Do We Need Domiance in Training?
We tend to talk about horses as though they are in a constant battle to overthrow our rule and claim “dominance”. Afraid that our horses won’t see us as the “lead mare” and the one in charge, we make rules for ourselves and our horses. We become rigid in our actions, leaving very little room for compromise, two way communication, and thus true collaboration in our relationships with the horses in our lives. When on walks with our horses, we fear letting them lead and demand we always be the one directing the walk in fear that if a horse got a taste of leadership, they will never listen again. We fear that if we listen to what our horses would like to do one day, we will lose their “respect” (such a loaded term in the horse world) and thus their obedience. We fear that if we let a horse say “no”, they will overthrow our reign and never listen again. We fear that giving up control, even a little bit, will result in a battle between horse and human.
But do we need to fear?
I want to debunk the myth that horses are always trying to “get the upper hand”. They simply aren’t. They aren’t trying to overthrow our reign, and it is 100% possible to have a relationship with a horse that has room for both of you to make decisions, for both of you to suggest new ideas, for both of you to lead in your own ways. Relationships don’t need rigid rules to keep everyone in check and in control at all times - and neither does your relationship with your horse. You can let your horse lead your walk one day, and the next still ask them to follow you. It’s collaboration.
Why I don’t find the term “dominance” to be helpful.
I don’t find the word “dominance” to be helpful in horse training or horsemanship. Here is why:
The term “dominance” to me makes things black and white - just like any dogmatic label it takes you away from the individual and into generalizations, which often leads to less understanding, more miscommunication, and conflict - it leaves very little room to ask yourself “what is actually happening here?”.
Also, I haven’t found it practically helpful in changing unwanted behavior - I haven’t found it to work nearly as well as it’s alternative, something I’ll go into later in this post. When a horse is acting in a way that we don’t like or we find dangerous, if we label the horse as trying to be “dominant”, our understanding stops there. All of the sudden this horse that has a complex range of emotions and needs, is simply “dominant”. And there is one way to handle a “dominant” horse trying to overthrow you - put them in their place by being dominant over them. This simplicity when looking at complex behavior is an issue if you want to get to what’s really going on underneath; we may “dominate” the horse and have gotten the “bad” behavior symptom to stop, but have we really addressed what is going on here? Usually, when we label “dominant”, we don’t even get in touch with what’s truly being said by the horse - what are they feeling and wanting? Both contain important information for understanding your horse and building a strong relationship.
Here’s an example:
Let’s take my foal friend Artemis. Artemis has recently discovered how much she loves her butt scratched. She LOVES it. She wants it scratched as much as she can get it!
A week or so ago, Artemis started swinging her butt into me to have her butt scratched. This behavior could have been labeled “dominant” if that’s how we are choosing to interpret horse behavior. Seen through a dominance lens, one may think “this baby horse is trying to dominate me”, and could have been dealt by trying to dominate the baby back to “put her in her place”.
This process of trying to “dominate this behavior away” would likely confuse and scare Artemis, but probably the butt swinging would stop - possibly along with other behaviors that Artemis does I love.
If we aren’t seeing the horse through the lens of dominance, this behavior could be seen and worked through like this.
Artemis wants her butt scratched very much, and is trying to get that to happen by putting her butt into me. She’s trying that out to see if it works. She’s excited about butt scratch and she wants the butt scratch. Her motivation is butt scratch. She thinks moving her butt into me we will to get more butt scratch, primarily because every time I’ve given her one, I’ve moved to her butt. It makes sense that to get butt scratch, butt must face human.
Now, I get to ask myself, what do I feel and want?
I am happy to give Artemis butt scratches, but I feel uncomfortable when she swings her butt into me. I would still like to give her but scratches when I am feeling it, and I would like her to ask for them by standing still next to me, instead of swinging around.
This is something I can actually train for. I don’t have to just “put up” with the butt swinging - I can change that and make it more comfortable for me by communicating this to Artemis.
This is where our needs meet - and this is something Artemis and I can have a dialogue about. While my “dominant” may have stopped the swinging, it may have also brought distrust, confusion, and fear into our relationship for no real reason. Thinking about the horses needs/wants and our own needs/wants, which takes looking at the reason *behind* the behavior (our horse’s and our own), we are able to find the place where our needs meet, and from there, come to a solution that feels good for everyone via communication. When you see the horse through this lens, situations and solutions aren’t so black and white. It’s not “dominant” and “submissive” - it’s individuals and motivation and emotions and needs and communication - much more like any real relationship.
People will sometimes come back with the concern that “but sometimes horses want things that are dangerous for us - are we just supposed to let them run wild regardless of our safety?”. I hear you, and the answer is no - of course not! But again, we don’t need dominance to value our own safety and needs. This is why with the example with Artemis, it’s so important that I don’t only check in with the horse’s feelings/wants - I also check in with my own. This is where balance comes in - this is where we find the crucial, loving act of creating boundaries.
I mentioned earlier that there is a counter way to address unwanted behaviors to the broad “dominance”. That other lens is boundaries.
I’m going to get into boundaries in my next post! But for now, I want to leave you with this.
One of the main reasons I don’t like the term “dominance” with horses (other than finding it unhelpful for actually understanding the horse and making good boundaries) is that so often, it is used as justification for harsh and even cruel treatment of horses. The idea that it is “natural” and even “necessary” to dominate the horse can give us the permission to “work with” the horse in inappropriate ways that violates their own boundaries. (We get to make boundaries, and so do they). Often we think with dominance that we are properly and rightfully putting the horse in their place, when often those dominating techniques lead us to coming into the horse’s rightful space and forcing them into obedience, taking their choices away, and violating their dominion over their own bodies. We can justify a lot of violation and even abuse in the name of “dominance”.
Thinking of wants and needs - making boundaries - that requires understanding of the individual. And it’s far harder to abuse power when we are in a place of empathy (for the horse and for ourselves) trying to understand the situation with compassion.