People are commonly told that they need to be dominant to their horses, but such advice is not in line with scientific studies on dominance behavior. Although dominance hierarchies certainly exist among horses, there is no need for people to try to assume a place in such hierarchies. Horses will naturally defer to people because we, as a species, are more confident than horses are and thus more likely to be leaders in the horse-human relationship. Consider the Budweiser ad run during the 2013 Super Bowl:

In the ad, a man sees a “runaway” Clydesdale and moves to stand in its path with his arms outspread (a natural human reaction to make yourself look bigger). Does anybody really think a man could stop a draft horse that didn’t want to stop? However, we frequently take such chances in the expectation of being successful (and we frequently ARE successful). Does anybody think a Clydesdale would put itself at risk trying to stop a charging elephant? Not likely! In fact, a Clydesdale might very well run in terror from a sparrow that flew up unexpectedly in its path. That difference in confidence is what makes most horses defer to most people.

The term “dominance” originally described the outcome of a conflict between two individuals. It was not a personality trait, although the word has come to be used as an adjective describing social status. In 2001, two scientists (Henrich and Gil-White) suggested there were two routes to attaining social status in human societies: dominance, based on intimidation, and prestige, based on the possession of skills or expertise. In 2007, two other scientists (Tracy and Robins) suggested there were two distinct forms of pride: hubristic (marked by arrogance and conceit) and authentic (fueled by feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and success). In 2010, three of these scientists (Cheng, Tracy, and Henrich) suggested that hubristic and authentic pride were parts of two suites of psychological adaptations (or personality traits) underpinning the status-obtaining strategies of dominance and prestige. They described their studies as showing that “hubristic pride is associated with dominance, whereas authentic pride is associated with prestige. Moreover, the two facets of pride are part of a larger suite of distinctive psychological traits uniquely associated with dominance or prestige. Specifically, dominance is positively associated with traits such as narcissism, aggression, and disagreeableness, whereas prestige is positively associated with traits such as genuine self-esteem, agreeableness, conscientiousness, achievement, advice-giving, and prosociality.”

Dominance in people, then, is associated with aggression, intimidation, disagreeableness, arrogance, conceit, and narcissism --- not exactly traits to which we should aspire. Trying to be dominant to your horse will make you think in terms of force. A major problem with “dominance” is that people try to achieve it by using punishment when the horse is not being sufficiently “subordinate.” Dominance is seen as something achieved by being the best at aggression --- by convincing the horse that you’re stronger than it is and can beat it in a fight. If you are dominant to your horse, it will learn to respect the punishment you can dish out, but it will not respect you as a leader. If it sees you as dangerous, it may obey you out of fear, but it will not trust you.

Subordinate horses respond to dominant horses by moving away from them, to avoid their aggression. This type of behavior is NOT what we want from our horses, but it is what we will see if we actually become dominant to them. Dominance trainers talk about leadership and respect, but true leadership and respect are a product of deference on the part of the horse, not dominance on the part of the trainer. Trainer dominance behavior is intended to create a subordinate horse, and such subordination is achieved by threatening to use force. In contrast, true leadership behavior by a trainer creates deference in the horse, by earning its trust and true respect (not just respect for the trainer’s ability to punish). If your relationship with your horse is based on cooperation and deference, then problem behaviors are seen as miscommunication on your part, rather than as insubordination on the part of the horse. Rather than focusing on punishing your horse, you focus on improving your communication regarding what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you.

Interacting appropriately with a horse does not require “domination” or threatening behavior on our part. It requires us to provide clear signals to the horse, to be reliable, and to provide a safe environment, so that the horse learns to trust us and to be willing to take clues about appropriate behavior from us. If the horse trusts our leadership, it will give us true respect, deference, cooperation, and compliance with our commands.

Most social interactions among horses are affiliative, not dominance-based. Horses choose other horses to be their friends, and they SHARE space, grooming, food, etc., rather than fighting over these things. When one horse moves, its friends FOLLOW it, rather than moving away from it. Affiliation, not dominance, is what results in leadership, and true leadership, not dominance, is the relationship that we want to achieve with our horses.

Among affiliated horses, a horse will usually get what it wants if it wants something more than the other horses do. Its friends recognize its greater desire, and they defer to it, thus avoiding the conflict and potential injury of dominance aggression. The human desire for obedience from our horses is usually strong enough that our horses will defer to that desire, without the need for us to use force with them. Our goal should be for our horses to be cooperative with us, not subordinate to us.

The best examples I have of dominance and deference in horses have to do with feeding and watering a small herd of horses I maintained many years ago. The core of the herd was a stallion and two mares. One mare was barren, and the other had a foal every year. Each foal would be sold before the next foal appeared, so there were never more than four horses in the herd.

These horses obtained their water from a garbage can that was only big enough for one horse to drink at a time. In the summer, the can would be empty when I returned home, and the first thing I would do is refill it. Then, I would feed the horses, each of which had its own feed container. Feeding and watering time was a great opportunity to observe interactions between the horses.

When I arrived home, the horses would all gallop down to the feeding and watering area. Access to the water in the garbage can was a classical test of dominance --- an animal’s comparative ability to control access to limited resources (the water, which only one horse could access at a time). Usually, the pregnant, lactating mare would arrive first and would begin drinking from the garbage can. The other mare would arrive next and would patiently wait her turn, because she was subordinate. When the stallion arrived, the pregnant mare would move away without him having to threaten her, because they both already knew he was dominant. The most interesting interaction, however, had to do with the foals.

When the foals were old enough to depend primarily on water to provide their daily liquid intake, they were often the first to arrive at the garbage can. Both mares would patiently wait their turns for water --- not because the foals were dominant to them but because they deferred to the foals’ desire for water and youthful ignorance of the very concept of dominance. The most interesting interaction, though, was between the foals and the stallion.

The stallion would arrive with the expectation that all the other horses would automatically move away to give him access to the water, because he was at the top of the dominance hierarchy. However, the foals didn’t move away because they didn’t recognize the EXISTENCE of a dominance hierarchy. Sometimes, the stallion would even grasp their necks, in a classical display of dominance behavior, but the foals would still ignore him, because they didn’t understand his signal of dominance. Like the mares, the stallion would then patiently wait his turn, deferring to the foals’ ignorance of dominance hierarchies. Interactions in this small herd were governed primarily by deference and cooperation, not by aggression and dominance (although dominance DID exist).

When I fed the horses, the pregnant mare would finish first and displace the subordinate mare from the last of her feed. Then, she would sidle up to the stallion, displaying all the signs of subordination, but nevertheless plainly wanting to access his feed. A mere flick of his ear would be enough to make her back off, but invariably, she would return for another try. Eventually, he would let her approach and share the last of his feed. Clearly, he was the dominant horse of the pair, but equally clearly, he was willing to defer to her desire to obtain a portion of his feed. Again, the interactions in the herd were governed primarily by deference and cooperation, not by aggression and force.

It would have been perfectly possible for me to place feed in a feeder and then prevent any of the horses from accessing it --- not because I was “dominant” but because the horses deferred to me. I was the food provider, so they recognized that I determined when and how the food was provided. Because I was the provider, not a competitor for the resource, the horses understood that aggression was unnecessary and inappropriate. Indeed, aggression would have been counterproductive, because I would not have provided the feed until the aggressive behavior ceased. I was respected, as the source of desirable things, and I was trusted to provide those things if the horses behaved appropriately --- and to provide clear signals as to what appropriate behavior was. I had ultimate control over the resources not because I used force but because the horses deferred to my leadership and cooperated with my desires.

To return to the articles by Henrich, Gil-White, Tracy, Robins, and Cheng, the two routes to attaining social status in human societies are dominance and prestige. Dominance is associated with hubristic pride (marked by arrogance and conceit), narcissism, aggression, intimidation, and disagreeableness, and prestige is associated with authentic pride (fueled by feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and success), genuine self-esteem based on the possession of skills or expertise, agreeableness, conscientiousness, achievement, advice-giving, and prosociality. Dominance does not earn true respect, but prestige is synonymous with respect.

If we possess the skills, expertise, and conscientiousness to provide clear signals to our horses, to be reliable, and to provide a safe environment, so that our horses learn to trust our leadership enough to take clues about appropriate behavior from us, then we will earn true prestige and respect from our horses. We can then experience genuine self-esteem and the associated feelings of accomplishment, confidence, success, and achievement. Our horses will see us as agreeable friends and leaders, rather than intimidating dictators, and they will willingly defer to and cooperate with us. We should not be trying to achieve status through dominance. Our goal should be to achieve status through prestige. Dominance earns fear, not respect. Prestige earns trust, respect, deference, and cooperation, and it is the status of a true leader. True leadership, not dominance, should be the relationship that we strive to achieve with our horses.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 9, 2013 at 1:14pm

Very interesting.

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