Beyond the Dominance  Paradigm


What would happen if riders changed the way they interact with their horses, choosing to instill willing collaboration instead of demand submission, to acknowledge the horse as a partner in the work instead of requiring him always to acquiesce? What about working toward consent instead of compliance? I believe the benefits would be many: horses who remain sound of mind and body for decades and people who ride with more confidence and less fear while enjoying a deeper connection with these fascinating animals.

I recently read in a training article the statement that horse and rider only achieve partnership when the horse “subrogates their [sic] unthinking instinctive reactions to our calculated requests for compliance.” The article goes on along the conventional line that because horses are flight animals blindly following the herd, the superior intellect of the person means he need only employ training techniques that establish him as dominant herd member and convince the horse to give in.

I consider this view to be overly simplistic, selling short both the horse and the human. Yes, domestic horses do have ancestral roots in wild herds roaming the landscape on one continent or another. But how many of our equine companions today have ever lived in any type of herd situation? Very few. Most grow up and live in paddocks or stalls, generally with fences and walls between them and their neighbors. How many have had to submit to the instruction of a lead mare for survival essentials such as finding food and water? Again, very few. How many ever had the chance to learn horse manners as junior members of a broodmare band? Not many. Most foals interact with far more humans than horses during their early months.

I believe the horses we have bred and raised to live with us in various “unnatural” situations have had to evolve beyond simple herd dynamics and flight reflex. They have had to learn to thrive in a much more sophisticated environment. Yes, they still sometimes exhibit reflexive, reacting states. But I believe many horses are also capable of thinking, of some amount of reasoning. Expecting these animals to submit to dominance-based training techniques ignores the subtleties and grossly undervalues the strategies horses employ every day to adapt to life with a human “herd.”

Why has the dominance paradigm persisted? There is an element of “that’s how it has always been done,” for sure. Dominance-based training can be successful, to a point. But what does the horse really learn when he is made to run around and around a roundpen until he “submits” to the handler? That once he gets tired, it’s time to listen to what the human wants?

Horses forced into false frames show poor posture
Perpetuation of the dominance: submission paradigm takes a physical toll on horses that often is evident in the the shape and quality of the musculature over the topline. These two horses, though schooled in a discipline that emphasizes suppleness and self-carriage, have extremely inelastic back muscles and correspondingly weak abdominals.
Horses ridden restrictively have tight backs and weak abdominals  (14550 bytes)

I believe training should be all about developing the horse in some way – encouraging carriage that preserves soundness, challenging his ability to answer balance “questions,” introducing new information in a thoughtful, methodical way to create the connections that build confidence and competence. Too often, though, I see training approaches that appear to me only to feed someone’s ego. Because I can make this horse do what I want, aren’t I tough, smart, important, the best trainer ever? These methods become much more about what the trainer wants to prove to other people than about what would be best for the horse, not only today but also in the long term.

That ego-driven approach yields a fickle industry that frantically searches for the next miracle gadget to force a frame, that worships the flavor-of-the-month trainer selling the magic technique that molds all kinds of horses to a uniform standard. It tells riders the only acceptable answer to working out issues with a “difficult” horse is to ride through it, often with a stronger bit and bigger spurs and more application of the crop. No pain, no gain, right? And if that doesn’t work, by all means run the horse around a roundpen until he submits, pretending neither horse nor human is capable of anything more sophisticated than a superficial exercise in triggering the horse's flight response.

I heard a story years ago about a relatively inexperienced horse owner who had been to a weekend clinic with one of the mass-market training gurus to learn how to get her spirited young horse to stop doing things that scared her. The next time the horse acted up under saddle, she untacked him, put on his winter blanket and made him gallop around and around a roundpen. In July. In Arizona. Yep, that’ll teach him not to act up under saddle. I give horses more credit than many for the ability to figure out what we want from them and to accomplish it. But torturing a horse in a roundpen and expecting him to learn a lesson about being ridden makes very little sense to me. The cause and effect just don’t track, in this instance. The horse did not act up under saddle because he hadn’t run far enough in a lather. Why did he choose to behave the way he did?

The Body Talks
To find out why a horse misbehaves when carrying a rider requires quite a bit of exploration. Just a few possible answers: an ill-fitting saddle, a sore back, an unbalanced or stiff rider, an ulcer, poor posture. It’s the rider’s responsibility to find out the answer; to instead keep working and working at the same things in the same way is ludicrous. And the problem is very unlikely to be solved by the rider acquiring more weapons or showing more aggression. The owner pays a price in peace of mind, with the relaxation of a quiet ride replaced by frustration. The horse pays too, carrying an unnecessary amount of stress in his mind and body that can lead to chronic illness or those niggling little unsoundnesses that often confound traditional veterinary cures.

Horses have become amazingly resilient creatures, and many patiently take an incredible amount of abuse before they begin to react emotionally, to exhibit behaviors their owners will notice. However, I find the stresses caused by dominance-based training methods always show up in the physical body. Restrictive riding practices, such as rigidly holding a horse in a frame unsuited to his conformation, leave a characteristic trail of clues in the body. For example, horses worked often with "headsetting" gadgets – sidereins, drawreins, tiedowns and dozens more – will exhibit very specific patterns of muscle development in the neck. And, in general, any technique that inhibits natural self-carriage will be evident in the shape of the horse's topline.

Horse training gadgets cause improper muscle development (18959 bytes)
Horses longed in side reins or ridden with heads forced down and noses rigidly held perpendicular by restrictive bits and inelastic contact will develop telltale hypertrophy in the neck muscles behind the poll.

As a reschooler/ rehabber, I learned years ago that sometimes the best I can do for a "difficult" or chronically "off" horse is get off his back – literally and figuratively – and return to basics. First, I rule out acute unsoundness and health issues, check saddle fit and have a good chiropractor or massage therapist work on the horse. Then, I look to the carriage and movement. That means spending time on the ground exploring what the horse’s postural (and often associated behavioral) habits are in a wide variety of situations, then gently but firmly taking him beyond those habits. It’s about teaching him to make better choices and supporting him physically and emotionally as he covers new ground.

I highly recommend this approach to professionals and amateurs alike. The rewards reaped are amazing. By taking the time and effort to minutely explore the horse’s movement and re-educate his system, you will also develop a partnership, a true collaborative relationship, with a horse.

I had a very enlightening moment at a clinic years ago, watching Peggy Cummings demonstrate that the reason one of the participants’ horses seemed unable to stand still during in-hand work and kept creeping closer to crowd the handler wasn’t because the horse was naughty, but instead because he was off balance. On close inspection, it was obvious he was standing with a great deal of weight on the forehand, especially on the left foreleg. That imbalance in his body made the handler feel her horse was crowding her with his left shoulder and made him feel like he had to keep shuffling his feet forward to try to catch his weight and rebalance. Try it yourself: stand leaning forward with your weight on your toes and notice how long it takes before you start inching your feet forward to try to get them under your shoulders. Try the experiment on level ground first, then on a bit of a downslope. When you’re on your “forehand,” it’s tough to stand still comfortably.

At that long-ago clinic, using a simple TTEAM-inspired method of stroking the horse with a wand upward from knees to chest encouraged the horse to rock back onto his haunches a bit and he was then able to stand quietly for a few minutes at a time. I’ve used this technique dozens of times over the years to re-educate a horse who just seemed to always be fidgeting, and it has worked every time. I believe this is so largely because the technique teaches the horse to make a choice about his own comfort and stability, and the technique only “suggests” a change is possible. There is no force in this method, nothing that gives the horse any reason to adopt a defensive or resistant posture instead of simply releasing back into the hindquarters.

In contrast, other methods I have been taught or seen over the years do seem to build in a brace or defensiveness to the horse’s posture. When I was a small child showing halter horses in 4-H, I learned that if the horse wasn’t standing still I should do a short jerk down on the leadrope. Generally this rope had a chain on it, though in those days the rules precluded the chain being used either over the nose or under the chin. It was simply fastened to the ring under the horse’s chin. Still, the horses universally reacted by raising their heads and hollowing their backs. A related technique is employed by many natural horsemanship practitioners. This involves using a leadline with quite a lot of slack or “float” in it and shaking it side to side very quickly. Again the result of this movement of the line attached at the horse’s chin is to cause the horse to lift its head and hollow his back while he backs away. After many repetitions of either of these techniques, the horse may give in and stand still. But what has been taught? Submission or a better postural choice?

Horses ridden in false frames have weak toplines
Can you tell by looking at the toplines which horse is an 8-year-old advertised ready to go to the showring and which is a 23-year-old out of work for two years? What builds such a bracing posture into the back of a relatively young horse?
Horses ridden in self-carriage have strong, supple toplines  (15407 bytes)

For me, the problem with both these techniques is twofold. First, there is no positive postural choice offered for the horse. He can either keep moving or stand still; straightness, balance and stability are never addressed. Second, the techniques put the horse posturally into a defensive position. Imagine what a horse looks like just before she engages her flight response and bolts. Often the first sign we see that a horse has been triggered is the head raising. In consequence, the back hollows and the respiration is inhibited, so it gets shallower. (Try it yourself – hollow your back, lean your head back and try to breathe into your belly.) What is there in that movement that encourages the horse to stand quietly in balance? Nothing. In fact, the hollowing of the back puts the horse more onto the forehand, which makes it more likely the horse will feel a need to move its feet simply to balance. At the same time, the flight-response posture brings with it a change in mindset – the horse is no longer in a reasoning place, but instead in a reacting place. Not “I’ve seen that blue tarp a million times,” but instead, “Danger! Flee!” So the technique that is employed to help the horse stand still and hang out comfortably with the handler instead makes that very action nearly impossible.

Does that mean I would never use either of the “backing off” techniques? Not at all. If a horse is coming at me with intent to run over me, I’m going to do what I must to be safe. Then, I’m going to spend some very specific time working to help the horse make postural choices that will allow him to stay comfortably and easily in his own space and respect my space. I’m going to move him beyond the dominance/submission paradigm and help him learn to make a better choice. Would it be quicker in that instance just to discipline the horse and be done with it? Sure. But by spending a bit more time, I can head off future incidents for myself and all the horse’s subsequent handlers. I think that’s time well spent because it provides a longterm benefit for the horse.

Reluctant Revolution
Though most of what I see in the mainstream horse-training fads still employs dominance as the underpinning concept, there are a number of very talented professionals quietly revolutionizing the relationships between horses and riders. And I have seen a great deal of progress over the past decade among dedicated amateurs seeking better ways to connect with their beloved horses. In many cases, the students seem to have passed up their teachers in this, eagerly embracing new ideas and techniques. This has occurred even as their trainers dig in their heels, cling to the past and even lash out at anyone who questions them. Standard practice among professionals in most every discipline still favors achieving authority instead of creating partnership. In their effort to maintain the status quo, these people vilify the innovative. Because their training methods are firmly rooted in the dominance/submission pattern, their approach to dealing with people often follows suit. These are the trainers who forbid their clients to attend clinics without them or even observe other trainers’ teaching methods. They may mock someone who chooses to return to basic groundwork for being too afraid or too unskilled to ride. Nonsense. That’s a case of ridiculing something that’s not understood.

As an intelligent, experienced rider, if I determine a horse I’m working with doesn’t have the balance and postural skills to execute such simple figures as a large circle or semi-straight line or to do a simple walk-to-trot transition in some semblance of self-carriage, I might decide it’s not in the horse’s best interest to be asked to carry a rider at that time. This is especially true if the horse in question is very sensitive, is recovering from chronic lameness or has been abused emotionally in some way, such as being pushed too hard in his training program.

I might decide that the horse needs to do more groundwork and longe work specifically designed to solidify his own sense of balance in movement before carrying a rider. If I get on and the horse adopts or reverts to defensive postural habits, what am I teaching the horse to his benefit? Nothing at all. I’m wasting my time and creating more undesirable postural and movement habits I’ll have to undo later. If I instead wait until the horse can confidently carry himself in a series of simple maneuvers before I ride, I am serving the best interest of the horse. That approach doesn’t work with the “start a horse in 30 minutes or less” crowd or with the trainer or owner whose only interest is “making” the horse behave. But it surely does provide a good basis for the horse to make positive postural choices for the rest of his life.

Horse training "aids" cause muscle damage  (8709 bytes)
This horse's neck shows damage done by two common techniques. First, he was ridden in a very short tie-down. Then, released from that restriction, he was put into a shank bit and taught to go in a "proper" western showring frame.

That longterm benefit really forms the basis of my underlying goals as a rider and instructor. These are pretty simple, though achieving them often is challenging. First, I firmly believe that a horse’s topline should always look better – more supple, elastic, strong – at the end of a work session than it did at the beginning. If it doesn’t, the horse has not benefited from the work. The rider needs to determine the correct balance of stretching and flexibility work with strength-building work that will keep each individual horse supple and strong. The topline eloquently tells the tale. Toned muscles evidence the maximum contraction and release and feel springy and elastic to the touch; overstressed muscles get stuck in some degree of contraction, losing range of motion both in shortening and releasing, and feel hard or lumpy to the touch.

Second, the rider’s body should feel better at the end of the ride than it did at the start – with muscles warm, toned and supple. If the rider is practicing new ways of balancing and moving with the horse, muscles will become a bit sore from being used in new and different ways. But I don’t want anyone to experience that aching burn of overuse or the wobbly joints that some trainers and riders persist in considering the mark of a great lesson or training session.

Working horse or rider to the point of exhaustion accomplishes nothing positive. I’m about building up, not breaking down, about ensuring horse and rider have years of sound and happy interaction instead of a list of aches, pains and medications. I want riders to understand that they can build satisfying partnerships with their horses, that there is an alternative to forcing and coercing. That asking a horse for a movement and then allowing it to happen feels so much better than telling the horse what to do and making him comply.  Stacey Kollman

© 2007 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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