The Ethics of Using Dominance-Based Training Within the Equine Leisure Industry: Part 2

Written by Alice Campbell, BSc, MSc, CEBC

Summary: The second of a multi-part series examining the ethics of dominance-based training techniques like “Natural Horsemanship.” This part investigates the role of language and appeals to emotion that can cause problems in understanding equine science. 


In the first part of this series, the author investigated three stakeholder views surrounding the use of dominance-based training practices amongst leisure equestrians. These stakeholders included dominance trainers, evidence-based trainers, and horse owners. Both dominance trainers and horse owners were highly supportive of using dominance-based methods due to such techniques reflecting the horse’s “natural” behaviour and the appearance of achieving impressive results. Alternatively, evidence-based trainers strongly opposed such methods due to equine welfare concerns. Consequently, this series aims to look at the ethics of using dominance-based methods for horse training, specifically within the equine leisure industry. Part 2 of this series evaluates the language dominance trainers use to explain and justify their training methods. The author argues their language comes from misunderstanding the horse’s mental capacity, natural behaviour, and learning processes which leads to relying on anthropomorphism. This increases the likeliness of training practices becoming confusing and dangerous, resulting in poor equine welfare along with strained human-horse relations.

Problems with Language Used by Dominance Trainers

Terms such as “dominance,” “leadership,” “respect,” “natural,” “non-forceful,” and “love” are frequently used by such trainers.1-5 While some of these are taken from science, they are often poorly defined and misused within the equine leisure industry.6,7 Additionally, dominance trainers combine such terms with subjective beliefs to promote their techniques or explain complex aspects of equine ethology to their growing audiences.8 Problems created by such language are discussed in the following sub-chapters.

Dominance, respect, and leadership

Dominance is a term often attributed to horses, especially those displaying aggression or other unwanted behaviours.9,10 It suggests horses escalate aggressive behaviours because they are innately motivated to gain rank.11Dominance trainers aim to recreate this supposedly “natural “dynamic in handling and training sessions by gaining top position in the relationship. From this, such trainers believe they have achieved “respect “from the horse along with complete control over them. Dominance trainers generally refer to this process as “leadership.” They state that leadership is necessary for effective communication and creating harmonious human-horse relations so training outcomes can be more successful. However, to become the leader, dominance trainers use aversive stimuli and increased workload to replicate their view of equine social structures.12 For example, Anderson (2015) states:

“By creating movement and getting the horse to run you are establishing that pecking order. I’m trying to show the horse I’m number one, you’re number two. I’m the leader, you’re the follower.”2

Pignon (2010) states:

“The world of horses is not soft and sensual like the human one. It’s hard, so my communication is not soft.”11

Similarly, Abel (Unknown) says:

“Horses show their dominance by trying to get other horses to move out of their space. If a horse can bump you and get you to step away, they’ve just proven that they’re the dominant.”1

Again, Abel (2023) writes:

“The most important part of any relationship with a horse is to establish yourself as the leader…When a horse shows aggression toward you, they are questioning your role as the leader.”13

Scientifically, the term “leadership “describes an individual who initiates movement where other members follow.14Consequently, questions surrounding leadership concepts in human-horse relations have been raised within scientific communities.15 For instance, if horses view humans as leaders, in theory they should follow their human leader into aversive situations or away from favored conspecifics. But, for example, if a horse is unwilling to enter a trailer, does the horse not perceive the handler as a leader? And what leadership aspects are lacking if the horse does not respond immediately to instruction in such cases? Furthermore, focusing on achieving leadership via domination means human-horse relations immediately start with a power struggle, justifying harsh techniques.

It is important to acknowledge that dominance and leadership are not equivalent during training.16 While leadership is an important part of the human’s role, trainers do not need to forcefully exert themselves over the horse to be a good leader. Using aversive techniques and punishments to achieve leadership causes unnecessary pain, psychological distress, and fear-based relationships.9,17 In response to aversive methods, the horse’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered. This results in withdrawal, escalating aggression, handler avoidance, reluctance to participate, and reduced equine learning ability. This means training is less successful.18,19 Similarly, enforcing leadership via aversive techniques means the horse’s needs are often ignored and problems suppressed. This is especially concerning when pain or medical issues are involved. If underlying problems are not addressed appropriately, equine welfare will be significantly reduced.10,17,20-22

Furthermore, using language such as “respect “or “disrespect “to describe horses implies horses themselves are to blame for aggressive or unwanted behaviour23 and attributes higher levels of cognition to them than they are capable of.6 For example, one of the eight principles of natural horsemanship (NH) set out by Pat Parelli includes “horses and humans have mutual responsibilities.”24 Similarly, Anderson (2023) states:

“When you tie your horse up after a training session, it teaches him not only respect and patience, but it also gives him a chance to think about and absorb what you have just taught him.”25

There is no evidence to suggest horses can reflect on past training in ways that humans can or have the ability to understand ideas surrounding responsibilities in training. Rather equine behaviour changes through associative or non-associative learning.26 Horses can learn to display aggression in non-threatening situations via negative reinforcement (NR),27 yet few equestrians understand the concept of learned aggression.28 Therefore, care must be taken not to associate certain behaviours with dominance characteristics.

Emotive language

Commonly used terms by dominance trainers such as “love,” “partnership,” and “willingness” are highly attractive to leisure equestrians, as this group are extremely devoted to their horses.12,29,30 For instance, Parelli states his principles of success are “love, language and leadership.” Also, the term “Join-Up,”created by Monty Roberts, makes his specific technique seem beneficial for human-horse relations. Roberts (2002a) states:

“Join-Up” is based upon a communication system creating a bond rooted in trust and an environment of cooperation. It must be nonviolent, non-coercive and can only be accomplished if both partners have willingly entered the process.”29

From descriptions such as these, owners are easily persuaded that dominance-based methods are the most effective, humane, and harmonious.31 However, dominance trainers rarely mention underlying principles behind their methods. Owners are therefore unaware of basic learning principles and the negative impacts dominance-based methods can have on equine emotional states.

Due to owners seeking a deeper relationship with their equine, they often look to horses for emotional support and an almost magical relationship. For instance, a participant in a survey about their thoughts of NH stated:

“It’s about true communication and understanding of your horse. [It implies] a brilliant relationship—happiness—… it’s such an emotive journey and on that journey you take along your best friend and they experience it too.”12

Another participant from a survey investigating perceptions of owners advocating NH stated:

“It’s the romance, isn’t it, I think, the Black Beauty… It’s the childhood romance … so many horses don’t want to be with their owners, they bite, they kick … they do things begrudgingly… it’s just a vicious cycle … this is just the opposite, you ask the horse and he trots toward you.”30

Emotions greatly influence both human and horse behaviour.32,33 Therefore, human-horse relationships, equine welfare, and training decisions can be enhanced or hindered depending on the trainer’s emotional state. Yet many owners are unaware of the effects their emotions have on these. Unrealistic expectations and training goals can result from fanciful or romantic ideology about human-horse relations. Such emotional states obscure the trainer’s judgment when making decisions that must represent the horse’s best interest during training and handling. If emotions go unchecked, negative states such as impatience, frustration, or anger may be taken out on the horse. Consequently, emotional awareness and control are essential to enhancing welfare. It is therefore concerning that some dominance trainers actively encourage emotionality amongst participants whilst training instead of emotional neutrality, logical thinking, and self-awareness.12

A study by DeAraugo et al. (2014) found evidence-based trainers had significantly higher mean horse-avoidance score of 3.37 compared to 2.57 for dominance trainers.23 This indicated evidence-based trainers had lower attachment needs, were less insecure in human-horse relationships, better understood equine cognitive abilities, and separated their own emotional needs during training. Furthermore, evidence-based trainers recognised their responsibility to promote relaxation and emotional wellbeing for horses. While it is important for handlers to control their emotions during training, this doesn’t mean that owners cannot benefit from equine relationships. Contrarily, by having emotional awareness and control whilst training horses, the above study showed evidence-based trainers encouraged good relationships via positive reinforcement (PR), had a better understanding of the horse’s needs, and spent more quality time with the horse.23 Therefore, horse owners should be encouraged to develop equine relations by understanding the horse’s emotional needs independent of their own emotional state and biases.

Non-forceful

Dominance trainers state that their methods reduce force yet remain extremely effective. Some claim this is because of their specially designed equipment, including Monty Roberts’ Dually Halter (Plate 1)34 (Intelligent Horsemanship, 2022) and the Parelli Rope Halter (Plate 2).35,36 For instance, Roberts (2002a) says:

“My Dually Halter has revolutionized the direction away from violence, to help the horse seek a better understanding of how to intrinsically learn to partner with people and accomplish harmony in training.”29

Again, this persuades many leisure equestrians to adopt dominance training strategies30 with 13% of U.K. respondents stating they use pressure halters.37 Nevertheless, this equipment purposefully applies high forces to sensitive facial structures (Figure 1).38.

While research into headcollar pressures is lacking, studies on bridles and nosebands have found large pressures causing pain, psychological distress, and physical damage.39-42 Pressure as low as 4KPa can restrict blood flow43 while pressures over 11KPa lead to pain and tissue damage.44 Alarmingly, Robinson and Bye (2021) found that side-pull bridles had peak pressures of over 110KPa under the noseband (Figure 2).45 This was likely due to the reins being attached directly to the nosepiece, causing the majority of force to go through this area. These results are supported by Casey et al. (2013), who also found high pressures under nosebands.46

Similarly, as lead-ropes attach directly to nosepieces on headcollars, high pressures can easily be applied there. For instance, Campbell (2019) and Ijichi et al. (2020) found Dually Halters did not improve cooperation but rather increased stress-related behaviour such as head tossing, refusal to move, and tail swishing.47,48 Consequently, claims about the use of such equipment reducing force and being more humane are contradicted by scientific evidence. Due to the potential dangers of this equipment and its ability to negatively impact equine welfare, their use must be described accurately with warnings given about the detrimental consequences. Furthermore, these headcollars need to be implemented with extreme caution, and not recommended to inexperienced handlers.

Summary of language use

It is important to recognise the limitations of terminology when training horses. Attempts to explain complex natural systems are often over-simplified and do not reflect reality.8,49,50 Language such as “love,” “respect,” and “leadership “have meaning for humans, but horses do not share the same cognitive abilities.51 These terms can be described as anthropomorphic where human characteristics, cognitive functions, and desires are put onto horses. Although the occasional use of anthropomorphic language is unavoidable amongst most horse owners, reliance on this language by dominance trainers is alarming, as it causes equestrians to dismiss valid scientific evidence and important factors affecting equine behaviour.6,23,52,53 Factors can include pain, confusion, or environmental stimuli that horses perceive differently to humans. Furthermore, poorly defined terms leave methods open to interpretation, resulting in communication breakdown and large variabilities between trainers and their clients.23,54,55,56 This means training sessions are more likely to become unsafe and less successful, leading to poor human-horse relations.7,49

Dominance trainers’ statements are also contradictory. For example, their language expresses freedom for the horse and reduced force, yet these ideas oppose their dependence on gaining control via aversive stimuli. This is especially concerning, as reliance on NR and positive punishment (PP) have been linked with fear and distress in many animal species. While owners may feel they have achieved a freer, willing partner with the choice to be with them, in reality, horses are regularly denied the chance to express their behaviour, be accurately understood, or have their needs met. Consequently, the representation of natural communications and portrayal of freedom within dominance-based methods are only an illusion.12,26,55

It is not only the horse’s welfare at risk from poor communication and language inaccuracies, but also the client’s. If clients who are genuine about creating a better training experience for their horse feel misled, their progress and emotional state can decline.21,41,57,58 For example, certified applied animal behaviourist Crista Coppola says owners “thought they were doing what they had to do, and they feel very very guilty about the fact that they feel someone misled them.”59 Therefore, relying on language discussed in this chapter to promote training methods is unethical.53 Instead, terms must be defined objectively in accordance with the horse’s mental capacities and current scientific findings.28,60Clarifying language used in the equine industry would minimise confusion, improve training uniformity, and reduce poor quality information being shared.6,16,53,54 This in turn cultivates thriving human-horse relationships based on true understanding.

Next time

Part three, due to be released in the following issue of the IAABC Foundation Journal, discusses issues with equine behaviour interpretations by dominance trainers and how they incorporate misinformation into training practices. The author will also explore problems with their understanding and use of learning theory, specifically operant conditioning, in horse training.

References

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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.

TO CITE: Campbell, A. (2024). The ethics of using dominance-based training within the equine leisure industry: part 2. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.9

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