Dropping the ‘dominance theory’

It is now considered old-fashioned and misguided, not to mention cruel, to use ‘dominance theory’ methods to train a horse, cautions Dr Mac.

A dominant mare showing food-linked aggression to a subordinate mare at feeding time.
Photo: Dr Mac

Many a horse owner with a problem animal will say that his horse is trying to ‘dominate’ him. Much has been written about the ‘alpha’ horse, in line with the popular dog training theory that you as the owner have to be the ‘alpha’ among your pack of dogs.

‘Dominance’, however, is not a behavioural trait. The concept is related to the ‘pecking order’ seen clearly in chickens, where the strongest chicken gets to peck at a food source first, usually bullying the weaker chicken that found the food. Dominance, in other words, has to do with competition for scarce resources. It is a survival mechanism rather than a horse learning ‘respect’ for another’s leadership.

Family groups
In horse herds, a stallion will fight off other stallions so that he mates with the most mares. In mares, ‘social dominance’ usually goes not to the biggest or strongest, but to the mare that has been in the herd longest. Recent research has found that, in equines, a small herd comprises mainly a senior mare and her daughters. She has therefore been the ‘boss’ of each of these foals since birth. Her sons may be driven from the herd, or remain as subordinate males if they do not challenge the dominant stallion.

These ‘family groups’ graze together and groom one another, and their foals play together, each respecting a different senior mare. A large herd of horses contains a number of these family groups and there is no overall ‘alpha’ mare leading the herd alongside the ‘alpha’ stallion. Although there is a ‘pecking order’ related to competition for resources, it is not hierarchical throughout the herd.

Poor training
Dominance is not aggression, although aggression, or threat of aggression, is used by the dominant horse to maintain control of a resource such as food. But the subordinate horse will also frequently show aggressive behaviour inspired by fear. For example, if the horse owner brings carrots into a herd of horses in a paddock, the dominant horse chases the others away. However, if the subordinate horses feel too threatened by the dominant horse, they will kick to defend themselves.

The domination theory of horse training can lead to abuse. ‘Breaking in a horse’ or ‘bronco-busting’ is an example of training through dominance. A rider climbs onto an untrained horse, manages not to fall off while it bucks desperately to unseat him, then spurs it to keep it bucking until it’s exhausted and stands shivering. The horse is then considered to be ‘broke’ and fit to ride, as it has gained ‘respect’ when the rider ‘dominated’ it.

Sadly, many horse owners believe the fiction that a horse needs to be taught to ‘respect’ the rider. But this ‘respect’ does not last very long after the ‘bronco-buster’ goes home and leaves the horse in the hands of a less experienced rider.

Gentle, scientific training methods
Problematic behaviour such as refusal to be caught, bolting, rearing, refusing to be mounted, kicking and biting are not a result of a horse striving to ‘dominate’ its rider. It can be the result of accidentally rewarding bad behaviour – for instance putting a horse in the paddock after it has bucked the rider, instead of carrying on with training. Or it can be a number of self-defence mechanisms resulting from the harsh handling linked to the ‘dominance theory’ of training.

Modern trainers use behaviour modification rather than force to prevent or alter undesirable behaviour traits in horses. Reasons for the unwanted behaviour are investigated and changes made accordingly. The horse may be rearing because it has wolf teeth or bucking because the saddle does not fit, for example.

In short, the ‘dominance theory’ is old-fashioned and has been replaced by far more successful, scientific training strategies based on conditioning, desensitisation, habituation and positive reinforcement.