The Myth Of Dominance - Lesley Skipper

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Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal. - Daniel Goleman

What makes a horse co-operate?

Why do they allow us to do all the unnatural things we require of them? Why do they allow us on their backs in the first place? Is it because they're stupid, as many people believe? Or could there be another explanation? I think that what we have to do is look at one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood aspects of equine life: the fact that the horse is, above all, a social creature.

Why is this important? Well, any animal that spends its life in the company of others of its own kind, has to have some kind of social organisation that enables them to get along with each other. Otherwise the result is continual squabbling, which is not only very wearing, it actually reduces the group's chances of survival, especially for a species such as the horse. A group of prey animals that doesn't have any real coherence as a group is much more vulnerable to attack from predators than one which hangs together as a group. So how do horses organise their social lives? Virtually every modern book on the training and management of horses stresses that horses are herd animals, and that they have a well defined social hierarchy. This is usually referred to as a 'pecking order'. 'By nature the horse is a herd animal and this strong pull in his character invariably prompts him to join a group where a hierarchy, or pecking order, exists. This hierarchy fulfils the essential needs for protection of each individual horse, giving the herd its order, strength, and leadership.'i

[The concept of dominance becomes somewhat meaningless when resources are not artificially restricted. Here there are plenty of hay piles to go round]

Is this what you've learned, or been told, about equine social organisation? If it is, have you ever wondered whether the use of such terms as 'pecking order' is really appropriate? After all, we're considering large grazing herbivores, and not a group of farmyard chickens. That being so, are such terms appropriate? Is the view of equine society quoted above the correct one, or is it an over-simplified stereotype? You don't have to read too much of the scientific literature on animal behaviour and social organisation to realise that many of the writers seem to have what almost amounts to an obsession with hierarchies and dominance. But before the 20th century, people in Western societies knew comparatively little about how animals behaved in their natural habitat, and little was known about their social organisation. Since the beginning of the twentieth century many wide-ranging studies in comparative psychology have been carried out, and the middle years of the century saw the rise of the new science of ethology. All kinds of animals were studied, and the idea of social dominance emerged as a result of observations of domestic fowl made by the Norwegian naturalist Schjelderup-Ebbe in the early 1920s. He noted that aggression between any two birds within a flock was a one-way process: if one bird pecked another, the other bird would not respond in kind. Schjelderup-Ebbe therefore considered the aggressor to be the 'dominant' individual, and the one on the receiving end of the aggression was labelled the 'subordinate'. He believed that this open aggression was the key to social organisation in domestic fowl. 'Between any two birds,' he wrote in 1922, 'one individual invariably had precedence over the other' and further 'In this case Z is the despot, the superior being, the tyrant, he has the power and may use it as he pleases.'ii Because it was first documented among domestic fowl, this clearly defined hierarchy became known as a 'pecking order'.

As studies of animal societies increased in number and scope, hierarchical organisation was also found in many other species, and soon the phrase 'pecking order' was being used in a widespread, rather careless manner, to describe virtually any social arrangement where some kind of hierarchy was observed. Another popular phrase was 'dominance hierarchy'; so that virtually every a book on animal behaviour contains references to 'dominance hierarchies' of one kind or another. Observations of aggressive - or as animal behavioural scientists would put it, 'agonistic' - interactions between domestic horses, and also in some feral horses living in natural groups, led the observers to conclude that horses, too, were hierarchical, and that dominance played a prominent part in their social organisation.

But how true is this? Does 'dominance' really play such an important role in equine society? At first sight it would seem that it does. But in recent years doubts have set in in many quarters about the reliability of many of the observations regarding 'dominance hierarchies' in general. The idea of such hierarchies is naturally very appealing to scientists, who understandably like to be able to categorise observations. However, nature is neither so tidy nor so obliging. Ethologists studying dominance hierarchies can find it frustrating when they can't determine whether one animal is dominant to another. They often seem to believe that if studies are carried on long enough or more extensively, some kind of true ranking will emerge. It rarely seems to occur to them that 'hierarchy' may not be an accurate way of describing that particular social organisation.

Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy observe that 'The notion of observing a group of animals engaged in mysterious interactions and extracting a tidy hierarchy which generates testable predictions has great appeal for scientists. Sometimes the idea that hierarchies are inevitable and prove certain things about humans is also part of the appeal.'iii

It's also important to realise that most of the major studies of dominance, which have shaped theories about its function in the social organisation of non-human animals, have concentrated on birds or primates (especially the latter), and the results then applied to mammalian societies in general, often without regard to differences in habitat and lifestyle. But this may be an over-simplification, and an inaccurate one at that. Problems with the concept of 'dominance' in large herbivores was pointed out as long ago as the mid-1970s (e.g. Kiley-Worthington, 1977, Syme and Syme 1979). In spite of this, most observers have assumed, and described, dominance hierarchies; but they don't always make it clear how they have measured these hierarchies. When they do, the measurement has usually been based on the rather crude system of counting the number of threats made by one horse to another, then 'ranking' the results. The context of these threats - which would surely tell us how relevant they are to social organisation - has rarely been recorded in detail.

But before we can see whether the idea of a 'dominance hierarchy' is really relevant to equine society, we need to look beyond this rather crude notion of a 'pecking order', and try to understand what is meant by dominance, and what its function is supposed to be.

Generally, if one individual always responds submissively to another individual at the start of any aggressive encounter, we may say that this is a 'dominance relationship'. In a detailed critique of theories about dominance, Irwin S. Bernstein distinguishes dominance relationships which occur between two animals, from dominance hierarchies, within which an individual's rank may be located.iv Why do dominance relationships, or dominance hierarchies, arise? Among primates at least, several major functions of dominance have been identified. What could these functions be? Syme and Syme, following Rowell (1974), define them as follows:
  • Leadership. 'Dominant animals are assumed to be leaders...In primates, for instance, this involves active roles in group defence, policing internal group strife, and leadership in terms of the geographical movement of the group.'
  • Sexual priority. 'Social dominance is assumed to be of evolutionary significance in that sexual priorities can be observed for dominant animals in terms of both sexual behaviour and reproductive success.' In addition, it's assumed that dominance gives priority of access not only to potential mates, but to such commodities as food, water, territory, personal space, etc.
  • Reducing aggression. 'Formation of a dominance hierarchy reduces the level of aggression within a group; once the dominance-subordinance relationship is established physical aggression is restricted to threat rituals from which the subordinate readily retreats.'v

Do all of these assumptions necessarily hold true for horses? Has anyone made personal observations that would either confirm these assumptions or cause us to reject them? Before we can judge whether these assumptions hold true for horses, we first have to see how free-ranging horses organise themselves when allowed to do so without human intervention.

When James Feist and Dale McCullough carried out their detailed observations of groups of feral horses living on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in the western USA, and compared these with similar observations of other feral groups, they were struck by the extent to which the same social organisation occurs within such bands. This is in spite of thousands of years of domestication, in which horses have commonly been kept in far from natural conditions, and selectively bred for certain behavioural characteristics. 'Despite this period of manipulation by man, once horses manage to escape and live in a wild or semi-wild state, the typical wild social organisation emerges.'vi This 'typical wild social organisation' is not, as people often believe, the large, rather anonymous herd; smaller bands of horses may come together sometimes to form a larger, temporary 'herd', but in general such herds are found only in places where human intervention either upsets the ratio of males to females, or actively ensures the creation of a larger group. The form of organisation horses seek for themselves when left entirely to their own devices tends to be the much smaller family group consisting of a stallion, one to five mares (three being the average number) and their immature offspring. The latter stay with the family until they become sexually mature, when they usually leave the group (or are kicked out by the stallion) and form groups of their own; though in some cases they may remain with the family group much longer than this. Fillies may leave the group to go in search of a mate, while colts may either search for potential mates or form 'bachelor groups'; even these are seldom large, generally consisting of up to three or four colts, but sometimes as few as two. We don't know exactly how long such groups remain stable, but it appears that the adults of a family group frequently stay together for many years. Individual groups do come into contact with other groups, often at watering places, but they generally keep their distance.

This kind of loose organisation tends to vary with terrain, climate, and other factors such as levels of human interference, but in general we can see similar patterns of organisation appearing wherever horses are allowed simply to get on with their lives undisturbed. So how do concepts of 'dominance' fit into such an organisation? Until relatively recently it was almost universally assumed that a herd of horses was led by a dominant stallion. In the early 1970s R H Smythe wrote: ' horse, almost invariably a stallion, places himself at the front of a herd or drove of horses and stays there by virtue of general acceptance.'vii But after the publication of studies of free-ranging horses which seemed to contradict this idea, a new myth arose: the leadership of a herd was no longer assumed to be a dominant stallion, but instead a dominant mare. So we find Susan McBane writing in "Behaviour Problems in Horses" that 'In the case of herd hierarchies in general, the boss of the herd is far more normally a matriarchal mare rather than a stallion'viii while in "Understanding Your Horse" Lesley Bayley and Richard Maxwell say that ' the wild it is the dominant mare of the herd, and not the stallion, which makes all the decisions.'ix - and in one of Britain's most popular equestrian magazines, we have another equine behaviour expert stating that 'horses in the wild are typically led by an alpha female.'x

Now it might seem odd that I'm calling this idea a myth, but in fact there are three myths here: that of the 'dominant stallion', that of the 'dominant mare', and - most pervasive of all - that of the leader, or 'boss'. These last 2 concepts are expressed in rather rigid terms by R.H. Smythe, who in describing the supposed social order which ruled horses in the wild says: 'When the "boss" stood still and listened, the others did likewise. When the "boss" decided it was an appropriate moment to make a rapid getaway, or even to make a leisurely move into some other neighbourhood, the others all followed without question. When the "boss" called a halt, all came to a standstill together.'xi More recently, Lesley Bayley and Richard Maxwell have stated that 'In equine society there is a leader: one horse which is the boss, and which the others respect and obey.'xii

Is this really what happens in equine society? Or is it more of a reflection of what equine behaviour experts think should happen? It's certainly not what happens in my group of horses, and I haven't seen it in any of the other groups I've studied - and I've spent thousands of hours just observing equine groups of various types and sizes in a variety of different situations. However that may be, the ideas expressed by the authors quoted above have become part of 'received wisdom' about equine social organisation; and none of them stands up to close examination. Part of the problem is that 'leadership' is rather a woolly concept. How can we define leadership?

Social leadership can be defined as 'the control of aggression between individuals within the group, and the protection of other members when the group is faced with threat or predation.'xiii

Spatial leadership, which governs movement from place to place, has been defined mainly by studies of primate behaviour. One definition of it states that 'A spatial leader is an individual within a group who decides the direction and time of group movement throughout the groups' home range. Although some animals may occasionally try to lead the group, members will not move until the leader does.'xiv

According to Feist and McCullough, leadership 'can be expressed either by the taking of initiative by one animal with the others following, or by the active driving or herding of the group by a stallion.'xv In their study, leadership by initiative was recorded in 159 cases during movements from place to place, or going to and from water. Of these, 106 (66.7%) were led by the stallion, and 53 by a mare. Of the 53 cases in which a mare assumed leadership, seven were in response to the nearness of other harems, and nine were due to unnatural disturbances. In these 16 cases the stallion herded the group, directing its movements. 'Thus, in only 23.3% of the observed cases was the mare solely responsible for leadership.'xvi

In 1954 Ebhardt reported that stallions were the common leaders among Icelandic pony bands. In 1972 Hall, studying the Pryor Mountain wild horse range, regarded the most consistent leaders to be dominant mares. In 1972 Stephanie Tyler found that adult mares were the leaders in New Forest Ponies. However, Tyler herself acknowledged that her findings were skewed by the fact that there were very few stallions in the New Forest, and these were periodically moved around or removed altogether. She writes that 'From the small number of cases where stallions were associated with mare groups and because of the unstable nature of these relationships due to man, it was not possible to conclude whether the stallion as the dominant member of his group was the leader.'xvii. Klingel, writing in 1964 and 1967, reported that in plains zebras the oldest mares appeared to be the leaders in group movements, but the stallion was still the dominant animal. Klingel also recorded that among mountain and Hartmann's zebras leadership when moving to water was assumed by the stallion, but taken over by the dominant mare when moving away from water. This pattern was also occasionally observed by Feist and McCullough. Joel Berger, in 1977 found that in walking to water stallions led on 32 occasions, mares on 24. In walking away from water, out of 52 observed walk patterns, stallions showed temporary leadership 15 times, mares 19. Feist and McCullough describe how, when members of the group other than the stallion became excited or disturbed by something, they would whinny to attract the stallion's attention. If he did not see any cause for alarm, and remained calm, the rest of the group did likewise. They conclude that 'Both initiative leadership and herding behavior in the harem show that the stallions are the principal leaders and they direct most of the movements of the groups.'xviii In his book The Man Who Listens to Horses (Hutchinson 1996), Monty Roberts makes numerous references to 'dominant mares', and indicates that he equates their dominance with leadership, but he doesn't say how he measured this dominance, or how he defined leadership; and he gives no more than vague details about the social organisation of the groups he studied. Although his observations are extremely valuable in relation to what's important to horses, they don't really tell us anything useful about equine social organisation.

All we can really determine, then, is that 'leadership' (however it is defined) is not the property solely of either sex, but may at various times be assumed by mares or stallions. But regardless of sex, can 'leadership' be assigned to a dominant horse? Feist and McCullough report that groups approached water in single file on a trail, with either the stallion or a mare leading. The return to feeding areas would be conducted in a similar fashion, though they might graze along the way. Mares who reached the water first were often those who were lactating. Tyler observed that when the New Forest ponies moved from day-time grazing areas into the valleys in the evenings, when they reversed the proceedings in the mornings, or when they moved to other drinking places, they would sometimes move as much as a mile without grazing. Any member of a group - even an immature pony - could initiate these moves. They usually walked in single file; order was not always constant, though there was some evidence that dominant mares and their families led the way. However if the group was alarmed then they would all gallop away alongside one another, with no obvious leader. This is consistent with the flight behaviour seen by Joel Berger, who says however that when terrain was flat, horses did follow each other, though different horses assumed leadership at different times. Berger also says that among the bands he observed, 'No one horse served consistently as a leader during walking patterns to or from the spring...the origin of a leader for a walking pattern frequently was the individual that merely assumed the initiative and walked. When others followed, the lead horse continued, but when there were no followers, which often was the case, the horse soon stopped.'xix Feist and McCullough remark that 'We were unable to determine a hierarchy among the mares of a group with regard to position in movements. However, observed leaders were usually older mares or mares with foals or yearlings.', while Berger, as in his comments quoted above, insists that 'At no time was complete leadership shown for any individual stallion or mare within a band.'

All that doesn't quite tie up with the tidy ideas about hierarchies and leadership that the popular books and magazines talk about, does it? There are other aspects to leadership which we haven't touched on as yet, such as its role in 'policing' aggression and protecting other members of the group. For now I want to look at the remaining bastion of dominance theory: the function of dominance in ensuring priority of access.

It's usually presumed that dominant males will enjoy greater reproductive success (being able to mate with more females). One might think, from the writings of (predominantly male) animal behaviour scientists and ethologists, that females were entirely passive, having little or no say in the matter. But this is far from being the case. Among hamadryas baboons, dominance status may be less important to the reproductive success of a male than the preference of a female. Shirley Strum observed that with olive baboons, the more aggressive and 'high ranking' a male was, the less success he had in getting females to mate with him. Nor did such aggressive males fare any better when it came to getting the best food.xx Similar situations have been described in other species, such as lemurs and langurs, while in his celebrated study of cats, Paul Leyhausenxxi notes that even when a tomcat is successful in fighting off a rival, the queen is just as likely to choose the defeated male as the victor and as anyone who has ever observed cats in such a situation knows, the choice is very definitely the female's; the same applies in many other species.

But what of horses? Do mares invariably go for the more dominant types? Not necessarily; even so, it might well be the case that a more dominant stallion would have more success in fighting off (or scaring off) rivals than a less dominant individual; while an aggressive young stallion might have more success in either winning young unattached mares, or in enticing mares from another band. These are distinct possibilities; but there's very little conclusive evidence one way or the other. According to Feist and McCullough, out of 82 observed encounters between stallions of different groups, 37 were the result of the nearness of other groups. 12 fights were caused by attempts on the part of a harem stallion to gain a mare from within another harem, while four other fights were part of attempts by stallions to recover mares that had become separated from the harem (in only one case was the mare not recovered). So from this limited data it would seem that the greater part of the aggression between stallions was the result of attempts to protect existing groups, rather than to gain access to mares from other groups, though clearly this did happen. This correlates with other studies which have found that stallions appear to concentrate more on maintaining group cohesion and stability than on enlarging the size of their harems. Berger found a direct relationship between harem size and what he called 'interband stallion rank' (a rather crude ranking of stallions in relation to stallions of other bands); however he also noted that when the number of foals was subtracted from the groups, there was negligible difference between the stallions in the middle rank. In any case, the number of stallions in this study (four in all) is hardly sufficient to give proof one way or the other.

Those observations relate to male horses. But what about females? In his 5- year study of feral horses in the Great Basin of Northern America, Joel Berger found that 'Over the study period no clear correlates between reproductive success and dominance emerged...'xxii

What about defence of territory? Various studies of feral and semi-feral groups has shown that horses are not territorial, in the sense of laying claim to specific areas. They defend their group and their personal space rather than a defined 'territory'; it is not uncommon for the ranges of two or more herds to overlap considerably.

This leaves only priority of access to resources such as food, drink and shelter. For many animal behaviourists, dominance is unquestionably linked with access to such resources. Paul McGreevy says, 'most hierarchies are established in relation to food resources'xxiii He further says that 'Free-ranging horses are usually familiar with the seasonal disappearance of food sources, and it is at times of relative paucity that rank can mean the difference between surviving and perishing. The horse that demands access to the best of what food is available is less likely to suffer illness and is also the least likely to be lethargic when escaping a potential predator.'xxiv As with the other assumptions examined so far, we must ask, what evidence is there that this is really the case?

The study of the Tour du Valat herd of Camargue horses made by Wells and Goldschmidt-Rothschild gives no real evidence of dominance affecting access to food and water. The authors content themselves with the observation that 'Headthreats...are given to subordinate individuals in more general situations such as grazing, seeking shelter and maintaining individual distance'xxv. However they give no data from this study which would support this statement.

In his 1977 paper, Joel Berger makes no mention of dominance in relation to feeding; while in his later study Berger observed that '..even in early spring when food was most limited and new vegetative growth had not yet begun, few feeding displacements occurred.'xxvi He goes on to say that although numerous bands among those he studies had access only to mediocre or poor foraging sites. He says, 'In such bands increases aggression and accentuated hierarchies might be expected for limited resources, but there were no differences in rates of intraband displacements over food between band in poor and other home ranges'xxvii. Clutton-Brock et al. in their study of Highland ponies merely state that 'Apart from increasing the frequency of interaction, the provision of food had little effect on the social structure of the group.'xxviii

Feist and McCullough record no correlation between dominance and access to food; with regard to drinking they observe that 'Threats were used at the water holes to gain drinking space, although for the most part group members were tolerant of each other in this circumstance.'xxix They also note that 'As each horse finished drinking it would wait for the rest of the group to finish when all moved away together.'xxx As all thus had the same amount of opportunity to drink (because the rest of the group would wait for them), a dominance hierarchy would not seem to confer any benefit here.

In the context of competition for scarce resources, it is interesting to note that during Stephanie Tyler's celebrated study of New Forest ponies, hay was supplied to the ponies in winter to provide competition, so that large numbers of threats could be recorded in a short time - far more than would be observed during 'normal grazing, when competition was negligible'xxxi [my italics]. How does this lack of competition fit in with McGreevy's picture of rank as a matter of life and death?

The same lack of competitiveness dogged Grzimek when he conducted his early experiments in determining rank in horses. As Syme and Syme comment, 'Observing insufficient aggressive behaviour in a non-competitive situation he then recorded the response of 29 young stallions to restricted food in a bucket and eventually obtained enough data for an hierarchy. Even in this competitive setting the horses were extremely tolerant of each other and possible situational variation in dominance relationships was noted.'xxxii I have observed the same kind of tolerance among our own horses, even on the part of those who would most aggressively defend their personal space, or their heap of hay. This tolerance seems most evident among close friends (as one might expect); but in our group at least these friends do not necessarily display similar levels of aggression, which does not correlate with the findings of Clutton-Brock and others that horses tended to associate most with those of similar rank. Our stallion, Nivalis, made a particular friend of one of the riding school ponies who spent the summer of 1997 in the field adjoining ours. They would spend hours grazing on opposite sides of the fence, noses actually touching on occasions; but not once in hours of observation did I see the slightest sign of aggression, even though they were often grazing the same patch of grass, and that summer the grass was very sparse. Zareeba and Roxzella may often be seen grazing, nose to nose, in just such a way, while Lynn and Sara Debnam, whose late Arabian stallion Pharis used to run out with their other Arabian stallion Balthasar and another Arabian, the gelding Merlin, report similar observations. Pharis and Merlin were particular friends, and would graze side by side so closely that they were almost nibbling the same blade of grass. I have several times observed Nivalis's daughter Imzadi, as a foal, cheekily poking her nose into the manger hung over Nivalis's stable door, from which he was contentedly eating his breakfast. His response to this impertinence was to allow her to eat a few mouthfuls, then gently push her away, as if to say, 'That's enough; this is after all my breakfast'. Tiff and Nivalis eat simultaneously, without squabbles, from the same feed bucket, and may frequently be observed with both their muzzles in a standard-sized water bucket, again drinking peacefully without squabbles.

Some experimenters have adopted the rather crude approach of Grzimek and attempted to 'rank' horses by presenting them with food in a bucket and recording who ends up with it. In this situation, says McGreevy, it is the dominant horse who always ends up with the bucket. But what is actually being measured here? Given the examples of food-sharing above, does this really tell us anything other than how important food is to a particular individual? And given that this may bear little or no relation to that individual's actual bodily needs, is there really any 'sociobiological' significance to this? McGreevy acknowledges that all that would be established is which horse is dominant in what he calls an 'isolated food-related hierarchyxxxiii'.

The bucket test referred to above has often been conducted after systematically depriving the horses of food. But as with Tyler's provision of hay to provoke competition between the New Forest ponies, the creation of such artificially competitive situations exposes the main problem of approaching the study of social interactions in this way. Like the laboratory experiment, such an approach distorts the very behaviour it is supposed to be clarifying. Those who make use of it appear to assume that if they place their subjects in extreme situations, often quite unlike those they would encounter in the free-ranging lifestyle natural to them, the 'true nature' of equine social interactions will somehow be revealed. In the same way there is an odd, almost superstitious notion that only in extreme conditions will the essential truth about human nature reveal itself. This is such a widespread idea that it has become almost a convention of novels, plays and films. And it is true that such extreme conditions will often reveal unsuspected aspects to a person's character. But this tells us only about reactions to specific situations; it does not give us a complete picture of that person. Should we conclude therefore that because under unnatural, extreme conditions aggression may increase, and with it tendencies for certain horses to dominate others, this represents the 'true' nature of horses? Of course we should not, any more than we should conclude that humans are 'naturally' brutish and nasty because of their behaviour in similarly extreme conditions.

We must face the fact that, given the way so many are kept - in imbalanced, often single-sex groups where there may be frequent changes of companions and little chance to form the deep bonds so necessary to horses, and in (to them) cramped conditions, we should not be surprised if they react to this by becoming more aggressive and even bullying other horses.

What of other resources, such as shelter? Horses do not generally need to compete for hiding places, since they escape from predators by fleeing, not by hiding. And except in forest areas (not a truly equine habitat in any case) they do not crowd into small areas for shelter, but instead make use of other features of the terrain, such as rocky outcrops and large hollows in the ground.

Finally, what about the role of dominance in reducing aggression? This might indeed be of value where there is a distinct linear hierarchy (i.e. A dominates B who in turn dominates C). In such a hierarchy each individual knows his or her place. At least, that is the theory; and in some animal societies it appears to work like that. But what about horses? Can a linear hierarchy be established from dominance relationships between individuals?

Grzimek in his experiments with buckets managed to establish such a linear hierarchy; but that was in one context, in fairly large single-sex groups. Since such a situation is highly artificial, it does little to enlighten us about equine social organisation (how much would an alien from another planet learn about human social organisation by studying only, say, the harem of a Turkish Sultan?). Wells and Goldschmidt-Rothschilde in their study of Camargue horses established a dominance hierarchy from the distribution of headthreats (i.e. aggressive signals made with the head alone). But this does not really tell us anything useful about the context of such threats; and in any case this particular 'herd' had a much lower ratio of stallions to mares than would be found among truly feral horses. This is relevant because Feist and McCullough could not establish any kind of 'dominance hierarchy' among the mares in the groups they observed; they concluded that this was because of the strong dominance shown by the stallions (though even this varied considerably; some stallions were very relaxed and tolerant). Montgomery (1957) studied 10 horses for a total of 14 hours, and found what ethologists call a 'triangular relationship' (A dominates B who dominates C who in turn dominates A). One might question whether 14 hours is a long enough time for observation; nevertheless this is interesting given that many writers insist that simple linear hierarchies are the norm among horses. Clutton Brock et al. did not find a linear hierarchy among the Highland ponies they studied. They concluded that '...the study supported GARTLAN'S (1968) emphasis on the complexity of social structure and the inadequacy of dominance in explaining many variations in social relationships. In neither group was the hierarchy fully linear, and there was no obvious explanation of the irregularities which occurred. Moreover, dominance was apparently unrelated to the frequency with which individuals were observed in different positions in the group and to the number of times they were involved in grooming sessions'xxxiv

This latter observation is interesting, since many writers have assumed that mutual grooming is related to dominance. Some insist that it is usually the subordinate partner who initiates the grooming session; others that it is the dominant partner. Certain authors evidently cannot decide this question; Paul McGreevy says on page 144 of Why Does My Horse...? that the more submissive member is most likely to initiate the exchange (of mutual grooming); but on page 183 that it is usually initiated by the higher-ranking individual in a pair!

Some writers maintain that linear hierarchies are found in smaller groups (as one might expect). One might indeed find a linear hierarchy in a group of three horses (A-B-C) (and not surprisingly from this, such hierarchies have been observed in bachelor groups); but one might just as easily find, as Montgomery did, A-B-C-A. In any case, to draw any conclusions from this (other than the obvious one, that some horses are more aggressive than others), one would have to know the context in which aggression was shown - and this has not often been considered. From this brief glimpse of some of the findings of various studies, we can see that the relevance of dominance to equine societies is by no means clear-cut. We see that linear hierarchies emerge in some situations, but not in others. Some behavioural scientists have proposed that linear hierarchies may be disrupted by what they call 'coalitions': two horses forming an alliance against a more dominant horse and effectively 'deposing' him. This has certainly been observed in primate societies, but while I am not saying it does not happen in groups of equines, I have been unable to find any evidence to support the idea of its being a significant feature of such groups. And given that linear hierarchies appear to be unimportant in truly feral groups (except, as noted, in bachelor groups - though even here their function is largely undefined), it is difficult to see how they could be so important in reducing aggression and maintaining group cohesion (indeed in Feist and McCullough's study it appeared to be the stallion who was mainly responsible for this, though they do not give details about exactly how he did so).

Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington, who has spent many years observing the social interactions of domestic groups of horses, comments that 'Circularities in a hierarchy will indicate individuals' changes as a result of either or both "mood" (emotional change) or context, and therefore indicate little but individual differences and roles rather than some overall explanation of the society's working.'xxxv

Dr Kiley-Worthington points out that one of the benefits of group living is that it can increase the acquisition - and passing on - of social and other skills. 'The acquiring of ecological knowledge and its passing on through generations to increase survival is likely to be of prime importance to prey species. Knowledge of the topography, where to run if chased to reduce the chances of capture, feeding sites, what to eat, availability of water at different times of the year, cognitive maps of the home range and detailed knowledge of the potential sheltering sites with different wind directions, must be learnt and this knowledge may well be passed on through the social group...Such "cultural" knowledge could be built on through generations even without verbal or written language, and thus each individual in a social group does not have to "invent the wheel" herself, although she may be able to improve on its building. Thus the "culture": movement patterns, spatial distribution, even perhaps, relationships within the group, and so on, will change as a result of an individual's input...even "innovation" may occur. In this way ecological and other non-social knowledge will be extended throughout the social group.'xxxvi

The importance of such 'cultural' knowledge has been shown in other herbivorous species, notably elephants; the killing of older females, who possessed this knowledge, has proved disastrous for the survival of younger members of the social group.

The maintenance of group cohesion thus becomes paramount, since the most experienced and knowledgeable members of the group may hold the keys to its survival. In the model of the 'dominance hierarchy', if horses usually respond to aggression by withdrawal or avoidance (as is generally supposed), then group members are less likely to learn much from each other, since social interactions are thereby decreased. On the other hand, if aggression is met with aggression, this would serve to disrupt the cohesion of the group.

However, Dr Kiley-Worthington suggests that an alternative view of equine social organisation might be that affiliative and 'deflammatory' behaviour, which serve to reduce conflict and excitement within a group, are what keep that group together. This would aid the individual by strengthening social bonds and increasing the possibility of him or her gaining both ecological knowledge and understanding of the individuals within the group, as well as passing that knowledge on to other individuals.

These conclusions are the result of many years of observation of Dr Kiley- Worthington's own horses, including a specifically designed study. She and her team of trained observers recorded social interactions between 13 Arabian, part-bred Arabian, and Welsh horses and ponies: one stallion, seven mares, two yearling fillies, two geldings and one colt foal. These were observed and the observations recorded for a total of 1,779 horse hours in three field situations of differing sizes, over a period of six months. The results were analysed using a specially designed computer program (for a full description and analysis of these observations, see Kiley- Worthington, 'Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition' Publication 19, Eco-Research and Education Centre University of Exeter).

This study took account of two factors not often considered in other studies of equine behaviour. These are :
- The total number of interactions in which an individual is involved, either as a recipient or a performer/initiator of social interactions. Dr Kiley-Worthington calls this the measurement of this the total Social Involvement score for that individual. It indicates the extent to which an individual is socially involved with the group.
- The individual's score as either (a) a performer or (b) a recipient of social interactions. Dr Kiley-Worthington found these two parameters to be of some importance in understanding the social organisation and the role of individuals within it. She also identified two aspects of this social organisation which add far more to our understanding of horses than the usual rather rigid concepts of 'dominance': these are the 'tit-for-tat' response, which she likens to Charles Kingsley's famous maxim 'Be-done-by-as-you-did', and the opposite, which encourages co-operation: 'Do-as-you- would-be-done-by'.

The findings led Dr Kiley-Worthington to conclude that as a result of assessing all the various behaviours observed in this group, 'the important organisational parameters is not the metaphyscal "dominance hierarchy", but rather other variables in which activity hierarchies can be constructed.'xxxvii She lists these as:
  • The total amount of social involvement.
  • The degree to which the individual is a 'performer/initiator' of social interactions, or
  • a 'receiver/responder' (i.e. one who generally receives or responds to social interactions rather than initiating them).
  • Individuals may be 'stickers' - those who behave in a way that deflates aggression and act to encourage group cohesion, and 'do as you would be done by'. 'All of these "sticker" behaviours are more common than "splitter/inflammatory/dispersive" behaviour'xxxviii, and finally
  • one or two 'splitters' who avoid others more, act aggressively, inflame situations, and whose actions tend to disperse the group.

It emerges from this study that friendly actions ('affiliation') are the most successful way of showing interest and not being either ignored or avoided. Aggression was responded to mainly with avoidance or ignoring; but in 25% of cases the response was aggression. Dr Kiley-Worthington suggests that 'This "be done by as you did" aggression might ensure that individuals do not become unchallenged "dominant" individuals or "hawks" when behaving in a way which could endanger the cohesion of the group. In other words that an unchallenged "dominance hierarchy" (in terms of priority of access and competition), rather than being an important organisational parameter of the society, threatens the cohesion of the group.'xxxix On the other hand, a potentially co-operative and compromising approach ('do-as-you-would-be-done-by') could increase the cohesion and stability of the group - which as we have seen could have important implications for its survival. Dr Kiley-Worthington concludes that instead of trying to explain this equine society in terms of a rather vague 'dominance hierarchy' based on competition (which in freeranging equine societies has in any case little relevance), we should consider other organising features. She argues that the idea that a dominance hierarchy always reduces aggression has not actually been shown to be the case. She proposes that the equine society in her study should be considered more as a unit of co-operative individuals. 'The majority of the behaviour, and the majority of the individuals in this society behaved to encourage cohesion of the group and deflate potentially inflammatory/dispersive situations'xl

She points to the 'Do-as-you-would-be-done-by' you scratch my back (or bite me) and I will scratch yours (or bite you) aspect of the results. 'This would be a sensible strategy to foster cooperation and cohesion since it will control "hawkishness". Any inflammatorily behaving miscreant (hawk) instead of being avoided, even "respected" and thus "getting away with it" (becoming "dominant") and consequently becoming more aggressive, inflammatory and dispersive in his behaviour, has a fair chance of being aggressed back (25% of performed aggression is responded to with aggression).'xli

Dr Kiley-Worthington does not claim that this is a definitive study of equine social organisation; rather, that it could be used as a basis from which to explore the latter in terms of a somewhat more subtle, complex organisation than the rather crude 'dominance hierarchy' so often assumed.

Some methods of horse management may create a situation rarely encountered in the wild: conflict within a group over food and water, or overcrowding, leading to increased aggression. In such groups, as Dr Kiley-Worthington pointed out in her earlier work, The Behaviour of Horses, it may indeed be possible to work out a 'dominance hierarchy' based on aggression. But, she adds, ' increase in aggression may well lead to a more obvious and better developed dominance hierarchy, but do not let us conclude from this that a "dominance hierarchy" is very important in normal horse society.'xlii She concludes that '...the relationships between horses are just as complex as between people, and to describe them in simple terms, such as "dominance hierarchy" is inadequate and pointless.'xliii She goes on to say that she has known, studied, handled, trained and ridden her own group of horses, watched them and their offspring grow up, for many years, '...and I suppose I know them as well as anyone knows a group of horses. Yet I still cannot describe a "dominance hierarchy". There is indeed an aggressive hierarchy. But what does this tell us about how each relates to every other?'xliv Having spent hundreds of hours observing our own horses' interactions with each other, I can only echo Dr Kiley-Worthington's words.

What does the presence of an aggression hierarchy tell us? Only, as I have already remarked, that some individuals are more aggressive than others. And even this depends on context: of our adult horses Kruger and Kiri are aggressive about food and personal space, but interact comparatively little with other horses in other contexts. Roxzella is aggressive over food and personal space, and will be aggressive in defence of her. Zareeba and Nivalis, on the other hand, seldom become aggressive about food and personal space, but will become positively ferocious in the defence of their friends, family or vulnerable youngstock. It seems far more profitable to study personality profiles than to attempt to construct 'dominance hierarchies' from such complex and variable interactions.

Ah, yes, the believers in 'dominance hierarchies' will cry, but what about the reactions of established groups to new horses? Scientists and lay persons alike often point to the hostile behaviour that horses in an established group often display towards newcomers, as a prime example of the importance of social rank. This hostility is usually explained by the idea that each time a strange horse is introduced into a group it is necessary for the 'pecking order' to be re-established. It is even claimed, sometimes, that this process is necessary after a horse has been absent from the group for a relatively short time, as in the case of a riding school horse being taken out of the field for a lesson. But my own observations do not tally with this. Our land borders a field belonging to the local riding school, and when their horses are turned out again after a lesson, or after being away at a competition, there may be a little excitement for a few minutes, but nothing that would suggest any kind of reestablishing of 'pecking orders'.

I believe the true explanation of hostility towards newcomers is much more closely related to human social responses in such a situation. We should not find anything strange in this; many social species have very similar attitudes towards new members of their group. The parallel I am drawing is with the traditional human village, in the days when these were small, tightly knit communities in which everyone knew everyone else (and their business), everyone had social roles to play, and there was a comforting (if sometimes rather stifling) stability within the group. Such communities do still exist in the Western world, though they are becoming scarcer and scarcer; at one time they were the norm in country life, and in many areas of the world they are still the rule rather than the exception.

When a stranger (with or without family) moves into such a community, he or she is likely to be treated, if not with open hostility (though this does sometimes occur), then certainly with suspicion and coolness. This is not because the inhabitants of such communities are any more hostile or unfriendly than anyone else; it is to do with the maintenance of stability within the group. After all, the community knows nothing about the stranger. They may be a potentially disruptive influence, destroying the balance of the group. And the importance of this balance should not be underestimated, for it has deep historical roots. In the days before the establishment of a central authority, the safety of a community depended on unity within that community; and since this state of affairs existed (and in some parts of the world still exists) for far longer than any other, it is a deep rooted way of thinking. So it may be some time before the stranger is accepted; even longer before he or she is fully integrated into the group.

If we reflect on the importance of stability within the group to equine communities, we can see that much the same considerations apply here. The stranger is avoided or treated with hostility until his or her reactions and general demeanour have been assessed. Once the group is assured that this newcomer will not upset the balance of their society, then he or she will be welcomed without fuss. Clearly, if we think of equine groups in terms of social roles rather than hierarchies based on aggression, there will be some sorting out of roles within a group whose members have changed, but there is no need to invoke crude ideas of 'pecking orders'. Horses are much more subtle than that.

One of the factors that may help to explain why there is less aggression among feral horses than among many groups of domestic horses is that of space. This, rather than the idea of priority of access, may help us to understand some of the instances of threatening behaviour observed in feral groups. For example, Berger based the hierarchy ranking of the horses he studied mainly on their behaviour while drinking. 'The rank of a horse within a band became most apparent during drinking for two reasons. First there was a limiting resource (e.g., water) and, second, there was only a limited amount of space at the Fountain. Thus, freedom of movement was restricted'xlv. I think this lack of space is far more important than is often realised. As prey animals, horses need to feel part of a group, but they also need personal space; crowding gives them less room to manoeuvre, and a feeling of being trapped - a situation that is highly stressful to any prey animal. Behavioural scientists have often approached this need from the point of view of horses needing to be able to escape from possible aggression on the part of their companions. This is obviously important, but from my own observations of small, stable groups of horses, I believe there is another factor which is equally important: the element of choice. Where the group is stable, horses will seldom graze at any distance from their companions. Among our own horses, if we turn Zareeba, Roxzella, Kruger and Toska out in the same field, they will spend most of their time fairly close to each other. They have the choice - to stay with their companions or to move elsewhere. But too many horses in a relatively small space (and remember, to a creature whose home range in a feral state would encompass anything up to 40-502km. or more, even a 16 ha. field is small!) - which is the norm for domestic horses - will inevitably increase aggression, as invasions of personal space become more frequent; and if in addition these companions are often changing, the resultant lack of stability can seriously undermine the spirit of co-operation that is natural to horses. The same phenomenon may be seen in humans, particularly in offices where too many people work side by side in a cramped space. Even the most good-natured and co-operative of individuals can become short-tempered and obstructive in such situations; while the problems of urban high-rise developments are too well-known to need documenting here. Yet in small, stable communities where everyone knows each other and has established a relationship with them, the effects of such crowding are somewhat mitigated. If we cannot avoid keeping our horses in (to them) small enclosures, we should at least ensure they have congenial companions, and allow them to form long-term bonds!

Stephen Jay Gould has written about what he calls 'the hold of theory upon our ability to observe'; there is the so-called 'Rosenthal effect' where researchers find exactly what they expect to find. One cannot avoid the suspicion that this is sometimes what happens when horse-owners enthusiastically report 'dominance hierarchies' in groups of domestic horses which appear to match exactly the descriptions of such hierarchies in popular equestrian literature. This is no reflection on either the integrity or the intelligence of such people; it is merely an instance of a universal human tendency.

If we must think in terms of 'dominance', then I would suggest it is time we moved away from the idea of crude aggression. Since much behaviour usually described as 'dominant' is not in fact aggressive but merely assertive (and there is a huge difference in meaning here), why not use that word, which is much more specific, and need not involve concepts of either aggression or bullying?

This may be largely a question of semantics, but I think it matters, since the use of such words colours our attitudes; this in turn may lead to the kind of bullying attitudes which should have no place in our relationships with horses. To return to the point made at the beginning of this page: if we consider the nature of equine society we should not be at all surprised that horses allow us to manipulate them, but this has nothing to do with notions of dominance or of hierarchies. Belief that it does means that we have to hold contradictory and incoherent views about what matters to horses. If we approach training and handling horses using concepts such as 'dominant' and 'dominance', or the wildly inappropriate 'pecking order', and from this insist on assuming the role of 'boss', should we be surprised if - as so often happens - the horse fails to respond as we expect, since we are invoking ideas essentially alien to him?

But if we accept that concepts such as 'dominance hierarchies' are inadequate to explain the complexities of equine society, what implications does this have for our relations with horses? Does it invalidate other concepts such as leadership, which have proved so effective in handling and training horses? Not at all. We ask horses to share our world, and we are in charge, whether we like it or not. If we were to attempt to live with a feral herd, on their terms, I hope we should have the humility to accept the leadership of horses in matters where they have far greater wisdom than we do. In our world, we are far more aware of its dangers and possibilities than horses are; so here they need our leadership and guidance. So long as we are not seduced by some feeble vision of 'boss and subordinate', and instead think of the relationship as more of a partnership, with ourselves holding the controlling interest, but with ample room for input from the horse, we shall not go far wrong. If instead of trying to subdue the horse, we start from concepts of co-operation and friendship, all kinds of possibilities become real. As Marthe Kiley-Worthington has said, we should make sure we are liked, not dominant!


i Jan May, Equus Caballus: On Horses and Handling, J. A. Allen 1995, pp.3-4
ii G.T. Syme and L.A.Syme, Social Structure in Farm Animals, Elsevier, Amsterdam 1979 p.4
iii Jeffrey Masson, and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep, Vintage 1996 p.78
iv Irwin S Bernstein, 'Dominance: The baby and the bathwater', in The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1981 no. 4 p.420
v Syme and Syme, Social Structure in Farm Animals, p.5
vi James Feist and Dale R. McCullough, 'Behavior Patterns and Communication in Feral Horses', in Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, no. 41, 1976 p.367
vii R H Smythe, The Mind of the Horse, (J A Allen, rev ed., 1972), p.15
viii Susan McBane, Behaviour Problems in Horses, David & Charles 1994 pp.92-93
ix Lesley Bayley and Richard Maxwell, Understanding Your Horse, ( David and Charles 1996), p.45
x Heather Simpson, 'Keeping the Peace', Horse & Rider March 2002, p.24
xi Smythe, The Mind of the Horse, p.32
xii Bayley and Maxwell, Understanding Your Horse, p.9
xiii Syme and Syme, Social Structure in Farm Animals, p.75
xiv Syme and Syme, Social Structure in Farm Animals, p.76
xv Feist and McCullough, 'Behaviour patterns and communications in feral horses', p.357
xvi Feist and McCullough, 'Behaviour patterns and communications in feral horses', p.357
xvii S J Tyler, 'Behaviour and Social organisation of New Forest ponies', (Animal Behaviour, 1972, Monograph 5), p.131
xviii Feist and McCullough, 'Behaviour patterns and communications in feral horses', p.358
xix Joel Berger, 'Organizational systems and dominance in feral horses in the Grand Canyon', Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 2, 1977 p.145
xx Shirley Strum, Almost Human, (New York 1987), cited by Masson & McCarthy, When Elephants Weep, p.77
xxi Paul Leyhausen, Cat Behavior: the Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats, (trans. B A Tonkin, Garland STPM Press 1979), pp.256-7
xxii Joel Berger, Wild Horses of the Great Basin, 1986, p.158
xxiii Paul McGreevy, Why Does My Horse...? Souvenir Press 1996 p.193
xxiv McGreevy, Why Does My Horse p.193
xxv S M Wells and B von Goldschmidt-Rothschilde, 'Social behaviour and relationships in a herd of Camargue horses' in Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, no.49 (1979) p p.363-380
xxvi Berger, Wild Horses of the Great Basin, p.157
xxvii Berger, Wild Horses of the Great Basin, pp.158-159
xxviii T H Clutton-Brock, P J Greenwood and R D Powell 'Rank and relationships in highland ponies', in Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, 41 (1976) pp.213-214
xxix Feist and McCullough 'Behaviour patterns and communications in feral horses', p.349
xxx Feist and McCullough, 'Behaviour patterns and communications in feral horses', p.341
xxxi Tyler, 'Behaviour and Social organisation of New Forest ponies', p.122
xxxii Syme and Syme, Social Structure in Farm Animals, p.58 See also Grzimek's own observations in Man and Animal, ed. Heinz Friedrich, (Paladin 1972), p.45
xxxiii McGreevy, Why Does My Horse...?, p.195
xxxiv Clutton-Brock et al., 'Rank and relationships in highland ponies' p.214
xxxv Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington, 'Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition' Publication 19, Eco-Research and Education Centre, University of Exeter
xxxvi Kiley-Worthington, 'Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition'
xxxvii Kiley-Worthington, Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition
xxxviii Kiley-Worthington, Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition
xxxix Kiley-Worthington, Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition
xl Kiley-Worthington, Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition
xli Kiley-Worthington, Communication in Horses: Cooperation and Competition
xlii Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington, The Behaviour of Horses in Relation to Management and Training, J.A. Allen 1987 p.139
xliii Kiley-Worthington, The Behaviour of Horses, p.146
xliv Kiley-Worthington, The Behaviour of Horses, p.146
xlv Berger, 'Organisational Systems and Dominance in Feral Horses', p.135

First published in Equine Behaviour, the journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. Reprinted with permission from Lesley Skipper.