Revisiting the Dominance Debate recently shared a link to the International Society for Equitation Science‘s Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training, a very important topic in equine welfare! While it isn’t new, I am happy to see it making the rounds again, as some trainers base their techniques on dominance hierarchies.

With advances in welfare science and equitation science, great strides have been made in horsemanship, training, and veterinary practices. We now have a much richer understanding of equine cognition, learning abilities, social needs and behaviour, which all play an important role in the evolution of species appropriate training and handling techniques.

Below are a couple of sections from a previous post, part of a research paper from my Equine Welfare course last summer,  The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship: Natural for Whom?

The ‘alpha’ & the dangers of dominance

“Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). If a trainer/handler believes that they need to be in a place of dominance in the relationship that may, in the trainer’s mind, condone the use of force or punishment which inevitably has negative welfare implications (Diehl, 2015; Webster, 2005). With efforts to establish this dynamic at the beginning of the training process, horses often experience confusion and negativity as they are forced to adapt to this artificial hierarchy (Birke, 2008).

Believing that a human can attain an alpha position or establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy at all may have negative implications for training. For example, if a trainer or handler is behaving in a dominant manner, it may trigger a fear response in the horse and condition avoidance behaviours. Furthermore, even if horses do have a hierarchical society, there is considerable debate around whether that hierarchy would involve humans, and to think that it would is most likely a purely anthropomorphic view. Such simplistic notions deny the complexity of horse-horse interactions and the subtleties of equine body language (International Society for Equitation Science, undated; Hartman, Christensen & McGreevey, 2017).

The ‘honorary herd member’

Many trainers believe it is possible to be accepted as a member of the herd and establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy. However, there is no scientific evidence that horses accept humans as a herd member. Recent studies indicate that life in a herd is more complex than simply a hierarchy dominated by one single leader or alpha mare, as was previously believed. Herd dynamics are fluid, relationships tend to be affiliative rather than hierarchical, and movement is often resource motivated and can be initiated by any member in the herd, not only by a stallion or alpha mare (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; McLean, 2013).

In its Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training the International Society of Equitation Science (2017) explains that although older, more experienced horses will often exhibit leadership-type roles in herds of feral horses, and that agonistic interactions i.e. aggressive/submissive interactions between two or more group members may be common, particularly in domestic situations where management styles may result in more competition over food and shelter, this does not indicate that one horse is trying to dominate another.

Amongst humans, leadership is a reflection of shared expectations, with the leader acting intentionally. Do horses have the cognitive ability to understand human intentions and therefore share expectations during a given task? There is insufficient evidence that this is the case. It is more likely that horses approach humans out of curiosity or “because they have been trained to do so”, not because they accept humans as leaders (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017, p.7).

Liberty vs. control

There is an inherent conflict between the aspiration of liberty and the exhibition of control. Even at liberty, the horse is not actually free to behave in a manner of its own accord. Rather, it is exhibiting learned and conditioned actions in response to subtle cues by a human. Thus, it could be argued that even at liberty, a great deal of control is still in play, possibly more so than at other times. “Indeed, for all that owners eulogize liberty, horsemanship of any sort is about control…. While horse owners [strive to ensure] that horses … go softly and without constraint, they [are] also asking horses to do specific tasks required by riding or groundwork. Asking horses to go sideways or backward is still asking them to do something on human terms” (Birke, 2008, p.119).

Originally posted as The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for Whom? Challenging the myths, which also addresses anthropomorphic language and the fallacy of the ability to ‘speak horse’. For the introduction and a discussion on round-pen training see Part 1: Round-pen training.


Birke, L. (2008). “Talking about Horses: Control and Freedom in the World of ‘Natural Horsemanship’.” Society and Animals 16 (2008) 107-126.

Diehl, N. (2015). “Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions.” The Horse. Retrieved from

Hartman, E., J.W. Christensen & P.D. McGreevy. (2017). “Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human-Horse Interactions?” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9.

International Society of Equitation Science. (undated). “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” Retrieved from

McLean, A.N. (2013). “Training the ridden animal: An ancient hall of mirrors.” The Veterinary Journal 196 (2013) 133-136.

Webster, J. (2005). “The assessment and implementation of animal welfare: theory into practice.” Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 24 (2), p. 723-734


Liberty Act by Gaetano Ciniselli. Painted by E. Martinik, 1877.