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Differences Between Horse Training and Dog Training

In almost every clinic I do, we start with ground work to help establish a productive relationship between horse and human—to develop respect, obedience, focus, communication and control. Frequently, someone will remark that training horses is just like training dogs. While I can imagine some similarities, it is not a statement I would agree with whatsoever.

In fact, I think many of the problems that people have with horses stem from treating them like a dog or like a pet, instead of like a horse. While there are some similarities between training horses and dogs, perhaps in authority and leadership, there are some very distinct differences.

First, I like to remind people that chances are good that your dog will not kill you; but your horse might kill you without even trying! So when it comes to training horses, there is a huge difference in risk of injury. That’s why being safe around horses is more critical than anything else—it is nothing to take lightly. When we talk about learning about horses through “the school of hard knocks” we are being literal. This is not a sport for weenies.

And while you can physically force a dog to do something (like sit or heel)—you cannot physically force a horse to do anything—he’s way too big! You have to make him want to do it and that requires much deeper thought into his behavior and motivations, as well as the techniques you will employ. This sounds challenging, doesn’t it? But it is far more challenging than it sounds.

Understanding the origins of a horse‘s behavior (is it instinctive or learned?) and reading his emotions (is he scared, mad, obstinate or confused?) and his attempts at communication with you (why is he doing that?) takes knowledge, experience, understanding, observation, confidence and persistence.

A horse is not initially willing and eager to please and wanting be with you like a Golden Retriever. He is instinctively drawn to the herd and indifferent to you, unless and until you prove your leadership ability to him and give him the same sense of security and comfort that he gets from the herd. Then he will gladly go with you anywhere and be happy to be part of “your herd.”

There’s an old saying that fully addresses the inherent difference between horses and dogs. It says, “A dog will leave safety for food; but a horse will leave food for safety.” I am not sure who said it or when, but it is a simple statement with a depth of meaning. Dogs are pack animals and they hunt in packs—they are reliant on the pack for food and that’s the reason why using food in their training is so useful (it’s the only way I can get my dogs to do anything!). Dogs are programmed to ingratiate themselves to the higher-ups in the pack (and that includes you) because then they are more likely to get some food.

But a horse is not reliant on the herd for food—just turn him loose and he will find the food just fine, thank you very much. A horse is reliant on the herd for two things: safety and comfort. If you can give the horse those two things that he wants most—safety and comfort—he will not only want to be with you but he will be very eager to please you, so that he stays in good standing in your herd and can hold onto those good feelings.

In fact, food is often the source of major problems between horses and humans because of the hierarchy of a horse herd. You don’t have to be around horses long before you begin to understand the pecking order or herd hierarchy—which the behaviorist define as a “linear hierarchy,” meaning each and every individual of the horse herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual (and like it or not—you fit into that hierarchy somewhere).

I have written and talked a lot about how horses establish hierarchy; there are only two factors involved. The dominant horse always controls the resources of the herd (food, water, shelter, etc.) and always controls the space of the subordinates (by backing them off and herding them around). If a horse ever comes to believe he is taking away food from you (because you hand-feed him treats or you allow him to rip the feed out of your hands when you bring it to him), he knows he is dominant over you and your relationship is going nowhere fast.

Same thing if he is allowed to walk all over you, head butt you or back you up. He’s controlling your space; therefore he’s dominant. While a dog that begs for food at the table is obnoxious, you might still be able to have a productive relationship with him. Not so with a horse—their disrespect quickly turns into disdain.

Here’s more FFT (food for thought). A poorly-behaved dog is obnoxious and no one like being around them—dogs that jump on you, scratch at the door, ram their nose in your crotch, insist on being petted or drop a slobber-covered tennis ball in your lap. But again, the obnoxious dog is less likely to hurt you or others.

A poorly behaved horse on the other hand—one that walks all over you, throws tantrums, bites or kicks, drags your through the mud, spooks, bucks, runs off– is a dangerous animal that can cause significant injury to you and the other people that have to handle him. I believe that horse owners have a greater responsibility to make sure their horse has manners and training that cause him to be safer and more pleasant to be around.

Finally, when comparing horses to dogs, you have to realize that your horse is not going to give you his unconditional love and devotion like your dog does. While you can develop a relationship with your horse that is very gratifying—where he is eager to please, obedient and looks up to you—this does not come for free; you have to earn it. And get used to the fact that no matter how much you do for your horse—buy the best feed, organic salt, high-tech all-weather blanket, the best fitting saddle, a clean stall with a fluffy bed, give him the best supplements and medical care—what he will give you in return, is his unconditional indifference. That’s just who horses are; get used to it!

Enjoy the ride,


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  1. I’m not sure if I totally agree with this. I trained my horse like a dog in a way. He knows many tricks and knows about my space. Just a couple of days ago I was being chased by another horse and hayden stepped inbetween us and protected me. I do not feel replaceable at all. He comes to me and loves on me and I never have to worry about him running over me. I was taking off leg wraps one day and he touched his nose to electric wire (because he’s never seen it before) and instead of running me over, he spooked backwards and then sideways. He’s always been my best friend and will continue to be.

  2. *Training* horses is just like *training* dogs. What is different is what motivates them. Which is exactly the same concept of how training people is the same as training dogs, but what motivates people is different from what motivates dogs. For example, as Julie pointed out, horses are not terribly food motivated, but dogs are. Dogs do not find metal and paper (coins and bills or paychecks) to be motivating but I will not work for hotdogs.

    The fact that motivation matters is a fine distinction, but an important one.

  3. Hooray for you helping others understand horses. I am so excited for the MN Clinic coming soon. I’ll see you there!!

  4. Thanks for your report. Yes I once had the same misconception in my mind that horses were like dogs and could be treated as such. Perhaps if I would have read your article earlier I would not be in the condition I am today. I was working with three horses at the time as a favor to my landlord. Two large paints and a large standardbread. I trained them all to be caught and accept saddling. Then tried longing without a roundpen in saddle. I had worked and trained horses before when I was younger with success and no injuries. I was able to get in the saddle with two of the horses, and they accepted the snaffle. One Saturday I decided to test ride the standard bred mare. She was tied to the corral post snaffle bit in place. Mounted her, untied her and cued her to walk. we proceeded and then made a circle and directed her back to the post dismounted and then gave her praise and a reward. That same day I attemmpted the same procedure with the large paint gelding. The only difference was that he was not tied when I mounted. Because he appeared to be standing calmly. The only problem was that he continually was mouthing the bit trying to get his tongue over the top, so I tightened it. After mounting he stood but I couldn’t get him to go forward. So I tried the old swat on the rear with the reigns trick. He jumped forward a couple of feet and stopped (this is when I should have realized that something was wrong and ended the session). Instead I tried the same tactic and went for the ride that changed my life. He bucked violently I wasn’t able to pull his head around. He threw me and I landed on hard ground on my left shoulder and back shattering my scupula, five ribs, a distal fracture of my clavicle, and a pneamothorax. Ended up in the hospital for a few days. The surgeon did not want to operate because of the complex fractures. Now I havn’t been able to return to work and my bills are sending my wife and I to the poor house. The only hope I have is the Good Lord Jesus who has always managed to get me through impossible situations. I did go see another surgeon to get a second opinion but he stated that since my scapula has already begun to heal in a shortened state it is too late to do anything now. I feel like a freek because my clavicle is sticking up out of my shoulder and my left side is minituarized my general health is going downhill because of my inactivity. The accident happened Oct. 2 two months ago. This Tuesday I will see the surgeon whom I fear will postpone any treatment once again. So my message is please do not take any chances and be sure your horse has had the proper groundwork and you have earned his respect, and if anything does not feel right stop what you are doing. A horse can change you life forever for the good or the bad.

  5.…that explains a LOT!! LOL *sigh* ok… i get it i get it…

  6. So true! Thanks so much for posting this Julie.

  7. I agree. My dog would put himself in great danger for me, my horse would flee (maybe with me, maybe trying to get me off). I think the way to sum it up is for my dog I’m irreplaceable, for my horse I’m readily replaceable. (I do find mares form greater attachment, but YMMV)

    But how do you explain some of the dog like things? A horse that omes up to you in a pasture, leaving the herd? The way a horse will touch an area on an individual who is hurt? There are occasional dog like things with a horse that make it easy to confuse the two.

  8. Fantastic and oh so true!!! Thank you, thank you for this blog!!!

  9. “Why a Horse is not a Dog” is SUCH a good post. So true. Julie, as I told you at the clinic in Iowa; I appreciate so much how well you can WRITE! I do not have cable, so I cannot see your TV show. Your ability to write and your generosity in posting it all for free allows me to keep learning and improving. Not very many horse trainers/clinicians have this education/talent. I am very grateful. Thank you. Mary Hanson

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