The Ethics of Using Dominance-Based Training Within the Equine Leisure Industry: Part 1
Summary: The first of a three-part series examining the ethics of dominance-based training techniques like “Natural Horsemanship.” This part looks at the prevalence of these techniques and delves into some of the reasons for their popularity among everyday horse owners.
Since horses were domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago, significant developments have been made to horsemanship practices.1 While they were traditionally used as working animals, horses are now popular for sport and leisure2 with the UK alone having an estimated 3 million riders and 374,000 horse owners in 2019.3 Effective horse training is essential for safety, calm co-operation, and willingness to engage, resulting in thriving human-horse relationships.4–7 However, horse training differs from the wider animal training community as it relies on negative reinforcement (NR) and positive punishment (PP), with many equestrians reluctant to accept current scientific findings relating to the horse’s cognitive abilities (McLean and McGreevy, 2010).8 Instead, equestrians are greatly influenced by cultural or traditional beliefs, which are often based on aversive methods.1
Yet, there is growing concern for equine welfare.9,10 For example, 41.9% of interviewed equine stakeholders were concerned about current training procedures and equipment.11 Such concerns have led to cultural shifts within the equine industry, where many equestrians now choose alternative training styles, including Natural Horsemanship (NH) and liberty training, over traditional techniques.12,13 Alternative training methods are promoted as being highly effective, with the ability to enhance human-horse relations via acknowledging natural equine behaviours.7,14–16 Consequently, such methods are growing in demand, especially amongst leisure equestrians who seek emotional attachment to their horses6,17 For instance, Hockenhull and Creighton found that over 50% of survey participants used NH often or occasionally in the UK.18
Regardless of their popularity, Natural Horsemanship and liberty trainers base their methods on dominance theory, which is highly controversial.19,20 Studies showing benefits from dominance-based methods21-24 are contradicted by others expressing concerns over poor communication, highly aversive techniques, and misinterpretation of equine behaviour.12,15,24–28 Nevertheless, despite there being many gaps in understanding, dominance-based training methods continue to grow in popularity, largely due to marketing strategies by charismatic trainers and equestrian media.12,15
As handling procedures constantly impact equine behaviour and welfare, it is the owner’s and trainer’s responsibility to ensure the horse’s needs are met during training.8 Higher training standards also improve welfare by preventing wastage and ensuring sustainability throughout the industry.29,30 Consequently, it is vital that training methods are scrutinised and adapted to not only enhance welfare, but to improve human-horse relations, safety, and performance ability. Therefore, this three-part series aims to discuss the ethics of dominance training techniques within the equine leisure industry, identify problems associated with such methods, and explore solutions to these issues. In this article, the topic of dominance training is introduced, and stakeholder views presented. The second article evaluates interpretations of equine ethology and use of operant conditioning by dominance trainers. The third article proposes actions to enhance the future of horse training within the equine leisure industry so both horses and equestrians benefit.
While dominance training methods for horses can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans,32 dominance theory was only introduced to science in 1922 by Schjelderup-Ebbe, when his observations of chicken social behaviours were published. Through observing dyadic relations, he ranked individuals to form linear social structures with a top individual dominating all, to the lowest being subordinate to all (Figure 1)31 He stated that chickens who frequently pecked others had higher ranking and better resource access compared to those receiving pecks.33 Therefore, the theory was termed “pecking order.” This ability for certain individuals to assert their will over others is now commonly known as a dominance hierarchy34 and has been applied to many animal species.35 Where resources are limited, dominance hierarchies are thought to be an important survival trait because dominant members of a group have first access to resources.36
Since then, the definition of dominance has been refined, with the currently accepted definition being:
“An attribute of the pattern of repeated agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterised by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation.”37
The following behaviours have also been identified to represent dominance within a dyad:
- Dominant individuals consistently display aggression towards subordinate counterparts, and subordinate individuals consistently display submission towards dominant counterparts.
- Directed behaviours do not change depending on the context.
- Dominance relations remain for a considerable time.
- Animals in these relations develop formal behavioural signals to reduce further aggressive interactions.38
As horses are thought to fit this model and desire to gain rank, dominance theories have been incorporated into training techniques39 leading to the development of dominance-based training methods such as NH. In this series the author refers to trainers utilising such methods as dominance trainers. Due to their popularity, these trainers have gained global followings. For example, NH trainer Monty Roberts travelled the world sharing his methods and had certified 88 instructors by 2018. He predicts this will rise to over 8,000 instructors in the next generation.40 Similarly, Pat Parelli has reached 76 countries and over 1 million people with his training.41 Despite growing support for these methods, scientific developments have questioned the relevance and ethics of dominance-based training.
Although horse training has remained largely unchanged for centuries, recent scientific developments have allowed trainers to create evidence-based methods informed by current objective research.42,43 Within this series, such trainers are referred to as evidence-based trainers. These trainers use approaches from ethology, veterinary medicine, physics, psychology, learning theory (LT), and physiology44 to explain equine communications, learning processes, individual needs, and behavioural motivations. Evidence-based trainers adopt a holistic training style, as they recognise the many interconnections of complex factors affecting training outcomes.45 A comprehensive view also enables accurate identification of a problem’s source so appropriate and individualised interventions can be applied. This ensures training goals are achieved while meeting current ethical standards and enhancing equine welfare.46
Table 1: The four quadrants adapted from McLean and Christensen (2017).42
(Increases likeness of behaviour)
(Decreases likeness of behaviour)
|The removal of an undesirable stimuli to reinforce a behaviour. The horse is given a sense of relief.
|The removal of a desired stimulus to reduce a behaviour.
|Positive (addition)||The addition of a desirable stimulus to reinforce a behaviour; is rewarding to the horse.||The addition of an undesirable stimulus to reduce a behaviour.|
LT is a well-understood and accepted group of learning processes within equine science. Changes in the environment detected by the horse’s senses are known as stimuli. How stimuli affect the horse can be seen through behavioural or physiological changes. Consequently, learning can be defined as the process where mental or physical experiences cause lasting changes to reactions from certain stimuli.44 This allows horses to adapt to their environment, improving their survival.47 LT consists of non-associative learning and associative learning. Associative learning is also known as operant conditioning, which is a frequently used process during horse training. Operant conditioning consists of reinforcers to strengthen a desired behaviour and punishers to reduce undesired behaviour. These are divided into four quadrants including positive reinforcement (PR), NR, negative punishment, and PP (Table 1). The most common of these in horse training is NR.13 Therefore, operant conditioning is the main learning process discussed in this review.
To achieve training success, dominance trainers emphasise the importance of performing specific body postures that recreate the horse’s natural behaviour. They claim this makes their techniques more compassionate, gentle, and safe than traditional training methods.48–52 Furthermore, by replicating dominance hierarchies during training these trainers aim to gain leadership, improve human-horse relations, and reduce problem behaviours. For instance, Pat Parelli (2021) states:
“When a horse feels safe, it is then important for him to find his place in the herd pecking order. This is why horses are constantly playing dominance games, vying for the alpha position over other horses… or over you! Dominance means survival of the species because the dominant horse is the fastest, toughest, strongest, and bravest. He gets to drink, eat, and breed first. In the horse/human relationship, dominance usually shows up as pushiness, biting, charging, etc. In this situation, the dominant horse is not afraid of his life but is afraid of giving in against his will, and a high-spirited horse will do whatever it takes to maintain his position, including exhibition seriously aggressive behaviours.”50
Additionally, dominance trainers believe human leadership can be gained via dominating the horse until they show submissive responses representing the horse’s “respect” towards them.53 For example, Clinton Anderson (2022b) says:
“Whatever the cause of rearing, it’s a clear sign of disrespect. To gain a horse’s respect, you have to move his feet forwards, backwards, left and right and reward the slightest try. If your horse is rearing, he’s telling you that you don’t truly have his respect. You need to spend more time working with him on the ground, establishing yourself as the leader … An owner will send us a horse that has a chronic rearing habit … When we get the horse, we do nothing but groundwork … By the time we go to ride him, his rearing problem has disappeared because it’s a symptom of a cause. In most cases, that cause is disrespect.”52
Evidence-based animal organisations and trainers strongly oppose dominance-based methods. Instead they seek to advance training practices by incorporating the latest scientific research in training programs.36,55–60 For instance, the IAABC (2022) states their “mission is to inspire, develop, and provide quality, evidence-based education, research, and other charitable activities in animal training and behaviour.”61 These views are shared amongst evidence-based horse trainers who aim to reduce harmful practices and promote sustainable change throughout the equine industry. To do this, these trainers seek to develop highly effective training methods by treating each horse as an individual, recognising the horse’s needs, adapting management and training practices to prevent unwanted behaviours, and working with owners and handlers to harmonise human-horse relations.62,63 The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is one of the leading organisations working to change perceptions amongst equestrians by promoting science-based information and conducting further research. In opposition to dominance theory, they declare:
“Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions … there is currently no evidence of leadership being unique to specific individuals within the social group … Basing human to horse interactions on a dominance concept may be detrimental to horse welfare … Trainers, riders and handlers must aim to establish a clear and consistent relationship with their horses in order to safeguard their welfare. They should be aware of the possible repercussions of describing their interaction with the horse and their training processes in the context of social organisation.”64
These ideas are discussed further in Parts 2 and 3.
Growing concern for equine welfare has caused many horse owners to seek humane training methods that reduce problem behaviours and improve human-horse relations. Changing training preferences amongst leisure equestrians has also been linked with their increasing wealth,5,10 deep emotional attachments to horses, and increased desire to connect with horses on the ground.12,19 During interviews with equestrians, one respondent stated:
“I’m looking for an unbreakable bond between my horse and I … My ideal relationship would be that I could understand every little thing my horse told me … He would be in total harmony with me, and I with him … We could do anything we wanted.” 19
Specifically, the word “natural” engages leisure equestrians due to popular beliefs that this benefits communication and equine welfare.41,48,53 Therefore, these equestrians strongly support dominance-based practices, which align with their interests. Several owners have also stated these methods have improved their own self-control, motivation, and personality.12 Additionally, growing use of the internet, social media, and television have allowed dominance trainers to successfully promote themselves and easily reach global audiences. James Serpell, professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, states, “We are much more impressed by charismatic media figures than we are by scientists who are very thoughtful and methodological.”65 For Instance, Monty Roberts (2022) has over 534,000 followers on Facebook compared with 23,000 followers for the Equitation Science International (2022) Facebook page.66,67
Many horse owners are opposed to scientific methods. For instance, Thompson and Haigh (2018) categorised five main differing beliefs about science from an equestrian online forum discussion.63 Four opinions were sceptical of science and included the following beliefs: “science discounts ‘feel’,” “science is over-rated,” “science is a gimmick,” and “science is reductionist.” Some participants stated:
“I think that some scientists are almost abusing the public trust and understanding of the word to push their own barrow and sell their products.”
“Science may tell YOU what to feel for but that is not true feel. The horse and only the horse will tell you about true feel.”
Such beliefs also contribute to the growing popularity of dominance training techniques.68 Such views also create barriers to change and present challenges for scientists and evidence-based trainers when working in the industry. However, these opinions can be addressed through carefully planned human behaviour change programmes, discussed in Part 3 of this series.
Dominance-based training is growing in popularity amongst leisure equestrians due to claims that these methods reflect natural horse behaviours, improve training outcomes, and enhance human-horse relations. However, equine scientists have concerns over misinterpretations and aversive methods used by dominance trainers, which may negatively impact equine welfare. Consequently, the ethics of equine training methods within the equine leisure industry must be considered further. In the next article, the use of equine ethology, verbal language, body language, and operant conditioning by dominance trainers will be explored to understand their influence on equestrian mindsets and impact on equine welfare.
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After graduating with a degree in Equine Behavioural Science from Writtle University College, Alice Campbell worked within the Equine Charity sector rehabilitating and rehoming horses. She recently returned to Writtle where she completed an MSc in Animal Welfare and Conservation. She is currently based in the New Forest (UK) where she works as a teaching assistant for an Equine Therapy College who support young adults with additional needs.