This past week I've had a lot of great conversations with several people about respect and dominance in horses. Understanding the facts is what changed my entire perspective on horse training.
Like so many, I learned from an early age that the horse was to be subservient to his rider. I was taught to be the boss, to make the horse listen and not let him win. Then, I learned about gaining the horse's respect and communicating through body language to mimic the dominant, lead horse's behavior. I was taught that horses need and want a strong leader within the herd and within the relationship of horse and human. That we have to prove our ability as such a leader since they depend on one. I was taught that if a horse misbehaved it was due to a lack of respect.
Later, I learned otherwise. I learned that horses don't possess the brain structure like people do that makes them capable of comprehending the concept of respect. I learned that leaders in horses can be any member of the herd, not just one, dominant horse. I read studies on movement initiation and how the animal with the greatest need led the other horses, not the most aggressive or "dominant" horse. I learned that all confrontation we see amongst horses is resource guarding. I learned that all behavior is motivated by punishers and reinforcers. That while once horse may be on the receiving end of negative reinforcement, the other is on the receiving end of positive reinforcement. I learned that respect and dominance were completely irrelevant to my interaction with horses. What I had been taught was all opinion based- not factual. The horses I worked with held me in no higher regard than they do an electric fence. They don't look to the fence as their leader, they don't try to incorporate it into their social system. They learn to behave a certain way around the electric fence because of operant conditioning not respect or dominance. If they touch the fence they get shocked: +P at work. I realized the same goes for me. I got the results I did and horses behaved around me the way they did not because my horses viewed me as their leader or respected me, but because of the way I used punishers and reinforcers- just like the fence. I was no more apart of their social system than the fence in their pasture!
It wasn't hard to let go. The evidence was there and I simply closed the chapter on it and dove in to the next. Once I understood that behavior was only influenced by punishers and reinforcers it all became so much clearer, easier and more productive. I let go of pride for lack of a better word and considered the horse as he truly was-not through the flawed lenses of human perspective. When I learned that +R helped horses learn faster and easier I went that route. With dominance no longer playing a role in my training I was free to do whatever the horse needed. I was no longer obligated to present myself as a strong, unforgiving leader who demanded respect. I could be the gentle teacher who sought to help her pupils succeed. It worked even better.
Here are some of the scientific articles that proved very influential to me.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/18569224/ - Roundpen Training
http://www.thehorse.com/articles/39606/dominance-in-human-horse-relationships -Researchers Elke Hartmann, PhD; Janne Winther Christensen, PhD; and Paul J. McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), Cert CABC, Grad Cert Higher Ed, report that; “there is no evidence that horses perceive humans as part of their social system.”1
Dominance is not a Substitute for Learning Principles
Dominance is not a satisfactory substitute for a working knowledge of science-based learning principles.
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/76bf/d0c327572418589b35ba577dae85bf7449df.pdf - Movement initiation in groups of feral horses
http://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training - "In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes�if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development."
– Morgan, 1903