Musings on Horses

Being the ‘Dominant’ Leader: Does your Horse see the Same?


Dominance and leadership are common keywords in the horse world which rarely have been questioned as underlying concepts of training and handling. But the world is changing. In my article “The Culture of Dominance in Horse Training” ( I have written on dominance in horse training and why so many training methods are based on misconceptions.

Now, let’s have another look what science has to say. A recent article questioned and explored whether dominance and leadership are useful concepts in the training and handling of horses (see Hartmann E, Christensen JW, McGreevy PD, Dominance and leadership: Useful concepts in human-horse interactions?, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2017.01.015).

Basing horse training methods on the dominance theory also includes the underlying assumption that horses’ social roles can be transferred to human-horse interactions expecting horses to respond to humans as they would to other horses. By showing ‘unwanted behaviour’ the horse is regularly labelled as dominant striving for higher rank.

According to the researchers, this approach is too “simplistic”, and they identified problems such as the denial of the complexity of horse-horse interactions and their context-specificity. Moreover, there is no evidence that horses perceive humans as part of their social system.

“Horses’ responses to training are more likely a result of reinforcement rather than a result of humans attaining high social status and a leadership role. The knowledge of horses’ natural behaviour and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes than the application of dominance and leadership concepts.”

When it comes to leadership, several studies “indicate that leadership, in contrast to the traditional dogma of one alpha-leader, is not unique to the highest-ranked or oldest horse but that any horse of the group can act as leader”. They also “found shared leadership”. And it was concluded that “the decision-making process prior to movement was partially shared and was largely based on pre departure behavior displayed by several horses”   .

The relevance of the dominance theory for human-horse-interactions is considered to be low due to the complexity of social organisation of horses and the variety of factors which establish social order within a group. This is highlighted by the fact that “horses’ hierarchies become evident during competition for resources which are usually absent in a training context”. Furthermore, recent results have shown that roles of leaders in groups of horses are interchangeable and that leadership exists irrespective of rank and age in disputes of food. Thus, any horse in a group can act as leader.

Also, the morphological differences between horses and humans decrease the likelihood of horses responding to human attempts to mimic horse behaviour. “Horses communicate with each other using visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile signals… In contrast, communication between humans is primarily based on auditory signals via well-developed linguistic skills.”

Even though, “much emphasis is put on auditory signals in human-horse interactions with the underlying assumption that horses have an inherent understanding of harsh voice cues versus soothing voice cues”, recent research showed that a horse’s ability to perform a novel, potentially frightening task was not enhanced by soothing vocal cues.

“Indeed, an important element influencing how horses react to humans is the relationship they have established with humans.”

“A relationship may be defined as a succession of interactions that occur over time between two or more individuals: these individuals will have expectations of the next interaction on the basis of the previous ones.”

Research suggests that horses have the ability to recognize and remember individual handlers and the quality of their past interactions, i.e. whether those experiences had been pleasant or unpleasant.

Horses learn as a result of the reinforcement that follows a behaviour, i.e. providing rewards to correct responses, and not because they sense the social rank of the human nor her/his strong leadership skills. From the horse’s perspective, “becoming the quasi dominant leader of a horse may have little ethological relevance”. And “it is questionable whether horses do include humans in their social hierarchy”. Rather, “it is unlikely that horse-horse social status translates to analogues of human-horse interactions”.


Reference: Hartmann E, Christensen JW, McGreevy PD, Dominance and leadership: Useful concepts in human-horse interactions?, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.jevs.2017.01.015

Picture: (c) Fotolia – Olha Rohulya