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The Dominance Approach to Training Horses Part 3 of 4

Photo by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

(Photo by Ní Dhuinn Imagery)

The Concepts of Leadership and Partnership

Interestingly, the concepts of “being the leader” and the horse being “partner” have risen to popularity in horse training. Being a leader certainly sounds better than being the alpha. Partner also sounds a lot nicer than submissive or obedient. However, there are two complications with this.

The first problem is that leadership and partnership are loosely defined words, so they are easily used out of context. Certainly, people don’t intentionally do this, they imagine themselves as having a willing rapport with their horse. But too often, these words are just politically correct alternatives to dominance and obedience.

The second problem is the rationale. Trainers who use these concepts claim it is because horses have a defined hierarchy in their own herds, so they are hardwired to understand it. However, scientists have found that there is no evidence that horses have defined leadership in their own herds.[1] The only thing horses are hardwired for are their emotional systems and learning theory.

Never the less, to clarify Leadership and Partnership and how they relate back to dominance training, it is helpful to look at what experts in these fields have to say.

Leadership: Being that this concept has been studied extensively in business, the answers there provide a good basis on which to come up with a simple definition. In business studies, researchers and authors often discuss two styles of governance; managers and leaders.

Managers tend to be defined as focused on achieving goals through rules, targets, and regulations, (obedience) and use pressure, threats and punishment to motivate workers. Leaders on the other hand tend to focus on achieving goals through engagement and cooperation (team work) and use praise, recognition and rewards to help motivate workers.[2] [3]

This is not to say that managers don’t care about engagement and leaders don’t care about rules, but their overall approach to motivating and inspiring workers has a theme.


Boss Vs. Leader by

Partnership: Riane Eisler, a renowned cultural historian and systems scientist recognised two models of underlying social configurations, the Partnership Society and the Domination Culture. A Domination Culture is defined as having a top down ranking, backed by fear, force or even violence. A Partnership Society is defined as having a cooperative and democratic structure, with equal ranking between members and a low degree of violence.

So, if we overlay these concepts on what we know of horse training we see some familiar parallels. While these are not exclusive definitions by any means, they make a lot of sense from a training point of view. But in either case, it doesn’t matter how trainers view themselves; using pressure and expecting unquestioned obedience does not fall under the leadership or partnership categories. These words are often used as flowery disguises for dominance-based training.

Why it matters

“Dominance is not a substitute for learning principles.”[6]

The major concern with dominance training is that people justify a certain amount of aggression towards the horse. Just the words “win” and “lack of respect” mould perception where the handler feels confronted, challenged and unsafe. Therefore, they feel warranted in applying whatever means necessary to be victorious in this perceived battle. This often involves driving the horse into movement and then waiting until he gives calming signals such as dropping the head, or licking and chewing.

These calming signals give the trainer the appearance of respect or “winning” and reinforces the belief that dominance is the problem. Regrettably, people are not taught that most beings (horse, human or otherwise!) will eventually give in to coercive techniques, to avoid discomfort, fear and exhaustion.

The presence of calming signals is a result of the horse feeling emotions linked to aversives such as FEAR, RAGE and/or PANIC. Even if the trainer is aware, they may not consider this a potential problem, due to the connotations of "winning". But the real danger is that these aversive emotions are easily attached to aids, equipment, situations, locations and even the trainer, possibly creating long lasting negative associations for the horse and potential behavioral problems. [4] Even Xenophon (who wrote The Art of Horsemanship in 350BC) acknowledged that horses will create negative associations with such objects.[5]

In the end, there is powerful justification and rewarding emotion behind the use of these training techniques. Yes, the techniques might get us what we want, which is rewarding for the human, but there is a high risk that they will harm the relationship. Therefore, understanding behavioral research is important. It is much harder to justify heavy handed training techniques when there is no scientific basis to support their use.

In Part 4 we will look at Susan Friedman's Hierarchy of Intervention Strategies - a more ethical and behavioral approach to training.



[1] Bourjade M, Thierry B, Hausberger M, Petit O. Is Leadership a Reliable Concept in Animals? An Empirical Study in the Horse. Wang L, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(5):e0126344. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126344.

[3] Zaleznik, A. (1992) ‘Managers and leaders: are they different? Harvard Business Review, 70 (2), pp.126-135.

[4] Grandin, Temple (2009) “Animals Make us Human” First Mariner Books. pg.110-115

[5] Xenophon, “On Horsemanship” trans. H.G. Dakyns, Gutenperg Project

[6] Foster, Robin (August 24,2017) Retrieved from

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