Musings on Horses

The Culture of Dominance in Horse Training


When we take a look at the mainstream horse training methods, we are very often confronted with forms of dominance towards horses requesting them to enter into submission to our demands. Looking closely at the horses’ reactions, this is regularly accompanied by subtle (or not so subtle) signs of stress and fear.

Two horses embracing.How often did I hear in my early horse years that I have to assert myself, that I have to show the horse that I am the boss, etc. Yes, I do want to have some form of ‘lead’ when I work with my horses and I want to be able to make decisions that are followed by the horse and if it is simply for the reason of safety for myself as well as the horse. I also like certain boundaries to be kept in place but this is a two-way street and includes me respecting the boundaries of the horse. However, I do not have to force this so-called ‘leadership’ but rather build it and have it develop as a ‘healthy connection’ between two individuals of different species where the horses are being given the chance to learn what is asked of them. In this setting, I like to leave the horse its ‘voice’ and ‘personality’ in a learning environment that is as stress-free as possible and gives the horse the chance to process the given tasks and to progress in simple understandable steps.

We are probably used to the dominant approaches from the more competitive equestrian disciplines. But unfortunately, even the supposed to be kind and gentle world of ‘natural horsemanship’ is not free of it and may have even strengthened and reinforced it by basing its methods on the underlying theory of horse herds being led by a dominant horse, the ‘alpha’ mare, etc. And then applying this theory while at the same time misreading and misinterpreting behavioural expressions of horses which indicate stress and fear.

Licking and chewing indicates fear and anxiety rather than understanding and learning

I have seen highly celebrated natural horsemanship trainers demonstrating their methods in practice pushing beyond the horses’ fears and capacity of understanding, overlooking and/or misinterpreting their signs of distress and anxiety such as licking and chewing and referring to them as signs of learning and understanding, i.e. the horse says ‘I got it’. In fact, if you do some research into the field of equine behavioural studies, you will learn that this form of licking and chewing in training sessions is a sign of release of tension after a stressful situation ended or the horse cannot escape a stressful situation and retreats to licking and chewing as a form of ‘displacement behaviour’ for the fear and anxiety experienced (see for example N. Waran, The Welfare of Horses).

More than once, I had to watch such signs of stress being dismissed and disregarded or celebrated as a breakthrough in the horse’s learning and understanding and the work being continued with even more pressure pushing the horses – who naturally respond by flight rather than fight – as far as seeing no other way out than reacting with more expressive ways of showing their discomfort, such as strong attempts to escape, rearing, kicking, etc. It is startling how training methods promoted as being humane and in the best interest of the horse in that their training supposedly reduces the stress for the horse considers a stress response as a sign of success rather than as what it is: a sign of fear and discomfort.

e1ca287a-5d9a-476f-89ab-5abf1a1c517dWe have to understand that the horse’s personality is not one that looks for conflict or wilful disobedience but rather one that will follow you if you create a safe and relaxed environment where the horse can trust you as a reliable guide, i.e. that what you request will not harm, cause stress or damage the horse, and that the given task can be understood and mentally and physically processed and performed by the horse.

Besides knowledge and a lot of experience to correctly read their body language, it takes a lot of feel to understand how far you can go when working with a horse by pushing their boundaries in the sense of encouraging new learning but avoiding not to push beyond those which always has to result in conflict and a stressful experience for the horse. This ability to feel can be greatly developed and increased if we find ways to develop our own intuitive and sensual awareness and if we work from a state of mindfulness towards ourselves and the horses in our care.

Dominant Leadership does not exist in groups of horses

Another misconception in horse training methods is based on the idea that we have to reach the ‘alpha’ position in our horse-human interactions by replicating behaviour of the lead horse in the hierarchy of social groups of horses.

First, without questioning the underlying theory of hierarchies in non-domestic horse herds, do we actually believe the horse not to be able to see that we are human. Due to our bodily capacities, we will never be able to successfully imitate the full spectrum of body signals used in the communication between horses who rely on their high perception and ability to see potential dangers and communicate them between each other not only in a social context but simply as a matter of survival.

But also, research has shown that dominant leadership based on a linear hierarchy is not what governs the social life and behaviour of horse herds. There is no one consistent leader that makes decisions for the whole group. Studies came to the conclusion that leadership is shared and alternates between different horses (See for example: ‘Is Leadership a Reliable Concept in Animals? An Empirical Study in the Horse’ or ‘Who is in the lead?’ with further references).

Additionally, we have to consider that a lot of training situations where certain ‘natural horsemanship’ principles that are based on dominance are applied are incomprehensible for the horse. From a horse’s point of view, it is not understandable why a person for an unknown reason creates so much pressure on the horse. This naturally results in the horse experiencing stress and threat that it cannot escape from which is more than questionable under animal welfare aspects.

If the underlying theory of a lot of horse training methods is obsolete and this structure does not exist, we lost the fundamental basis of those training methods which justified to resort to punishment if the human leadership was supposedly questioned by the horse, i.e. the horse being ‘dominant’, instead of questioning ourselves and considering that our demands of the horse may not have been as clear, understandable or simply too much or that the horse is distressed or in pain.

So, what to do instead:

  • How about building trust and partnership first and foremost?
  • How about educating ourselves about how learning in horses happens and how to apply this in an ethical and sustainable way?
  • How about using honest and authentic communication to create a safe learning environment?
  • How about guiding the horse rather than demanding and enforcing?
  • How about creating small safe steps to facilitate learning?
  • How about deepening and improving our intuition and sensual awareness to have a better feel for the horse?
  • Etc.