Perhaps it’s the overuse of the term by controversial animal trainers or maybe Fifty Shades of Grey has just made it impossible to say the word without the image of whips and restraints popping into our minds, but ‘dominance’ seems to me to be one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in horsemanship. Dominance training theories have been around since humans first started training horses, and while our understanding of herd dynamics and training techniques have evolved, the dominance theory still dominants (pun intended) modern-day training. But how do we define dominance and does dominance have a place in good horsemanship?
What is dominance?
For many animal lovers, any mention of the word ‘dominance’ seems to imply the use of force, but the dictionary definition of dominance is simply to ‘have power and control over others’. There is no specification of how this power and control is achieved or maintained. Using this definition, positive reinforcement is also dominance, as you are using something that your horse wants (e.g.a treat), to wield power and control over them. Personally, I see no reason why you can’t have power and control over someone without using force, assuming you can set up a situation in which they willingly accept you taking on a leadership role. The problems arise when they don’t and the lengths to which some trainers and riders will go to enforce their power and control can range from being over-zealous with the whip to horrific abuse. So it’s easy to see how dominance-based training got its bad reputation.
That being said, I think there are few horse trainers that wouldn’t agree that we need to be able to control our horses, even if only to ensure we stay safe. Despite the fact that I want to have a partnership with my horses, I still believe that in order to stay safe around my horses I do need to assert control over them at times and I believe dominance-based training is the easiest way of achieving this. But the scale of dominance is huge, and in my opinion, there is no excuse for mistaking ‘dominance’ to mean ‘violence’ or ‘force’. If you fail to convince your horse to give you their trust and respect, it is due to an error in your training, and not an excuse to ramp up the pressure and force your leadership onto your horse.
Dominance theory in the herd
There has been an awful lot written about horse psychology and the dynamics of the herd, with various conflicting theories brought up by horse ‘experts’ and animal behaviourists. The reality is that we will never know for sure – all we can do is observe and learn from watching horses and how they interact. Anyone who has spent any time around horses will surely agree that, just like people, there are horses who appear to have naturally more ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ characters – horses that seem to assert their desires without hesitation and others who appear to concede to anything in order for an easy life. Of course, this is a simplification – horses are complex beings and the same horse is quite capable of showing a range of ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ behaviours depending on the time, place and situation.
However, it would be hard to spend time around horses without noticing these dominant behaviours taking place – a horse pinning their ears back, biting another horse, or driving another horse away from their food is obvious dominant behaviour, but it’s also apparent when horses play – rearing, striking and nipping are go-to moves for many horses. It makes sense that these dominant behaviours are escalated in domestic situations (where horses are turned out into small paddocks, regularly change herds, or spend a lot of time alone in a stable) in order to quickly establish or re-establish the social order of the herd.
Which brings me to the idea of there being a ‘hierarchy’ or social order. Views on this are also conflicted, with some believing that there is a clear hierarchy, led by an ‘Alpha Mare’, and others disputing this entirely. Personally, I believe that the so-called ‘hierarchy’ of the herd is actually a complex social structure that is ever-changing and ever-evolving, just as we see in human social groups. I think that the text-book description of the ‘Alpha Mare’ is often far from the mark, but I also recognise that most domestic herds do seem to have one or more ‘lead mares’, who have some form of power and control over the rest of the herd. But that doesn’t mean it is a dictatorship written in stone and the horse I would consider the ‘alpha’ is often not the one displaying the most ‘dominant’ behaviours. Often they appear to command respect without having to fight for it, which stands at odds with how many trainers attempt to ‘win’ leadership from their horses.
What is most interesting to me is that while it is often clear which horses are at the top of the social ladder (typically the older, more established members of the herd) and which are at the bottom (often the youngest or newest members), it would be very difficult to place those in the middle (the majority of the herd) in a definitive order. I find it common to see these horses changing roles – pushing others around then accepting being pushed around; some days happily sharing their food with another horse and other days chasing them off; playing dominance games with each other that appear to border on aggressive, then happily dozing side by side. Understanding the complexities of these relationships is important, because it proves that being a ‘leader’ or the ‘dominant’ partner doesn’t have to be static. One horse having 100% dominance over another at all times is something I rarely see in an established herd.
Do you really want to be the ‘boss’?
Many trainers seem hyper-focused on the idea of being the ‘leader’, the ‘boss’, or the ‘dominant one’ over their horse. If I’m to believe everything I’ve read, there is a lot that goes into being the leader. My horse is supposed to obey my instructions at all time; lead politely without ever passing me; be respectful by never kicking, biting, pushing into me, etc; never spook at anything or be scared; stand perfectly still for mounting; move their feet immediately when asked; place their feet wherever I ask; trust my decision making at all times; follow me on a loose lead rope or at liberty; be perfectly responsive to my aids; never buck, rear or bolt; and the list goes on. And of course, if my horse ever puts a foot wrong, it is likely because he hasn’t truly accepted me as being ‘dominant’.
I have a big problem with this kind of training philosophy. Not because I don’t want a horse that does most of these things, but because it discounts the fact that the horse is a living, thinking being. Demanding 100% obedience from my horse means expecting my horse to become a robot and I don’t want that. I want my horse to feel free to express themselves, to feel free to disagree or show their discomfort, and to have an opinion on what they like and don’t like. I want my horse to feel like I listen to his opinion, to challenge me when I’m wrong, and to take an active role in our partnership. But also, in order to feel safe riding and handling my horses, I need to know that I will always be able to control them.
This brings me back to watching how horses interact with each other. I find that the closer that the relationship appears between two horses, the more the lines of dominance appeared to be blurred. Situations where the dominant partner is clear, often lack connection or closeness. For example, a youngster will quickly learn to give space and respect to the lead mare, but similarly will rarely be seen relaxing in her company, playing with, or even interacting with her at all. If all you want is ‘respect’ from your horse, maybe taking on the ‘alpha’ role is the way forward (and yes, I do believe this can be done by being firm but fair, without the use for violence). But if, like me, you want to build a partnership with your horse, you need to be much more subtle in your quest for leadership.
So does dominance have a role in good horsemanship? I believe it can, but only if we redefine our definition of what it means to be ‘dominant’. I do think there needs to be boundaries set and I do think that there should be a consequence for ‘bad’ or incorrect behaviour (note: ‘consequence’ shouldn’t have to mean ‘punishment’), but I also think we need to be reasonable in our expectations (just because my horse trusts me, doesn’t mean he should blindly follow me anywhere, for example). Most importantly, I think we need to remember that dominance is just one small part of building a relationship with our horse and taking a dominant role at all times leaves no real basis for building a partnership.
Photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps via Flickr.