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’ (TM) 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 leader, giving of and worthy of respect, and teach the horse what behavior we expect of him. 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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How does laughter affect how you feel, and why on earth does this matter when it comes to training your horse?
Laughter is indeed powerful medicine. The act of laughing releases endorphins and dopamine, increases relaxation, lowers pain and stress levels, deepens social bonds with friends and family, and even helps us better retain information when we are learning.
Laughter also has a bit of a dark side. If someone says or does something that causes you to laugh, it can result in very real changes in how you perceive a situation. Your perception of what you are seeing or what you are being told is happening can be changed if your emotions towards the event are positively affected by the act of laughing - even if the event isn't necessarily something worthy of feeling good about or laughing at.
How we perceive events is a complex and fascinating topic. The many factors affecting perception can make objectively assessing what we see or hear very challenging at times. In light of this, I encourage students to always turn the sound off when observing training videos, to not be swayed by what they hear the trainer say. In this instance, I want you first to LISTEN ONLY to the audio, and don't watch the video (you can watch after). What I want you to listen for is both how the male trainer elicits laughter, and how this may affect the female owner's perception of events. Through the act of laughing, physiological and emotional changes take place in the owner, and these changes will have a very real effect on her perception of events. Do you think she felt positive, negative, or neutral about the training session she observed?
After listening to the audio, feel free to watch the video, with the sound off, and try to objectively observe this training session, but this time focus on the horse's emotional state. What behavioral indicators do we have that tell us whether the horse feels positive, negative, or neutral about the training session?
I always welcome your thoughts, comments, constructive criticism and dialogue on my posts, but personal attacks are not welcome and will be deleted.
**If you wish to share this post, you will need to cut and paste my comments and attribute them to me when you post, otherwise only the video will be shared on your timeline. ... See MoreSee Less
20 hours ago ·View on Facebook
Given the choice, would your horse choose heating in his shelter?
Thanks to Justine Harrison - Equine Behaviourist for the interesting summary of a study that was just presented at the ISES 2014 conference ... See MoreSee Less
Would horses like heating in the winter? A fascinating Norwegian study investigating horses preference for shelter in winter weather was presented at the recent ISES conference. Last winter, 17 horses of different breeds were turned out in fields with a choice of two field shelters - a regular one and one with large heaters. Their behaviour was recorded in different weather conditions and temperatures as low as -7°C. They were not wearing rugs. For most of the time the horses chose to stay outside. Warmblood horses were more likely to use the shelters than coldbloods. The horses used the regular shelter when it was wet and windy (muscle shivering was only recorded on mild, rainy days and the horses would often stand in the regular field shelter in these conditions). The horses only used the heated shelter when it snowed - apart from one elderly horse who went in the heated shelter almost all the time! The researchers found that even temperatures as low as -7° C had no negative effects on horse behaviour and welfare. The most challenging winter weather for horses is rain or sleet where the horse becomes wet - in these conditions, the horses preferred access to shelter. Shelters give the horse the opportunity to regulate their own temperature in changing weather conditions. The need for rugs should be assessed for each individual horse and not just based on breed and common practice. Researchers: Grete H.M. Jørgensen from Bioforsk Nord Tjøtta, Lise Aanensen and Cecilie M. Mejdell from Norwegian Veterinary Institute and Knut E. Bøe from Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Photo: Chris Roll #horse #ISES2014 #horsecare
24 hours ago ·View on Facebook