Do You Understand Dominance?


Joanne M. Friedman



According to animal communicator Ginny Palmieri, the concept of dominance is one that is often misunderstood and badly used in horse training situations.  The term has been bandied about for generations, and it has been at the root of considerable abuse of horses and injury to owners, riders and trainers.


The dictionary definition of dominance is this:  “The fact or position of being dominant; paramount influence, ascendancy, dominion, sway” (Oxford English Dictionary).  How does that translate into a working relationship with a horse?  Let’s look at the herd structure within which horses operate.


Every herd, no matter how small, will, like the human counterpart, have a leader.  The leader—usually a mare, by the way, not a stallion as might be expected—earns the right to lead by making good decisions that allow the herd to continue to exist and prosper.  In human groups, this dominant mare would be called the instrumental leader.  She’s the one who gets things done, protects the herd, sounds the alarm when danger approaches, and generally does the disciplining of the young.  She’s the Boss Mommy.  She may decide who eats, drinks, sleeps and when.  She rules her band of mares with a fair but firm hoof.


If a stallion is part of the herd (and there will generally be only one in this frequently contentious position), his job is that of expressive leader.  He poses and postures, makes a lot of noise, orders out for dinner, and breeds the mares.  He will sometimes fight off a predator.  He does defend against other stallions, but that is partly for his own sake.  He instinctively wants to keep his genetic line unsullied by cross-breeding with some questionable sort from the wrong side of the plateau.  He may make decisions about where the herd will move next, but that’s not really his forte.  He’s Head Stud, and he knows it.


The rest of the group, generally a mix of mares and their offspring, both male and female, follows along doing what they’re told.  When males reach breeding age, they are usually forced out by the stallion.  This is an instinctive move to avoid in-breeding that would weaken the offspring of such a union and eventually destroy the herd.  Sometimes, when the size of the herd reaches the tipping point for such things, a young mare will gather a few other mares and break off a band of her own.  They’ll be picked up eventually by a stallion who will form the nucleus of this newly-divided cell, and so life goes on. 


Dominance in the herd means responsibility.  It is vital to the herd’s existence that the lead mare be sane and sound, and she’s replaced quickly if she’s found to be lacking in leadership qualities.  There are no email jokes passed around among herd members showing a lackadaisical mare lounging around chatting on her cell phone.  Likewise, the stallion must be potent both socially and physically.  He’s got to be able to reproduce regularly and pass on his genes, and he must be strong enough to fight off the competition.


It’s easy to see how a human entering this structure with a purely human perspective might misinterpret dominance to mean the ability to win at all costs.  When this interpretation, which is a very predatory construct, is applied to the herd dynamic, conflict results.  The human, convinced that her way is not only right, but the only right way, first asks, then demands, then punishes and applies force until the horse yields.  In the old days this meant knocking down a resistant trainee horse and sitting on his blindfolded head while beating him about the body to “break his spirit”.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes Ol’ Snapdragon just got crazier and crazier and lay in wait for the moment when he could fight back.


In modern, “Natural Horsemanship” terms, it’s still a deadly concept.  Using the horse’s own instincts and natural reactions to bend him to your will is a fine idea, but there must also be a recognition that the horse needs to see his dominator not as a figure that inspires fear and distrust, but as a leader.  The horse needs to trust his trainer completely and without a doubt in order for training to be successful.


A trainer (and everyone who interacts with a horse is a trainer, intentionally or otherwise) has to win respect by making good decisions and by explaining in horse language precisely what the expectations are.  This requires both an understanding of how horses think, and the patience to break the process down into manageable steps that do not cause a fear reaction in the horse.  There is no place in the training process for the Dominatrix with whips flying and chains and spurs clanking, nor for the rigid Perfectionist who keeps a strict timeline and won’t quit until the goal is reached.  Those personality types are better suited to the board room than the barn. 


Breathe deeply and think about how you might convince your horse that you are not the raving lunatic you appear to be, and start with that as your first step toward being the dominant (not domineering) force in the partnership.  Don’t work with your horse if you are distracted, angry or tired.  He expects his leader to be at the top of her game, and he’s not going to believe you are on the same team if you are sending mixed signals or expecting a touchdown when all he’s learned is where the end zone is. 

copyright 2007

Joanne M. Friedman