Don’t Be So Dominant During Training

The “alpha” concept of showing dominance when training a horse doesn’t coincide with what equitation science research is revealing, scientists say.

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Understanding horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities are more reliable in training and safeguarde horse welfare and human safety, researchers say. | Photo: iStock
If you think you need to play a dominant role and become your horse’s leader for better training results, think again. According to a Swedish researcher, the “alpha” concept of showing dominance when training a horse doesn’t coincide with science.

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

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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