This can be hard for people to get their heads around, but dominance isn’t a personality trait – it’s a relationship state between two animals to decide who is going to control resources. Your horse isn’t dominant, nor is he likely trying to be the dominant being in your relationship. Not unless you and he are deciding who is going to win the rights to breed that mare in the pasture. But don’t just take my word for it, check out this position statement written by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals
It’s hard to get this message out, when the majority of big name TV horse trainers believe it themselves, and preach it to viewers. Let’s face it, scientific information about horses and horse behavior just ain’t ‘sexy’. The behavior and social structure of horses is very complex, and in many ways is very different from our behavior and social structure; studying and understanding this is work, but putting an easy-to-understand label, like ‘dominance’ on a behavior is not. It’s easy to label a horse’s behavior as dominant, and try to address it based on that simple label; it’s harder to actually learn the complexities of horse social life, horse behavior and how horses learn. More on that later.
Horses who drag their owners, refuse to yield parts of their bodies, step on your toes, pin their ears at you, kick, bite, rear, swish their tails and so on aren’t dominant or trying to dominate you. When an animal performs a behavior and it’s reinforced, the behavior is likely to happen again. This is just the nature of learning. We humans learn the same way. If a horse pulls on the leadrope to reach the grass 5 feet ahead, and by doing so is able to eat the grass, the horse is reinforced for the behavior. If the horse pins his ears because he is he’s in pain, and it causes the approaching human with the halter to retreat, the behavior of ear pinning will likely happen again. Horses don’t dominate people; horses learn what works, or what doesn’t, in their efforts to get what they want or need.
Horses can be aggressive in certain situations, and aggression can be caused by a number of things. Aggression can be a complex issue, and we’ll save that topic for another blog. But just to keep things short and sweet, aggression towards humans and dominance are different.
I’m not into lying to folks, so I’ll tell you straight up: If your horse is aggressive towards you, dealing with it by being aggressive back may stop the behavior in it’s tracks, or it may not. Aggressive behavior can be suppressed – that means it doesn’t appear anymore – but suppressed behavior isn’t changed behavior; it’s still in there. Depending on what caused the aggression, and given the right conditions, it may even come back. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, dealing with aggression is often a job best done under the supervision of a certified and qualified horse behavior consultant.
Let’s give the horse some credit here: horses are smart enough to know that people aren’t horses. Horses are also gestural communicators – they communicate mainly through body language – and the last time I checked I still couldn’t pin my ears and make mare stink face to drive the horses where I wanted them to go.
For safety’s sake, we absolutely do need to build trust and establish lines of communication with the horse, and it is our responsibility to teach the horse what behavior we find acceptable. But how we go about doing that doesn’t need to include becoming a dictator who rules with an iron fist.
Let’s also understand that the horse’s actual social structure doesn’t follow a linear hierarchy, nor do horse herds have leaders – which makes justification for using ‘leadership’ with horses null and void. Unfortunately, many people falsely think herd dynamics look like this: Horse A is the boss of everyone, Horse B is the boss of everyone but A, Horse C is the boss of everyone but A and B…It just doesn’t work that way in the horse’s world. Yes, horses have rank and hierarchy among themselves, but it’s much more complex than a ‘one ring to rule them all’ approach.
Because it does matter. When people perceive an animal as ‘dominant’, it often leads to them responding to any unwanted behavior with ‘eye for an eye’ mentality. The methods used to treat any so-called dominant behavior usually involve punishment, and excessive use of punishment or using punishment when it’s not warranted can actually create MORE problems…which sadly people often then perceive as the horse being MORE dominant. And so the cycle goes.
By labeling behavior dominant, people may also fall into the trap of seeing the horse’s actions as a personal attack on their leadership or position – and they perhaps see it that way because social status is important to many people in that regard. But horses don’t lie in wait, looking for the chance they can take over and rule the land. They. Just. Don’t. If you still don’t believe me, I encourage you to seek out and study scientific research on the horse’s social life. Don’t know where to start? Look for peer-reviewed research, articles, and websites that are perhaps a little dry and dusty, and aren’t slickly marketed machines claiming to sell a method to cure all your horse woes. Look for fact-based information about horses, and not just one (wo)man’s personal opinion on how horses operate.
And if any marketing geniuses out there can tell me how to make this information sexy, and marketable, I’m all ears…
Fureix, C., Bourjade, M., Henry, S., Sankey, C., Hausberger, M. Exploring aggression regulation in managed groups of horses Equus caballus Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 138, Issue 3 , Pages 216-228, May 2012
McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F.L., McLean, A.N., The horse-human dyad: can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? Vet J. 2009 Jul;181(1):12-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.03.005. Epub 2009 Apr 17.
McGreevy, P. Equine Behavior, Saunders, 2012
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
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