The art of over-simplifying an over-simplification!

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Many times I have come across articles that stress the importance of showing the horse who is boss, because it is believed that there are three types of horses in a herd, the boss horse, the not boss horse, and all the rest in between. These horses in the herd apparently rank pretty linearly from the boss horses down to the not boss horses.


A statement like that above is definitely the Horse Social Behaviour 1.01 Course on the art of oversimplifying the patterns of relationships in group living horses, but nonetheless….

How we emphasize structure and compartmentalise the behaviour of equines in their natural habitat is a purely human affair and has no bearing on the lives of feral horses. However, in a domestic setting, preconceived structures and the terminology we use has grave implications in how we act, and this in turn may unconsciously, adversely affect the horses in our custody.

Of course there are more or less assertive horses, whether in a natural setting or in that of a domestic one, be it in an intra-species or interspecies relationship with humans. The patterns one may observe from these interactions, and more importantly the description of these patterns vary greatly, even to the point of contradiction in some cases.

Falling back always on the idea that boss horses have this need to enforce their Alpha status, incessantly reminding everyone, including their humans, who the “top dog” or dominant individual in that particular relationship is, is well, dare I say, quite anthropomorphic, warlike and status conscious.

As most interested in animal behaviour may already know, dominance is understood mainly as a competition for resources. Mates, food, and suchlike are resources, and as far as I know, we do not compete with the horses over them. So what is really going on?

Well, we will never really know, if we always fall back on the simplistic application of a continuum of dominance-submission relationships throughout the animal kingdom. This simplistic approach, in my opinion is scientific laziness, although it may be a good starting point for investigations, it tells us very little of the natural lives of animals, their motivations, their adaptations and suchlike.


Further reading!

Snapping at “Alphas” and submission in horses

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.


It is often we hear suggestions that a dog or horse has acted, or not acted, in a certain way due to a lack of respect toward a particular person. “Respect issues”, are frequently used to label unwanted perceived attitudes or behaviors in human-nonhuman animal interactions.

The social life of feral horses | Part 1

Understanding the social structure and organization of animals helps us better define a class of ecological relationships, including those of con-specifics living together.  Description of these relationships is complex and challenging, and analysis of  patterns of relationships between individuals of a population a laborious one, entailing extended periods of observation.

8 thoughts on “The art of over-simplifying an over-simplification!

  1. The topic of social hierarchies and how they are established and why is an interesting one that is often misunderstood by horse enthusiasts. This is unfortunate because it has important implications for successfully interacting with horses in a kind and gentle way. Too often, dominance in this context is incorrectly equated with force and harshness. Psychological depression and despondency, on the other hand, are seen as consequences of subordination. Neither impression should be correct and when they are it is the result of aberrant methods stemming from a lack of true understanding.

    To the contrary, a social relationship that is clearly understood by both individuals is the necessary basis for mutual trust, understanding and consistency in the relationship. It is the foundation for the congenial “partnership” so many people seek with horses. The uncertainty of one’s role that goes along with a poorly defined social relationship leads to conflict and disagreement, not an amiable partnership.

    Dominance and submission are simply terms for describing an important aspect of the social relationship between two individuals. We form social relationships with other people in our lives and horses form social relationships with other individuals in their lives too, whether the individual is horse or human. But, let me emphasize, dominance-submission pertains to just two individuals, a dyad. Dyads, not the herd, are the functional unit of dominance-submission, although, in the end, all of the possible dyads within a herd form a dominance-submissive relationship. Consequently “pecking orders” can be very complex and are not typically linear.

    Dominance is established when one horse teaches another horse to withdraw in response to a subtle signal … an intention movement. We have all seen how little a dominant horse has to do when asking a subordinate to move out of the way, or move back. All he/she has to do is lay his/her ears back a little while extending the muzzle a bit toward the subordinate. These are the initial components of a ritualized or even actual “attack” which will happen if the other horse doesn’t move away as asked. If more than a subtle signal, i.e., an intention movement, is required to prompt a withdrawal, the social relationship between the two horses is unsettled and has not been clearly defined … at least in the mind of one of the horses involved.

    Dominance is not just about resources, like “Mates, food, and suchlike.” This is too restrictive and misleading. It is more appropriate to talk about dominance in terms of privileges or freedoms. You see, dominance carries with it the freedom or privilege to go where you want to go and do what you want to do … unimpeded by subordinates. The freedoms and privileges of horses are certainly defined by people. Horses, likewise, can and sometimes do define the freedoms and privileges of people. This can be and often is a reflection of a poor social relationship which can be unpleasant and even dangerous for the person involved.

    The idea that a dominant horse can go where it wants to go and do what it wants to do is important to understand because it provides a clear insight into which member of a dyad maintains the status quo. It is not the dominant horse. The lower-ranking individual of a social dyad actually contributes more to the maintenance of a stable social order than the higher ranking individual. About 45 years ago, the animal behaviorist T. E. Rowell correctly stressed that “the subordinate animal … cautiously observes and maintains a hierarchy, while a dominant one could almost be defined as one which does not ‘think before it acts’ in social situations.” Why should he/she? A dominant horse doesn’t have to worry about a subordinate. On the other hand, a subordinate doesn’t want to offend a higher-ranking horse and risk retaliation. Consequently, the subordinate acts appropriate to the dominant-subordinate relationship and in so doing maintains it. “Reminders” from the dominant horse are generally not required to maintain dominance, although occasionally the dominant horse may politely ask a subordinate to move back using an intention movement. Otherwise, there may not even be an innuendo of dominance-submissive in the way the horses interact. The relationship is congenial, sometimes mutually supportive, and totally peaceful. Bruce Nock, MS, PhD.

    • Thanks for your very interesting and clear contribution.

      Social interactions whether intraspecific or interspecific are indeed an interesting topic, and there is much still to be learned on the topic, especially relating to horses. I agree that clarity and predictability play an important role in relationships, safety and welfare.

      Your notes on the complexity and nonlinearity of hierarchies are also much appreciated, as are the mention of dyadic encounters and the withdrawal response of horses from aversive or dominant behaviors.

      A relationship is a natural thing, if one gets by utilizing ideas of social order in their relationships with animals, so be it. However I do find that clarity, predictability, safety and welfare can also be approached with relationships other than dominant-submissive ones.

      For those interested, not too long ago, I contributed to this article on dominant behavior by Roger Abrantes: Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense . This is the definition and concept I prefer to work with and it aligns well enough with generally accepted models and definitions proposed by Irwin Bernstein and Carlos Drews.

      I am not familiar with a “privileges or freedoms” approach in describing dyadic encounters and I would be very interested in learning more about the behaviors categorized under these headings.

      When it comes to modifying behavior, learning theory is used in a much less subjective way than dominance based models. Learning theory has given trainers a backbone from which to work, but again learning, especially in a social context, needs more explorations and current models will likely be adapted as mental design spaces open to new ways of answering old and new questions.

      In my opinion we must avoid throwing the baby (Dominant behavior) out with the bathwater (notions of dominance) as Bernstein stated, but at the same time the bathwater does need emptying and cleaning as it is likely to get dirty or tainted with use.

      • I confess I’m somewhat confused, especially by your distinction between learning theory and dominance models. I said at the outset of my previous post that the concept of dominance is misunderstood by many (including the vast majority of academics in my estimation). My comments did not pertain to those individuals, especially those who equate dominance with harshness and aggression.

        Let me repeat: Dominance is established when one horse (or person) teaches another horse to withdraw in response to a subtle signal. This does, in fact, involve the strict application of learning theory … not violence of any sort. I described this in detail more than ten years ago in Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training (TGR) where I equated it to teaching a horse any sort of signal … cue or aid. It does not, any more than teaching any other signal, result in depression or despondency. Nevertheless, it is the gateway to a true partnership. It is a straightforward and simple method that has remarkably positive consequences for horse-human relations I have never seen duplicated by any other approach.

  2. It is Ok to feel confused; they are complex concepts with many different approaches, so one should not despair. Like I said, I do distinguish between learning theories and dominance models. I agree that dominant behavior is learned as you stated, but it forms no part in behavioral analysis based on conventional learning theory. Of course you can analyze the notions of dominance utilized by most enthusiasts in terms of learning theory, but the terms would derive from those already in use in the theory of learning chosen as a basis for analysis,

    I am quite aware of the mechanisms and functions of dominance hierarchies and dominant behavior. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic but I do have sufficient working knowledge, and use these concepts for descriptive purposes in the field based on the definitions you can find in the link of my last comment.

    Now my turn to repeat myself…

    A relationship is a natural thing, if one gets by utilizing ideas of social order in their relationships with animals, so be it. However I do find that clarity, predictability, safety and welfare can also be approached with relationships other than dominant-submissive ones.

    It would be great to learn more about the “privileges and freedoms” theory to see how this can be aligned with other concepts and approaches customarily in use.

    • Freedom: the power or right to act as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

      Privilege: a special right, advantage.

      My education and beliefs were strongly influenced by Danny Lehrman’s reaction against the ethology of Tinbergen, Lorenz and the like. I’m not inclined to define concepts like Freedoms and Privileges any further with a list of specific behaviors. I don’t believe animals or their behavior can be truly understood with that sort of reductionistic approach. The concepts are too complex and carry with them elements of the psychological as well as behavioral.

    • I’d also like to clarify one other thing … and then I’ll quit and let you alone. You said, “I agree that dominant behavior is learned as you stated …” Actually, I never said that. I said, dominance is established when one horse teaches an another to withdraw in response to a subtle signal. It is the subordinate that learns to withdraw. I said nothing at all about learning dominant behavior … whatever that is.

      Also, I have no idea what you mean when you say, “I agree that dominant behavior is learned as you stated (I didn’t), but it forms no part in behavioral analysis based on conventional learning theory.” Can you explain what the second half of that statement means? I apologize for my ignorance.

      It has been fun getting to know you better Victor. It’s an honor to have you on the Liberated Horsemanship faculty.

      • I take the freedom to thank you for your comments, and the privilege I feel in forming part of the faculty of Liberated Horsemanship. Gracias Bruce! I did not mean to put words in your comments, I do apologize.

        The predisposition to learn has genetic underpinnings, but the enhancement of this learning is likely to be environmentally stimulated. The environment includes interactions with conspecifics. In this sense rank or dominance is neither necessarily static, nor fixed across different contexts. It’s contextual, and as such will vary depending on the results of past interactions amongst the individuals that comprise the social group.

        An individual that teaches another to move away is also likely to learn that a particular behavior has a consequence. The consequence can be beneficial or costly or even a trade-off, at the same time it could also be described in terms of reinforcers and punishers. Of course if you do not consider dominant behavior to be “mainly”, not necessarily “fully”, expressed in terms of competition for limited resources, or to reduce aggressive behavior, it would be difficult to consider.

        I won’t deny that Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz have a large influence in my approximation to understanding behavior, as do Lehrman and Schneirla (his Prof.) and many others. The Lehrman and Schneirla team blasted the “nature vs. nature” dichotomy to bits, and that was a good thing, and so was limiting the priveleges and freedoms of Lorenzian Ethology through his “A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior” (1953). But Ethology survived and modernized and is now more comprehensive and interdisciplinary than many other scientific approaches to the study of behavior.

        As you also surely know, Lehrman was not always so skeptical of Lorenz’s work, in fact in 1941, and in an article for Bird Banding, he had this to say about Lorenz’s work:

        “This is certainly one of the most important comprehensive papers on animal behavior that is known to the present reviewer. Whatever may be the eventual status of the individual aspects of Lorenz’s theories, he has provided both a theoretical attitude and a methodological approach that bids fair to become essential for the investigation and understanding of behavior”

        I agree with him! Unfortunately WWII broke out and Lorenz, Lehrman and Tinbergen were all heavily affected by this. If you find the history of ethology interesting I recommend “Behavior Patterns” by Richard Burkhardt.

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