One of the biggest goals we strive for in our training is to create kind and personable horses with the ability to understand people and how they communicate. We work toward understanding and appreciating every horse and their wants and needs while building a relationship of trust and partnership that transcends the status quo and transfers to their owners. One key piece of the horsemanship puzzle is understanding the Cycle of Dominance and its place in our world. We use this as a basis in order to teach our horses and ourselves to step outside that Cycle.
Before we can apply this to horses, first we must define and understand the Cycle of Dominance. Merriam-Webster defines dominant this way: (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dominant)
Full Definition of dominant
1a: commanding, controlling, or prevailing over all others <the dominant culture>b: very important, powerful, or successful <a dominant theme><a dominant industry>
2: overlooking and commanding from a superior position <a dominant hill>
3: of, relating to, or exerting ecological or genetic dominance
4: being the one of a pair of bodily structures that is the more effective or predominant in action <dominant eye>
Merriam-Webster defines dominance in this way: (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dominance)
Definition of dominance
1: the fact or state of being dominant: as a: dominant position especially in a social hierarchy b: the property of one of a pair of alleles or traits that suppresses expression of the other in the heterozygous condition c: the influence or control over ecological communities exerted by a dominant
2: functional asymmetry between a pair of bodily structures (as the right and left hands)
Merriam-Webster defines cycle in this way: (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cycle)
Simple Definition of cycle
: a set of events or actions that happen again and again in the same order : a repeating series of events or actions
: a set of regular and repeated actions that are done by a machine as part of a longer process
: a bicycle or motorcycle
Now we can bring this together to describe what a Cycle of Dominance might look like: Every living sentient being is caught in a constant struggle for survival, and through dominance over something, if only their own weaknesses, they survive. Lets consider the horse in a herd environment. Every member of the herd is intricately woven into the fabric of ever changing and challenging struggles for dominance. We have a chain of domination from the herd leader who is in charge overall of the herd to the smallest and weakest member of the herd who always is driven by others. And this hierarchy is always fluid. It is in a constant state of flux, where every member is always either defending or challenging their position. This constant defense or challenge will happen in this cycle, over and over again. The baby grows, works its way up through the ranks as it becomes the dominant member, and then loses its rank as it grows older and weaker and the strongest members of the herd take its place.
This Cycle of Dominance is an inter- and intra- species phenomenon. We can view this Cycle of Dominance in every part of life. And through this innate and simple Cycle we all understand our place in the world. But what about those people, or animals, that seem to create a true partnership and step outside of this cycle? What about the strong bond found between husband and wife? Range Cowboy and his horse? Endurance rider and their several thousand mile partner? Do they get there through dominance and submission? Or do those truly amazing relationships transcend this Cycle of Dominance to achieve true harmony? We believe they do.
When domination and submission, fight or flight, is removed from the horse training paradigm the natural Grace, Honesty, Compassion, and Love that is the horse will be released and that true bond and partnership becomes a reality. Have you ever wondered how those amazing horsemen and women achieve that bond? “Respect” and “Dominance” must be left in the herd setting so that a mutual respect, trust, and understanding can then be allowed to grow. In order to do this, fair treatment and safety with people must be established through kindness and firm boundaries. The horse will come to understand how people talk to them and they will be able to form that completely magical relationship that is so often sought after and not obtained. Boundaries must be set, but they must be fair. And the horse must also be acknowledged as a full partner. To quote a Dressage Master, “The human/equine partnership is a 50/50 relationship that is 100% the responsibility of the human”. The horse has an innate quality of Compassion and Forgiveness for our weaknesses. As trainers, our responsibility is to encourage these qualities and discourage the fight or flight responses.
As we begin to think about this Cycle of Dominance, it becomes clear that we don’t want to train horses to stay inside this Cycle. I know I certainly don’t want to assert my domination over my equine partner every time I approach him. When training through the demand of respect and domination over the horse, the horse is always looking for his opportunity to get the better of the trainer. There are horses who take a very long time to overcome this herd mentality – there are some who never do. Those are the horses who will never be the trusted partners that every true horseman aspires to create.
There are many steps necessary to bring a horse from his herd instincts to a place of mutual trust and understanding in partnership. The idea of stepping outside of the Cycle of Dominance is the cornerstone of Jakopak Horsemanship’s training and lesson program.