People desire safe encounters, training success, and satisfying relationships with horses. The concept of dominance offers an appealing strategy for achieving these goals. According to dominance theory, unwanted behaviors such as bucking and biting are direct challenges to the person’s dominance status and can be resolved if the person gains “alpha” status. The principle is simple and popular, but scientists have recently expressed concerns about the use and misuse of dominance theory in equine training and handling.¹–³ In this commentary, I summarize and expand on the some of these concerns.
Are Humans Included in the Equine Social Hierarchy?
One definition of dominance refers to an individual’s social status. Dominance rank is the animal’s position in the group, determined by its ability to compete for access to valued resources such as food. Dominance hierarchy refers to the relative positions of all members of the social group, and “alpha” designates the individual with the highest dominance rank. Most contests over resources occur between two individuals, and the largest, strongest, youngest, most experienced, most highly motivated, or temperamentally feisty competitor typically has the advantage. Dominance rank and hierarchy are useful constructs to scientists, but from a horse’s perspective what’s important—and remembered—are past interactions with other horses, which helps resolve future conflicts without fighting, reducing the risk of injury.
This definition is the foundation of the concept of dominance in human-horse interactions: To earn the horse’s respect, the human must hold the high ranking “alpha” position—never mind the horse’s advantage in size, strength, and speed. One question is whether the equine dominance hierarchy even applies to human-horse relationships. Researchers Elke Hartmann, PhD; Janne Winther Christensen, PhD; and Paul J. McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), Cert CABC, Grad Cert Higher Ed, report that; “there is no evidence that horses perceive humans as part of their social system.”¹
Dominance is not a Substitute for Learning Principles
“Get after him!” “Don’t let him get away with that.” “Be the boss!” These familiar bits of advice are examples of a dominance approach to training. They assume that the horse’s unwelcome behavior directly challenges the human’s superior social status.¹ A serious concern is that more plausible explanations for the unwanted behavior—such as fear or anxiety, inadequate training, confusion, or medical issues—are often overlooked. For example, in one case, a filly would not move forward on the longe line. The owner believed that the horse did not respect her as a leader and attempted to resolve the issue by “getting after” the horse. A veterinary exam revealed that the filly actually suffered from a painful stifle defect requiring surgical repair.
Insufficient training is a common cause of unwelcome behavior. The proper use of learning principles can improve training success and prevent unwanted behavior. Horses learn more readily when they are attentive and calm, so training should reduce fear, not trigger or intensify it.² People who adopt dominance as a guiding principle for horse training and management are more likely to use harsh, punitive methods,¹,² and could become increasingly frustrated and angry if their efforts to prevent or correct the behavior are ineffective. Dominance is not a satisfactory substitute for a working knowledge of science-based learning principles.
Interpersonal Warmth Invites Trust
In psychology, “dominant-submissive” is one axis of the “interpersonal circle.”4 This model also includes a second “warm-cold” axis, and an individual’s relational style is a combination of dominance (low to high) and warmth (low to high). Examples of dominant traits are power, control, competitiveness, self-confidence, and a focus on one’s own needs; examples of warm traits are friendliness, love, compassion, trust, and a focus on the needs of others.
In any relationship, a person’s way of interacting pulls predictable responses from the other individual. These responses are reciprocal on the dominant-submissive axis (dominance evokes submission, and submission evokes dominance), and complementary on the warm-cold axis (warm invites warm, and cold invites cold).
People with a “warm-dominant” relational style are confident, encouraging, and friendly, and they inspire confidence and trust in others. Interpersonal warmth is an important predictor of relationship quality and satisfaction. People with a “cold-dominant” relational style are controlling and competitive, and have trouble expressing most emotions except frustration and anger. People who adopt a cold-dominant style bring out submissive, fearful, avoidant, withdrawn, or oppositional responses in others; it has been called the “dark side of personality and leadership.” In human relationships, conflict associated with a cold-dominant interpersonal style is resistant to change.
It is unknown if the interpersonal circle operates in animal societies, but it might describe how people engage with animals. Going beyond the concept of dominance, this model predicts that a person who is warm, nurturing, and focuses on the horse’s needs will have greater training success. Confident, supportive people also invite trust and curiosity and provide a secure base for the horse to take risks, which promotes both learning and a strong human-horse relationship.
¹Hartmann, E., Christensen, J.W, & McGreevy, P.D. Dominance and leadership: useful concepts in human–horse interactions? Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1–9.
²International Society for Equitation Science. Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training. (2017) https://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training
4Wiggins, J.S. An informal history or the interpersonal circumplex tradition. Journal of Personality Assessment 66 (1996) 217-233.