“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.
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.
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.