Does Your Horse Have A Dominance Problem?

There is nothing more frustrating than wanting your horse to do ABC when all your horse wants to do is XYZ. Someone will probably tell you that your horse does not respect you as herd leader and that you need to assert your dominance to get your horse under control.

So what exactly is dominance? As it pertains to animals, dominance is the relationship between two individuals that determines priority access to valued resources, like food, water, resting places, and mates. Now I have to ask, have you ever fought with your horse over a girl/boy? Have you ever tried to take away your horses hay so that you could eat it yourself? Or maybe you were having your lunch in the pasture and your horse tried to run you off your salad?

I’m guessing that none of these things has ever happened to you. The reality is that you control all of your horses food, water, and access to mates, so it seems that this definition of dominance probably does not apply to your horse.

The other definition of dominance that horse people are probably referring to is: “power and influence over others”. In other words, being “the boss”.

So maybe your horse is trying to be the boss. Let’s just consider for a moment a scenario in which this may be happening. You have your horse on halter and lead and you want him to go one way but he wants to go the other. Notice I said that you want him to go one way but he wants to go the other and not, he wants you to go the other. I mean, after your horse has ripped the lead line out of your hand and taken off, has he ever come back to grab your arm and pull you the way he wanted to go? Probably not.

Can you think of any scenario in which your horse tried to make you do something without you having tried to make him do something first? Maybe your horse snaked his neck at you and drove you to the feed room door, trying to force you to give him food? Or maybe your horse grabbed your arm and dragged you over to her friend’s stall and tried to get you to open the door and let her friend out?

If your horse has never tried to make you do something, but instead has only protested when you tried to make him do something, then what exactly is your horse trying to be the boss of? Himself?

So if it’s not dominance or trying to be the boss, then why does your horse do XYZ when you’re trying to get him to do ABC? Here are a few possibilities:

Fear - there may be something in the environment that is making your horse feel anxious or fearful. Your horse may be afraid of what you’re asking him to do. Your horse may even be afraid of you! Often times, people do not recognize their horses behavior as fearful because the signs are subtle and they are looking for a much bigger reaction.

Pain/discomfort - as with fear, the signs of pain and discomfort are often quite subtle and people fail to recognize this as the culprit of their horses disobedience. Not only can active pain or discomfort caused a refusal, but also the memory of pain or discomfort when performing the requested behavior can cause a horse to refuse. When your horse doesn’t do something you want, the very first thing you should consider is the possibility of pain or discomfort.

Confusion - probably the most common reason for a horse not complying with your request, is the simple fact that the horse did not understand you. Often times our horses get a behavior right by chance, leading us to assume that they have understood and learned the behavior we are trying to teach. As a result, when we ask for the same behavior in another context, the horse doesn’t perform because he doesn’t know what to do.

Conflict of interest - another very common reason for a horse’s refusal to perform is that there usually exists some conflicting interests between what the horse wants to do and what you want the horse to do. For example, you may want to go out for a ride while your horse really wants to just stay in the pasture with his friends. The desire to stay with his friends might outweigh the desire for the reinforcement you are offering, be it the release from pressure or a delivery of a food treat.

These are just few of the possible reasons for your horse doing XYZ instead of ABC, but there are many more. So no, your horse does not have a dominance problem, but you might!