Do I have to dominate my horse or be his leader ?

People often believe that, because they have seen their own horses biting or kicking other horses, horses naturally use aggressive and dominant behaviour to communicate; therefore dominance should similarly form the basis of our interactions with horses.

This is a false assumption. Although it is true that occasionally horses can be seen to act aggressively towards others, it is certainly not their main form of communication. Our horses are a result of 60 million years of evolution - they have evolved by working together in a cooperative and mutually beneficial way for the survival of the herd. In the wild where they roam large home-ranges and are not bound by fences, very little aggression between herd members is observed. Mutual grooming, play and dozing together peacefully are important parts of herd life. Conflict only arises when resources are scarce and one animal is more determined than another to win a resource which is more important to him than it is to the others. This concept is called Resource Holding Potential (RHP). Resources that are particularly important to horses include food, shelter, water and company.

[Competition for resources can be minimsed by ensuring, for example, more well-spread piles of hay than the number of horses]
Let's explore this concept in a little more detail in an example of three horses kept together in a domestic setting:
  • Horse 1 may have had experience of insufficient food. Consequently food will be very important to this horse and he/she might therefore feel fearful if put in a situation where there is not obviously a large supply of food for the whole group. He/she is likely to defend a pile of hay, for example, from the other horses. In groups where the horses have known each other for a long time and have good communication skills he/she might only have to flick an ear or position the body to communicate to the other horses that the pile of hay is his/hers and not to come any closer. If the other horses don't realise this, or challenge the horse then he/she is likely to kick to defend the food. Horses 2 & 3 may not feel as strongly as horse 1 about food so they may defer to him easily or they may also feel strongly about food and will be willing to fight. With repeated experiences of inadequate food being placed in the field the horses will know 'their place' and not always challenge each other.
  • Horse 2 may find shelter most important, perhaps he/she has had a bad experience with respect to being too cold or in the presence of biting flies. He may be willing to act more aggressively towards horses 1 & 3 to defend his spot with the best shelter. Again the other horses might defer or fight back depending on how important that resource of shelter is to them.
  • Horse 3 may find company most important and try to drive another horse away from his 'best friend'.
This means that horse 1 may show more dominant behaviours around food but horse 2 may show more dominant behaviours around shelter and horse 3 around access to company. No single horse is dominant all the time or aggressive all the time, so it is wrong to label a horse as 'dominant' as if that is his natural nature. Sometimes we just haven't found what is very important for that horse - if water is very important to a horse but there is typically plenty of water available, we won't see the behaviour he/she would perform unless water supplies are reduced, perhaps in unusually dry weather.

The way we keep horses now often involves restricted grazing, small fields, little access to shelter and being subjected to an ever-changing herd-life. Often horses are taken out and put into a group as the owners see fit, and this instability of the social group can cause some aggression between the horses as they have to learn about what is important to each other. However, this is exacerbated by the unnatural environment with which we are expecting the horse to cope - if we provide sufficient resources for the horses they would not have anything to argue about! For the vast majority of the time horses live very peacefully, mutually grooming and cooperating with each other. In the wild horses have been observed for thousands of hours at a time and incidences of aggressive behaviour are very rare.

[Most interactions between horses are peaceful and affiliative]
So, given that horses are so peaceful and avoid conflict if at all possible, do we need to be 'dominant' to them when it comes to training? It seems that the answer is a resounding 'no'. It would be wrong for us to base our training systems on such a small percentage of horse behaviour when the vast majority of the time they do not act dominate or aggressively to each other, and if they do it is because the humans have caused it to happen in the first place by providing an inappropriate environment.

Far better then, that we use a system of training using the horse's natural cooperation with each other. By showing him and teaching him what we do want him to do , rather than negatively reinforcing or punishing him for what we don't want him to do. By this we gain his trust and confidence and show him that we care about his safety and survival. As we have seen in the example above, when people try to be dominant or be a horse's leader, depending on how important it is to the horse, he will either defer to you and possibly shut down in his behaviours or he may fight back. If he defers to you and shuts down, he will only do as much as you make him do. He will be carrying out your wishes because he has to, rather than participating enthusiastically and wanting to learn and offer more. If he fights back you will end up having to use stronger and stronger methods of reinforcement or punishment in order to obtain his compliance. This can be mentally and physically dangerous for both you and your horse. By using more positive reinforcement and having an understanding of learning theory and how it works, you will be able to achieve a much more pleasant and safe relationship with your horse than if you rely on trying to dominate him or be his leader.

For more information, please read the other FAQ: How Do Horses Behave In Natural Herds? and What Behavioural Science Do I Need To Know?