The Dominance Approach to Training Horses Part 1 of 4

“Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you.” [1] -- Victoria Stillwell

The terms dominance, alpha, leadership, submission and respect have long been used in the animal training world and continue to be a predominant inspiration in training techniques for horses. Though training styles might differ, the goal for most of them is still the same: the horse must obey immediately or face consequences. Consequences can vary from trainer to trainer, including being obligated to exercise harder to corporeal punishment, such as hitting. The reasoning has usually been stated as, “This is what they do to each other and therefore it’s easy for them to understand.” They might also point to observations of behavior in wild animals to further endorse training techniques and consequences.

Unbeknownst to most people, scientific research in ethology has been refuting these long-held beliefs around hierarchy and dominance for a few years now. This is not to say that training techniques based on dominance don’t work, rather it is the rationale for using them which is incorrect. The main issue is that training decisions based on mistaken belief will not lead to the best possible outcome, even if the end results look the same. There are also ethical considerations; science is showing that horses schooled using this approach to training are subject to higher levels of stress, fear and frustration. Therefore, understanding what correctly drives behavior can lead to better training decisions and healthier emotional wellbeing.

The origins of “Pecking Order”.

Pecking order

The understanding of dominance and rank came about due to the research of Norwegian biologist Schjelderup-Ebbe. He first coined the term “pecking order” in 1920, while studying behavior in chickens. Hens would peck each other, and this was assumed to be establishing some sort of social rank. Since then, dominance and alpha have been applied to all sorts of social animal behavior from wolves to apes to horses.

However, ethologists have recently uncovered that there were significant flaws in these behavioral studies. For instance, in the wolf studies from the 1970’s, scientists later noted that the research was conducted on animals living in unnatural circumstances (captivity) and this in turn was creating unusual behaviours not seen in the wild.[2] Then L. David Mech studied the wolves of Ellesmere Island for 13 years and confirmed this fact, turning all these studies on their heads.[3] Wolves turned out to be family units. Therefore, conclusions drawn about wild wolf behavior while observing stressed captive wolves were clearly not accurate. It would be like studying people in a prison and drawing conclusions about all human behavior.

Scientists also noticed that researchers were using their own human social interpretations to describe


what they were seeing. In 1981, Stuart A. Altmann a primatologist concluded that dominance relationships were an invention in the mind of the human observer. He noted that there was nothing in his research that suggested animals can even understand the concept of hierarchal dominance that we think we see in herds and packs. [4] This was corroborated by researchers like Mech, who showed that wolf packs are headed by parents, not “alpha” wolves [5] and in horses, researchers noted that “rank” had nothing to do with initiating movement towards resources. [6] [7] So there is plenty of data out there that shows old thoughts on herd alphas, lead mares, dominant males/females and so on are not corroborated by peer reviewed or field research.

This isn’t to imply there isn’t some sort of established hierarchy when it comes to access to limited resources. But by personal observations, this seems to be created and maintained through operant learning theory (reward/punishment) rather than the traditional concepts of dominance.

What is dominance?

Definition of Dominance Power and influence over others. Synonyms: supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, pre-eminence, predominance, domination, dominion, mastery, power, authority, rule, command, control, sway.

Going strictly by the definition, dominance and dominant behaviours sound very human. There have always been people who have a desire to command and control and prove themselves superior to everyone else. Look at public figures such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Ill, and Hitler and so on. Dominance is often about demonstrating power and control, not just being assertive. While not all dominant people are bad, it’s how they wield it that determines their reputation. More to the point, people who relish dominance usually employ tactics of fear, threats and intimidation to gain obedience. They don’t generally inspire an environment that promotes cooperation through trust, respect and admiration.

In Part 2 we will look at studies in animal behavior; If it isn't dominance, then what is it?


[1] Retrieved from Victoria Stillwell's Positively Dog Training

[2] Grandin, Temple (2009) “Animals Make us Human” First Mariner Books. pg. 27

[3] L. David Mech, (1999) “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” Canadian Journal of Zoology 77, no.8 : 1196-1203.

[4] Altmann, S. (1981). Dominance relationships: The Cheshire cat's grin? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 4, 419-457 Cambridge University Press Retrieved from

[5] Retrieved from:

[6] Krüger et al., 2014; Bourjade et al., (2015) Retrieved from

[7] Equus Magazine, (2014) Busting the “lead mare” myth. Retrieved from:

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