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Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human–Horse Interactions?

By Elke Hartmann, Janne W. Christensen, Paul D. McGreevy

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Dominance hierarchies in horses primarily influence priority access to limited resources of any kind, resulting in predictable contest outcomes that potentially minimize aggressive encounters and associated risk of injury. Levels of aggression in group-kept horses under domestic conditions have been reported to be higher than in their feral counterparts but can often be attributed to suboptimal management. Horse owners often express concerns about the risk of injuries occurring in group-kept horses, but these concerns have not been substantiated by empirical investigations. What has not yet been sufficiently addressed are human safety aspects related to approaching and handling group-kept horses. Given horse's natural tendency to synchronize activity to promote group cohesion, questions remain about how group dynamics influence human–horse interactions. Group dynamics influence a variety of management scenarios, ranging from taking a horse out of its social group to the prospect of humans mimicking the horse's social system by taking a putative leadership role and seeking after an alpha position in the dominance hierarchy to achieve compliance. Yet, there is considerable debate about whether the roles horses attain in their social group are of any relevance in their reactions to humans. This article reviews the empirical data on social dynamics in horses, focusing on dominance and leadership theories and the merits of incorporating those concepts into the human–horse context. This will provide a constructive framework for informed debate and valuable guidance for owners managing group-kept horses and for optimizing human–horse interactions.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2017
Publication Title Journal of Equine Veterinary Science
Volume 52
Pages 1-9
Publisher Elsevier
DOI 10.1016/j.jevs.2017.01.015
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Aggression
  2. Animal roles
  3. Dominance
  4. Hierarchy
  5. Injuries
  6. Learning
  7. open access
  8. social order
  9. training
  1. open access