The Dominance Model and Horsemanship by Equine Ethology Are Dead

Didn't the major natural horsemanship names notice?

Way back in 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior wrote a position paper outlining its reasons for eschewing any kind of dominance-based training. Based on the most recent research, their paper is as enlightening to the mindful horse owner as it should be eye-opening to the devotees of such hugely popular pet celebrities as Cesar Millan and other natural horsemanship trainers who may or may not remain nameless as this post progresses.

When you read the quotes below, mentally substitute the word, "horse" when you read "animal," or "dog." You'll be surprised at how this applies.

AVSAB is concerned with the recent reemergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors. In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views. To understand how and whether to apply dominance theory to behavior in animals, it’s imperative that one first has a basic understanding of the principles.

The reemergence of dominance theory (whether equine, canine or aardvark) has been well-cloaked. It's now dressed in tight-fitting jeans covering a cute behind, touted by gleaming white teeth in a smiling, animal-loving face. It is couched in terms such as, "make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard," and "be the pack leader." It's easy for someone who's not listening critically to get sucked in. When I first saw Cesar Millan on TV, I fell in love with him. It took a while for me to get it. Same with Clinton Anderson. Mindful horsemanship demands critical examination of the underlying premise of any movement, practiced by any trainer, no matter how appealing.

Critical examination of the underlying concepts of dominance training requires first that you know the definition of dominance as it pertains to animal interaction. After all, if you are going to play "animal" with a half ton horse, you'd better get it right.

Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). A dominance-submissive relationship does not exist until one individual consistently submits or defers. In such relationships, priority access exists primarily when the more dominant individual is present to guard the resource.

Between a horse and his (traditional) trainer, the issues of dominance to be worked out have NOTHING to do with guarding resources. No one is trying to beat the other to a mate, to food or water, or to new territory. It's about rank. Pure and simple.

In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify ... are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression.

Humans don't want to scare off horses so we can get better access to mares or grass. We want to modify their behavior in our own arena. They know we are not horses, and we should know we can't fool them. To assume that we can just plain disrespectful. As I've said before, to assume that unwanted behaviors result from aggression is a mirror of our own aggression.

These behaviors in horses result from our own clumsy reward structure (or, actually, the lack thereof), and the fact that we are inconsistent and fail to gain the trust of our horses. We keep trying for dominance, when what we really need is leadership.

Basing a "natural" method on part of the story (dominance) and leaving the rest (the fact that the endgame doesn't exist for both parties) is basic error in thinking. Pros may have better luck at applying dominance theory to human-animal interactions by mimicking horses, but ordinary folk like me can get into trouble quickly. It is dangerous in the short and long term. How?

• It can cause humans to resort to punishment (suppressed aggression), which, according to the AVSAB can result in the animals' fear and anxiety, all the while not addressing the underlying cause of the undesirable behavior. (AVSAB 2007).

• When you use dominance theory, you fail to recognize that in wild animals, dominant-submissive relationships are established and reinforced through breed-specific warning postures and displays which most humans will never be able to replicate correctly or recognize. This is dangerous. This may also increase the amount of aggression necessary to maintain the dominant position. This often means physical force, or at least more force than strictly necessary for cooperation. This may result in submissive behavior, but we all know that the fearful, downtrodden horse will take every opportunity to kick you when your guard is down, and the aggressive owner will deserve it.

• These dominant-submissive relationships are constantly renegotiated in the wild. They are NOT static. Jostling for rank never ends. In contrast, a calm, secure state of loving cooperation can be maintained indefinitely, so long as the human does nothing to destroy it.

Equine-ethology-based horsemanship methods which rely on the establishment and enforcement of a two-creature hierarchy lead to antagonistic relationships.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on July 28, 2009 at 12:07pm
I never tried to make any of my horses an unquestioning slave.
Even though I have MS and have multiple disabilities I want to ride horses that want to go forward, I want to ride horses who are capable of taking care of themselves if all of a sudden I can't ride effectively, and I want to ride horses that DEMAND that I ride to the top of my ability, whatever my abilities may be at that moment. The horses can tell if all I can do is walk, and they cooperate with me because I cooperate with them.
Note I say cooperate, not dominate. I am very weak and do not have the physical ability to do all those dominance games, and it would be very dangerous for me to try. I can usually get strange horses to cooperate with me because I do everything to keep them comfortable when they obey my aids, and if they do not immediately obey my aids I consider that a sign that I have to improve. I am considerate of my horse and in return my horses are considerate of me. Perfection is a goal that is never achieved. Of course there are times when I have to INSIST that the horse do as I command, but at these times I reward every time the horse makes ANY move to obey me.
Some people want slaves. I ride Forward Seat and want my horse to be my willing partner who hopefully enjoys me riding him. If the horse does not enjoy me riding him, then I am doing something wrong, and I have to improve until the horse tells me I got it right.

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