Caring animal owners all over the world are learning the truth behind the dominance myth and ditching it. In the dog world the Dog Welfare Campaign has done great work to educate the public on the dangers of dominance reduction training. Now let’s help the horse world catch up!
Myth 1 - “I must be the aplha/boss/leader”
In a herd there is no alpha horse who bosses the others and is 'in charge'. Horses live their lives by followership whereby if any horse wants to change the group activity, they will literally just walk off and the others may or may not follow (Kruegar 2014). Whether the group all follow will depend on who is asking to leave and what they are suggesting. The herd is more likely to follow if the horse who wants to go has been in the herd a long time and so has experience of the best places to lead them to. Social animals synchronise their behaviours so that they stay together. Now obviously all individuals will not want to do the same thing at any given moment. So what happens is the herd's choice of activity is controlled by the horse with the lowest physiological reserves (Rands 2010). For example Rubenstein found that lactating mares would pull the herd towards the water as they needed to drink more often, whereas non-lactating mares would pull in the other direction as there is more food away from the water. Ultimately the herd goes with the lactating mares as their need is greatest. Are the lactating mares being dominant and making the other horses follow them? Nope, they just go and the others will follow as they are a family and so look after each other. Even if horses did have an alpha we couldn't be it as we are not horses. Dominance disproved!
The theory that there is a pecking order of dominance within the herd is outdated. New research shows that Resource Holding Potential (RHP) is the individual 1 to 1 relationship between 2 horses where the most confident keeps the resource. To work out their RHP they have contests over resources using subtle body language. The horse that normally loses the contest for a resource will simply not bother competing in future. Each horse will have to work out their RHP for each resource with each horse, so horse A may always drink first, however horse B may have first pick of the hay piles. This is why it is so important to keep horses in permanent herds, so that they can settle and not have to continually work out RHP. Contests will only escalate if the resource is very important e.g. you would give a mugger your phone but not your baby. This is why it is so important to make resources plentiful so that horses have no need to compete and they can share. The horse with the highest RHP will not always take resources first, he has no worries so may let others with low RHP have it first e.g. young or sick horses. RHP has evolved as social animals need rules to keep the peace; this makes sure that no herd member suffers an injury or wastes energy. So there you have it. Horses only show dominant behaviour over resources especially if they are scarce. We are not competeting for resources so the horse cannot be dominant over us.
When competing for a resource or threatened by a human the horse has 4 choices known as the 4 f’s:
Fidget behaviours are the healthy horse's first choice when mildly threatened. Fidget behaviours include appeasements and displacements.
Appeasements are submissive behaviours which aim to reduce aggression from another e.g. head lowering, moving away, clamped tail etc.
Displacements are normal behaviours acted out in an abnormal context. They are motivated by fear, frustration or confusion e.g. yawning, pawing when eating, licking and chewing etc. A human example is to play with your hair or check your phone when you feel uncomfortable. It is important to look at the whole context when assessing behaviour as each action has more than one meaning e.g. if you ask your horse to back up and he scratches his leg this is likely to be a displacement as he is confused. However, in a different situation he will scratch as he simply has an itch.
If fidget behaviours don't work then the horse will either flee (if possible) or freeze. Donkeys are more likely to freeze and this is why they are thought of as stubborn. If all 3 options fail the horse will fight, and if the horse has consistently learnt that fidget, flee and freeze don't work then they may learn to be aggressive first.
Horses avoid conflict at any costs and they have many strategies to try and steer clear. So why does dominance reduction training directly focus on threatening the horse and actively looks for appeasements and displacements?
Myth 2 - You’ve got to move them out of your space and they can’t invade your space.
Horses who are closely bonded spend a lot of time close to each other in each other's personal space 'bubble'. So why is this seen as a bad thing in dominance reduction training? If a horse wants to spend time with you, great, enjoy it and don't send them away which will only confuse them.
Usual dominance reduction methods to get the horse out of your space involve using fear and discomfort/pain via negative reinforcement (removing the nasty) and positive punishment (adding nasty). It works and the horse doesn't enter their personal space. Just like I wouldn't enter the house of a serial killer. I don't respect the killer, I fear him and so won't choose to go near him.
Myth 3 - “Your horse must show you respect.”
Respect has to be earned, it cannot be taught. Respect comes from trusting that someone will be kind and look after your best interests. Respect means a mutual relationship with input from both sides. Often the word respect is used as a cover for blind obedience as a result of fear and pressure. I respect people who I trust not people who manipulate and can force me to do things. Which relationship would you prefer with your horse pal?
Myth 4 “Move their feet.”
The saying goes that you must move the horses feet to show your dominance. In herds yes one horse with a higher RHP may get another horse to move out of their way. The difference being that it is for a reason and for less than a minute. When training techniques move the horses feet for an hour it makes no sense to the horse. It is a waste of their time and energy and the goal posts constantly move. They cannot win. It is nothing to do with resources, so it is nothing to do with dominance.
Myth 5 - “Aggressive horses are being dominant over you.”
By nature horses are not an aggressive species. Aggression risks injury to themlseves and their herd which puts them at a disadvantage when a predator rocks up. Instead, horses use affiliative behaviours to bond the herd together and avoid conflict at all costs (see RHP and the 4 f's above). Aggression towards humans is always for a valid reason, which isn't dominance.
Myth 6 - “Pushy horses are being dominant over you.”
When the herd feels threatened they will bunch together as a means of anti-predator defence. Sometimes horses will do the same with their humans and will get very close when frightened. In this instance we need to realise that they are not being 'rude'. We need to work out why they are fearful and do behaviour modification to help them.
Alternatively horses may be 'bargy' as this is a learnt behaviour. The horse who knocks you out of the way when you open the stable is not being dominant, he is doing all he can to escape from a cage. It's not about you, it's about him.
On the whole dominance reduction training usually involves negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment (removing something nice). Force and fear works and the outward behaviour changes but the side effects are:
Anxiety, fear, phobia.
Post traumatic stress disorder.
Conditioned suppression - they learn to suppress their behaviour as punishment is inevitable. However, even though the horse doesn't react outside, doesnt mean they aren't feeling the fear inside.
Frozen watchfulness - hyper vigilant and super responsive when in the trainers presence in an attempt to avoid aversives.
Learnt helplessness - following uncontrollable aversives which they cannot escape from, they learn that they are helpless, give up and submit. Horses suffering from learnt helplessness are often called 'shut down'.
Hyperactivity and abnormal startle resposes.
Decreased ability to learn as their short-term memory slots are taken up by negative emotions.
Suppressed immune system due to long-term stress.
Physical injury from the practical training. There is even a certain Natural Horsemanship trainer who won't allow you to visit your horse at his training yard in the first week so that the horse has time to heal!
Horses may develop a concept that humans = bad.
Think what it feels like to be a horse undergoing dominance reduction training. Confused? Terrified? Trapped?
So what's the alternative?
Enjoy it when your horse wants to spend time within your personal space.
Earn their respect and show them respect by treating them compassionately.
Only train your horse when they feel safe and are loose with their herd nearby.
Before you train think about if it is ethical to do so. e.g. is it really in your horses best interests to teach them to have their ear hair clipped?
Use habituation when introducing new objects and situations.
When training watch your horse to make sure that they are not displaying the 4 f's.
Find out the underlying cause of why any challeging behaviour is occuring.
Make a plan of action of how you can support them and train them using positive reinforcement and when appropriate light, non escalating negative reinforcement.
You may need a qualified, ethical professional to help you, find one
Now we have new information and know better, we can do better. So will you join the brave bunch and ditch dominance?
Don't forget to have a nosey through the marvellous resources below!
If this article has been helpful and you want to give back you can donate , every penny goes to the horses care. Thank you!
This video shows Ethologist Lucy Rees thoughts on followership.
Ethologist Victor Ros talks dominance or more so the lack of!
Dominance and leadership in horses by Alize from Fairhorsemanship.
Don’t take my word for it, check out these other blogs on why we should ditch dominance:
Find more cartoons by Fed up Fred click
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