That the dominance theory is outdated should not come as news to most horse or dog people. However, why is it still the foundation for most training methods in the equestrian world today?
The problem, as I see it, lies in the fact that pure scientific explanations alone are not sufficient to convince people. Firstly, because they may have different experiences with the behavior of their own domesticated horses regarding a supposed “pecking order” or “dominant behavior” that seems to confirm the original theory. But in reality, this behavior results from unnatural confinement, feeding schedules, and inadequate socialization. Dominance-based training can also lead to traumatic experiences for horses.
Additionally, accepting that what we have done with horses for years, sometimes even decades, was maybe wrong, that the scientific findings were not correct and achieved by creating unnatural situations for these wild horses too, to be able to observe their behavior, and that we may have even harmed our own horses because we trusted it, is difficult for many people to acknowledge, as we genuinely want to do right by our horses.
Secondly, a purely scientific explanation overlooks, in my opinion, another significant component that eludes logic and scientific understanding. Namely, these insights jeopardize the satisfaction of our own emotional needs.
There are many different reasons why we bring a horse into our lives and invest so many resources like time, money, and especially emotions into being with them. We do so in order to fulfill our unmet needs, such as the desire for freedom and genuine friendship.
But what happens when we can no longer dictate the horse’s every movement? When we suddenly have to put in more effort to be recognized as mentors and learn to accept a “no”?
We risk that our needs, such as freedom and connection, may no longer be fulfilled or easily attainable. What if the horse no longer wants to spend time with us or suddenly refuses to be ridden? What if it doesn’t want to leave its friends at the barn when we want to take a walk together?
In such situations, we must confront our fears: the fear of rejection, of being alone and unimportant. The fear of losing control. The fear that something is suddenly different, and we must learn something new, handle a situation for which we do not have an automated solution. We must also learn to fulfill our own needs differently, despite the significant resources we invest in our horses, again, not just money, but time and emotions.
If we truly want to reach all horse people, to make life easier, more enjoyable, and, above all, more self-determined for our horses, logical explanations alone are mostly ineffective.
Instead, we must convey to people that we understand and see their need, their desire to fulfill themselves through horse ownership and handling. It is crucial to make it clear that this is not about superiority or judgment because, in fact, the dominance theory was indeed the dominant and scientifically accepted theory for a long time.
Then, we must propose alternatives—not just concerning natural and peaceful horse training, but also how horse owners can heal and resolve their fears and other emotions they experience in their daily lives. We must show them ways to heal all their negative experiences, wounds, and traumas. Only then can they reach a point where they can create some distance and truly see their horse for what it is—an autonomous being with its own needs. A being that also seeks connection with us – since it lives among humans and often forms a close bond with us.
We can even help expand the horse’s world by nurturing its nature and, in a camaraderie-like manner, challenging it to master new, interesting, and sometimes difficult situations bravely. This allows horses to develop a fascinating, new, and behaviorally adapted way of being as a species. Because, just like us, the horse must find its place in this vastly different world from the one for which evolution prepared it.
And when we learn to understand ourselves as mentors to the horse and fully embrace this role, a connection can arise that is much deeper and stronger than anything we can achieve through dominance, control, and punishment.