Horse behavior

Equitation scientists believe humans should not train horses through dominance. And recent study results suggest horses can—and do—distinguish between dominant and submissive postures in humans.

Guess which one they prefer?

Submissive postures, hands down, said Leanne Proops, PhD, who conducted a study on the topic with colleagues from the University of Sussex Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group and the University of Portsmouth, both in the U.K.

But Proops said she’s careful not to suggest that her study proves we should show “dominance” or “submissiveness” when working with our horses. Rather, she said, it proves something even more critical: that horses pick up on the difference.

“Horses are keenly tuned in to our body language all the time, as our study underlines,” Proops said. “If we are sensitive to the messages we communicate with our body language and pay attention to how horses respond to these cues, this in itself will help us to establish good relationships with our horses.”

In their study, Proops and her fellow researchers designed a test for 30 riding horses focusing specifically on dominant or submissive posture in humans. To do so, they had to eliminate all other factors that might influence the horses. So they worked with 10 female handlers, all about the same size and body shape and all dressed alike in jeans and dark jackets. They also all wore black neck warmers up to above their noses to mask as many facial expressions as possible. The horses did not know these women prior to the experiment.

They first had each individual horse go into an arena with two of these women standing neutrally, facing each other, ignoring the horse, and holding a carrot. That way, Proops said, the horse would have some kind of motivation to approach the humans in the second part of the experiment.

Once the horse understood he might get a carrot from one of these women, the researchers started Phase 2. In this phase, two of the women stood a few feet apart from each other. One would take on a “dominant” posture: standing tall with legs shoulder-length apart, arms held out to the side, and chest puffed out. The other would take on a “submissive” posture: legs together, crouching slightly, arms tucked in. A third handler would release the horse into the arena. Once it approached one of the two women, the third handler would lead the horse away, walk it in a figure-eight (to reduce the chance that the horse starts to prefer the human on one side or another, as previous research has shown), and release it again.

To reduce the chance that a horse preferred a single handler, the women switched places, sides, and postures several times throughout the study.

The researchers found that, across the board, the horses showed a strong preference for submissive handlers, Proops said. They approached them more frequently, and not a single horse in the group showed an overall preference for the dominant handler.

“It could be that submissive individuals are less threatening, and so it would be less risky to approach a submissive than a dominant individual, particularly in the context of food provision,” Proops said.

In other situations, however, it’s possible that horses might react differently, she added.

“It is highly likely that horses (and other species) prefer to be in the company of submissive individuals in some contexts and dominant individuals in others,” she said. “For example, horses may avoid eating in close proximity to dominant individuals for fear of aggression, but they may choose to be near dominant individuals when their group is threatened by another group. Studies have also shown that horses learn more readily from dominant group members, for example.”

Hence, at this stage, it’s impossible to say whether one position is “better” or “worse” than the other, based on the study results. And that’s especially true when it comes to training.

“Successful relationships between horses and people are likely to depend on the context and the individuals involved,” Proops said. “And there is a big difference between showing confidence, being dominant, or being threatening.

“We can’t be sure how the horses in our study interpreted the dominant posture of the unknown people in our study, but it may be that different results are seen when familiar people or different contexts are used,” she continued. “It would be interesting to find out.”

The study, “Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture,” was published in Animal Cognition.