The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Deconstructing Dominance - George Helps Out

I've found establishing dominance to be a clear help in establishing a trusting relationship when dealing with shy, mistrustful, young horses.  (The other most helpful time involved a "King" - but more about that another time.)

George brought this to mind yesterday when I went to take him out to pasture.  Normally I leave George and my daughter to their own devices - they are fond of each other, and I've found it best to stand back and give advice only from a distance.  Yesterday, however, on arriving alone at the barn, and finding the horses  waiting to be let out, I went to fetch George.  I stood inside the stall door with the halter, waiting.  He didn't come over but stood by his feed dish (although he'd already had dinner) and nudged it, pathetically, a couple of times.  So off I went to get a handful of treats, which I put in his dish.  After he'd eaten them, he came over to me, and I put his halter on.

Remembering my thoughts about horses who lack a protective coating, or bubble wrap - of whom George is one - I cast an intentional eye down his right flank, causing him to immediately stiffen and pin his ears.  Aha. But not sure how to proceed.  

Thinking on it, I lead him to the pasture.  If, as I suspect, the personal space issue does not reflect an its-my-bubbleturf-you-keep-out attitude, but rather a raw vulnerability brought about by the lack of a buffer zone - then George's "aggression" is fear-based, and not an attempt to assert himself.  

Putting some thoughts together:

1)  Establishing dominance builds trust and confidence in shy horses.

2)  George has personal space issues, which I believe reflects a sense of vulnerability.

3)  Foals are first dominated by their mother, with whom they naturally feel very secure.

Ok, dominance is called for.  But I'm finding that the random exercise of dominance, such as the Waterhole thing of asking the horse to move, doesn't work well for me.  I just can't muster up the clarity of intention to convince the horse that I really care whether it moves or not. Because actually I don't care.  Every now and then I can sortof puff myself up mentally and produce a convincing "git along" approach - but not usually. (I'm sure a stick would help too!)

Here's where Resnick's exercise with the feed dish comes in.  There's a video on Youtube, showing how she keeps a young stallion off a tray of carrots.  You can use the horse's own strong intentionality and turn it against him to drive him away (Grasshopper).

I turn George out in the pasture.  There's no dish of carrots, but there's something else George wants.  He wants to be in the corner of the field by the gate.  There is a clearly delineated quarter-circle in the corner, marked by strewn hay, where the horses hang out a lot, and that's where George wants to be - especially because his buddies haven't come out yet, and he wants to wait for them there.

So I decide he can't come in.  I patrol the perimeter of the quarter circle, and George runs back and forth just outside the line, occasionally managing to dodge past me, only to be driven out again. I keep my affect very low key.  No big deal, you just can't come in. Finally he stops running and we walk up and down the line, me on my side, he on his.  Then he stops.  He looks at me.  He half lowers his head.  He approaches slowly.  But just as he reaches me, his head comes up again and he starts to slide past me.  I drive him off again.  This happens several times.


Finally, he stops, looks at me for a long time, drops his head low and comes all the way up, stopping in front of me with his head still drooping. I scratch his neck for a moment and then leave the pasture, George following me to the gate.

Later, from the mares' pasture next door, I watch George hanging out with the dominant gelding, Stoney.  George is placidly cozied up to his side the whole time, keeping his head about 1/3 horse length behind Stoney's head. This is how he used to act with his very dominant pasture mate in his previous home.

I think our thoughts on the matter are muddied because we use the word "dominance," which for humans carries a connotation of exploitation and self-advancement at the expense of others. Among horses, the dominant one does not oppress and manipulate his herd mates.  The dominant horse exercises certain specific rights of leadership which benefit the whole group.

George although not shy, is somewhat mistrustful. I think in order to truly gain his confidence, we should continue to engage in these kinds of activities, where he can be convinced that we are in charge.  I'm going to have my daughter do the Carrots' Last Stand exercise with him.  I believe he prefers her to me because she's just, well, bossier than I am!  But I won't leave it at that and definitely plan to have her explore how he views her as a leader.

Gus also has personal space issues.  He, however, is himself dominant and does not show aggression - is it the case that his strong, confident persona compensates for his lack of a bubble?  Or did George, in a previous home, suffer something which made him afraid?  Questions, questions, questions.


  1. This is interesting. I have strongly realised how much Ben needs leadership, and my conflicting thoughts about it only confused him and lessened his confidence around me.

  2. The combinations of characteristics are interesting - there are mild-mannered, easily dominated horses, but who don't really "need" a leader at all. There are very dominant horses who are quite willing to let a human take over. Then there are horses like George, who seem very friendly and confident but who underneath are quite distrustful. Ben sounds like he often appears distrustful, as well as being it... ? Have you figured out what Hempfling type he is?