Peter Pan Horsemanship


Where does one begin to describe some of the interesting “just so stories” used to describe human-horse interactions? From horses trying to play herd games with humans, trying to move our feet, or win over some spirited ritual over a resource such as water or food.

Before going any further, for those not familiar with the great writer Rudyard Kipling and his equally famous “Just So Stories,” these are a series of stories in which Kipling gives imaginative explanations related to why something is the way it is, especially in regards to animals.

Most of what I would call “just so stories” in horsemanship are based in some way or other on horses allegedly trying to establish some sort of rank over the humans that interact with them, although not limited to these confabulations.


That is where Peter Pan horsemanship comes into play. I have witnessed, heard and watched several excellent horsemen demonstrating their talent with horses, although I may not always agree with their ways, they sure do know how to move horses. Having said this, my neurons go haywire when they try to explain why horses behave the way they do, or why the horsemen do what they do, or advise others to do the same.

Relax, Peter Pan Horsemanship is not another method, it is a call to attention to some horsemen who unknowingly use “just so” stories to explain their craftiness with horses, an appeal to critical thinking if you will.

Most of these “just so stories” are based on naturalistic fallacies: This is the way that it happens in nature and therefore it must be right.

Why would any good horseman need to justify his experience in this way is beyond me. Plus, most of these methods are not actually based on studies of free-living or feral horses, they are “just so” stories, invented by people with vivid imaginations.

Peter Pan type horsemanship is responsible for encouraging people to attain “Alpha,” “Dominant,” or “Lead Mare” status in a supposed herd of two. However, as most may already know these social outcomes are in fact contextual, if at all existent.

In regards to Alphas in wolf packs he studied, L. David Mech had this to say:

“Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.” Read the full article Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs or alternately you can watch this video:

Roger Abrantes clarifies and defines Dominant behavior as follows:

“Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.” Read the full article Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense

The idea of the lead mare has not been found to hold true in many populations studied. You can read the most recent paper Movement initiation in groups of feral horses by Konstanze Krueger et al. (2014).

Imagine a horseman who works brilliantly with horses both on the ground and ridden, wooing the crowd with flashy skills, but the minute he opens his mouth, he blurts out gospel and fairy tales in what I call the Peter Pan Effect. He may start moving the horse aptly around an arena, and everything looks good, kicking up very little dust as Ray Hunt would say.

Because the work is well done and adapted to the individual horse, anything the horseman says may be taken literally by all that watch and listen. Although I must say that few methods are in reality adapted for individual horses, but instead are vast generalizations.

So if the horse is moved around with grace and training progresses, one explains what one believes to be the reasons behind one’s ability.

After all, we can only rely on what we know to explain what we observe, and knowledge in some cases at least regarding behavior is pretty limited in the horse world.

One could say: I am the Alpha or dominant individual, the lead mare, or alternately: the horse understands because I am moving his feet and this is what other horses naturally do. Replace these musings with I do this to horses because Peter Pan told me too, or because Tinker Bell or even Captain Hook, appeared to me in a dream and told me this was the way, and little would really change in the interaction.

As far as we know, and I stand to be corrected, horses are not intent to move other horse’s feet. No seriously….how can we ever know that the horse actually attempts to move feet; it could be a flea or tick on the back of the other horse that is being targeted, or an ear for that matter?

What bogus subjective rubbish!!!

It really would not matter much if it did not cloud our understanding of equine behavior, or undermine the many serious studies undertaken on horse behavior and learning theory that are readily available for those that care to consider looking into things with more depth.

So, for the sake of understanding horses for what they really are: what natural selection including man’s hand in artificial selection has favored them to be, please consider that there are simpler explanations at hand supported in some way or other by a scientific view. One should be careful not to fall prey to the many forms of Peter Pan Horsemanship that abound.

19 thoughts on “Peter Pan Horsemanship

  1. Thanks Victor — Great article. I have to laugh, because I fear it may have been my initial research on wild horses which started the “lead mare” fad. My sincere apologies. In an effort to describe ‘social facilitators” and “decision makers” in a group and to override the “stallion dominant” model, I used the term “lead mare” in my undergraduate thesis back in 1996 at the University of Wyoming. I also lectured on the topic of behavioral/social ecology of wild horses between 1979-1999 across the country. Having shared this thesis openly and with several prominent folks who went on to develop large global horse training mega businesses, it has taken on an entire paradigm of its own.

    Although specific herds did have strong mare leadership ( rhythm regulators, social facilitators, keystone species, decision makers, etc), and some herds were very clearly defined in social structures, others were based on the strong social bonds among individuals. Friendship/social bonds appeared to be the strongest “driver” for behavior and movement.

    • Thanks for your comments Mary Ann! Suzanne Tyler (1972) mentioned it as well, but few have read her work. I do know about your attempting to educate some of the more famous Natural horsemen in terms of behavior way back then. Truth is our view of things have changed since then, I know mine have. Leadership is such a more maleable word than Lead Mare or Leader, and it does not have a determinstic feel to it, alhtough in cases where a keystone individual or a particular horse initiates movement in most of the moves, it still can apply. I am happy that culture is now being looked at, because it highlights the contextuality of many behaviors we thought ubiquitous in the different populations. We now know this isnt so, which is great because it paves the road for so much more investigation, and it fills me with motivation and curiosity while being humbling at the same time.

      • Yes, I agree with you Victor, we are all evolving (hopefully), even the way we investigate behavior as scientists to look “with” rather than “at ” a species. Having approached various species with curiosity to understand the differences among them all, at this stage of reflection I see much more similarity in what criteria contributes to stable, sustainable species rather then the differences. So many behavior are learned or based on the decisions of the individuals within a species who can influence others, that I tend now to see more connections among all species than I did 40 years ago. It certainly is interesting to watch the paradigm shift even in science. Very much appreciate your work.

  2. excellent article. it will take some time to absorb. I listen to/observe my horses and let their reactions help guide me. I also expect respect from them and safety for me. I don’t allow one barging in on another’s grooming or lessons or attention. I have described this sort of expectation of them by me as being the “lead mare.” what is a better way to describe what I am doing.

    I do have a mare who takes first choice of the hay and also pays more attention to what is going on around. She is the first to notice changes and the first to go and check things out. She loves to explore new things and places…which makes her great for trail riding. What would be her designation in the herd. or is having any designation in the herd not necessary? She is just who she is?

    • Thanks for your comments. A better way of describing might just be “training”. I dont call my 12 horses living in 20 hectares a herd, it is more a domestic group where I have chosen who lives with who. A herd is a functional structure ususally comprised of 1 or more breeding units (bands) and temporal assemblages as those of bachelor bands and mixed sex groups.

      Hay or feed provided focally does tend to create a “pecking” order, but this is less likely to be so for trickle feeders grazing in open plains, who have not been observed to quarrel over grass that grows everywhere. In some places water becomes a focal point, especially in very arid conditions where it is not so easy to come by, and bands or groups converge for the resource. You can designate her as you wish, and it may be so in your particular group, as we often create these conditions in a domestic setting.

      • Well done Victor, you are completely correct. The Peter Pan effect is ubiquitous and is probably the greatest impediment to making progress in teaching horse people about learning processes and how training works. It’s also the greatest impediment to unifying all horse people in friendly agreement: methods may differ but fundamental principles do not. What you have written is brilliant, and everybody should be acquainted with it.
        Dr Andrew McLean

    • that is exactly my question!! We have a herd of 5, 3 mares(one a mule) and 2 geldings. The QH mare is able to get what she wants when she wants in all every situation except when the horse in question is being groomed or worked with. There is a seeming consistent hierarchy under her of paint gelding, curly mare, QH gelding then mule mare. In most situations the the QH mare and mule mare are the most observant and figure out problems first. I would love to know how to properly describe the social system in the herd. They live out on a track system 24/7.

      • Hi Susan, thanks. Like I said I peronally do not consider my 12 horses living in 20 hectares a herd in the functional sense. I have chosen who goes with who and thus call it a domestic group of horses. In captivity, or in the domestic scene, where resources may be an issue, or even sociality for that matter, dominant behavior (non-aggressive dyadic competition for a resource) is more likely, all things being equal, to produce a dominance hierarchy….especially if there are fewer individuals in a given group. In your case, and from what you have observed in your group it may be that the QH mare displays dominant behavior more consistently than not. Focal resources really are an issue. Aggression rates decrease tremendously when food (grass) is on the ground and everywhere, but this is not always possible.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Andrew. I agree, in my opinion it is time to move on to greener pastures, no punn intended. Thanks too for your part in enlightening people toward a science based analysis of behavior and training.

  4. I came across your site today, and found myself reading one article after another. My thoughts… “this is a serious look at behaviour” and not the “Peter Pan” (coining your phrase), versions I so often see and hear, that hook into the various fashionable horse arenas. Also thank you for the links to some latest research/papers, I look forward to reading these too.

  5. very interesting – thank you 🙂 I would be interested to know however how you would describe the relationship being worked on in a training situation. As you have mentioned above, in a domestic situation there does appear to be a bit of a dominance hierarchy going on – and I guess a horse / human ‘training’ / interaction situation is the same (domestic). So would using a ‘I need to establish leadership here’ not be a correct way of looking at things then? I know behaviourists / +R trainers would look at this differently but if you are into pressure training / -R (most horse riding and possibly more ‘natural’ than +R in that horses use pressure to move each other should they need to?) wouldn’t drawing on what horses do in the wild should the ‘need’ to establish authority over another in a pecking order (albeit rarely) be appropriate? I am interested to learn

    • Hi Tally,

      Thanks for your interesting questions.

      In a domestic situation, it is likely that dominance hierarchies can emerge due to limited resources. Focalizing scarce resources tends to create the so called “pecking order”, but this is more due to the way we keep and maintain horses than anything else. In these cases it may be apt to revise the conditions in which we manage horses.

      I would also draw a line differentiating being a leader and leadership. If by establishing leadership, you mean enforcing by intimidation and fear, I would personally not go that way. Leadership is gained by clear guidance…I am thirsty, so I will go and drink….I have rested enough, now it is time to move on…these clear actions are followed by the rest of the band. Most often these are contextual and band members are likely to interchange the role. Yes, it does occur that there are more consistent leaders, but this is not rampant nor ubiquitous.

      Your questions seem to be placing notions of dominance training and learning theory into the same equation. For ease of understanding, it may be convenient to choose one of the two. Again personally I would choose learning theory over notions of dominance. In a biological sense dominance is defined as competition over resources. What resources are you competing with the horse for? Furthermore, in all cases in which I have observed dominant behaviour in horses, the only consistent response of the loser of the dyadic encounter has been moving away from the threat or potential threat (authority).

      The discussion of whether +R or -R is more natural for horses,is a dogmatic one, which I have never really considered in much detail. It is pointless in my mind at least, to categorically try to only use one of the operants from the operant quadrant. Whichever you choose to use, I would suggest looking at the quality of the stimulus being applied, including intensity, duration and frequency. One must remember that it is not the animal being reinforced or punished (as per learning theory), it is their behaviour. While with notions of dominance, issues of respect and authority it is actually the animal that receives the blunt end of our actions.

      • Thank you Victor for your quick response. So, how would you describe a training situation in which a horseman you respect causes a horse to respond a way in which he/she desires? Leadership though clear guidance using something from the operant quadrant / quadrants. And if you wanted to explain why this works to a lay person how would you do it?

  6. Pingback: 'Doing Deer' for Horse Bullying Behaviour | Listen To Your Horse

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