Eliminating Aversives in Training: If Dogs, Then Why Not Horses?

Written by Catherine Bell

I remember it so well. I was reading my first book on dog behaviour and was impressed—the trainer was pictured happily walking a collection of dogs off lead, the book was endorsed by an eminent natural horsemanship trainer I then* rated highly, and it contained practical advice about how you could ensure a dog behaved as desired by humans. And all by following certain rules of wild canid behaviour. You simply had to place yourself in the dominant position within your “pack” and behave in a manner in keeping with being the leader—by eating first, leaving the house first, greeting a dog only on your terms, and never permitting the dog to overtake you on a walk. After all, dogs were descended from wolves and wolves behave like this, so, QED.

What was there not to like?

This was a while ago. It was before I had even owned a dog, or become an equine behaviourist. Doubts started to creep in as I became friendly with knowledgeable, dog-owning horse owners who pointed out some flaws in these so-called dominance theories. I noticed that a lot of people on Internet forums liked the so-called “natural horsemanship” but simultaneously disliked the dog version. People would use reward-based training for their dogs but believe (erroneously) that it would encourage their horses to bite. People would use pressure halters or gum lines on horses, but reject the use of choke chains and other aversive collars for dogs. I failed to understand why there was this cognitive dissonance, but I put it to one side and didn’t think much more about it.


The behaviour of well-socialised domestic horses, like that of their feral counterparts, is based mainly on affiliative bonds rather than dominance.

As my interest in equine behaviour grew, I was on the lookout for quality books about the subject., and it just so happened that a number of the best books on animal behaviour and learning were written about dogs.  From reading these books, I learned that dogs were not so much descended from wolves. Rather both dogs and wolves were descended from a common ancestor.[1] This isn’t semantic; it means that there are no wild animals in existence today that can tell us how our domestic dogs should behave “naturally.” I also learned that even if we assume that this common ancestor was sufficiently wolf-like that we can extrapolate, today’s wolves do not actually behave in the way that proponents of dominance models have claimed. The so-called “dominant pair” are simply the parents of the offspring comprising the rest of the pack. Dogs, on the other hand, seem to have evolved to fill a niche of mutualism, co-existing alongside humans. They show less pack behaviour and more opportunistic individuality.[2]

From the perspective of an equine professional, but lay dog owner, I look into the “dog world” with wonder. Dog people really seem to “get it.” The Dog Welfare Campaign lobbied to keep an eminent and infamous dog trainer out of the U.K., on account of his abusive training techniques. This is an amazing success story for dogs—although the trainer still visited the U.K., he was challenged in a number of mainstream TV interviews, causing a significant reduction in his ticket sales. When trainers tell us that dogs are pack animals and look to us as the pack leader, there are enough dog people out there telling us that this is a load of rubbish on numerous counts. Quite aside from the ethology of wolves and dogs, there is no evidence to suggest that dogs look to us as any sort of dog, leader or otherwise. Treating them aversively might obtain compliance, but it also causes them to fear us. The Emperor’s lack of new clothes has been well and truly exposed.

But this is where I get confused. A lot of dog people are also horse people. And a lot of these horse people believe that horses behave badly out of dominance. This means that all we have to do if we want to overcome the problem of being dominated in our little herd of two is to become the leader, which in turn requires using a series of aversive techniques—supposedly because that is what the “herd leader” would do—to impose our will on the horse, without considering what the horse may think about it all. After all, we can convince ourselves that the horse has been relieved of the burden of keeping our herd safe.

Now, where have we heard this before?

Not only have horse people failed to coordinate a campaign to prevent aversive horse trainers visiting the U.K.[3], we have allowed ourselves to become inundated with them. We welcome them with open arms; be it a novice horse owner or the Royal Family, we continue to invite trainers here and apply their supposedly “natural” but undisputedly punitive techniques to our unsuspecting horses. We repeatedly see slight variations on the theme; sending horses into flight (a.k.a. chasing them) around round pens or causing them to come into contact with narrow rope halters at speed to “put the pressure on themselves” are amongst favoured techniques trainers use to impart their message of “being the alpha mare.” Just as in the dog world, it turns out that we have been sold a mythical version of equine ethology, and there is no evidence to suggest that horses see us as horses.

Horses are herd animals and are generally peace-loving. In the wild they typically form herds comprising family groups where the dam is the so-called “leader” and her offspring make up the rest of the herd. The leader hasn’t so much as demanded the role, she just has knowledge of good locations for key resources. The stallion may assume some part of the leadership but as more of a protective role, driving the herd to safety.[4] Some herds have additional stallions, apparently adding to the stability of the herd. Of course, there are also stallion-only, or bachelor, groups and, predictably, these are less stable with more agonistic interactions—but still no sign of the “alpha mare” so beloved by certain trainers. Scientists have attempted to identify dominance hierarchies but have met with little success, unless the resources are restricted in some way. When disputes occur between two individuals, it is not so much because one of them is dominant over the other, but because one of them values a particular resource (like water, food, or sex) enough to challenge the other horse. There is a whole repertoire of threatening behaviours that the horses can engage in so as to avoid the actual fight. The “winner” may obtain the resource, but does not outrank the “loser” more generally. There is give and take. It is far from the simplistic leader-follower model that so many trainers would have us believe.[5]

When we have a horse in a domestic setting, we automatically restrict all his resources. We interfere with his choice of companions, even if in a stable and permanent herd, never mind if the companions are ridden, stabled at night or switched around. We restrict space and grazing by having too many horses on insufficient land. We place water troughs at the edges or corners of a field where it is difficult for social drinking to take place. The dominance hierarchies observed in so many domestic herds are more pathological than representative of true equine behaviour. And then we wonder why horses develop behaviour problems.

When we want to deal with these behaviour problems, pretending to be the “herd leader” must be utterly confusing to the horse, compounding his difficulties. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that the horse recognises that our behaviour emulates that of a horse. Just like with dog training, forcing the horse to engage in a series of dominance-reduction exercises may obtain compliance, but is unlikely to result in the horse’s problems being solved. Training that is experienced by the horse as aversive will not result in the horse seeing you as a leader, or dominant, or trustworthy; he will just learn to fear you and to stay out of trouble, fighting back if really pushed over his limits.

Why the difference between dogs and horses?

While there certainly remain die-hard proponents of dominance-reduction dog training techniques, it seems that they are becoming increasingly marginalised. The dog world has really embraced positive reinforcement, and it is relatively straightforward to implement: it is fairly easy for a novice dog owner to recognise that training, for example, a recall with a treat is more likely to be successful than a smack for running off in the first place.

Horses, on the other hand, are ridden. We have centuries’ worth of riding techniques at our disposal, all based on punishment and negative reinforcement (and the odd big loud pat which we often like to claim is positive reinforcement—but it really doesn’t seem pleasurable to the horse or have any role in improving performance, so doesn’t count). Horses are big and we don’t like to admit that they often scare us. So they must do as they are told, and we claim euphemistically that this is necessary for the sake of our safety, although surely insisting a frightened animal suppress his emotions is a somewhat foolish approach. If they don’t do as they’re told, they show us up in front of friends, livery yard owners, and show audiences. We can’t have that. We also tend to skip a lot of the early training that they need, and expect them to just get on with it; there are plenty of punitive corrections we can apply later.

Mainstream horse people don’t really embrace the whole idea of behaviourists and applying science to what are typically misunderstood to be training issues. We like to think we give horses the best care, anthropomorphically meaning a deep bed, cosy rug and three meals a day, and we think they should be grateful to us. And we think we “need” to have our horse at the yard with the floodlit school, rather than in the herd in the field down the road with no human-centric facilities. So we don’t like to think that their ethological needs are not being met. We don’t like to think we need help from someone in a white lab coat who’s going to talk operant conditioning at us. We want to “love” our horses instead, whilst remaining blind to the feelings they may have for us. But things are starting to change.

Is the horse world starting to turn positive?

Positive reinforcement has been creeping onto the equine scene in the U.K. over the last 20 years, via the emergence of equine behaviourists and clicker trainers. In many ways, this heralds the dawn of a new equine world. We are starting to listen to the reasons that horses may behave in ways we don’t like. We assess whether things like pain, lack of turnout, lack of company, or an inappropriate grain- or sugar-based diet are underlying causes of behavioural problems. And sometimes we even reward behaviours we like instead of punishing those we dislike.

But we need to be careful. Already there is a tendency to assume that because the training method is based on rewards, the horse is automatically having a good time. And if ethological needs have not been met, or if the horse is being asked to perform when he feels frightened, there will be a distinct absence of positive experience for him. The same is true of dogs.

In a funny sort of way the two worlds are converging, but for the wrong reasons. We need to step away from the training methods and think more about the foundations of equine and canine behaviour. Not the ridiculously over-interpreted, anthropomorphic version of equine and canine ethology, but the real version. We already know the real versions, although admittedly they are possibly less well marketed outside academia. This may mean acknowledging that some of the demands we make of our animals are unreasonable and should be reconsidered. We may also need to examine our motivation for accepting aversive methods for horses that we would reject for dogs. It may entail recognising that the methods we thought were benign are more upsetting to our animals than we care to admit. If this means there is less perceived need for over-priced, abusive trainers interfering with our animals, then so much the better.

* but definitely no longer!

[1] Bradshaw, 2009.

[2] Coppinger & Coppinger 2002

[3] The Equine Behaviour and Training Association is at least trying to provide this information in an accessible manner.

[4] McGreevy 2004

[5] For example, Berger 1986.

Catherine is a CHBC in the South-East of England. In between home-educating her two children, she works as an equine behaviorist and independent barefoot hoof trimmer (http://www.equinemindandbody.co.uk). She hosts the Thinking Horsemanship Forum (https://www.facebook.com/ThinkingHorsemanshipForum/) and is a co-founder of the Equine Behavior and Training Association.