Leadership or Dominance? Wise lessons from Nature

I’m sweaty and hot, gravel is painfully digging into my foot inside my sneaker, and the horse on the other end of my 12 foot rope is eyeing me with deep skepticism.

“She doesn’t know what you want; you need to be clearer in your phases!” calls my teacher as I vainly try to get Spitfire to back up in a straight line.  She’s not getting it; her ears lay back and she gives me a slightly wild look.  I am too clumsy and aggressive in my movements.

I have been studying horse behavior with Spitfire because I want to learn from her about leadership — specifically, the kind of leadership that doesn’t rely on dominant behaviors like command, control, or force.  Horse leadership is based on relationship, fairness, earning respect instead of demanding it.  I had a feeling when I began that studying horse herd dynamics would teach me many things about human leadership as well: the difference between leadership based on dominance and leadership based on real personal mastery.

Why is this important?  We can see many examples of dominant kinds of leadership in very powerful people today, affecting us all in severe and brutal ways.  The most obvious and recent case is with the extremist Islam groups currently operating in Africa, the middle east and elsewhere — and the western reactions to them.  I ask you, what kind of leadership is being demonstrated?

The UK just voted to bomb the IS, following on the heels of President Hollande’s declaration to “be merciless.” US politicians are calling Syrian refugees “a threat to US security” — and so on.  How will such responses help to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just for Americans, or the French?

My own heart pains also for the animals.  In recent years, my learning from horses has demonstrated first and foremost how these creatures look to the needs of the whole, and not just themselves.  Instead of dominating based on what’s best for them — which some of the less experienced horses actually try to do — the true leaders of the herd see the whole picture. 

Check out this list contrasting leadership and dominant behaviors in horses.  I think it’s an illuminating picture for what we can aspire to in human leadership.  What’s unacceptable to horses can surely become unacceptable for those societal and organizational positions of power and influence.  If only we knew!

The natural world reflects our inner condition

Horses have a unique capacity to mirror back to us something of our own inner condition, and as a result, they are widely used in life-coaching programs with human clients as a way to access mental and emotional stuckness in a non-judgmental environment.  This mirroring capacity is connected to their ability to “read” into the intentions of potential predators (that would be us) as well as what’s going on around them.  It’s also connected to the way that they communicate — not only through body language but also through mental pictures and the dynamics of personal space.  Basically, their enormous physical and emotional sensitivity makes them quite clairvoyant to the inner world of other large creatures near them — such as humans.  Indeed, their safety and wellbeing depends on it.  As a result, they can, when given the chance, weave a complex and deep web of relationships with other horses (and humans); they are, after all, herd animals.

Image result for study of horse and rider leonardo da vinciIf you google “horse herd dynamics” you will find many descriptions on the general theme of the pecking order, ranging from submissive through to dominant behaviors as a way of drawing conclusions about herd dynamics.  This kind of philosophy also runs through much of horse training approaches today.  But it’s not really the way horses work. There is another lens — and another way.

Did you know that the leader of the herd is not actually the stallion?  The stallion definitely has his role of protection to play, among other things, but actually it is the lead mare whom the others follow and look to. 

When you observe her tendencies, you won’t find dominating behaviors.  She won’t start arguments; she also won’t engage in them when provoked.  Her leadership is charismatic: the others look up to her, trust her implicitly, and look to her for guidance when the safety of the herd is threatened.  Horses are intelligent, and they don’t look to the bossiest and meanest, but instead, to the one who keeps her head, that can do the right thing in the moment of danger and threat, and who at every moment has the best interests of the entire herd at heart.  This requires a degree of maturity and largeness of spirit that only a few horses grow into this role — often because they had such role models in their own mothers.  A true lead mare is a rare and valuable horse. 

What really makes the difference in the kind of leadership represented in the left hand column (above) is not the tactics and strategies used, but the inner capacities for which the lead mare can be a metaphor.  Those kinds of capacities — empathy, transparency, ability to not take things personally, motivated to care for the whole, love and responsibility – are the kinds of abilities for which there are no outer blueprints to follow or strategies to implement.  There’s only inner practice and aspiration – and a recognition that these kinds of abilities are important, more important than what gets achieved under the rulership of a dominant-style leadership approach.

What do you think?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. Katy Mamen on November 24, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Great article–horses do indeed have much to teach us! I had the opportunity to do a leadership session with a horse and trainer and was amazed by their sensitivity to human energy. When you are in fear or anxiety, they don’t respond, but the minute you get real–drop into your true authentic self–they will work with you. The more we can fully “show up” with our whole selves, the more we can truly dance in and with the world…

    • Louisa on November 29, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      Thank you Katy! So great to hear you’ve had this experience with horses; nice. I do think authentic has so much to do with it, but also, as you say, not being afraid or anxious but instead reaching out with our interest toward the horse. I personally would also respond to authenticity and genuine interest from another person (or horse)!

  2. Emily on December 11, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Hey I love the new e-zine and this article resonated with me for sure. The nurturing role of the lead mare, amongst everything else, without ambition for more (or less) and looking to the well being of the herd is something I can connect with. Thanks guys 🙂

    • Louisa on December 12, 2015 at 9:48 am

      Thanks Emily, for taking the time to share what resonated! Always interesting to hear…

  3. Ronald on December 13, 2015 at 10:05 am

    I’m riding a Frisian Horse. A powerful, bigger than me, horse. I learn from her to focus, to trust and feel. When I want her to change direction, she only takes me there when I focus, feel her moves and trust on the outcome. Force is never enough to take us there.
    Thank you for starting this e-zine.

    • Louisa on December 13, 2015 at 10:33 am

      Wow, Friesian, the super models of the horse world. That is a great point you make about focus, feel and trust. She is clairvoyant to your intention! Sometimes when I’m playing with Spitfire, she knows what I want from her before I have even tried to communicate the idea to her, like she plucks it out of my mind. But only if we have built up focus on each other together that day. If either of us are distracted then it doesn’t happen. Thanks for your comment! Sounds like you have a real partnership with your horse.

  4. Mary Roscoe on December 22, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    The sensitivity of horses reminded me of a story Steve Karlin, from Wildlife Associates, told about me about Thunder, one of the horses in the animal sanctuary:

    A bright-eyed 12 year-old foster child living in an emergency shelter arrived here at the sanctuary with 10 other children. With a look of amazement on her face she turned to me and asked, “Can I go out there where the horses are?” I said. “Follow me”. As we walked across the field, Thunder, a beautiful white and gold horse looked up at the girl and began walking toward her. They met in stillness, touching nose to nose, eyes transfixed on each other. The girl began to cry quietly. Then she asked, “Why is the horse crying?” I looked at Thunder and saw a tear roll off his left eye. Thunder then moved his head lower so she could fully embrace him. In a muffled tone, because her face was planted on the horse’s head, I heard her say, “I love you Thunder, you’re the only one who understands my pain”.

    A touching article about Steve and a bear from the sanctuary at Wildlife Associates is here: http://www.conversations.org/story.php?sid=377

  5. Louisa on December 29, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Thanks Mary, for this quote! Powerful stuff. I read the article you included and loved it, thanks for that – The wildlife Sanctuary is about 3 hours away from where I live! I’d dearly like to visit some day… It’s an ambition of mine to include horses in coaching sessions and retreats with clients sometime in the future.

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