Friday, October 7, 2011

Key Concepts: Leadership over Dominance

A lot of people have the idea that the "trick" behind horse training is cultivating a dominant persona so that the  horse will thus be submissive to you.  And they're not too far off, since horses are hierarchical animals and a horse who feels like he's your "herd superior" will at the very least cop an obnoxious attitude and can end up downright dangerous if you don't do what he wants.  Kicking, biting and bargeing into your space are all actions that a horse does to test or show dominance, since in a herd the horse that eats first, drinks first and moves the other horses out of his way is the highest up on the ladder.  So why not try the "Silverback" theory?  First, a little National Geographic style background info:

Horses in the wild tend to live in herds which are governed by two horses; a stallion and a mare.  The Alpha stallion's purpose is to make babies, drive out maturing colts and fillies to prevent inbreeding and protect the herd from predators or other stallions.  He gains and maintains his position in the herd by shows of bravery and physical ability like fighting with other stallions or showing his physical fitness by prancing around the herd.  If the herd must flee, he usually remains in the rear to keep all the other horses running quickly and defend the herd in case a predator catches up with them.  The Alpha or lead mare is the strategist and disciplinarian, choosing where the herd will stop to eat, drink, and sleep, establishing the rhythm the herd will travel at and punishing any horses who are "misbehaving" by driving them temporarily to the outside of the herd.  The rest of the horses instinctively look to the herd mare for whether to be on guard or relax in any situation and tend to trust her judgement implicitly, and when the herd flees she is usually at its forefront to guide them to a safe haven.  She is generally one of the older mares and thus often isn't the strongest physically and doesn't achieve her position by fighting or mating with the stallion but by earning the respect and trust of the rest of the herd.

So in your own herd of two, who would you rather your horse associate you with?  The stallion or the mare?  Personally, I think choosing where and how fast my horse goes, what and when she eats and how she behaves is a lot more useful than all that stallion stuff.  What's the challenge?  That it's not enough to prove that I'm bigger, badder, stronger or smarter than her (traditional dominance theory).  I have to show leadership and gain her trust by proving that I consistently choose safe and pleasant things to do and places to go, that I won't ever let her go hungry or thirsty and that I will not tolerate any disrespectful behavior.  This way, hopefully some day she'll do the things I ask her to not because she fears me or is simply submitting to my will, but because she recognizes that I'll never ask her to do anything that's not safe or in her best interest in the long run.

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