Hartmann, E., Christensen, J. W., Mcgreevy, P. D. 2019. Does leadership relate to social order in groups of horses and can it be transferred to human–horse interactions? Journal of Veterinary Behavior 29, 153. (13th International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) Conference Abstract)

A prevalent, traditional approach to horse-training is based on the belief that human dominance and leadership over horses is required to gain their respect and compliance. However, this denies the horses’ complex social organisation and the many factors determining rank. Hierarchies often manifest during resource competition which is usually absent in training. Furthermore, studies have shown that leadership is not unique to the highest ranked or oldest horse of the group but that any horse can act as leader (initiating group movement). Thus, the relevance of incorporating such concepts into human-horse dyads is probably low. This is supported by empirical data on four groups of Icelandic horses and Standardbreds (5 horses/group), studied during different tests at pasture (novel object/surface, competition for food) to determine if movement initiators were distinguished by rank. Horses could leave a pen (15x13m) to explore four objects (umbrella, pool noodles, doll, blanket), traverse four surfaces (plastic tarpaulin [PT] folded; PT unfolded; PT with traffic cones; PT with taped crosses) and feed during four limited resource tests. Data revealed that highest-ranked horses initiated movement in only 6% of 48 tests. The latency to leave the pen did not differ between the highest (Mean 330 secs ±134 SE) and all lower-ranked horses (258±89; W=36, P>0.05). Thus, rank did not predict leaders, nor was movement initiation consistent across test contexts. An understanding of horses’ social behavior is therefore more reliable in safeguarding horse welfare than translating dominance and leadership constructs into training.

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