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Dominance, Submission, And Appeasement

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 28 June 2012 · 2,259 views

Many trainers tell people you have to be dominant to your horse. I believe that such a statement shows a misunderstanding of the term “dominance.” Dominance originated as a scientific term describing the relationship between two animals wanting one resource. The animal that ended up with the resource was the “dominant” animal of the pair. In other words, dominance (in its original scientific sense) only applies to battles over resources.

Animals don’t have battles simply over power, with no resources involved. Only humans fight each other merely to increase their standing in a hierarchy. Therefore, horses aren’t trying to be “dominant” over people when they misbehave. They’re simply trying to get their way.

By the same token, horses don’t see humans as “dominant”, because we don’t fight with them over resources. Horses obey us because they are punished if they don’t and rewarded (even if only by not being punished) when they do. If we don’t train them properly, they don’t learn to obey, but their disobedience has nothing to do with dominance. Horses do NOT initiate power struggles with people. Their disobedience is always just an attempt to get their way, not to be “dominant.”

The evolutionary reason for dominance is to decrease actual fighting. If an animal wins one battle over a resource, it is likely to get first rights on other resources without having to fight, because the subordinate animal recognizes that it will probably just lose again, so it isn’t worth fighting. That way, neither animal has to risk the possibility of being injured in an unnecessary battle.

Dominance works best, from an evolutionary standpoint, when the animals don’t need to fight at all. If one animal’s aggressive displays convince the other animal to back off, without there ever being an actual fight, then neither animal EVER has to risk being injured in a fight. Therefore, animals have evolved displays of “submission”, so that the dominant animal knows the other animal is backing off without a fight and the dominant animal doesn’t need to attack.

An example of a submission display with which most people are familiar is when a dog cringes or rolls over onto its back and exposes its belly to another animal. People also cringe when approached aggressively by someone when they don’t want to fight. Another example, familiar to many horse people, is the foal behavior that has several different names, such as snapping, chomping, and teeth clacking. Submissive displays, then, are body language that can be translated as saying “I’m harmless. Please don’t hurt me.”

Adult horses don’t really have a submission display similar to that of the dog exposing its belly. In horses, submission is usually signaled by moving away from the dominant animal. It is only when a horse CAN’T move away that we see other behaviors that say “Don’t hurt me. I don’t want to fight.”

The most obvious of these behaviors are tucking in the tail (similar to the familiar dog behavior) and raising the head. Unlike the dog’s exposing of the belly, though, these behaviors are not ALWAYS submissive. Horses that are fighting will tuck their tails and raise their heads to avoid being injured in vulnerable places, so the horse’s entire demeanor needs to be evaluated. If its ears are flat back, then it is unlikely to be expressing submission.

Submissive behaviors are called “appeasement displays” when they’re used to defuse the anger of another animal. A sensitive dog may show its belly to a person who yells at it, even if it’s never been physically punished. It recognizes that the person is angry, and rolling over onto its back is its genetic response to try to defuse such anger and avoid being hurt. The response doesn’t mean that the dog feels guilty about anything. It’s simply saying “I recognize that you’re angry. Please don’t hurt me.”

“I’m sorry” is a typical human appeasement gesture. For example, people usually say “I’m sorry” when they run into each other, even if it wasn’t their fault. In essence, we’re saying “It was an accident. I don’t want to start a fight. Please don’t get angry.”

Like other animals, horses also use submissive behaviors in appeasement displays. If a person gets angry at a horse, it may try to move away, or it may just turn its head away. It may also raise its head, or even tuck its tail. The amount of appeasement it will show will be proportionate to the amount of anger the person is demonstrating.

When you think about it, it’s really amazing how sensitive horses are to recognizing anger in humans, even though we’re an entirely different species. If I slap my horse to kill a mosquito that has landed on her, she ignores me. If I use the same slap after she has misbehaved, she will raise her head and roll her eye at me. I don’t have to be more than mildly annoyed, but she knows her misbehavior annoyed me enough for me to slap her, so she performs a slight appeasement behavior to placate me.

It is also amazing that appeasement behaviors work so well between two different species. When my horse raises her head and rolls her eye, my annoyance immediately disappears, because she “apologized.” It’s genetically programmed in animals to stop being angry when another animal is showing appeasement, so when my horse’s body language says she’s sorry (if only for annoying me), I respond with forgiveness, even though she can’t say she’s sorry verbally, as another human being would do.

It’s important to remember that appeasement displays from animals do not mean that they feel guilty, though. For example, if you come home, find dog poop on the floor, and start yelling at your dog, it’s going to “act guilty” simply to try to deflect your anger. The appeasement behavior doesn’t mean it understands WHY you’re angry. If this scenario happens often enough, the dog will “act guilty” as soon as it sees you when it knows there’s poop on the floor somewhere, because it’s learned that you get angry when there’s poop on the floor. However, it DOESN’T understand that you get angry because you blame it for putting the poop there and not waiting to go outside. Your being angry and your dog’s “apology” might make you feel better, but it won’t help to teach your dog to be housebroken. All your dog knows is that, when you’re angry, the appropriate genetic response to defuse anger is to “act guilty.”

It’s also important to understand that a submissive display by an animal isn’t saying “okay, I accept you as my leader.” It’s simply saying “I’m not a threat to you. Please don’t hurt me.” An animal acts submissively when it thinks it’s being threatened with harm, which is what dominance and submission actually involve. So, you shouldn’t really want to be dominant to your horse, or for your horse to be submissive to you. Dominance has nothing to do with leadership, and it is the leadership position that you want to have with your horse. You want to be the one whose calm presence assures your horse that it’s safe, not the one who makes it feel threatened. Dominance is earned by threatening to cause harm, and leadership is earned by proving that you are worthy to be trusted. I want my horse to trust me, not to fear me. I hope you want the same relationship with your horse. Be a leader, not a tyrant. Be friends with your horse!

June 2012


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