In my last two posts, we looked at what I call “emotional horsemanship” and why that is often problematic. Today I’d like to talk about another common style of training that could be described as “dictatorial horsemanship.”
Dictatorial horsemanship interprets equine relationships as primarily hierarchical, with every horse having a rank in the pecking order. The highest-ranking horse, often called the alpha, is thought to be the leader, and the principle goal of this style of horsemanship is to become the alpha by showing the horse that we are the boss and making it respect us. This is typically accomplished by driving or moving the horse, often fairly aggressively, and continuing to apply pressure until the horse “shows submission” by lowering its head, licking and chewing, following you around, or some other sign that is thought to imply that the horse now sees you as the leader.
While this style of horsemanship can certainly teach a horse to do any number of things, there is often something lost in a horse that is trained this way, something I consider precious and worth preserving. Call it life, spirit, or something else, but when it is gone, what you will see is a shut-down horse with a dullness of expression that equine ethologists now recognize as a form of depression. It’s like a light has been switched off inside of these horses, and they just go through the motions of whatever they are asked to do for the sake of self-preservation.
In reality, horses are no happier under the rule of a dictator than people are. The reasons for this become clear when we understand that equine relationships are actually far more cooperative and less hierarchical than most of us have been led to believe, and that “rank” in the pecking order does not necessarily correspond with “leadership”. Research into the social behaviors of wild horses has shown that in a natural herd, aggressive, bossy horses may hold the highest rank (as determined by who gets first access to scarce resources), but these horses are often not the leaders, meaning the ones who head off to find better grazing, sources of water, etc., and get followed by the others.
The leaders (and there is often more than one) are typically quiet, calm individuals who simply go about their business in a way that has proven to convey benefits to those who stay with them. The rest of the herd will choose to follow and stay near those who help them meet their needs, but will actually try to keep away from the aggressive, selfish ones whenever possible.
Of course, in a training situation, the horse does not have the choice to avoid the trainer, so if that trainer takes on the position of an aggressive, high ranking horse by applying pressure in a manner that demands submission, the horse is not going to feel very good about the situation, though they will eventually comply when they learn there is no reprieve otherwise. People may believe they are giving the horse a choice by forcing them to either continue to get chased, moved and pressured, or to give up so that they can get some relief, but from the perspective of a horse, that is truly being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Since the horse’s most basic need is to remain safe, forcing the horse to choose between risking exhaustion (which leaves it highly vulnerable to predators) or begging for relief from a relentless source of pressure offers no positive options – and I don’t believe this is the best way to foster a trusting relationship.
The life in the horse is something I consider precious and beautiful, so I strive extremely hard to preserve it.
Wild horses, like the two pictured here, form close relationships that are based much more on cooperation and companionship than on hierarchy.