When we are riding or working with horses, is it important to “be the boss?”
Do we need to establish ourselves as being first in the pecking order, and does the horse need to view us as being the dominant or alpha individual in order to pay attention and follow our instructions?
Is leadership important? Do we need to possess the qualities of a good leader in order for our horses to trust us and to do what we ask of them?
Under many theories of horse training the answers to all of these questions is “yes – dominance is everything with horses and if we do not prove our dominance and leadership with a horse then we will never be successful working with them.”
I accepted this theory for a long time, but the more I learned about equine behavior and the more I started to look at horse training from a science based approach – looking for what is really true and not just what has been taught – the entire theory of dominance and leadership among horses was called into question for me. This has been a topic that has been of particular interest to me over the past year, and I wanted to share both my research and my thoughts with you in this article.
Let’s begin with defining dominance and dominance theory as it relates to training. Dominance is defined as having high status in a social group, usually (but not always) acquired as the result of aggression that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, such as food, mates, or space.
In a training context, dominance theory implies that an animal’s misbehavior is the result of that animal striving for a higher rank or looking to assert their dominance over the trainer or handler. Also, it is believed that a person must create submission in the animal to prevent and control behavior problems.
Horses are not the only species where dominance theory is applied in training. Traditional training approaches have applied this theory to all types of training, and it is also quite prevalent in dog training, with techniques like the alpha rollover.
What about the idea of leadership?
Here is where semantics (what words mean to individuals) can impact one’s views on this discussion. We all attach a slightly different meaning or emotion to different words, so for the sake of being clear I will do my best to provide definitions for the terms I use here.
Dominance is generally viewed as being gained through acts of aggression. In the case of our horses, aggressive acts would be biting, kicking, pinning of ears, etc.
Leadership is guiding or directing a group, and while leadership is often associated with positive qualities, such as assertiveness, confidence, fairness, and consistency, these aren’t actually part of the real definition of the word. Leadership can be gained through other means.
In a horse training context, leadership is often presented in this manner – if we possess the qualities of a good leader and emulate how a lead horse would behave then our horses will be more trusting of us and will willingly follow our commands.
In most of what is taught about wild horse behavior there is the idea that one horse in the group is the leader, typically seen as a lead mare, and she makes most of the decision for the herd. So this is the horse we want to emulate in our interactions with our own horses. However, the important question here becomes, is there really such a thing as a “lead” horse? Do groups of horses really have a leader?
The reason I feel it is so important to ask these questions and to look for the answers is there is a potential for real problems when we base our training and interaction with horses on either dominance theory or the idea of leadership.
Here are the potential problems:
If we focus on creating submission in our horses and we believe that we need to be dominant and be “the boss” in order to have success in training, and that misbehavior from the horse is often a result of the horse trying to assert their own dominance, then using harsher methods of training involving fear and pain are easily justified.
Likewise, if we believe the only way we can succeed with horses is by being a good leader, and that when the horse sees us a leader they will follow us and do what we want, this can create a lot of frustration and misunderstanding for both horse and human, even when the training techniques are kind, because there is an expectation that “if I am a good leader, my horse will follow and trust me and will be a willing partner.” This doesn’t take into account the fact that perhaps the horse simply doesn’t understand what is being asked of or expected of him.
Looking at the Facts
Let’s take a look at what we do know about horse behavior and wild horse ethology, and also consider what we might not completely understand about our horse’s social interactions to try and find the answer to some of these questions.
What we have to remember when considering behavior is that what we see in our domesticated horses can be very different from the natural behavior of wild horses or feral horses. We create all kinds of environments that would not be present in a natural situation, such as small living spaces, overcrowding, the need to compete for food, and for many horses, the constant changing of companions.
Difference between Wild and Domesticated Horses
Because of this, domestic horses often display much higher rates of aggressive behaviors (Lucy Rees). But here is what is interesting about aggression: studies that have tried to better understand dominance and the social behavior of horses have been inconclusive on whether the number of aggressive acts, like biting or kicking another horse, is really linked to that horse having a higher social ranking. Instead, a horse’s social rank seems to be more strongly related to other factors, such as the weight of the horse (Doren and Kuhlmann), and in the wild the social rank of the mother affects the rank of the foal (Rutberg and Greenberg).
I chose to use the term “social ranking” above, because while anyone who has observed horses notices that there are a few horses who get to the hay pile first or who aren’t bothered when eating their grain, there is a lot of discussion whether the terms that are more commonly used like “pecking order” or dominance hierarchy” are really adequate to describe the social interactions of horses.
Horses are Highly Social
One fact that is undisputed is that horses are highly social animals. Their mental and physical welfare depends heavily on a stable and cohesive group. In fact, if we think logically about wild horses, the survival of an individual is actually more dependent on the cohesiveness of the group than on winning the competition for access to resources. Horses are a grazing species, so in general their food source is not scarce. Observers of feral horses at water sources report that while horses with higher social ranking may go to the water first, they wait by the water source after drinking so that each horse has adequate time to drink (Feist and McCullough) – so, at least for a wild horse, being in a dominant position wouldn’t seem to have too many advantages.
The conclusion we could draw here is that friendship and reducing aggression would be more important to a horse in a natural state then would asserting dominance or leadership.
Who is Really the Leader?
Now speaking of leadership, is there evidence that groups of horses have a defined leader who makes decisions for the group?
There is a commonly held belief that in groups of wild horses there is an older mare who is the leader, and who makes decisions about where to graze and when to travel for water. However, when I looked over numerous studies of wild horse behavior and looked at the work of different horse ethologists (an ethologist is someone who studies an animal in their natural environment), it was rare to find someone who had actually identified a lead horse. Instead, it appeared as though different horses would assume a leadership role in different situations.
Now just to stay clear on definitions, there are two ways that leadership can be defined. Social leadership would be controlling aggression or disputes between members of the group and protecting members of the group from threats and predators. A spatial leader governs movement, and decides the direction and time the group will move.
In wild horse groups, sometimes this role was taken on by the stallion, and other times by one of the mares. Joel Berger, author of Wild Horses of the Great Basin, is quoted as insisting that “at no time was complete leadership shown for any individual stallion or mare within a band.” Therefore, the role of leader seems to be taken on by various members of the group, instead of one individual assuming this role.
So if concepts like dominance and leadership really aren’t that important to horses, why do we give them so much attention and why are so many training methods based on this theory?
First, we humans prefer easy explanations to complex structures. Describing a pecking order is easier than exploring the various environments, personalities, and possible learned behaviors of a group of horses.
Also, a possible fault with our observations is that when we expect to see something we will often find it. So when we hear about the theory of dominance over and over, we are more likely to see behaviors and assume them to be related to pecking order and dominance.
Also, most of us have only ever observed domesticated horses, whose behavior is very dependent on their environment. As the author of The Myth of Dominance states “how much would an alien from another planet learn about human social organization by studying only, say, the harem of a Turkish Sultan?”
Training with the idea that it is necessary to assert our dominance is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. If we are trying to show dominance we may end up using harsher methods that provoke more extreme avoidance behavior from our horses, like rearing, striking out, or kicking out.
Striving to embody the qualities of a good leader is a positive way to live, but I think it is necessary to take the training situation in context and not assume that a horse’s wrong response or misbehavior is due to our lack of leadership. When we see a horse responding well to a rider or handler who seems confident and self-assured, it’s not that the horse sees this person as a good leader, but rather the confident person is probably more clear and consistent with their cues and pressures. When there is less confusion the horse will be more likely to respond correctly.
I believe that horses are generally friendly, co-operative animals – that’s why we successful in domesticating them, and have been successful in living, working with, and riding them ever since.
One Final Thought
** I wanted to add one more section to this article after a few conversations that I had with friends and colleagues that read it. (By the way, I always welcome constructive criticism – it not only keeps me challenging my own thinking, but also helps me in considering how what I present is perceived.)
Here is what I want to add to this discussion: I want to make it clear that I do believe it is very important to teach horses what is desirable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior. We have to do this for our safety handling and riding them, as well as for the well-being of the horse. In the long run, a “spoiled” horse who does not understand how to behave around people will have a lower quality of life. However, I feel that training is exactly this, teaching the horse what we want and what we don’t want through the use of pressure, release, rewards, and sometimes a well-executed punishment. The purpose of this article was to draw attention to the dangers of what I believe is the incorrect theory of using dominance and leadership as a basis in training.
Thank you again for your comments! Callie
Berger, Joel. Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size. University of Chicago Press, March 1986.
Doren, Janine Van., Kuhlmann, Dr. Mark. Factors Affecting Dominance and Aggressive Interactions Among Castrated Male Domestic Horses.
Feist, J. D. and McCullough, D. R. (1976), Behavior Patterns and Communication in Feral Horses. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 41: 337–371.
Real Ethology with Lucy Rees. Epona.tv.
Rutberg, A.T., & S.A. Greenberg. 1990. Dominance, aggression frequencies, and modes of aggressive competition in feral pony mares. Animal Behavior. 40:322-321.
The Myth of Dominance. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/zareeba/dominance.pdf