Snapping at “Alphas” and submission in horses

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Humans tend to have a stereotypic understanding of how horses behave, which is likely caused by the incredible amount of cultural baggage accumulated through millennia of relating to them. When I speak of human stereotypies in respect horses, I refer to those unquestioned practices that are detrimental to their maintenance and handling.

Horsemen from all walks of life, disciplines and dispositions, seem to favor (still) the idea of establishing rank between themselves and the horses with which they interact. Countless, unwanted behaviors are apparently solved as soon as the horse knows who is boss. Fair-enough, for those easily convinced by supercharged preaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the different approaches to horsemanship, as most have helped someone or their horse, or even both, to a better relationship, and that is a good thing.

However, it is a shame that such good trainers don’t take the time to understand what it is they are actually talking about, but instead blurt out gospel to the unweary. I am not about to argue, whether “Alphas” actually exist or not, as circumstances and environments vary greatly enough to produce the so called alpha position in groups, sometimes clearly seen in a domestic (restricted) setting. Alpha animals are usually despots (dictators), and I am certain that most, but not all, involved in horses don’t actually intend gaining this label.

When is fact separated from fiction, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that the information one provides to others, is at least realistic, or even just contrasted to the body of knowledge accumulated over the years?

Few biologists, ethologists, or behavioral ecologists have actually studied horses in free living conditions, whatever that may mean. One of the reasons behind this lack of interest is likely due to horses having gone extinct in the habitats in which they have evolved, coupled with the difficulty of working in the field. Few populations of this ultimate prey animal are actually predated on, and this on its own poses many questions in need of answers, especially in regard to social dynamics, and how predators influence group cohesion.

Horses are social for many reasons, but the main justification of sociality is that the benefits of being social outweigh those of being solitary. Cooperation in horses has been largely overlooked, and focus has been placed on a byproduct of cooperating groups: intragroup aggression and dominance hierarchies.

foal snapping at pinxo fsw

Following any definition that may be outlined, it is clear that to attain such a position in any given group a series of environmental variables, including interactions with conspecifics, would have to hold true. For instance, competition over resources, in which the alpha or “top dog” has exclusive rights over all others in a group, is limited by environmental constraints. Horses, in free living conditions are not known to compete over grass which grows everywhere; it would be a waste of time and energy. In fact in one of the most comprehensive studies on horses at the Granite Range by Berger and coworkers (1986) had this to say about the importance of dominance hierarchies:

“Classically it has been thought that through aggressiveness individuals may achieve high rank and access to limited food resources (reviewed by Wittenberger, 1981). This did not seem to be the case among Granite Range females.”

“(…) even in early spring when food was most limited and new vegetative growth had not yet begun, few feeding displacements occurred.”

“If dominance confers reproductive benefits upon female horses, some effects of dominance should be discernible. Over the study period NO CLEAR CORRELATES BETWEEN REPRODUCTIVE SUCCESS AND DOMINANCE EMERGED” (Berger, 1986: emphasis mine)

“(…) more than 98% of a stallion’s annual time budget was spent in nonaggressive activities.”

Berger (1986), who was responsible for this 5 year study of horses in the Granite Range, speaks clearly enough for those who even bother to read his book; Wild Horses of the Great Basin: Social Competition and Population Size, in this age of cut and paste. (I recommend his book to all!)

In a less “naturalistic” setting, such in paddocks or corrals, we do however see horses attempting, sometimes incessantly, to control focal resources such as feed buckets, piles of hay,  water troughs, salt licks and so on.

“Under natural conditions, it is rare to see overt aggression or a single individual controlling a limited resource. Surely under natural conditions, horses rarely have the equivalent of an alpha individual within a band or an alpha band within a herd. Rather there is usually a more complex, less linear order, with division of leadership and defense roles played by a number of individuals and sometimes alliances that swing into action depending on the situation.” (Sue McDonnell, 2003 – The Equid Ethogram pp. 21-22)

I agree wholeheartedly with the above statement from Dr. McDonnell and findings of Berger (1986), further up. I also agree that under free-living conditions the beauty of social order, or disorder for that matter, reeks with variable life strategies which are usually limited by a domestic setting.

It seems in my mind that many observers extrapolate their knowledge and experience from a domestic setting, to a “wilder” one in free ranging or feral conditions, and this is in my opinion never expressed better than by Stephen Budiansky (1977):

“Horses have been enveloped in human dreams, myths, ambitions, and sentiment for so long that the story we have come to think of as theirs is often but a distorted reflection of our own desires, and then not always our most noble desires.”

“The myths that man has attached to the horse, and the motives we impute to it, continue to form a set of unconscious and often unexamined assumptions about equine nature”

Enough of the alpha horse for a while, let us look at another perplexing matter for some, including myself, which can be found in what is frequently termed submission in horses. Continuing in our creation of “just so” stories that would make Rudyard Kipling proud, we stumble upon another term which is often used but never explained.

moving away snapping

As there is allegedly expected to be a “top dog” in all horse groups, at least for those that wish it to be so, there must then also be the opposite: the “underdog”, the runt of the litter or submissive individual.

A host of horsemen sell methods in which they teach one to gain the position a dominant horse would have within its family band. Gestures, eye contact, waving plastic bags, body position all used to communicate our intentions of being “Alpha” in our herd of two. Most of these procedures rely on something that usually does not materialize, as hard as we may try, and this lies in waiting for a submissive gesture from the horse.

A quick look through scientific literature on horse behavior, leaves one perplexed as to what these gestures actually are, or even if they exist at all….oh but they must. However as Sue McDonnell points out, in the scientific academia discussions on this topic reveal that “(…) submission in an open plain species such as the horse means withdrawal or escape.” (McDonnell, 1993).

Instead of expecting withdrawal from aggressive or threatening encounters, a host of gestures and head postures are meant to call our attention to the readiness of the horse in accepting our self-proclaimed leadership, alpha or superman status. Head lowering, lip smacking and a host of other gestures have been portrayed as indicative of submission, but are they really?

We have two considerations in respect to submission worthy of contemplation, one of which is submissive retreat (McDonnell, 1993), also known as facing away (Feist, 1971) or fleeing (Houpt & Wolski, 1982). This so called submissive retreat is catalogued in the Equid Ethogram as: “(…) movement that maintains or increases an individual’s distance from an approaching or following herd mate.”( McDonnell, 1993)

A quick look at the description of this behavior as depicted in the Ethogram, a wonderful work by the way, points out a specific position in which the retreating horse has its head held low, with ears turned back, in any gait but typically in trot.

Quite different to what some horsemen expect, horse facing you lowering head or moving jaws as if saying: I give in, I want to negotiate or even: Hello there Mr. Alpha. Dogs bow and tumble on their back, so then horses must do something similar….people cower in fear and show reverence to deities and authority, but is this what we expect from horses?

On the other hand we have what is supposed to be “THE” horse submissive posture that most of us have actually seen, in the way of an immature horse opening and closing its jaw with head lowered and extended, with bending in the knees or not….usually to mature horse. Most of us call this submission, but again, is it really?

The German Zoologist, Zeeb (1959), called this behavior Unterlegenheitsgebarde, while we nowadays call it snapping, champing, tooth clapping or jawing. Because this behavior was normally exhibited by young foals to mature horses, especially the stallion, we were quick to label it as submissive. It was actually Boyd, who first questioned this as being actual submission, as it did not inhibit aggression by others, and that defeats the function of a submissive behavior. Although it is reported that this behavior may have an appeasement value to that who engages in it, which is to say that the behavior calms the alleged submissive individual, little is yet known on what is going on.

Further studies, this time from Crowell Davis and colleagues (1985), suggested that snapping as described by Tyler (1972), may actually be a “displacement activity developed from nursing” (Crowell et al, 1985).

Much is still to be learned about the human-horse dyad, and what I myself have written may have to be revised in accordance with the progress of understanding, but let us not keep fueling “JUST SO STORIES” as these will only cause detrimental false beliefs, and we have enough of those in the horse world.

Just for thought, the submissive posture of a trained horse is equated to LEARNED HELPLESSNESS!

“Learned Helplessness/Submissive Posture

Standing quietly with head lowered, unresponsive to normal social and environmental stimuli, and moving away only on release command or directive of the handler. Consideed basic training in certain Western show and working disciplines.

Comments: Achieved using flooding and desensitization during inmobilization” (From the Equid Ethogram, Page 314, by Sue McDonnell)



39 thoughts on “Snapping at “Alphas” and submission in horses

  1. Excellent reading, thank you (and I agree about the Equid Ethogram, it is always open at one chapter or another on my desk 🙂 Still wondering where the chapter on female affiliative behaviours is, though…)

  2. Thanks Dorothy! Yes, the Equid Ethogram is an excellent work, and I too consult it often. Sue McDonnell herself points out, this work is a starting point, and I would add a solid foundation to keep working. It seems however that a “bottleneck” has been formed in relation to the social organization of horses… may be time to pop the cork 😉

    So much more to add, affiliative behaviors in general, male-male alliances, predator avoidance…….

    • Excellent article Victor!

      Have had the ‘Equid Ethogram’ for many years.

      We use ‘The Domestic Horse, The Evolution, Development, and Management of its Behavior’ by McDonnell/Mills in our Friendship Training required study curriculum.

      It is quite a bit more comprehensive than the ‘Equid Ethogram.’ I highly recommend for anyone interested in the ethology of horses.

  3. Great article thank you. I had a great experience of horse nature the other day. have four horses in a large paddock – a yearling a 16 year old and two in between- and they had busted their water trough, so had been without water for at least 14 hours overnight in extremely hot conditions. When I saw the horses, they were all tucked up and really thirsty. The only means of getting them water was to get the wheelbarrow and fill it up and wheel it into the paddock. Interestingly enough, I thought there would be pushing and shoving as they were really thirsty. The two middle aged horses stepped back and allowed the yearling and the old horse to drink first and they both drank all of the water. I brought back another wheel barrow of water and the two middle horses drank and then they all went off down the paddock together.

  4. Learned helplessness does not necessarily show as head down passive frame. The horse that stays on guarded alert, never taking his eye from the trainer is experiencing the same thing. He dares not explore his experience, dares not learn anything the trainer does not allow.

    That TOO is learned helplessness, but draws applause even from the horse aware observer. He appears “beautiful.” and in fact we’ve assigned certain behaviors that meaning over time. Forgetting that the alert horse is the fearful horse in normal circumstances.

  5. Thanks for your insight Don! The bit on learned helplessness in the article was a direct quote from the Equid Ethogram, and only used as an example. I would tend to agree that there are probably many ways of feeling helpless. Having said that, I would recommend a definition, this is the one I normally consider:

    Learned Helplessness is the failure of an organism to recognize, identify or accept the
    causes and effects of its own behaviour due to repeatedly having been exposed to aversive
    stimuli without any escape possibility. (Abrantes, 2011)

  6. Because I work with Obama, providing a service through Pony Access, ( I can avoid the whole dominance issue. In fact I can avoid most of the issues that obsess modern horse trainers. Obama only has to do a job. He doesn’t have to satisfy some complex training philosophy which his owner is currently wedded to.Just do the job. And since we are working in uncharted territory, we tend to go in and see what works.
    If the kids are happy, the teachers tend to be happy. If Obama has produced happy kids and happy teachers, I get paid which makes me happy and Obama picks up on the general happiness stakes and mugs me for a carrot. Since he has clearly earned it, he gets it. Simple. No dominance theory, not much theory at all.

  7. But the fact that dominance theory doesn’t give an easy key to human/horse behaviour, doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant at all. Obama and I have certain issues currently as he is in a starvation paddock recovering from a laminitic attack. He has gone from placid/in pain to Sod you, you can’t catch me, in two days, so when I go in to catch him to pick out his feet etc, he responds by squealing, charging around and spinning to kick at me. So far, so cool. I trust his judgement and don’t expect to get kicked, but I don’t expect him to think this sort of behaviour is going to impress me.

    Therefore I am charging back at him, trying to hit him in the shoulder where he can’t kick me, I hope. Obama and I have a happy, thuggish relationship, and every so often I have to look as if I am in control, either by hitting him in the shoulder at the right speed and moment to knock him sideways, or by making him back off. But this is play dominance. Loads of posturing, no pain, And the level needed depends on Obama’s mood, how much work he has done, etc. It also depends on the relationship I have with Obama. Some of my friends welcome me with crude language and an attempt to kick me in the nuts, others don’t. Therefore my response to a greeting varies from friend to friend. With those prone to apply a boot to the genital region, backing off and being polite only encourages more attacks, so I respond in kind.

    Dominance can be an issue. Some people use long words to attempt to dominate me, some use flash cars and bulging bank accounts, some a knee to the groin, Obama waves his teeth and or his back legs, the appropriate response varies according to the individual. Backing off is seldom the answer, but then an attempt to physically dominate is seldom the answer. Taking the piss, frequently is. So Dominance matters, but the answer is not always more dominance. And if you don’t agree, I will hit you.

  8. Thanks Simon, I think 🙂
    You are right, dominant behavior, and even dominance hierarchies are important factors of sociality in many animals, including horses… least in the cases where they do exist. I am not in any way questioining their existence given certain environmental variables, but instead our acceptance that it must be so in all social situations, which seems to be the case according to some authors.

    A relationship is a natural phenomenon, and if what you describe with Obama works for you both, why fix it. Sorry to be pedantic, but before going into what is considered dominant behavior and what not, we would save much energy defining our concepts.

    Yes, Dominance matters, and it is especially relevant in the domestic setting. It seems clear that we can create the dominance hierarchies, even in cases were there need not be one by limiting resources and space, and through overcrowding. Countless studies on many animals have shown that these overcramped conditions do increase aggression and tend to favor the creation of a despot. If that is what one really wants…hey… no problem.

    If you hit me, and it is the first time…this would not be considered dominance…just aggression. The second time we meet I may cower just by seeing your super muscles and submit to your authority with no fight…then you would be dominant and I submissive. Dominant behavior can even be considered in a way cooperation, as its function is to reduce intragroup aggression thus promoting a more peaceful social life.


  9. Great article, Victor. Very interesting.

    I don’t know much, if anything, about horses. My cousin is a Western painter, and as such he goes on cattle drives every year (or used to; he’s in his late 60s now). He’s told me several amazing stories about the communication that he’s had with his horses, and they with him. What I always got from his stories is that the relationship he had with his horses was a partnership. He was always keenly aware (or tried to be) of how his horse was feeling at all times, and he got the sense that the horse was attuned to his feelings in much the same way.

    I’m a dog trainer, and I’m not at all convinced that dogs and wolves or other non-human animals (except cetaceans, and perhaps some great apes) have the cognitive capacities necessary to form dominance hierarchies for the reasons presently given by science. It seems to me that in order to do so they would have to be able to compare themselves to one another using abstract concepts like status or access to resources. It’s not that the behaviors don’t exist. It’s that the terminology for describing them is thoughtcentric. If it could be shown that dogs and wolves (and horses) have a sense of self-and-other, then the current concepts and terminology might make more sense.

    I also think that Roger Abrantes’ definition of learned helplessness — “the failure of an organism to recognize, identify or accept the causes and effects of its own behaviour — suffers from the same problem. Without the ability for self-reflection and rational thought how could an organism “recognize, identify or accept the causes and effects of its own behavior?” Children don’t learn about cause and effect until after they’ve learned to talk.

    I know this may seem like a minor point to some, but it strikes me that it’s reflective of the same problem inherent to the dominance debate. We can’t seem to describe animal behavior without imposing humanlike thought processes onto an animal’s motives.

    There’s clearly a middle ground between blind, unthinking instincts and the more rarified level of abstract and rational thought. That middle ground is feelings and emotions. The problem there is that emotions and feeling states are still seen by most scientists as unknowable quantities.

    But then what do I know? I’m just a dog trainer.

  10. Hi Lee,
    Thanks for your interesting comments. A partnership sounds nice to me, but that’s just my personal preference.

    As far as cognitive abilities go, I would have to disagree with you wholeheartedly in respect canids and equids lacking the cognitive abilities for thought and self. This is not the place to carry on with this brilliant discussion (we should carry on though), as it would be best to keep comments more flowing. I will say this though, many trainers, scientists, authors, owners that have been in contact with dogs or horses+ are aware of their need for self-preservation, what they try to preserve knowingly or not knowingly is self. They are also aware of how their behavior can change the behavior of others, and even how to interact with inanimate objects or different species.

    Consider the Law of effect formulated by Thorndike (1911), which could be summed-up as: to repeat good and avoid bad…in my opinion we are at a starting point to accept that many animals can relate to cause and effect.

    Learned Helplessness is an interesting topic, one which I agree needs much more understanding. The definition proposed by Roger is in fact one quite akin to that originally formulated by Martin Seligman and thus if I must consider the possibility or not of something, I would need a definition (with limits) of what it is I am actually considering. Martin Seligman could have easily called the phenomenon he observed “Grurganash”, but he called it learned helplessness. If a similar state (helplessness), where it once was not (learned) is observed in another animal due to the application of aversives that it cannot escape, nor interact modify…I think it would be fair to continue using this terminology or even Grurganash if you prefer.

    This by no way means that all answers are answered, and that scientists know all, but they are giving a damn good shot at figuring things out and adding their grain of sand to our common knowledge.

    As per feelings and emotions, I agree, not sure about middleground, but surely play an important role and function, especially in the display of self (internal state) to others.

    Thanks again your comments are uplifting and have helped me consider aspects, I haven’t until now.

    • hi Victor,

      Thanks for your reply.

      I agree that scientists are hard-working folks who are giving these issues their best.

      Clearly I don’t agree that dogs and horses have a sense of self-and-other or understand cause and effect. But I will let that argument lie, as per your request.

      As for emotions and feeling states being a middle ground between higher rational, thought-based cognition and “dumb” instinct, I’m just following the model of the mammalian brain: neo-cortex, limbic system, and reptilian complex. Certainly there is some overlap between the three, but each has its own specific role, the limbic system being the “middle ground” I spoke of, between thought and instinct.

      I’ve never liked the term “learned helplessness.” I can understand its merits from the behavioral science point of view. But to my way of thinking it’s really just a form of PTSD.

      Freud said that there was a distinct difference between fear, fright and anxiety. Fear is based on an awareness of something dangerous and being prepared for fight of flight. Fright is due to danger that seems to come out of nowhere; there’s no preparation for it. And anxiety is a generalized fear with no real danger present. He said that PTSD (then called “the war neuroses”) was generally caused by fright–danger that comes out of nowhere.

      So in my view, learned helplessness comes from repeatedly being frightened with no avenue of escape from the danger, thus it’s a form of PTSD, which is classified as an anxiety disorder.

      But these are just labels, I guess. And like I said, I’m just a dog trainer.

      • Hi Lee, thanks again for comments. I do appreciate your explanation of the workings of the parts of the brain, but unles we come up with an actual neural code, to decipher or understand how these parts work together, we can keep guessing and trying hypothesis.

        Freud, what an interesting man! I am not sure I follow though! When you say “We can’t seem to describe animal behavior without imposing humanlike thought processes onto an animal’s motives., and quote a psychoanalyst, I am perplexed. Learned helplessness was first observed in cats by Masserman and later described by Seligman in dogs, sure it sounds human, but he chose learned helplessness as the term to describe what he saw, instead of depression, as only man could be depressed…mainly because if he would have used depression…the “then” scientific community would get all over him for anthropomorphism. Although PTSD is similar and your preference of term is clear, I will stick with “learned helplessness” as this is my preference.

        You are right, in the end they are just labels used to describe behavior and or states. As I would like to build on existing knowledge, I am more interested in achieving common ground in the way we describe natural processes and therefore have to be very careful with the terminology I use. In the end we are probably talking of the same thing just using different language to do it. I am a naturalist and a Darwinist, and this is the language I choose to use for those who care to listen
        PS. Thanks I am reading Freud again 

      • Speaking, as I’m force to, as a human, I dare say there is no way to speak of what goes on with a horse without projecting human meaning. That’s truly all we have.

        On the other hand I think it only fair the horse project meaning to our behaviors that are horse understandings. It’s why I accept that a horse can suddenly see us as a predator animal and do the most remarkable gymnastics to get clear of us.

        If we are to keep them as we do, captive, then we have our work cut out for us to help them understand that in our clumsiness (from the horse perspective) we will sometimes appear predatory but not really mean to.

        That is what I think of as training.

      • Hi Victor,

        I know it seems strange, and perhaps anthropomorphic, to bring Freud into the mix, but remember Freud said that most of our urges etc. took place on an unconscious level. He was the first to suggest that Darwin’s theory meant (among other things) that humans weren’t all that different from animals psychologically speaking, at least where those impulses and urges are concerned.

        I very much like reading what you write. And I hope I haven’t upset the apple cart too much.



    • Any creature that can experience pleasure, and that’s pretty easy to test, has emotions. Pleasure is an emotion. Non pleasure then by default, would be an emotion. At least as we understand the term.

      Arguments pro and con on the subject always put me into fits of giggles. I think I’m having an emotion. Do horses giggle too? You bet your sweet bippy they do. Look at them running and nipping at each other in play. Emotions? Can’t avoid them. Not in living creatures.

      The next question, of topic, but important to ask is do plants have emotions. What makes them turn to the sun.

      I asked a hired mercenary who I met incidentally why he’d go back to war again and again as he had since the danger of dying was so extreme. His answer, “the pleasure of survival,” and he took another drink of his bourbon.

      Hmmm…is the entire damn universe on a bender then? Pleasure .. the big question. And possibly the biggest answer.

  11. Cheers Lee,
    I do enjoy a healthy conversation whether we agree or not,, it is a great way to share and learn. Apples on the cart are fine. I look forward to exchanging more thoughts in the future. Gracias

  12. Thanks Don, you make some great points. I take pleasure in your use of the word predatory, I agree. Horses giggle…….cool 🙂 I also agree about emotions, they remind us of our debt of inheritance from common origin. Cheers

  13. Ah, amazing article and amazing conversation – thank you! As Freud has been brought up I want to bring up Jung. He talks about the significance of the Vedic ritual of horse sacrifice (from a symbolic perspective, of course). And there are some fairytales that explore similar themes. Barbara Hanna’s (one of Jung’s pupils/associates) Cat, Horse and Dog lectures is very interesting in this account. A horse is one of the major “hooks” for projection. But projection is only the first step in starting to understand something. In projection, attention is being attached to something. What is interesting is how can the projection be withdrawn and what, then, is the reality behind it? In the Vedic tradition the horse sacrifice is only for kings. It is as if it’s a sign of the highest accomplishment when the horse is “given up”. Giving up on wanting the world and the horse to be the way I want them to be, and, finally, finally, being able to see, take in, the wold as it is. It is the goal of science, and I think it is also a spiritual goal – befitting a king.

    Aggression/hierarchies: I have observed this at the bird feeder. Always some bigger bird comes up and seems to decide it “owns” the place and tries to chase others away. I think there’s been some observations abut monkeys (or was it apes) also going into internal fighting when free bananas were made available. When there’s “loot”, there will be takers. A mechanism that brings forth aggressive behaviour – automatically??? Is this how it goes? And in a similar way, the horse can offer a submissive stance to us – be a “trophy” for us, the object of our demands and desires.

    Horses seem to have a dual character. They can give the “learned helplessness” routine to those who want to assert themselves as “alphas”. In core, this relationship will always remain in the dominance/aggression field. And then there’s that other way we all seem to be groping for. Finding one’s way back to the wild together with the horse. Or is it just that the horse has this innate willingness to help us with our work, whatever work we perceive ourselves having? If I look to learn dominance, he will show. If I look to find a way to see the truth, he will help in this? This must look quite incoherent, apologies for thnking throgh writing. This is just such an interesting field.

    • Thanks for your comments Kristiina. How interesting to consider Jung’s work as well. Projection is a fabulous topic. I use the term “synchrony” which describes one of the primal conditions for grouped travel or flight. Schools of fish, swarms of insects, ungulates…there are three components necessary, Cohesion (bunching together), Collision avoidance, and synchrony. It’s an algorithm, the same one used for the Wildebeest stampede in the Lion King (recommended if you have not seen), based on Craig Reynolds’s Boyds. The do or die situation of fleeing from a potential predator, has surely left its mark through natural selection on today’s horses. Nonetheless I would add that horses, being social and all, prefer many times bad company to no company at all. Cheers,

      • Yes, projection is an interesting topic.

        In my view of things, we (humans) project our own thought processes onto animal behavior, which is where I think the idea of dominance in animal groups really comes from. There have certainly been some female scientists who objected to the idea of the dominance hierarchy. Thelma Rowell is probably the most well-known. She thought they should be called stress hierarchies, or at the very least, “subordinance” hierarchies.

        Personally, I see this tendency to project human thoughts onto animal behavior as an unconscious, instinctive behavior. If I recall correctly I think Bekoff and Horowitz wrote a paper on this very topic.

        As for dogs, I see them as projecting their emotional energy onto objects of attraction: toys, tennis balls, other dogs, their owners, squirrels, skateboarders, etc. In my view this is consonant with the neo-Freudian concept of object-relations theory, where we unconsciously project our “libidinal” energies onto love objects, sex objects, etc.

        Horses would also project their desires onto grasslands, members of the group, etc.

        Anyway, that’s my perspective on projection.


  14. Jung uses the term synchronicity, as you may know. At the moment I am thinking that is one of the things I would like to learn with horses. My current theory is that the optimal functioning of human (or any animal) requires that the emotional, intellectual and physical spheres act in synchronicity. Not just when saving one’s precious ass (maybe this is the the “high” one gets from fighting or those “extreme” sports when all the spheres have to co-operate/synchronise to survive). If one tries to apply hierarchy in the sense of (for example) the Platonic ideal of emotions having to obey rationality, only unhappiness will ensue. So for me it has been a path of finding synchronicity within myself and with the horse. I am thinking synchronicity is a skill that may be learned.

    And then there’s that thing called swarm intelligence. I have not seen any attempts to make that happen in human herds (that I know of). It just happens somehow, sometimes. But maybe that is what one can have a little taste of with a horse. Collision avoidance, cohesion, synchrony: these are words. When you are doing it, you are not thinking: now I need to avoid bumping to that guy, stick to what neighbours do, all at the same time. These are labels but in the action there’s no time to label and process by thinking – that would be too slow. And bees don’t have the equipment (or not in the way we think) but they do have the swarm intelligence. A vast (almost) unmapped territory, the swarm intelligence. Yes, there’s algorithmic applications, but that remains at rather crude level. How does an intelligent swarm form? How do you join? I want to know because I want to expand my consciousness. Making truck routes more efficient with algorithms may be good for the truck company, but from the perspective of why we’re here – I don’t know…

  15. Thank you for sharing such interesting thoughts. There are not many wild equid ecologists/ethologists discussing this and it is wonderful. Since i tend more toward Jung than Freud and having investigated interspecies consciousness and self awareness in a rather simplistic way studying wild horses, my perceptions do reflect my own beliefs or discoveries. Simply put, I have found as many various cultures and individual temperaments in horses as I have found in humans or any other species.

    Studying a “species” instead of studying individuals within a species is rather like making broad statements about religion or ethnicity. If we approach field observations looking more from a horse-centric perspective rather than a human-centric perspective, which may me difficult, the observations may shift. Our awareness in an “alpha brain “wave state alters what we sense and feel compared to our waking “beta brain” wave state. Having done field studies in both states, I have found that being in an alpha state allows deeper connection with all of nature and a more true experience of the energy and emotional dynamic of the whole natural system.

  16. Thanks Mary Ann! I am happy to hear your comments. I hope to hear more about your recent projects 🙂 I personally enjoy Jung more than Freud, although I must admit I am not too keen on the explanatory power of introspection and prefer keeping things a bit more simple. Love their work though and have learned much from them.

    A horse-centric view is much needed to balace out our knowledge of what they actually do and how they live. Its difficult because we observe with many constraints, personal ones and deterministic ones.

    I agree with the variant cultures and the indivdual temperaments you find in horses, as I have observed the same all over. Actually, natural selection that works on variations would fully support this view, given the different ecological pressures they must withstand. The biological plasticity of horses is too often undermined by mechanistic and behaviouristic views, and a paradigm shift is likely to be in order.

  17. hi great article thanks! by studying about dogs i came across a lady that found out that dogs give ” calming signals” more and more it looks like horses do to?? dogs lick and bow and yawn in serten situations to calm themselves or there owners! even other species of animals:) (book called calming signals by turid rugaas)

    • Thanks Jaelle! I know Turid’s work with calming signals, interesting.Funnily enough Turid worked with horses before dogs. It would be interesting to align her work with scientific findings on pacifying or appeasement behaviors.Best!

    • Turid Rugass’ work is amazing, but these behaviors and micro-expressions shouldn’t be called “calming signals.” Rugass says that “Dogs use this communication system towards us humans, simply because it’s the language they know and think everyone understands.”

      How would dogs think they’re what other beings “understand?”

      These are actually stress indicators that dogs exhibit even when no one is watching them or can see them.

      It’s interesting that this topic came up today because I just uploaded a piece on it to my website this morning!

  18. Researchers try to be unbiased, but come from a point of view from their cultural experience. For so long, horses were essentially our slaves and their “submission” to us as a captive and their behavior in a wild herd mean completely different things. We come from a history that says the king or dictator has the power…from that point of view the only good place to be and the proof of being “fittest”. Taking care of each other and/or having a partnership, is held in disdain from that perspective and the benefits of being cooperative is overlooked. When you use the word dominance to mean I will look out for you the relationship takes on a whole new meaning.

    • Thanks for your comments, Barb K. I do agree with the first part of the comments, yes, inevitable. In regards dominance as to meaning I am looking out for you, this would not be by any means a sound defintion in any fields of behavioral study, nor is it used in this way by researchers. It would be confusing if everybody had their own particulate way of defining a term, in this case a term adopted from common language and modified to include biological form & function.

      • Hi Victor, you have not given your definition of dominance here, Barb K’s point is relevant to my understanding of the term as it relates to animal behaviour. I have posted a comment regarding this below.

      • Hi Christine, Thanks for your interesting comments. The definition of dominance you provide is an interesting one. The one I tend to favor, is that provided by Dr. Abrantes, in this article I contributed to “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense” (link I usually speak of dominant behavior instead of dominance, it is just all more clear and less subjectve.

  19. Typical demonstration of ‘dominence heirarchy’ interacting with ‘cooperative behaviour’. in one of my small herds: old mare, juvenile gelding, young filly. When competing for a resource: gelding shoves to front – mare drives him off – mare allows filly to resourse – gelding shoves filly out of the way – and so on – it’s like a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’. While you can get your own genes perpetuated by ‘dominance’ – by ensuring you access enough resources to survive and fighting your way to breeding success, you still fail if your progeny die, or you are without a herd or band – which requires cooperation. ‘Dominance’ may have connotations of some evil overlord bullying their way to an unfair advantage, but this is a human construct inappropriately projected – but it is just the subtle (or not so subtle) establishment of who makes the decision in a cooperative relationship. Perhaps in certain feral communities it may seem there are few decisions to be made (where do we run, when do we stop. who gets the shade under the tree, who is on lookout while the rest of us relax, is starting to look like a long list) but there is still ‘ranking’ – or alternatively ‘role allocation’, as this enables the decisions that have to made to be enacted without conflict, with minimum time and effort wasted in establishing the roles. In a domestic environment it makes sense to me that my horse understands that he or she is subject by and large to my decision making – I am unapologetic for that

  20. Hi Christine,

    I don’t think what you’re describing equates to “dominance.” Dominance and dominant behavior can actually reduce an animal’s fitness due to increased levels of cortisol.

    • It can become a bit of a semantic arguement about what ‘dominance’ means – the article seems to be equating dominance with the dominance that is achieved by aggression, as do you – cortisol being part of a stress response. However, as has been pointed out – asserting dominance through aggression is an activity on which horses spend a very small amount of time. However, a horse who holds influence over anothers is also ‘dominant’ – mares are dominant in their relationship with their foals for example, and in other relationships where what i would refer to as ‘decision precedence’ is granted. This actually leads to a less stressful life, as it means that the herd doesn’t have to fight over every choice. I think that the lack of constant dominance behaviour in herds is more indicative of established ‘decision precidence’: dominance than the lack of one – and that dominance behaviours increase when a new member joins the herd supports this view. Horses are not in a binary state of being either a slave or a master, nor are humans in their relationships : when I work with clients I am at their disposal, working to their agenda – but I do this willingly – it is my experience that horses are very generous in giving decision preference to humans – and probably very wise as it usually works in their best interest. It is an integral part of cooperation – not the other end of the spectrum, and is given on merit as well as wrested by might.

      • I tend to agree with what you’re saying. I just think that “dominance” is the wrong word. So is leadership. I think it’s a matter of something like animal magnetism. There’s one animal in the group who has a superior set of skills, superior knowledge, is unfazed (or less fazed) by challenging circumstances, knows the ropes, doesn’t easily get thrown off-balance emotionally, etc. I don’t equate any of those things with dominance. But I do equate them with some kind of superior ability.

        I’m not a horse person. But I would imagine that such a horse would be a wonderful animal to be around, to know and to work with.

      • ‘Dominance’ in terms of animal behaviour and psychology, means status within the group, it is general enough to encompass other terms such as ranking, or heirarchy as mentioned in the article. ‘Dominance behaviours’ have been identified, and are – across animal species as a whole – in the main aggressive, and this fact can lead to the erroneous conclusion that dominance is exclusively about an animal establishing higher status by the subjugation, though violence (or threat of violence) of other individuals. In some species this may be the case, However, this ignores that there are other means of establishing status – in horses age and gender play a part. So – for example, an elderly mare – no matter how small and unable to secure her ranking through force, will hold high status and is given precidence in certain situations. If (as Barb K asserts) it is possible for an individual to a gain a higher status as a result of its ability to look out for the lower status ones that is a factor in acquiring dominance. The question of whether this is possible – or whether your (Lee above) description of ‘animal magnetism’ – exists can be debated – but if they do (and I think you are both right that they do) they are unquestionably factors relating to dominance – as they are factors in acquiring higher status. While ‘dominance’ may usually be achieved through aggression across animal species as a whole, it is not the exclusive route, and in horses possibly less so than others.

  21. Pingback: Joining-up or Giving Up? – The Cooperative Horse

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