Dominance & Leadership
"Dominance is a relationship between two individuals of the same species that confers priority access to preferred resources upon one or the other in the relationship. It's not a strict linear hierarchy with regard to everything and it doesn't confer absolute power on one individual among a group." - Cindy Martin quoting Dr. Susan Friedman Dominance does exist, but an animal isn't a "dominant" animal. The animal can in the moment express dominance towards another individual within the same species over a preferred resource, but it isn't a fixed status or "way of being". You don't have a "dominant horse", but your horse may choose to act dominant over a particular resource towards another horse.. and that same horse that was just pushed away from the hay may choose to act in a dominant way towards another horse over getting scratches from a human.
The relationship between horses, and the "dominant/submissive" roles, are fluid and constantly changing depending on the priority of the resource. The role of assuming dominance isn't a fixed state or "title". So let's think back to the picture I asked you guys about a couple days ago, with my three mares all standing at the gate. I asked who you thought was most to least dominant in order, and the answers I got were very interesting!
One of the main things that stood out to me was the idea of Tiger being the "leader" because of her behavior in the picture; standing in the back, "leading from behind" as was mentioned in various ways. And then, the opposite predominant answer, which was that River was dominant because she was in front. I found these answers interesting because the opinion of who was dominant or leader was very much based on the individual's interpretation of "dominance"; based on human leadership ideas or past education on the social dynamics of the equine herd. Both of them being equally dangerous for different reasons.
Leadership is no longer thought to be a fixed status among horses, and may have nothing to do with the older horse or the horse that appears to consistently have priority access to resources (the seemingly more "dominant" one). Recent research has indicated that being "the leader" of the herd is fluid, dependent on the needs of the individuals within the herd, and changes frequently.
Example - All three of my mares can be out grazing in the pasture, and one gets thirsty. That mare will begin to walk to the water trough, and the other two will casually trickle along after her. They will all have a drink, then a second mare will decide she'd like to have a go at the round bale. That mare heads towards the round bale, and the other two will trickle along after her, to either munch at the hay or take a snooze near by. Then, perhaps an hour later, I will show up at the gate to greet them. The third mare will perk up, see me coming, and head over to me, while the other two previous mares follow suit when ready.
This is a common scenario among all horses, so while Tiger typically does assume priority access to quite a few resources, she is not the "only" leader in the herd and she is not always "dominant". If it was important to her, she could prioritize greeting me at the gate, but she typically sits back and the other two have their priority resource; me. Just like if it's important to Pumpkin to get the hay first, she would assert dominance over it towards Tiger.
In fact, while Tiger does appear to be the traditional role of "dominant mare" within her small herd in certain contexts, Tiger heavily seeks out Pumpkin should anything spooky or unsettling happen. Which would seem to make Pumpkin the "leader" in these situations though most of the time Tiger appears to be more "dominant". It's a fluid relationship that gives and takes, and far more complex than the label "dominant" allows. "Dominance is not a personality trait" - Dr. Sophia Yin
It's clear dominance within a relationship/interaction between horses does exist, albeit a little differently than we used to think, but does it exist between a horse and human?
"Given the complex social organization of horses and the many factors determining social order within a band or group hierarchy, the relevance of dominance theory applied at the human–horse interface is likely to be low. This is also emphasized when one recalls that horses' hierarchies become evident during the competition for resources which are usually absent in a training context. The significant morphological differences between horses and humans furthermore decrease the likelihood that horses would innately respond to human attempts to mimic horse behavior.
Moreover, as recent results have shown, roles of leaders in groups of horses vary and those individuals acting as leaders may not necessarily occupy the highest rank in disputes of food. Horses, like other species, learn as a result of the reinforcement that follows a behavior and not because they sense the social rank of the human nor her/his strong leadership skills. Therefore, becoming the quasi-dominant leader of a horse may have little ethological relevance from the horse's perspective, and it is questionable whether horses do include humans in their social hierarchy. Perhaps, one explanation for such beliefs is anthropomorphism, the tendency to transfer human characteristics, such as respect and authority, onto the horse." - Source
What's more is that labeling a horse "dominant" and in need of "respect", or needing to be taught to be submissive, doesn't offer us any training solutions to the behaviors we typically attribute to a "dominant horse". Saying a horse bites or kicks or rears because he or she is "dominant" is a circular definition that doesn't solve anything. "Why is this animal doing this unwanted behavior? Because he's being dominant. Well, how do you know he's dominant? Well because he's doing the behavior. Well why is doing the behavior? Because he's dominant. Well how do you know he's dominant? Because he's doing the behavior." - Cindy Martin quoting Dr. Susan Friedman And you go round and round in circles. It doesn't offer any solutions, it doesn't help the horse, and it doesn't actually explain the cause of the behaviors you're not happy with. What it does do though, is excuse the use of aggressive and force-able training methods.
"Concepts of dominance hierarchies, alpha position and leadership are people’s attempts to describe the complex and dynamic social organisation of horses living in social groups ...... In horse training, attempts to dominate horses often encourage and justify the application of punishment. Apart from the possible negative effect on the horse’s welfare, the wider working relationship may also suffer. The natural response of a horse to an aggressive opponent is to avoid the individual by moving away. If the horse experiences the trainer as aggressive its predominant motivation will be to avoid the trainer. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that trainers, riders and handlers do not appear aggressive because this may trigger fear and avoidance responses in the horse." - Equitation Science
"If we focus on creating submission in our horses and we believe that we need to be dominant and be “the boss” in order to have success in training, and that misbehavior from the horse is often a result of the horse trying to assert their own dominance, then using harsher methods of training involving fear and pain are easily justified." - Callie King
"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." - Robin Foster PhD, CHBC
Instead, we need to remove the idea of a dominant/submissive or leader/follower relationship in our training and address the behaviors we would like to change in the horse. If your horse kicks, we need to address the kicking and the cause of it, not say they are trying to dominant us and are in need of being taught respect or needing a leader.
"Likewise, if we believe the only way we can succeed with horses is by being a good leader, and that when the horse sees us a leader they will follow us and do what we want, this can create a lot of frustration and misunderstanding for both horse and human, even when the training techniques are kind, because there is an expectation that “if I am a good leader, my horse will follow and trust me and will be a willing partner.” This doesn’t take into account the fact that perhaps the horse simply doesn’t understand what is being asked of or expected of him" - Callie King
"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." - Robin Foster PhD, CHBC
By addressing the behavior and what's causing the behavior, instead of a subjective and inaccurate label, we can actually make changes in how our horse is behaving and obtain the results we are after.
"Striving to embody the qualities of a good leader is a positive way to live, but I think it is necessary to take the training situation in context and not assume that a horse’s wrong response or misbehavior is due to our lack of leadership. When we see a horse responding well to a rider or handler who seems confident and self-assured, it’s not that the horse sees this person as a good leader, but rather the confident person is probably more clear and consistent with their cues and pressures. When there is less confusion the horse will be more likely to respond correctly." - Callie King
"Expert trainers understand the behavior of an animal is a reflection of their ability to train it. Often you can tell an expert trainer from an average trainer by the way he or she responds when a training session goes poorly. Where many trainers are quick to blame the animal for the mistakes, an expert trainer accepts responsibility for their part in problem behavior. Blaming the animal is often manifested with labels such as stubborn, distracted, messing with my mind and more. These labels are meant to justify the blame and relieve the trainer of responsibility, but they do nothing to solve problems or build a path toward more successful training sessions. When a trainer accepts responsibility for the animal’s poor behavior he or she is empowered to look inside their training strategies for ways they could have avoided the problems and kept the training moving forward in a productive manner." - Steve Martin
"Saying an animal is this doesn't give you any solutions. If you say the animal does this we can get him to do something else." - Cindy Martin quoting Dr. Susan Friedman
More Resources -
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0737080617300059#bib26 (copious amounts of scientific resources on this link)