Dominant horses aren’t necessarily the leaders in a group—the ones that make decisions to move to another place, for example. So horses wouldn’t necessarily see a “dominant” human as someone to follow, said Elke Hartmann, PhD, of the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala. Hartmann presented her topic during the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.
“Test results showed that high-ranking horses rarely initiated group movement when faced with novel situations,” Hartmann said. “This finding agrees with those of earlier studies that raised doubt about the value of transferring leadership and dominance concepts into horse training.”
Research results also indicate that horse herds don’t have simple dominant-submissive hierarchies, she said. Rather, they develop complex social relationships, with some horses dominant over certain herdmates but not others, and horses remaining neutral in some situations and dominant in others. “Even if horses did see humans as a member of their herd—and they most likely don’t—the concept of trainers being ‘dominant’ over the horse would be a far too simplistic idea,” Hartmann said.
Additionally, the question of hierarchy within a herd usually only arises in situations where there is competition for resources—food, water, shelter, and friends, for example. In training there is no competition for resources, so the hierarchy wouldn’t apply from the horse’s point of view.
Trying to use this “dominance theory” in horse training can jeopardize both human and horse safety and could threaten the horse’s welfare, Hartmann said. By relying on an unreliable model, trainers might use tactics that could interfere with learning and lead to confusion and frustration. Horses could act out of fear and defense (kicking, biting, bolting), and humans could act out with force and punishment toward a horse that doesn’t understand what he has done wrong.
“The relevance of the dominance theory applied at the human-horse interference is likely to be low,” she said. “Instead, the knowledge of horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes and, therefore, in safeguarding horse welfare and human safety.”