What’s an ‘Alpha’ Horse?

Dr. Nancy Diehl shares her thoughts on dominance in horses and using the term “alpha” to describe a lead horse.
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What is an %22Alpha%22 Horse?
Research studies results vary when it comes dominant horses. In many cases, older age and longevity in the group are associated with dominance. | Photo: iStock

Q: How can I tell if my horse is an “alpha”?

A: I hope I’m understanding your question properly when you say “alpha” in that you’re meaning where a horse fits in his or her herd’s dominance hierarchy.

Sometimes people talk about themselves being dominant or alpha to their horses. I don’t favor this language, because I don’t feel it’s appropriate to talk about a human as part of the social structure of another species. Also, the term “dominant” suggests a power or strength relationship that I don’t feel comfortable with in handling or training horses

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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