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The Dominance Approach to Training Horses Part 4 of 4

Challenging the status quo

While all this knowledge is easily accessible on the internet and easy to share, achieving change is a bit more problematic. Like any revolution, we are confronting years of “We’ve always done it this way!” and “It works.” We are also confronted by people who believe that any other approach is dangerous or won’t work with horses. Some people think that learning theory science only works on…whales, or predators, or dogs, or zoo animals. Convincing them that learning theory is the reality behind training is a big first challenge.

The second challenge is letting the more educated trainers know what their options are and then how to choose between them. The learning quadrant is a fine example of the options available and all trainers should be taught it. But there is really no guidance system in which quadrant to use or when. Most riders today use negative reinforcement to train and aren't even aware of it. Even if they do know, they may not know the pros and cons of using any of the four quadrants, and when it is most useful or detrimental to what they are trying to accomplish.

Fortunately, Dr. Susan Friedman of Utah State University has come up with some material that is very useful. Her proposed “Hierarchy of Intervention Strategies” [1] can easily be used as a progressive flowchart for horse training decisions.

This model starts with setting the horse up success and then choosing what quadrants to use based on the situation or circumstances. It places the most positive and least invasive means to start and only continues on to more aversive techniques for special situations. It is a very ethical approach to animal training as it considers the physical and emotional well-being of the animal. It also allows for a reasonable range of choice in a world that is less than perfect.

(Credit: Inspiration taken from to to Jessica Gonzalez of Empowered EquinesHumane Hierarchy”, which was also inspired by Susan Friedman’s Strategy.)

What is useful is that not only does it provide guidance, it also works in the real world. It is meant to help us think about our training logically and not feel trapped in black and white thinking or feel guilty for having to escalate to aversives if we have no immediate alternative.

Yes, the hierarchy does give precedence to using positive reinforcement for teaching new or alternative behaviors; this is due to overwhelming scientific evidence that correctly used, appetitives create long lasting training results with the least amount of stress. However, the hierarchy does allow for the trainer to use aversives, especially where health and safety takes precedence over performance or choice. This is not advocating “mixing” the quadrants for teaching new behaviors but accepting that aversives can be used as a last resort. The reason is to be realistic; not all situations are clear cut. We don’t live in an ideal world where everyone can exclusively use positive reinforcement in every situation and have it work 100% of the time. Horses are individuals and we all face unexpected events or even a lack of knowledge. These variables can obligate trainers to make decisions outside of the ideal, such as:

In an emergency: situations can come up where a horse has not been trained on how to handle it. I.E. an out of control fire. Health and environment cannot always be adjusted in emergencies and there may be no time to approach training using appetitives as per the hierarchy. Unfortunately, using aversives may be the only way to get to safety. This could include blindfolding, pulling, yanking, swinging ropes or using whips to get horses out of the barn or into a trailer. Emergencies force us to abandon training and move into management. But after it is over, the goal is to learn from it and prepare better for “next time” so that aversives aren’t needed.

Lack of Knowledge: A trainer may not know how to train a behavior in the ideal way, given the horse they have and the circumstances they are facing. So, they may feel the need to use something like non-escalating pressure, at least until they can learn a better way.

Horses are individuals: Trainers and observers need to remember that what one horse finds aversive, another horse does not. This gives us a certain amount of flexibility when used carefully. Normal and mentally healthy horses can deal with occasional bits of pressure and good handlers will pay attention to ensure they aren’t using too much pressure. A benefit of using occasional pressure is that it also mentally prepares them to cope with higher pressure in an emergency. Nevertheless, it’s the horse that decides if the handler was excessively aversive, not the person or bystanders.


“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” —Maya Angelou

I have heard it said by the occasional cross species trainer that horse training is about 20 years behind the current trends in animal training. [2] Granted, horse training has improved a great deal in the past decade or so, but to be 20 years behind the rest of the world is abysmal. This is despite improved access to information via the internet with things like YouTube, E-learning groups and social media. Considering all these advances, we are running out of excuses to remain 20 years behind modern advances in animal training and behavior studies.

Lamentably, change in the horse world comes very slowly. It feels safer to stick with what we know, so we passively decline to accept advances in animal training simply because it’s easier not to. But by doing so we are stifling progress towards better horse welfare, something which we all care passionately about. As horse lovers, riders and trainers, we all strive to do well by our animals and give them the best we can possibly afford.

So, with all the scientific information showing that horses are highly social individuals with complex relationships, we are ethically accountable for re-educating and reforming ourselves away from improper training and thinking. We need to enlighten ourselves to recognize the realities of behavior, without human labels like “dominance”. This will allow us to make more accurate and effective training decisions and will improve the overall welfare and care of horses around the world.



[1] Friedman, Susan G. (March/April 2010) What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not enough. APDT Journal Retrieved from's%20Wrong%20with%20this%20Picture%20-%20Dogs.pdf

[2] Victoria mentions that horse training and some dog training are still behind the times

Unfortunately she is not the only one I've heard say this.

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