Revisiting the Dominance Debate

Horse-Canada.com 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.

References

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 http://www.thehorse.com/articles/35896/common-human-equine-interaction-misconceptions

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 http://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training

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

Image 

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

 

The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths 

The second part of The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship challenges some common beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.

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 NH 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. The latter of which will be discussed a bit further on (International Society for Equitation Science, undated; Hartman, Christensen & McGreevey, 2017). For now, let’s return briefly to the prevalence of anthropomorphism in NH training.

The problem with anthropomorphic language

Traditional horsemanship dictates that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way their owner expects or requires at a particular moment (McGreevy, 2012). This concept of the horse having malicious intent is a clear case of anthropomorphism. In reality, a horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse may have been startled by an unexpected sound or object or, more likely, was reacting to another aversive stimulus, such as an unbalanced rider or unclear signals from the rider.

As McGreevy & McLean (2010) indicate, applying anthropomorphic terms to horses ascribes them with a human thought process and overlooks their inherent cognitive process. Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with a human and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences. There is no evidence that horses aspire to please humans (or other horses) or work toward shared goals. When humans have an expectation or false belief that the horse ‘understands’ what it is ‘supposed’ to do, what is required of it, “they are likely to give inappropriate signals to the [horse], such as delayed, inconsistent or meaningless reinforcements, resulting in deleterious behavioural changes” (p.41).

The ‘honorary herd member’

Many NH 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).

Learning to ‘speak horse’

While horses are capable of complex inter-species interactions, interactions within the equine-equine ethogram are far too complex and subtle for a human to mimic. Tail and ear movements are a prime example of equine communication that can never be replicated by any handler or trainer, no matter how skilled. Nor are the morphological differences between the two species lost on the horse (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017).

While one can reasonably commit to being a keen observer of equine behaviour and develop an understanding of the subtleties of their body language and facial expressions, it is perhaps naive to believe that horses reaction to humans are based on anything other than a combination of instinct, learned, and conditioned responses. “It is beguiling to think that we can learn to ‘speak horse’ and enter their social hierarchy by mimicking their signals and behaviour. However, we are unable to mimic their signals with any subtlety as we do not have the same visual signalling structures” such as tails and ears that move (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, 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 NH groundwork. Asking horses to go sideways or backward is still asking them to do something on human terms” (Birke, 2008, p.119).

Conclusion: Natural for whom?

The intention of this review is not to discredit NH training entirely. Rather, the intention is to encourage horse owners and trainers to engage in a critical examination of NH, and any other training techniques, prior to adopting them. There are likely as many or more positive aspects of NH than there are negative and results can vary drastically. Much like many other things in our lives and in relation to horses, the outcome will depend on interpretation, implementation, and the specific nature and needs of the individual horse. The methods can be applied with care or in a manner that causes harm.

While NH strives to approach horsemanship and training with a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, there are inherent conflicts in a number of the practices employed. Such as the use of fear and dominance in training, and the tendency to ascribe higher cognitive abilities to the horse.

More research is needed to separate the species-appropriate concepts and techniques from the strictly human-serving and potentially damaging ones. One suggestion is to replace the word ‘natural’ in natural horsemanship with ‘distress-free’. In doing so, would a filter or bias be removed, enabling practitioners to properly assess the impact of their training methods on horses? When viewed through a lens of ‘distress-free’ training, how would NH practices rank in terms of welfare?

References

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 http://www.thehorse.com/articles/35896/common-human-equine-interaction-misconceptions

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

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 http://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training

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

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

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

The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 1: Round-pen training

 

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.

Natural horsemanship (NH) is an approach to training that has evolved in recent decades. NH trainers are adept interpreters of equine behaviour. They develop keen observation skills that enable them to respond quickly and appropriately to subtle cues demonstrated by the horse during training. They strive to establish a higher level of communication between human and horse, with a focus on respect, liberty, and learning to ‘speak horse’.  Touted by many as a kinder, gentler, more appropriate way of training horses informed by observations of their innate behaviours and intraspecies social interactions, contrary to what the name implies, it isn’t without controversy. While on the surface it appears to be a very intuitive practice, there are some welfare concerns inherent in the methodologies employed.

While more ethologically appropriate techniques and a shifting culture around horse training is largely beneficial, not all is right in the world of NH. “The premise is that NH works with the basic nature of horses. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a horse’s basic nature is, much of it based on outdated perceptions” (Merkies, 2017). As McGreevy & McLean write, NH is “a relatively modern system of horse-training that originated in Western training. It is based on an interpretation of the natural ethogram of the horse. NH focuses on concepts of dominance/submission, respect and leadership, which are currently controversial and may be at odds with learning theory” (2010, p.282).

This is not to discount NH as a whole, rather, the intention is to take a closer look at some of the training techniques and beliefs inherent in NH, and to challenge some of the more controversial aspects of the practice, with a primary focus on round-pen training. A secondary focus will be on some of the common ‘myths’ such as the concept of establishing oneself as an ‘alpha’ or ‘honorary herd member’, and learning to ‘speak horse’. The potentially negative welfare implications of anthropomorphic language and views, along with the conflict between concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘control’ will also be presented.  

Of course ‘natural’ is better! Isn’t it?

Oxford dictionary defines ‘natural’ as being “of or in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something”. In this case, ‘natural’ is synonymous with characteristics that are innate, instinctive, natural-born, ingrained, inherited, or inbred in the horse. However, it can be argued that the lives of domestic horses are not natural, therefore, nor are the ways in which humans interact with them. So is this really natural for the horse? This question will be revisited after taking a closer look at some of the controversial aspects of NH, beginning with round-pen training.

The round-pen experience

Round-pen training is a prime example of where things can go wrong with NH. When examined more closely, it becomes apparent that what is perceived as a higher degree of communication is actually a series of “adaptive flight responses and learned responses to stimuli” (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7). An integral part of NH training, the round-pen is often where the journey to establish the human-horse ‘partnership’ begins. It sounds idyllic! The horse is often at liberty, free from the constraints of a harness or lead rope. Although there are varying approaches and whips may be used by the handler,  it is common to use only postural and vocal cues that ‘mimic’ natural horse behaviours (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014).

If the trainer is successful in their imitation of the behaviours characteristically exhibited by a dominant horse, then the horse will respond appropriately and assume a lower ranking social position in the human-horse dyad, accepting the leadership of the human (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; Henshall & McGreevy, 2014; Horsetalk.co.nz, 2012). Or so the story goes. In other words, the round-pen is where the handler gains control of the horse, asserting dominance and establishing the position of herd leader/alpha, allegedly based on observations of feral and domestic horses (McLean, 2013).

It begins with a trainer initiating a flight response by using aggressive postural and vocal cues to frighten the horse. The aversive cues are then removed, as an invitation for the horse to approach. Sometimes, before the cessation of the aversive cues, the trainer will step into the path of the horse to force it to change direction and continue to flee, to reinforce a position of control or dominance. Alternatively, the chasing may continue until the horse demonstrates what is perceived as submissive body language, as a plea to ‘join-up’ with the trainer, which is supposed to be representative of returning to the safety of the herd. This entire process may be repeated to test whether the horse does in fact accept the trainer as a leader and satisfactorily performs a following response. If not, the horse may be deemed to be disrespectful or challenging the dominance of the trainer (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014; Horsetalk.co.nz, 2012; Merkies, 2017).

Misinterpretations of horse behaviours/responses can result in conflict and reduced welfare, for horse and human alike. For example, the notion that the horse is signalling to the trainer as it would to a higher-ranking horse, or that it ‘wants to be with’ the human because of a feeling of ‘respect’ is more likely a behaviour shaped through negative reinforcement or, possibly, an affiliative signal, though it is believed unlikely that the horse is exhibiting innate social strategies toward the human (McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. 2009). The emotional tactics involved to gain control of the horse result in the animal being pressured to choose between a state of fear (being chased) or safety (remaining with the trainer/not being chased) and represents a significant welfare concern (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014; Horsetalk.co.nz, 2012; McGreevy & McLean, 2010; McGreevy, Oddie, Burton & McLean, 2009).

It should also be noted that round-pen training does not always produce transferable results. In other words, even though a horse displays following behaviour in the round-pen, there is no guarantee that it will display this behaviour in the pasture or other settings (Fureix et al., 2009).

How does round-pen training align with learning theory?

Round-pen training works in opposition to two of the Principles of Learning Theory set forth by the International Society of Equitation Science (McLean, McGreevy & Christensen, undated).

Principle 9: Avoid and dissociate flight responses

Training processes that involve systematic/deliberate triggering of fear responses should be avoided because fear inhibits learning and reduces equine welfare.

Horse training should not result in flight responses. Stress results in problem behaviours (including escape and aggression). Both acute and chronic stress have a negative impact on horse welfare.

Principle 10: Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training  

Trainers should be able to show that the horse is as relaxed as possible during training. Whilst it is widely agreed that certain levels of physical and mental arousal (e.g. muscle tone and attentiveness) are necessary for learning to take place, it is important these levels are not exceeded resulting in a negative impact on learning, training and horse welfare.

Whilst insufficient arousal may lead to lack of motivation for learning, excessive arousal may compromise welfare and be related to stress (acute and/or chronic) with associated behaviours such as aggression, flight or learned helplessness).

Fear responses (flight, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying) in horses are difficult to erase and should not be intentionally provoked as they can represent a significant welfare issue leading to learned helplessness and chronic stress. Any fear responses should be addressed immediately when they arise through calm, consistent training that reinforces a desired behaviour without allowing the horse to demonstrate the unwanted behaviour. Unless it can be proven that the potential benefits outweigh the negative behavioural and welfare implications, in instances of round-pen training where fear is induced to elicit a flight response, it should be altogether eliminated (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).

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The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths takes a look at some of the common, and sometimes problematic, beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.

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References

Fureix, C., Pagès, M., Bon, R., Lassalle, J.M., Kuntz, P. & Gonzalez, G. (2009). “A preliminary study of the effects of handling type on horses’ emotional reactivity and the human-horse relationship.” Behavioural Processes 82 (2009) 202-210.

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

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.

Henshall, C. & P. McGreevy. (2014). “The role of ethology in round pen horse training – A review.” Appl. Animn. Behav. Sci. (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.03.004

Horsetalk.co.nz. (2012). “Rethink urged of Monty Roberts’ training methods.” Retrieved from http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2012/07/14/rethink-urged-monty-roberts-horse-training-method/#axzz4jjJl64Mj

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

McLean, A.N., McGreevy, P.D. & J.W. Christensen. “Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation.” Retrieved from http://equitationscience.com/equitation/principles-of-learning-thoery-in-equitation

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. (2009). “The horse-human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram?” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 12-18.

Merkies, K. (2017, February). Group 3, Question 2: Equitation Science vs. Natural Horsemanship. [Online discussion]. Message posted to https://courselink.uoguelph.ca/d2l/le/449471/discussions/threads/1986368/View