Dominance in Human-Horse Relationships

Our equine behavior expert examines if dominance has a role in human-horse interactions, especially during training.
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Dominance in Human-Horse Relationships
Confident, supportive people 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. | Photo: iStock

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.¹³ 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

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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