So your horse lays his ears back? Maybe he kicks, maybe she bites, maybe she balls up and bucks. But what is really going on there? Is it dominance? If so, what does dominance mean?
Here are four types of dominance that you need to know to read the situation correctly.
This is where your horse wants you to leave his space. When I was a kid I crawled under the fence to visit what looked like a good fishing hole from the road and was literally chased from the field by an aggressive stallion. The owner of the house nearby came racing out to meet me at the fence and warn me never to go in there with that horse. That was my first experience with aggressive dominance with horses. We see this all the time when horses meet each other. They bite, back up and kick, strike, and lunge at each other to move the other out. When we look at horses doing this kind of thing, our natural human brain calculates the preemptive behavior and almost always notices the ears go back. And we, therefore, assume that ears back is a sign of aggression. But it isn't, not always anyway.
Defensive (looks like dominance):
If aggressive dominance is meant to make you leave, defensive dominance is meant to keep you away. It sounds the same, but it's different. The aggressor will charge you, push you, bend to kick or bite you, but the defensive type will lay their ears back and lift their head uptight. Sure, when pushed to the limit, they will also kick and bite but they're doing it to defend their space, space that you invaded. If you just backed off they wouldn't come at you at all. In other words, I could have fished right alongside that winding stream, never bothering the horse and been just fine if the horse was a defensive type. Remember being calm or non-threatening to an aggressive type doesn't win your mutual trust, he'll come at you to make you leave, whereas the defensive type will let you be, just as long as you let him be.
We see defensive types all the time in horse training. We see horses pin their ears when you ask them to canter or pin their ears when you go to catch them or pin their ears when you make them walk toward you at liberty, or pin their ears when you put the saddle on, but all that ear pinning is usually defensive in nature. You're asking them to accept telling them what to do and they don't like it. Stop asking and see how much happier they are. Then again, you also don't get to do anything ever again with super defensive horses because they tell you what they don't like so quickly. So you have to find a way to communicate and reward softness and defenseless behaviors. Our Mastery Horsemanship Group classes dive into these types of topics every week.
Another type of dominance is passive dominance:
This type describes a horse that just doesn't care about anything you say. They don't get defensive, they don't get upset, they just don't respond because you just don't mean that much to them. I see horses meet at the water trough all the time. The aggressive type barges in to get the water, the defensive type pins his ears and tries to stay but usually isn't strong enough, eventually being forced to leave, and the passive type just stays anyway, because he doesn't care the old mare is grumpy. She might even threaten to kick him and he just says, "whatever." These types of horses are usually nicer to be around but harder to advance to upper levels because their sensitivity is quite low. Good techniques, some of which we teach in our mastery classes, can really support getting past this type of problem. Timing and feel is everything with a horse like this.
The last type of dominance is playful dominance:
Playful dominance is a natural expression of experimental hierarchy. Which means the horse is simply doing things to find out whether or not he can get away with them. Think of two horses playing in the field, both biting, both kicking, but neither upset or offended. Eventually one will prove the leader and both will return to normal life, then occasionally the leadership roles reverse. The point is, playful dominance is natural and fine to witness but not great to be around. When a horse is playfully nibbling or flashes ears back when I'm near it can mean he's just testing his status with me. If I don't check it, he could become more dominant, if I check it too hard, I destroy the playfulness inside him. If I think it's playful dominance I will always ask him to stop but keep a smile on my face. If it continues to escalate I want to shut it down completely and make absolutely sure it doesn't go that far.
Now you know four types of dominance. Maybe you can sit back and slow your brain down and watch your horses act and react and start to measure whether or not your horse is being aggressive or defensive the next time you see ears back or negative behavior. It's important to know too, because if you assume it is aggression when it's actually defensive, or vice versa, you could be inadvertently training or rewarding the wrong thing and wind up getting in trouble in the process.
You could think the aggressive dominant horse is being defensive and back off just in time to get bitten or kicked... Not fun! You could think the defensive horse is being aggressive and push too hard to correct and destroy the trust. It's a tricky thing to balance and you desperately need to get good at reading horses to know. Again, that's why we've created the mastery classes. With courses like Horse Psychology 101 and more that can help. Check it out here.
Thanks for reading. I hope it's been informative, please comment below to share your experiences and thoughts.