One of our favourites around here is Emily McDonald, a horse and dog behaviourist in the UK who rescued a family of feral horses dubbed the Meadow Family. Her videos are fascinating, enlightening and delightful – she demystifies the language of horses with her quirky blend of science and sense-of-self.
I just came across her article, #DitchDominance, where she thoroughly deconstructs common concepts of dominance and leadership. While I have happily stepped away from dominance-based training as I have found alternatives, I sometimes question my choices and wonder if I’m barking up the wrong tree when I let my horses get up close and personal, or “get away with” behaviour I was taught to punish or discourage. Lucky for me, there are smarty-pantses like Emily around to remind me of why the need for dominance is a thoroughly human construction. Here’s Emily busting dominance myths:
Myth 1 – “I must be the alpha/boss/leader”
In a herd there is no alpha horse who bosses the others and is ‘in charge’. Horses live their lives by followership whereby if any horse wants to change the group activity, they will literally just walk off and the others may or may not follow (Kruegar 2014). Whether the group all follow will depend on who is asking to leave and what they are suggesting. The herd is more likely to follow if the horse who wants to go has been in the herd a long time and so has experience of the best places to lead them to. Social animals synchronise their behaviours so that they stay together. Now obviously all individuals will not want to do the same thing at any given moment. So what happens is the herd’s choice of activity is controlled by the horse with the lowest physiological reserves (Rands 2010). For example Rubenstein found that lactating mares would pull the herd towards the water as they needed to drink more often, whereas non-lactating mares would pull in the other direction as there is more food away from the water. Ultimately the herd goes with the lactating mares as their need is greatest. Are the lactating mares being dominant and making the other horses follow them? Nope, they just go and the others will follow as they are a family and so look after each other. Even if horses did have an alpha we couldn’t be it as we are not horses. Dominance disproved!
The theory that there is a pecking order of dominance within the herd is outdated. New research shows that Resource Holding Potential (RHP) is the individual 1 to 1 relationship between 2 horses where the most confident keeps the resource. To work out their RHP they have contests over resources using subtle body language. The horse that normally loses the contest for a resource will simply not bother competing in future. Each horse will have to work out their RHP for each resource with each horse, so horse A may always drink first, however horse B may have first pick of the hay piles. This is why it is so important to keep horses in permanent herds, so that they can settle and not have to continually work out RHP. Contests will only escalate if the resource is very important e.g. you would give a mugger your phone but not your baby. This is why it is so important to make resources plentiful so that horses have no need to compete and they can share. The horse with the highest RHP will not always take resources first, he has no worries so may let others with low RHP have it first e.g. young or sick horses. RHP has evolved as social animals need rules to keep the peace; this makes sure that no herd member suffers an injury or wastes energy. So there you have it. Horses only show dominant behaviour over resources especially if they are scarce. We are not competing for resources so the horse cannot be dominant over us.
When competing for a resource or threatened by a human the horse has 4 choices known as the 4 f’s:
Fidget behaviours are the healthy horse’s first choice when mildly threatened. Fidget behaviours include appeasements and displacements.
Appeasements are submissive behaviours which aim to reduce aggression from another e.g. head lowering, moving away, clamped tail etc.
Displacements are normal behaviours acted out in an abnormal context. They are motivated by fear, frustration or confusion e.g. yawning, pawing when eating, licking and chewing etc. A human example is to play with your hair or check your phone when you feel uncomfortable. It is important to look at the whole context when assessing behaviour as each action has more than one meaning e.g. if you ask your horse to back up and he scratches his leg this is likely to be a displacement as he is confused. However, in a different situation he will scratch as he simply has an itch.
If fidget behaviours don’t work then the horse will either flee (if possible) or freeze. Donkeys are more likely to freeze and this is why they are thought of as stubborn. If all 3 options fail the horse will fight, and if the horse has consistently learnt that fidget, flee and freeze don’t work then they may learn to be aggressive first.
Horses avoid conflict at any costs and they have many strategies to try and steer clear. So why does dominance reduction training directly focus on threatening the horse and actively looks for appeasements and displacements?
Myth 2 – You’ve got to move them out of your space and they can’t invade your space.
Horses who are closely bonded spend a lot of time close to each other in each other’s personal space ‘bubble’…