Dominance must not be a part of horse training, say equitation scientists

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A position paper released by the International Society for Equitation Science challenges the belief that the person handling a horse must be in a dominant position. Photo: Horsetalk
A position paper released by the International Society for Equitation Science challenges the belief that the person handling a horse must be in a dominant position. Photo: Horsetalk

A leading equitation science group has warned of the misuse of man-made concepts in horse training, such as dominance and leadership, saying they are not conducive to forming a good relationship.

The International Society for Equitation Science says such techniques not only jeopardise the development of a harmonious relationship with the horse but may compromise welfare.

The society has released a position statement on the use and misuse of man-made concepts in horse training, developed by Jan Ladewig, Professor Emeritus in animal behaviour and welfare at Copenhagen University, in collaboration with the society’s council.

The paper challenges the belief that the person handling a horse must be in a top position in a dominance hierarchy, explaining that horses interact with each other mainly on a one-to-one level and do not possess the cognitive abilities to form the abstract concepts of hierarchy and rank.

It notes that the man-made concepts of a dominance hierarchy, alpha position and leadership have become accepted by a number of riders, trainers and handlers in the training of horses.

“Horses have many talents, such as surviving even under harsh conditions,” Ladewig says. “They remember where food, water and shelter are available, and they remember their social companions, as well as numerous other things.

“There is no indication, however, they are able to handle complex issues that demand cognitive abilities similar to the ones we possess. They are not good at generalising and abstract thinking is not part of their cognitive abilities.

“The better we understand the way their brain works and the more we accept these limitations when we handle them, the better we will be able to establish a harmonious relationship with them.”

The position statement also explores social behaviours seen in both wild and domesticated horses, such as competition for resources, that can result in the likes of aggression, threats of aggression, and submission. However, the statement suggests that riders and trainers misinterpret and inadvertently oversimplify the complex and dynamic social organisation that we see with horses.

The society’s honorary president, Camie Heleski says: “Many of us have, over many years, heard statements such as, ‘You must be the alpha’ or ‘You need to be sure the horse respects you’, but have we ever really questioned the evidence behind them?

“Do horses actually have a complex dominance hierarchy that is set, regardless of the resources in question or the individual horse’s motivation at that moment? Does the research actually support the belief that horses look at the human handler/trainer as a two-legged leader of their herd?

“And, above all, is it possible that following such statements has actually reduced horse welfare – and human safety – by overestimating the horse’s perspective on these concepts?”

The paper suggests that by relying on concepts of dominance and leadership in horse training, riders, trainers and handlers may incorrectly transfer human characteristics, such as respect and authority onto the horse, leading to training practices that may compromise horse welfare.

It warns that attempts to dominate horses often encourage and justify the application of punishment, and trigger fear and avoidance responses in horses.

Instead, it implores riders, trainers and handlers to remove concepts of dominance and leadership from horse-human interactions and to learn more about horses’ natural behaviour and thinking abilities.

It urges people to conduct all training in a calm, clear and consistent way, applying the society’s First Principles of Horse Training that take into account both the horses’ abilities and limitations.

The statement said there were, unfortunately, examples of riders, trainers and handlers who − believing they have to place themselves in the ‘alpha position’ in relation to their horse − resort to training procedures and/or practices that elicit fear and, in some cases, may result in abuse.

“In nature,” it says, “horses will avoid rather than seek conflict.

“If approached by an aggressive individual, the predominant type of behaviour a horse will show is escape or avoidance.

“Trainers, riders and handlers must aim to establish a clear and consistent relationship with their horses in order to safeguard horse welfare. They should be aware of the possible repercussions of describing their interactions with the horse and their training processes in the context of social organisation.”

Ladewig and his colleagues said that even if horses had a concept of the “top position” in a hierarchy, it was questionable whether that hierarchy would even include humans.

“Undoubtedly, part of the reason for these and similar beliefs is anthropomorphism – that is, our tendency to transfer human characteristics such as respect and authority onto the horse.

“This attitude often does more harm than good.

“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.

“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.”

The authors stressed that human interaction with horses should be based on an understanding of horses’ natural behaviour as well as consideration and understanding of their cognitive abilities, with training undertaken in a calm, clear and consistent way.

The position statement can be read here

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