Leaders among horses: Don’t count on humans being among them

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"Research suggests that horses can recognize and remember individual handlers and trainers and whether past interactions with those individuals had been pleasant or unpleasant ..."
“Research suggests that horses can recognize and remember individual handlers and trainers and whether past interactions with those individuals had been pleasant or unpleasant …”

Horses may follow our fingertip commands through the reins, but humans needn’t think they necessarily take a leadership role in their lives, scientists suggest.

Three researchers have taken an in-depth look at human dominance and leadership in the lives of horses, exploring whether they are useful concepts in training and handling the animals.

The trio, in a review published online in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, concluded it was unlikely that horse-to-horse social status was comparable to human-horse interactions.

Indeed, they suggested that the concept of leadership espoused in many training manuals was unreliable in the horse.

“Horses’ responses to training are more likely a result of reinforcement rather than a result of humans attaining high social status and a leadership role,” Elke Hartmann, Janne Christensen, Paul McGreevy wrote.

They suggested that knowledge of horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities were more reliable in explaining training outcomes than the application of dominance and leadership concepts.

Horses, they noted, had a natural tendency to synchronize activity to promote group cohesion, with questions arising around how group dynamics affected human-horse interactions.

Group dynamics can influence a variety of management scenarios, from taking a horse out of its social group to the prospect of humans mimicking the horse’s social system by seeking a leadership role − seeking an alpha position in the dominance hierarchy to achieve compliance.

“Yet,” they observed, “there is considerable debate about whether the roles horses attain in their social group are of any relevance in their reactions to humans.”

The trio reviewed nearly 100 relevant scientific papers in their endeavours, finding that leadership, in contrast to the traditional dogma, was not unique to the highest-ranked or oldest horse. Indeed, any horse in a group can act as leader.

Horses communicate with each other using visual, auditory, olfactory and touch-related signals, they noted. In contrast, communication between humans is based around language.

“Thus, much emphasis is put on auditory signals in human-horse interactions with the underlying assumption that horses have an inherent understanding of harsh voice cues (used as reprimands) versus soothing voice cues (used as a reward or to calm the horse down).”

However, recent research showed that soothing vocal cues did not improve the horses’ ability to perform a novel, potentially frightening task.

Horses’ reactions to vocal cues could be explained simply by classical conditioning that reliably paired cues with a pleasant or unpleasant outcome and had no reliance on higher cognitive abilities, they said.

Results from horse studies did not support the theory that horses were predisposed to be particularly skilled at interpreting human vocal cues and gestures, they concluded.

“Indeed,” they continued, “an important element influencing how horses react to humans is the relationship they have established with humans . . .

“A relationship may be defined as a succession of interactions that occur over time between two or more individuals: these individuals will have expectations of the next interaction on the basis of the previous ones.

An important element influencing how horses react to humans is the relationship they have established with them.
An important element influencing how horses react to humans is the relationship they have established with them.

“Research suggests that horses can recognize and remember individual handlers and trainers and whether past interactions with those individuals had been pleasant or unpleasant through the process of classical conditioning.”

Thus, the reactions of horses towards humans can often be explained, or predicted, from previous interactions.

“Good training aims to decrease fearful reactions in horses towards humans to facilitate learning and the quality of the human-horse relationship may determine whether fear could be further reduced.”

So, are dominance and leadership concepts, such as those employed by some in round-pen training, useful in human-horse interactions?

“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,” they concluded.

Horses’ hierarchies, they noted, often became evident during competition for resources, which are usually absent in a training context.

“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,” they continued, “one explanation for such beliefs is anthropomorphism, the tendency to transfer human characteristics, such as respect and authority, onto the horse.”

The review team said most horse owners hoped for a relationship based on trust, mutuality and cooperation.

“Yet, during most work and handling from the ground, horses have negligible autonomy as humans assert control simply because of safety reasons. Attempts to dominate the horse to achieve control often encourages and justifies the application of harsh training methods and punishment.

“As a consequence, the predominant reaction of most horses would be to avoid the trainer, show flight responses or defensive behavior which are all undesirable in a training situation and jeopardize horse welfare and human safety.”

So, they asked, could horses be assigned a more active role during training or are they merely followers with little autonomy if concepts such as leadership are applied in a training context?

“If horses could decide themselves whether to participate in training, perhaps the presence of peers would be more important than human company.”

The authors said many questions arose within the concept of humans as leaders for horses. “What, if the horse, for example, does not follow the human into the trailer? Does that speak of lack of trust in the human and failure of the human acting as leader?

“And, following up, what particular aspects of leadership qualities are lacking? Another scenario is that of catching horses on pasture. If horses see certain humans genuinely as leaders, would we not expect them to approach and follow easily, leaving conspecifics behind?”

There is insufficient evidence that horses approached humans for other reasons than merely curiosity or because they have been trained to do so, they said.

The review team concluded that horses’ responses to training were more likely a result of reinforcement during which correct responses were clearly and consistently rewarded rather than a result of humans attaining high social status and a leadership role.

“Knowledge of horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes than anthropomorphic explanations and the application of dominance and leadership concepts that can jeopardize horse welfare and human safety.”

Hartmann is with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Christensen with Aarhus University in Denmark, and McGreevy with the University of Sydney.

Dominance and leadership: Useful concepts in human-horse interactions?
Elke Hartmann, Janne W. Christensen, Paul D. McGreevy
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2017.01.015

The full review, published under a Creative Commons license, can be read here

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