Dominance and leadership between the horse and handler
Horses have many benefits from living in a herd, where one horse assumes the dominant position. Dominance hierarchies in horses influence priority access to limited resources, resulting in predictable contest outcomes which can minimize aggression in the herd and thereby reduce injuries. This article investigates how the dominance hierarchies in herds translates to horse and handler.
The dominance theory can influence horse and human interactions and place the handler in dangerous situations, such as when feeding a group of horses in the paddock. Conventional exercises such as free lunging have been used to help the handler attain the dominant role, however, this is achieved more by reinforcing the wanted behaviour than truly being the leader. Furthermore, it is deemed that this is context specific and does not necessarily have an effect when in a larger group. In the example of feeding in the group, the handler often leaves after feeding, leaving the limited resources (the food) for the horses. The horse can take this to mean that the handler is less dominant (via unintentional operant conditioning).
To conclude, it is unlikely that the horse-horse social status and interactions translate directly to horse-human interactions, and that the horses’ interaction with the handler are more affected by reinforcement.
Expert opinion by Els Smet
It is thought that the horses’ responses to training and how they interact with humans are more likely a result of reinforcement where correct responses are consistently rewarded rather that directly a result of the handler reaching a higher social status and becoming the leader.
> From: Hartmann et al., Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9. All rights reserved to Elsevier. Click here for the online summary.