Dare we ask whether the concept of equine hierarchy is indeed the primary means of understanding horses and the foundation upon which all training should be built?
In their new book EQUUS LOST? Francesco De Giorgio and Jose De Giorgio-Schoorl question the role of hierarchy within equine herds and suggest that our dependence upon perceived hierarchies in order to determine our interactions with horses is flawed.
“Due to the vicious circle of hierarchical focus and our anthropocentric views, there are many elements and details of equine behavior that we fail to see,” they write. “In fact, we still miss the essential part of the horse—that is, the horse as he is, a sentient and cognitive being, with his own social preferences.
“The first question horse people asks themselves when they go to see a new herd is likely to be, ‘Who is the dominant horse?’ Yet, by focusing on this aspect, we immediately create a filter and make it impossible to observe the more subtle social behaviors, all the small gestures, and less visible behaviors that nevertheless have an important cohesive function within the herd. These gestures can include: observing each other and being aware of the herd’s dynamics, looking from a distance while foraging, standing in proximity to each other, separating horses that tend to enter into conflict, smelling each other’s noses or flanks to understand certain situations better, and coming to stand close by. Further, horses softly nicker when there is tension between herd members. They are dedicated to all these interactions, which serve to demonstrate understanding and reassurance while reinforcing the role of dialogue within the group.
“We can see the impact of the dominance filter when looking at some of the methods used in groundwork, where a horse is in a round pen and a human is standing in the middle with, or without, a longe line, forcing a horse into movement by gesturing with his arms, believing he is using them as symbols of the leading mare and the pushing stallion. Not only is this not ethical because it doesn’t reflect the complex and sophisticated social herd dynamics, but it also brings people to believe that this is actually how horses create dialogue, causing a huge element for miscommunication in the horse-human relationship.
“Horses do not like conflict. They want to understand social dynamics, watch nuances, and support each other in order to have and preserve a calm environment. They do not busy themselves with ranking but with observing social relationships. In the horse-human relationship, tricks and treats cannot be used to smooth out and reduce tense behavior. They cannot make it disappear or create in its place an emotionally balanced animal. Our desire for obedience, surrender, and specific reactions makes us cover up behavior and doesn’t allow the horse to use his own social skills and inner intentions. Training methods focus on surrender, ignoring the essence of the horse and his social abilities.”
If you’re ready to consider that there might be better ways to coexist and work with horses, read EQUUS LOST? available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small company based on a farm in rural Vermont.