Friday May 23, 2017 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has released a position statement on the use and misuse of man-made concepts in horse training, such as dominance and leadership, warning they may jeopardise the creation of a harmonious relationship with the horse and may compromise its welfare.
Developed by ISES Hon. Fellow and Prof. Emeritus Jan Ladewig in collaboration with the Learned Society’s council, the position statement disputes the belief that the person handling a horse must be in a top position of a dominance hierarchy (i.e. in an alpha position), or be a leader, explaining that horses interact with each other mainly on a bilateral (one-to-one) level, and do not possess the cognitive abilities to form the abstract concepts of hierarchy and rank.
As Prof. Ladewig says: “Horses have many talents, such as surviving even under harsh conditions. They remember where food, water and shelter are available, and they remember their social companions, as well as numerous other things.
“There is no indication, however, they are able to handle complex issues that demand cognitive abilities similar to the ones we possess. They are not good at generalising and abstract thinking is not part of their cognitive abilities.
“The better we understand the way their brain works and the more we accept these limitations when we handle them, the better we will be able to establish a harmonious relationship with them.”
Further, the position statement explores social behaviours seen in both wild and domesticated horses, such as competition for resources, that can result in behaviours like aggression, threats of aggression and submission.
It suggests the man-made concepts of a dominance hierarchy, alpha position and leadership, which have become accepted by a number of riders, trainers and handlers, misinterpret and, inadvertently, oversimplify such complex and dynamic social organisation.
International Society for Equitation Science Honorary President, Camie Heleski says: “Many of us have, over many years, heard statements such as: ‘You must be the alpha’. ‘You need to be sure the horse respects you’, but have we ever really questioned the evidence behind them?
“Do horses actually have a complex dominance hierarchy that is set, regardless of the resources in question or the individual horse’s motivation at that moment? Does the research actually support the belief that horses look at the human handler/trainer as a two-legged leader of their herd?
“And, above all, is it possible that following such statements has actually reduced horse welfare – and human safety – by overestimating the horse’s perspective on these concepts?”
The latest ISES position statement suggests that by relying on concepts of dominance and leadership in horse training, riders, trainers and handlers may incorrectly transfer human characteristics, such as respect and authority onto the horse, leading to training practices that may compromise horse welfare. It warns that attempts to dominate horses often encourage and justify the application of punishment, and trigger fear and avoidance responses in horses.
Instead, the position statement implores riders, trainers and handlers to remove concepts of dominance and leadership from horse-human interactions, to learn more about horses’ natural behaviour and cognitive (thinking) abilities, as well as conduct all training in a calm, clear and consistent way, applying the International Society for Equitation Science’s First Principles of Horse Training that take into account both, the horses’ abilities and limitations.
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.
Media Officer, International Society for Equitation Science