Dominance Doesn't Work

enlightened horsemanship through touch has posted another great discussion on dominance-oriented training. while reading the post i recalled several horses i have met over the years who were trained this way and rebelled. it didn’t work for them, and this post has effectively put into words just why this approach didn’t work. it also got me thinking about what did work, and a possible explanation of why it worked when the standard approach didn’t. in a nutshell, i think it comes down to this:

"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."

i have seen the effects of this first hand. this approach leaves the horse only two routes forward; the first is as above, to continue jostling for rank, and the other is to create such an atmosphere of perpetual terror that the horse gives up trying (i.e., the literal meaning of breaking.)

few of us have subscribed to the latter, though many trainers, often unwittingly, have opted for the former. but there is another way that removes the question of rank almost entirely from the equation. it's nice to know there is scientific thinking to back the same conclusion it seems we all arrived at on our own in one way or another.

this post, and particularly the bit about dominance hierarchies being about resources (i.e., food, etc.) made me think of an odd comment someone once made to me about my barn. she remarked how none of my horses threatened me for food and were perfectly relaxed while being fed. i had never thought about it, but when i did, i realized they never 'demand' their feed or treats (though they are terrible beggars ;-) nor do they retreat when i go to feed them; they neither pin their ears nor run to the back of the stall when i approach them while eating, and i can work around them, groom them, walk behind them, etc. as they eat, in their stalls or out in the field, without any fear for my safety.

that this seemed odd to other horse people seemed odd to me. but i recall barns where this was not the case, and i recall one horse in particular that was considered a real menace, especially where his stall and food were concerned.

this horse was an 18hh black gelding who had a reputation for being 'dangerous' because he had killed a groom. i later learned that it had been an accident - when the horse was young he was being loaded on a trailer, he turned his big head to look at something in the distance, knocked the groom off balance, who then fell off the ramp and hit his head on the pavement. it was an unfortunate accident, but since that day the horse was treated as a monster, and so a monster he became.

attempts to deal with him were a mix of aggressive dominance and fear. as a consequence, the horse learned to keep his abusers at a distance with threatening looks, bites, kicks and other negative behavior. and in turn his handlers escalated their attempts at dominance through fear to control him.

when i began working at this barn, i was given all kinds of warnings about this horse and told not to go into his stall with him inside, not to take him from the stall without a stud chain and a whip in hand, and to wave my arms or chase him to the back of his stall with a whip in order to put his feed in his bucket or i’d be mauled.

needless to say, i wasn't about to do any of that. i was determined to see if i could work with him fairly. so i started by simply standing in front of his stall, just out of his reach, and not doing anything. he would threaten and lunge at me, but i didn't react. i just stood there quietly, non-threateningly. when he got tired of threatening me without getting a reaction and went back inside, i'd walk away. soon he gave up the threats and became curious. his ears would come forward. then he'd stretch his nose toward me. again, i just let him.

next came feedings, and i'd do the same. whenever his ears came forward, i'd walk up and put in his grain. he never once threatened or tried to lunge at me. after a just two days of little things like this, he started to let me stroke his face and neck, ate treats gently out of my hand, and would come to the front of his stall with his ears up when he saw me. i could lead him with just a halter and lead snapped to the bottom ring, and, much to the horror of everyone around, i could go into his stall with him loose inside to groom him, muck out, etc, without trouble.

people thought it was magic. it wasn't. i'm no ‘horse whisperer’ or some kind of natural horsemanship guru, and i don't have some scientific-sounding method that requires a manual, videos, props and clinics. i just approached the horse with compassion and treated him with respect. it hardly makes me an expert. but it seemed to work for us.

i met another horse just like him in scotland. this horse was kept in an isolation stall with warning signs plastered all over the front of it, and all the same rules applied when working around him – he was constantly tied, smacked, chained or threatened and no one trusted him enough to venture near his stall unless they had to. and again the same approach worked with him where others had failed. i remember being in his stall mucking out while he was loose and happily eating his hay when one of the staff ran and got the manager and asked right in front of me, ‘is she ok to be in there?’ the manager just shrugged and walked away. i wasn’t their favorite employee, probably because i successfully challenged so many of their theories and practices...

i was happy to work with these horses because they deserved to be cared for properly even if no one else thought they were worth the trouble. i had hoped the horses would come around and other people would see they were not the monsters they previously thought. the problem was, they only behaved well with me. these horses were still a danger to everyone else, because they hadn't modified their own behavior around the horses. but the horses certainly seemed to know the difference and treated the humans around them each accordingly.

after reading this post, i’m wondering if the issue was that these horses found themselves in a constant state of competition for rank with these aggressive handlers. maybe they thought by bullying humans and making them submissive, they would win and the abuse would stop. or maybe they'd simply had enough rough treatment and were trying to protect themselves by staking out a personal domain (stall/paddock) and defending their resources (food.) either way, it was clear that they responded to the alternative approach, which was simply to not make it about who's boss, not give them a reason to fear or compete with me, and reward them with kindness any time they gave up threatening. and it turned out they could both be very sweet and kind horses when given half a chance.

my own horses feel no such competition because they've lived long enough in an environment without dominance and aggression that they trust me (most of the time - they're still pretty suspicious when i have a syringe in my hand ;-) not a single one of my horses - including rescues, abuse cases and 'un-trainable' beasts has ever tried to bite, kick or otherwise dominate me (unless you count trying to grab the occasional mouthful of grass while being led or searching my pockets for treats - which, contrary to the average nh guru, i consider pretty innocent.) sure they compete with each other and have their own hierarchy in the herd; our “alpha” horse, mellon, has been dominant in every herd he’s been a member of since he was 4 years old, including with stallions. he is the most aggressive and unrelenting horse i have ever seen, and the rest of the herd lives in a state of respectful wariness of him (though, interestingly, after he disciplines a herd member he also makes a point of grooming all the herd members in turn, i think as a way to bond with them and make up after he has had to be tough.)

the remarkable thing is that he is completely gentle, sweet and trusting with his humans. when we had water troughs, i always knew when one was getting low because mellon would stand guard over it all day and not let anyone else drink until it was replenished, so his instinct for defending resources is perfectly intact, and yet his ears are up when i come in with his grain, and i can go into his stall while he happily munches and treat a wound or pick a foot without him even raising an eyebrow. he definitely demands a certain respect, but he has never once challenged me (our early riding was a different story because he had a history of abuse and learned to be defensive about anyone sitting on his back, but that’s another story...) and is one of the easier horses to work around. his manners are impeccable and my 4 year old niece pets him and feeds him carrots, which he takes ever-so-gently from her hand.

according to dominance theory, he should be the most difficult horse to handle and train, and i have no doubt that he could easily become the most violent and dangerous horse if mishandled. yet i trust him implicitly, and i know he trusts me. how can that be?