Dominance and the Training Paradigm

There are training approaches that emphasize dominance over the horse as a prerequisite to leadership and respect. Are leadership, respect, or dominance necessary for successful training? Intuitively, the answer seems to be yes. You wouldn’t want your horse to walk all over you, would you?

The problem is, we stand on a shaky ground of subjectivity trying to define leadership or respect as it applies to training. What one observer may see as respect, another might interpret as fear. What looks like leadership to one person might look like aggression and excessive use of force to another.

trainer swinging rope at horse
Are these horses under stress or do they "have an attitude"? Your perception will depend on what you believe about training.

There is more clarity when it comes to dominance, or more precisely, social dominance. Social dominance hierarchies occur in groups when competition for resources leads to aggression ( Undeniably, dominance and aggression are linked. However we interpret dominance in the context of training, it will necessarily, by definition, involve the interplay of aggression and fear. Aggression may not be overt, in fact, it will often be implied in subtle ways, yet for a subordinate animal it will be the major motivating factor of behavior.
There are other complicating factors in considering dominance in the context of training. Social dominance in horse herds is a) nonlinear, and b) flexible. Dominance hierarchies in the same herd vary over different resources, such as food, water, shelter, companions, etc. (see McDonnell, pp 20-22, for a summary of dominance behavior in horses). And digging even deeper, what would give us a reason to think that horses would relate socially to a human as if it were another horse? When a trainer’s behavior is compared to the behavior of a dominant stallion or mare, what is the evidence that horses possess an imagination vivid enough to make that extrapolation? To quote Sue McDonnell1, the founder of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania:

“The concept of dominance is commonly invoked in discussion of human-horse interaction. For example, popular horse trainers often claim that the successful human handler must take the role of a dominant horse to interact effectively with a horse. […] While it is difficult to meaningfully compare the horse-human working relationship with that of any natural relationship, what the trainer is typically striving for is a relationship of leadership and trust, similar to that of a mature mare leading the group to water or rest or an alliance similar to that of two bachelors playing together.”

What stands out for me in these examples from natural horse behavior is that these are relationships of cooperation, reciprocity and altruism, rather than opposition, confrontation and egotism.

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, has studied the effects of stress on neural degeneration in populations of baboons. He found that the levels of damaging glucocorticoids were high in the blood of subordinate animals that were subject to frequent and often violent aggression from dominant males. A startling discovery that brought his research to the attention of general public came as a result of a tragic incident: the majority of dominant males in one troop died after eating tuberculosis-contaminated meat from a garbage dump. Deprived of alpha males, the troop not only survived, but thrived, as the remaining animals developed a radically different social structure based on peaceful alliances, rather than on dominance. Even the new males that joined the troop were reeducated into the new ways within a year of their arrival. Out of a disaster, a novel culture was born. The evidence that this new society enjoyed a better health was in the blood: even the lowest ranking animals in this troop had remarkably low levels of detrimental stress hormones.

What does this story have to do with horse-human relationships? It gives us a question to ponder: if dominance is so closely linked with health-destroying stress, where do we stand in relationship to a dominance-based training paradigm?

Unfortunately for horses, “dominance” is too often used as a catchall explanation for almost any unwanted behavior. In my twelve years of working with horses and interacting with horse people, I have collected quite a puzzling list of “dominant” behaviors. To wit: Not wanting to be caught, not standing still for grooming and saddling, refusing to be bridled, moving away from the mounting block, spooking, rearing, bucking, head shyness, ear shyness, biting, ear pinning, failure to respond to cues, balking… The list goes on and on. You name it, it probably goes on the list. Years ago, when Ogeechee’s fear of being tied escalated to the point when any pressure on the lead rope made him pull back in blind panic, I have been advised to find a “real cowboy” to lay him down and sit on him. What for? To “take him down a few notches, because this horse needs to learn some respect”!

Arguably, dominance is a concept so complex and controversial that it would make things simpler if it didn’t come into play at all in training situations. And it doesn’t have to.

Clicker training gave me a wonderful freedom to exclude the concept of social dominance from the training paradigm altogether. Behaviors that we, as observers and handlers, would interpret as safe, respectful, and polite, can be conditioned positively and without trying to sort out who is the “boss” in the herd comprised of horse and owner. “Leadership” and “respect” are reframed to read “conditioned behaviors”. And this is a very different take on these heavily emotionally laden terms. Anthropomorphic concepts such as these are always a bit problematic in the context of animal training, anyway. Clicker training allows us, if we are so inclined, to gently put them to rest and see that our training experience did not collapse into chaos and anarchy, but, indeed, grew into more harmony and cohesion. Let’s examine how this works.

However much I would like to believe that my horse likes, trusts, and respects me, his mind will always remain a black box to me. But not his behavior. And that, luckily, is the part that can be modified safely and reliably with clicker training. 

The focus of clicker training is creating the behaviors that we WANT. When we start teaching them in a controlled training environment, we can safely ignore the unwanted behaviors, without having to interpret them as impolite, disrespectful, naughty, or dominant. The horse is taught what TO do instead of what NOT TO do. If you just stop to consider it for a minute, this shift of focus is incredibly powerful. We don’t need to focus on the whole array of frustrating things that our horse is doing wrong. Instead, we calmly create the horse of our dreams, click by click.

To illustrate this process, let’s take one of the first steps in clicker training: teaching polite food manners. Pockets full of treats will prompt almost any horse to sniff and nuzzle you in hopes of getting to the tasty prize. This, most definitely, does not amount to safe and respectful behavior by any standards! At the very least, it is annoying. However, from the biological standpoint, your horse is engaging in appetitive behavior, which is defined as “any behavior that increases the probability that an animal will be able to satisfy a need” (definition taken from It does not reflect your horse’s attitude towards you personally! To look at it from another perspective, closely bonded herd mates share food, furthermore, they may prefer to eat from the same hay pile even if there are plenty to go around. Just to think outside the box, what if it is a sign of friendship, not disrespect, when your horse urges you to share some of those treats you have in your pockets?

two horses resting together two horses sharing hay These horses are so closely bonded that they do everything together. They even prefer to share food, rather than eating from separate hay piles!

Regardless of the horse’s motivation or our interpretation, the bad news is: this behavior is not acceptable. The good news is, there is no need to discourage or punish your horse for his perfectly natural behavior to make it go away. Empower him to change the situation to his liking by letting him know how to make the food appear, and you will gain his most enthusiastic cooperation. Simply watching for the moment when his nose is not touching your pocket, clicking in that precise moment, and presenting a treat to him where you want his nose to be, introduces to him the idea of a behavior that will earn him the much desired morsel. If your horse is prone to nipping or biting, this lesson can be made safe by positioning yourself behind a barrier, such as a fence or stall door. It takes most horses only a few clicks to recognize that keeping their nose away from the treats is exactly what makes the treats appear. They will soon show off their amazing self-restraint by deliberately turning away from your pockets full of tempting goodies. With time and practice, this will become a default behavior, and you will never have to be concerned about being mugged because your horse smelled carrots on you.

horse and handler horse and handler handler leading a horse
What do these pictures have in common? Treat pouches full of goodies and horses that keep their noses away from them, staying focused on their work.

As with any living, breathing animal, there might be fallouts in stressful or novel situations. But even if your horse suddenly forgets his manners, all you have to do is ask him for a conditioned behavior that is incompatible with mugging, such as lowering his head or touching a target. This gives him an opportunity to do what is right, and you, an opportunity to reinforce the good instead of punishing the bad. It is clearly a win-win situation.

horse standing in the stallhorse at the back of the stall

Fox demonstrates a learned behavior that replaced pushing into the stall door with his chest at feeding time. He stays at the back of his stall with his head down even when the door is open. His version of "sit-stay" is much appreciated by owners and helpers!


Food manners is only one example of training in a dominance-free paradigm, albeit an important one. So many people are reluctant to try clicker training because it involves feeding horses “treats”, and they have seen too many examples of hand-fed horses becoming pushy and demanding.

Instead of citing the numerous examples of behaviors that can be taught dominance-free, I will get straight to the punch line. The punch line is:

Everything your horse needs to know can be taught with positive reinforcement.

With all this said, social dominance is a fact of life, and it is still a matter of personal beliefs whether or not one wants to hold a dominant position over their horse. Everything that I have written here reflects my personal beliefs. I enjoy the freedom of communication between me and my horses that was built through clicker training. Whether or not food is involved, they are safe and pleasant to be around. But they are not inhibited from expressing their opinion and personality, and that is part of our interaction that gives me genuine pleasure and quite a few laughs. Years ago, I longed for my horse to enjoy our time together just as much as I did, and it grieved me to see that compliant but deflated look that fell over him when I showed up to work him. I was told that the magic day when he loves our work together would come when he truly accepts my leadership. A few years later, I had a very compliant horse who could do quite a few cool things, and certainly we had a bond, a level of understanding, and some very special moments together. As for my dream… I told myself that maybe I was too naïve, and work is work, and it is not always pleasant… It was probably a pipe dream anyway.

I am happy to say that I was wrong. “That” day did come. And it is not just one day. Not just one horse. Every day, I am greeted by a barnful of hearty nickers. My horses come to the fence and try to outdo each other showing off their latest accomplishments. Hoping for…? A treat? Well, that is always welcome, but the real prize is getting to work with me! Work is not always easy or pleasant. After all, work is work. But it always IS a cause for celebration. And what if we are not working today? What, not even if I strike this drop-dead-gorgeous pose? Not even if I bow? A sigh… Well, you are still cool. We’ll just hang out.

               Arrow showing off his "pose"     Horse standing on the mat

Left: Arrow is trying to entice me to play by striking a "pose", one of his favorite learned behaviors. Right: Who said the session is over? If I stand on the mat long enough, surely you will come back to work some more!

Clicker training is not a magic pill. Nothing is. You can count on getting your share of training puzzles. Horses just seem to be here to shake us out of our complacency! But here is the joy that I will never take for granted: whatever problem pops up, I am forever free from seeing it as a challenge to my authority! Even in the instances of misunderstanding and frustration, the antagonism that is inherent in the dominance paradigm is not part of the picture. With ego out of the way, the doors are wide open to compassion, compromises, and peaceful solutions. Creativity flowers in the absence of fear, and this is true for horse and human alike. Joyful co-creation is not a pipe dream. It is reality, new edition, revised and improved.

January 2011

wave decoration You can learn more about Sapolsky’s work and other research on stress from a National Geographic video Stress: Portrait of a Killer. A New York Times article on the “Forest Troop” of baboons: click here

wave decoration McDonnell, Sue 2003. A practical field guide to horse behavior. The equid ethogram. Eclipse Press, Lexington KY, p.20



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