Eliminating “dominance”

I subscribe to a book discussion group on yahoo called DogRead. Yes, it is about dogs. But, hey, I’ve got dogs and when it comes to training, well, good training is good training. So there is always something of interest. Anyway, this month’s author is Jim Barry and the book being discussed is called, “The Ethical Dog Trainer.”

It is interesting how often times people think that training horses is somehow different from training dogs, mainly due to the fact that one is prey and the other predator. While it is true understanding the species does help us train better the fact is the basics apply across the board. Jim is a trainer who believes in using positive methods as do I. So the post he titled “Dominance” caught my eye since that is a word that gets ‘bandied about’ in the context of horse training just as it does among dog trainers. So, I wondered what he’d have to say about that and it turns out it really resonated with me.

“I have almost entirely purged [the word dominance] from my vocabulary with clients, except when they raise it and I then try to offer different perspectives. One that I have found to work well is the idea of “teamwork.” It helps the members of the coaching staff (Humans) to realize that they have some key responsibilities to the athletes (dogs), namely to teach the basic skills, establish the rules of the game, and change the game plan if necessary.” –Jim Barry

Now, he says “dogs” but that quote could just as easily said “horses”. My own opinion about dominance is that it is a word that is way over used among horse folk. I like the idea that my role as the Human in the Horse/Human (or Human/Human) equation is more like that of a (good) Coach as opposed to the Boss or (even worse IMO) the “Alpha Mare”. I guess that explain how it is I can feel that teaching horses or humans utilizes the same basic skills (adjusting for species as needed of course!).


  1. Words to live by. Just yesterday, someone tried to hand me the “dominance” line in reference to my TB gelding. The bottom line is: I can’t win that fight. I know it, the 1100 lb horse knows it. It’s not really a secret. Bluffing would just be a bald-faced lie, and lies never earn trust.

  2. Recent discussions I’ve been having on a horse group made me re-think my use of the terms “alpha” or “dominant” with horses. I was reading your new found blog this morning – hadn’t read much, but knew of it for couple of weeks.

    I know that I want to be like what Mark Rashid describes as a horse leader after seeing him on a tv show describing. I had thought this was the “alpha mare”, but probably isn’t because maybe they bully to get their way. Found his terms on-line and he uses term “passive leader”. These are horses in the herd that other horses gravitate to for leadership, but are not bullies. So guess that’s what I want to be.

    If you read this, then I hope you can do a blog post on the difference in herd structure of an “alpha” bossy leader vs concept of a “passive leader” in herd dynamics.

    Brent Graef has something similar in philosophy (found him about week ago).


  3. IcieMeg, I like that you are thinking about this stuff. Very worthwhile effort. I respect both Mark and Brent a LOT. The messages coming from them will be very consistent and will serve you well going forward. Thanks for the post suggestion. I will definitely write something on that subject soon!