to just go out and play with your horses! No matter what "method" or discipline you follow, when you "train," you are being a leader. You are structuring what you want your horse to do by rewarding behavior. And that's a good thing!
We have already addressed that your horse responds to and relies on a hierarchy based around dominance, and that dominance is also not a bad thing in the right contexts. Having "dominance" over your horse simply means that you are higher up in the hierarchy, and that they respect you for your wisdom about the human world, confidence, and provision of safety. Like a well- established alpha mare, dominance does NOT equal force, unless you LET IT equal force. A good leader does not require force, as they have the respect of their followers; once respect is established, the follower chooses of their own free will to follow their leader, just like the horses in a herd follow their alpha.
Does that sound like a good leader? Gaining the respect of the individuals you must manage, allowing them to express themselves, but providing guidance and structured learning opportunities to help them safely perform at their best - that's what I hope my leaders are like at least! In the wild, if a young horse sees something frightening for the first time and has no leader they trust with their life to turn to, they will panic far more than if they know their leader will choose the safest escape. Imagine the frustration of trying to complete a task at work that you've never done, when there is no one to show you how. That could be just as frustrating as learning something under a harsh boss with unreasonably strict rules. For your horse, those tasks are equivalent to their daily routines of living in the human world. They want that leader they can trust to provide clear instructions on how to react and otherwise guide them. And if you're still of the mind that you and your horse are equal, then wouldn't you want the same positive environment for your horse as yourself? So give them what they want, need, and deserve: a confident leader.