Before we begin, I have a disclaimer: This post isn’t going to delve deep into the complexities of the horse’s normal social relationships and herd structure under natural conditions, i.e. bands of feral horses, living on large ranges. If you want to learn more, I can point you in the right direction (head to the bottom of the page for references). If you want the Coles notes, here they are:
As it relates to animal behavior, dominance describes a relationship established between animals through the use of aggression, force, and submission to gain access to all important resources considered a priority, such as food, breeding partners, or preferred spaces. In order for that relationship to be established, one of the animals has to consistently submit to the other. Horses do engage in dominance behaviors with one another, as a way of holding/gaining resources. For example, stallions fight to control the right to be with and breed mares. These encounters may be brief, or long, but they only happen to control resources; they do not form the basis for establishing hierarchies and rank. In these encounters, horses must weight the ‘cost’ of fighting: What is the resource worth to each horse? What are the potential costs of defending it? How able are they to win the fight?
There may be dominant battles between stallions to decide who is going to have access to resources (i.e. a band of mares), but for the most part, horse herd life is cooperative, and the majority of confrontations between horses actually relies on threat gestures and deference, not serious aggression. (See number 7, above) Hierarchies can be fluid, and can change based on different situations, but horse herds don’t survive through the use of domination to establish them, or hold them together.
Dominance is NOT a personality trait. If you took 4 stallions from 4 different bands, and threw them together (I’m not advising this, for the record), you would see 4 stallions determine their group rank through aggression, threats, and deference. Yet the word ‘dominance’ is thrown around the horse training world, almost as much as the word ‘natural’, and it’s supposed meaning is just as incorrect. If you Google ‘horse dominance’ a plethora of links come up, a good majority of which go directly to professional horse trainer’s websites. No wonder there is so much confusion!
Many advocate acting as ‘lead horse’ or the ‘alpha’, advise showing the horse who is boss, or tell people that they need to be the dominant one in the relationship. Clinton Anderson, a well-known TV trainer says, “You must establish yourself as the dominant one, the leader in your group of two. That begins by keeping your horse out of your space.” and “Letting foals get pushy and dominant is the biggest mistake I see people make with young horses.” Another TV horse training couple, Pat and Linda Parelli, state, “When it comes to an invasive or aggressive horse, there are basically two reasons he would invade your space: either FEAR or DOMINANCE.” and ”Many so-called spoiled horses are just horses that are not afraid of the human and they start vying for dominance.” and “Horses are persistent in their quest for dominance and they are not in a hurry.” ” Parelli Natural Horsemanship teaches horse owners to treat their horse as the horse’s mother or a dominant horse in the herd would treat him. When it comes to leadership, someone has to assume the “alpha” position…and it shouldn’t be the horse.” But to make matters really confusing, they also throw in this statement: “The Parelli method allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success without force, partnership without dominance and harmony without coercion.” With such conflicting information, what’s a horse owner to think??
Let’s Set The Record Straight
Let’s get some things straight here:
So what are the behaviors that were quoted above? Without having seen the horses described, they are most likely what’s known as learned behaviors. And where did the horses learn them? Humans. Awww, snap. As another famous TV personality. Dr. Phil said, “You teach horses how to treat you.” OK, maybe that wasn’t quite how he said it… Horses learn what works, and what doesn’t – it’s that simple. It’s up to us to decide what is acceptable, and what isn’t, and teach the horse accordingly. It is also up to us to make sure that we are managing the horse in such a way (by meeting all of his species-specific needs, especially Friends, Forage, and Freedom) that he doesn’t feel the need to act in an aggressive manner towards us.
It’s been shown that relationships built on the mindset that you need to dominate the other party have the potential to damage the bond between the two parties. Often what people are describing to me as dominance is actually fearful or defensive behavior, learned behavior, or behavior that has its roots in management issues. Even our pampered and domesticated horses still retain all of their ‘wild’ cousin’s innate characteristics. But we often impose unnatural, and unhealthy living conditions on them that affect their ability to have normal social skills and exhibit normal behaviors. In my world, the top three management issues that are mislabeled dominance are:
Relationships based on aggression or force, or those that require another party to submit are not the relationships we should be building with the horse, and frankly they are not even necessary. For as large and powerful as they are, horses can be trained without aggression or force. As I mentioned earlier, part of who they are is an animal that spends more of his time deferring than fighting.
Unfortunately, some horse training methods are built upon this misguided understanding of dominance and horse behavior, and advocate being the dominant herd leader. These methods fall under the other definition of dominance: the act of controlling, ruling or governing, often in an arbitrary manner.
If we analyzed training methods promoted to deal with ‘dominance’, we’d often find out that what’s being promoted is known in terms of learning theory as positive punishment. Positive punishment is the addition (hence the positive) of something aversive enough, at the time of an unwanted behavior, that it decreases the chances the behavior will be repeated in the future. Research has shown that animals trained with positive punishment are at risk for inhibited learning, their problem-solving skills are reduced, their fear-related and aggressive behaviors often increase, and there is an increased chance of injury to both trainer and animal. Another problem with using positive punishment is that people tend to use it incorrectly, as almost a knee-jerk reaction to what behavior they don’t want, rather than really thinking about what’s motivating the horse to behave the way he’s behaving, and instead reinforcing what they do want.
Let’s face it: for most people’s purposes, if horse and human are going to have a good relationship, the human needs to be ‘in charge’. It’s just a safety thing. How we attain that position can happen in a few different ways: 1. We can be a dictator, assume those under us are constantly trying to overthrow us, and rule by using aggression and force. 2. We can be a kind and fair leader, giving of and worthy of respect. We can also understand that it is our job to teach the horse what behavior we desire. So how do we train horses to respect us, and see us as the leader, without entering into a relationship built on domination? By first respecting them. A few commandments of establishing that respect might be as follows:
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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