Ownership Not Leadership

Did you know that the old theories related to dominance have been debunked?

Dominance is not related to leadership, but rather about ownership. The dominant animal has priority access to resources, meaning the other animals in the group know to let them have what they want first. They know this because they’ve previously fought and determined who will have first choice. Because they live in groups it’s wise to make these determinations and not question it often, otherwise constant fighting would weaken their group. Often these dominant individuals will vary based on the resource, some many have first choice of food resources, some may have first choice when it comes to mating, others may defend limited shelter, and so on. Dominance will also vary if the group changes, sometimes 2 horses will work together to get a resource from a horse who is dominant over each separately. Depending how limited the resources are and how desperate the individual is for the resource, these priorities may change. If food is plentiful (like horses on plains full of grass) no one really cares who eats first. The individuals with priority access to resources have no other benefits, they aren’t leaders or bosses, they aren’t in charge.

In a domestic setting dominance can be more linear than in nature, because resources are often far more limited and groups are made of unrelated peers chosen by humans, not families and chosen friends. When resources are limited the importance of priority access is increased. If there is only 1 hay pile, the horses need to determine who gets it, if the hay pile runs out quickly, they’re less likely to be willing to share, for fear of “starving”. Remember horses are designed to eat 24/7, even if our food is too rich for them and they are fat, they still feel hungry when they go without forage. So there may be increased aggression in domestic settings if we don’t spread resources and ensure there is plenty to go around.

While we should take our horse’s established dominance roles into consideration when we manage the environment, it doesn’t affect our training. We can reduce inter-herd fighting and displaced aggression and food related anxiety by managing the environment with plentiful access to resources. With the use of enrichment and slow feeding, track systems and feed variety we can make sure the horses have everything they need without being unhealthy. This being said, dominance has nothing to do with our training.

Because we own and provide everything for our horses, we have no need to fight over the resource. We already decide who, what, when, where and how our horses live their entire life. We already have all the control over all the resources, so acting aggressively towards our animals has nothing to do with dominance, it’s just acting aggressive. Instead of controlling our horses with force and attempted dominance displays, we should use our brain. Using science based training techniques we can positively reinforce the behaviors we want to see more of.

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