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The Dominance Approach to Training Horses Part 2 of 4

Animal Behavior

In the animal kingdom, there are many things that can influence behavior but generally we look at emotions as being the primary driver (stimulus) for behavior while reinforcement or punishment determines whether that behavior will be repeated in the future.

Stimulus - Emotions: Jaak Panksepp’s book Affective Neuroscience has one of the most widely known categorizations of human and animal primal emotions. As an expert in neuroscience, Jaak studied the brain, performed laboratory experiments and categorized basic emotions (brain systems) as follows: RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC (Grief), SEEKING and PLAY.[1]

The names were capitalized by Dr. Panksepp to highlight them as identified brain systems, as opposed to their use in the vernacular.

This system of emotions, how the individual reacts to them, and whether their reaction is rewarding or punishing, results in the creation of a resource access hierarchy between individuals. So, what we call dominance, is just a connection between emotions driving behaviors and behaviors being rewarded (success) or punished (unsuccessful).

Furthermore, researchers have also noted that just because an individual gains access to a resource first, does not mean they won’t follow another horse’s lead or choices in other situations. Nor does it mean that an individual with first access is the “alpha” of the entire group, in every situation. [2] [3] Resource access and leadership can vary between individuals, groups and species. This can also be impacted by individual and environmental factors such as captivity, health, age and so on. Therefore, in horses a resource hierarchy is established to quickly avoid conflict and establish social norms, rather than determine who is “boss” or “leader” of the group. (The referenced study in this paragraph noted that in feral horses, mares of all ranks within a hierarchy could initiate group movement and be followed by the rest of the herd).

One other interesting set of behaviors related to emotions is the appearance of calming signals. Calming signals are often considered “submissive” behaviors from those lower than the alpha, when in fact they are just communicating conflict avoidance or the release of tension. They don’t indicate that an animal is “submitting” to one of higher rank in the sense of dominance. Rather they are attempting to prevent aggression and possible injury in that moment. Other herd members have even been noted to use calming signals to prevent aggression between two other individuals. [4]

Lastly, we should all be aware that during training, the techniques we use have an impact on these emotional brain systems. Jaak Panskepp performed tests on rats using various training methods and noted which systems of the brain were activated. When the appetitive systems were activated during training, it was noted that the animal generally felt good. But when the aversive systems were activated, the animal felt bad. Therefore, one could infer that using training techniques that activate the APPETITIVE emotions would be ethically preferable whenever possible.

Image courtesy of Connection Training

Reward and punishment

While emotions can drive behavior, it is reinforcement and punishment that will determine whether a behavior will be repeated. This is referred to as Learning Theory. Behaviors that are reinforced will likely be repeated while behaviors that are punished will likely be avoided. Reinforcement and punishment can come from the environment or individuals.

For example, if a horse pins his ears over a limited resource such as a pile of hay and this causes another horse to move away, then the aggressor is reinforced; his behavior was rewarded by getting the hay. The horse that backed down was also reinforced by avoiding conflict and the potential for injury. Per learning theory, a behavior that is reinforced is likely to be repeated in the future.

On the other hand, if the two horses decided to physically fight over the resource (such as stallions fighting over access to mares), the loser might feel punished by being injured or losing the battle. Punishment in learning theory means that a behavior is less likely to be repeated. That is to say, the losing stallion might be less likely to challenge the winning stallion in the future.

These are just simple examples. We do have to consider that it is the horse itself who decides what is rewarding and what is punishing.

Dominance in horse training

Because trainers have confused many behaviors with social dominance, they often incorporate it into their teaching and techniques. This may vary from trainer to trainer, but the reasoning generally comes down to the same thing: obedience and safety. To them, failure to be the boss means you are letting the horse win and losing his respect; that in turn puts your safety in jeopardy. A common justification noted is that, “This is what a horse would do to another horse.”

But these dominance theories have no evidence to support them, while learning theory has been proven time and again to be the primary element in successful animal training.

It is also important to note that researchers have indicated that there is no evidence that horses perceive humans as a part of their social hierarchy of resource access.[5] That is to say, they don’t see us as another horse or as part of their herd, nor do they think we are going to compete with them for resources. Therefore, they aren’t necessarily going to treat us or respond to us like they would another horse. So, the claim that we need to treat horses like they treat each other, using “dominant” body language to make ourselves the “alpha” and engage in aggressive methodology is not sound advice.

Since horses don’t perceive us as a horse, nor do they have “alpha leaders” or use “dominance” on each other, then it is completely unnecessary to use training techniques that claim to mimic these non-existent herd behaviors. It is the ethical application of learning theory that is more effective in getting the behaviors we want.

The following is an example of how aggressive horse behavior that is perceived as dominant is just a product of learning theory. Professional trainer Shawna Karrasch was asked to help with an aggressive horse. He would pin his ears during feeding time, and even turn and threaten to kick anyone who entered the stall; this was terrifying to the handlers who had to go in and feed him. But when she worked with this horse, she discovered that he wasn’t aggressive. Instead, he learned he could make workers dump the food quickly and leave, which was reinforcing because he got fed faster. At this point, most trainers would advocate punishing him for his behavior. Instead Shawna waited him out. She allowed him to go through the motions and then didn’t give him his food. Surprised, he quickly turned around, ears forward and curious. Then Shawna gave him his food. By giving him his food when he was looking friendly rather than looking dangerous, she rewarded him for the behavior she wanted to see. The workers then followed suit and he learned that only friendly behavior would result in the food being placed.[6]

This story visibly demonstrates that horse behavior is a product of emotions and learning theory.

Ultimately, there is no neurobiological or research evidence that suggests that the notion of dominance plays a role in their actions towards us.

In Part 3, we will look at the concepts of Leadership and Partnership in horse training systems.



[1] Panksepp, Jaak (1998) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Krueger, Flauger, Farmer K3, Hemelrijk (2014) Movement initiation in groups of feral horses; Behavioural Processes Behavioural Processes Volume 103, March 2014, Pages 91-101

[3] Hartmann, Elke & Christensen, Janne & McGreevy, Paul. (2017). Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human–Horse Interactions?. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 52. 10.1016/j.jevs.2017.01.015.

[4] Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses: Recognition and Application, CRC Press, pp.46 -48

[5] Hartmann, E., Christensen, J.W. & McGreevy, P.D. (2017) Dominance and Leadership; useful concepts in human-horse interactions? Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52

[6] Karrasch Shawna (2012) You Can Train Your Horse to Do Anything!: On Target Training Clicker Training and Beyond, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform pp.14-17

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