News from ISES, the international society of equitation science. ISES position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.


You did not hear from me for a while, I have still lots of things about horses that I feel I need sharing with you but I just could not get myself motivated to go on and write. From the start of my weblog I had the goal to clear the sky about dominance and leadership. Because there are much misconceptions still believed by many horse trainers and riders.

How happy was I this morning that I received news from ISES. And it is about this subject. I just copied pasted for you so I can share my feelings but I did not have to write it myself. This is about one of my favorite revelations in horsemanship.

ISES position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.

The following text I quoted from the ISES news letter:

The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has released a position statement on the use and misuse of man-made concepts in horse training, such as dominance and leadership, warning they may jeopardise the creation of a harmonious relationship with the horse and may compromise its welfare.

Developed by ISES Hon. Fellow and Prof. Emeritus Jan Ladewig in collaboration with the Learned Society’s council, the position statement disputes the belief that the person handling a horse must be in a top position of a dominance hierarchy (i.e. in an alpha position), or be a leader, explaining that horses interact with each other mainly on a bilateral (one-to-one) level, and do not possess the cognitive abilities to form the abstract concepts of hierarchy and rank.

As Prof. Ladewig says: “Horses have many talents, such as surviving even under harsh conditions. They remember where food, water and shelter are available, and they remember their social companions, as well as numerous other things.

“There is no indication, however, they are able to handle complex issues that demand cognitive abilities similar to the ones we possess. They are not good at generalising and abstract thinking is not part of their cognitive abilities.

“The better we understand the way their brain works and the more we accept these limitations when we handle them, the better we will be able to establish a harmonious relationship with them.”

Further, the position statement explores social behaviours seen in both wild and domesticated horses, such as competition for resources, that can result in behaviours like aggression, threats of aggression and submission.

It suggests the man-made concepts of a dominance hierarchy, alpha position and leadership, which have become accepted by a number of riders, trainers and handlers, misinterpret and, inadvertently, oversimplify such complex and dynamic social organisation.

International Society for Equitation Science Honorary President, Camie Heleski says: “Many of us have, over many years, heard statements such as: ‘You must be the alpha’. ‘You need to be sure the horse respects you’, but have we ever really questioned the evidence behind them?

“Do horses actually have a complex dominance hierarchy that is set, regardless of the resources in question or the individual horse’s motivation at that moment? Does the research actually support the belief that horses look at the human handler/trainer as a two-legged leader of their herd?

“And, above all, is it possible that following such statements has actually reduced horse welfare – and human safety – by overestimating the horse’s perspective on these concepts?”

The latest ISES position statement suggests that by relying on concepts of dominance and leadership in horse training, riders, trainers and handlers may incorrectly transfer human characteristics, such as respect and authority onto the horse, leading to training practices that may compromise horse welfare. It warns that attempts to dominate horses often encourage and justify the application of punishment, and trigger fear and avoidance responses in horses.

Instead, the position statement implores riders, trainers and handlers to remove concepts of dominance and leadership from horse-human interactions, to learn more about horses’ natural behaviour and cognitive (thinking) abilities, as well as conduct all training in a calm, clear and consistent way, applying the International Society for Equitation Science’s First Principles of Horse Training that take into account both, the horses’ abilities and limitations

ISES Position Statement_May 2017 , click to read the pdf.

The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.

Media Enquiries:

Alexandria Bailey
Media Officer, International Society for Equitation Science

Twitter: Equitation Science @equitationscien –

Link to the pdf:   ISES Position Statement_May 2017

Let the horse be with you!



3 thoughts on “News from ISES, the international society of equitation science. ISES position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.

  1. horseworkblog says:

    I am so happy with the position statement.
    However, it annoys me that it was said in the newsletter that, “They are not good at generalising and abstract thinking is not part of their cognitive abilities.”

    Actually they can generalise, quite well. Problem is riders assume that because they can imagine doing the same exercise elsewhere, their horse will think the same way. It is not a flaw to not generalise all the time. That’s called differentiating and it is necessary in knowing when to stop generalising (e.g. when does a sapling become a tree?). It is quite possible that horses are more liberal in their generalising in some domains rather than others (due to their ecological niche).

    And they have some ability with abstract concepts. The designs of experiments testing these constructs are sophisticated and may not be so easily understood by those without a background in psychology. I believe Hanggi is an author who has published on this topic.

    In saying this, do not mistake me for saying they have the same cognitive abilities as us. They don’t. Simply that that statement I copied is too strong a position to be correct. That horses have an abstract conception of dominance is of course complete speculation without any empirical support and therefore should not be thought of as true. But do they understand more simple abstractions (e.g. what makes a square)? There is some evidence in support of this.

    Did that jump out at you too Esther? Or just me? 🙂


    • let the horse be with you says:

      Hi there,
      Personally I share the same thought about horses not very good in generalising. Because for example we have at home big bales of hay. And they do not cause any problems of scaring my horses. For a horse out on a hack can a bale of hay suddenly be something to be cautious of. While we as humans recognize the harmless bale of hay anywere we encounter one. While maybe our horses needs to have lots of more encounters in different places to get relaxed about bales of hay. Ofcourse some horses are more likely to generalise quicker than others. They are individuals and my opinion is that some horses think more while others react more. And when they are in a reactive survival state of brain they need more time to generalise to get used to different objects and curcomstances. We as humans we see a bale of hay and recognize that directly anywhere and we ofcourse are never afraid of haybales 😉 that is a huge difference in generalisation ability between humans and horses.

      What do you mean by abstract thinking in terms of dominance? Because there is lots of study done by ethologists.

      And yes I agree that horses can have abstract thinking abilitys, I am interested in these subject can you send me some link?

      I think is good that there is ES and I believe there is far more to be discovered about horses and not even everything can be counted or put into numbers. It is a dynamic field. Science is not something fixed anyway.

      But for the domination question more people should het aware that lots of traditional based horsemanship AND natural horsemanship miss the boat completely whith the idear that dominance is the glasses to look through and that being dominant over your horse is requiered and solving all issues. Leadership is not a dominance question. Horses see us as humans I believe and can bond with us.

      For example if a horse is crowding people it just has not learned to stay at safe handeling distance. If I teach a young horse to keep out of my space it is a matter of creating better habits and a language between me and him. I do not see him trying to be dominant over me or lack of respect.

      Maybe I missed your point, english is not my mother language and I did a quick reply.

      I enjoy talking with you.


      • horseworkblog says:

        You make a good point. Horses can be poor at generalizing, but we will always think them terrible at it when comparing their ability to ours. If they can generalise at all then it is something to be congratulated (unfortunately I do not know about how many species are capable of it). In Hanggi (2005) the authors review research of horses generalising when demonstrating concept learning. This is amazing because it shows they understand concepts, and that requires some level of abstraction. It may be a low level, but it is really cool nonetheless. Scientists have only thought to test horses this way more recently. In the past we have just assumed them dumb animals – until Clever Hans came along.

        What I meant about abstract thinking in terms of dominance:
        Yes horses must have some sense of what it means to be dominant over one another. I know the kinds of ethological studies you refer to.
        However, the claim in the position statement that “They are not good at generalising and abstract thinking is not part of their cognitive abilities.” may be meant as a justification for why we shouldn’t use the word ‘dominance’. If this is the case then it is implying that because horses don’t have abstract thinking then they cannot understand the abstract concept ‘dominance’ (so we shouldn’t use it either).

        I agree that dominance does apply to horses, and I agree that we should avoid using the word because although the word is accurate it also means more things, and so justifies handlers in using punishment (as per the position statement).

        My argument is as follows:
        Horses are (probably) capable of abstract thought. See Hanggi (2005) and others.
        However there is no direct evidence for horses understanding the human term ‘dominance’.
        Horses almost definitely understand some concept that is very like dominance. Lets call it dom*
        It is unlikely that dominance and dom* map onto the same abstraction. For one thing, if it did then horses must also understand punishment, because the way humans use dominance justifies punishment.
        Because it will be another assumption to believe horses understand punishment (and this assumption is generally not made, especially in Equitation Science) then by Appeal to Simplest Explanation (ie. Occam’s Razor) we should not assume it.
        Therefore dominance and dom* are separate but related concepts.
        Also there is no empirical evidence for dominance and dom* to be the same.
        Therefore it is unlikely and should be treated as untrue that horses understand the abstract concept of dominance.
        The position statement is in line with this, as shown by its statement that “Concepts of dominance hierarchies, alpha position and leadership are people’s attempts to describe the complex and dynamic social organisation of horses living in social groups.”
        So although dominance and dom* are different, dominance is the best way we have to describe dom*.
        (However, due to the welfare implications, the word dominance in training should no longer be used, as per the position statement).

        Sorry for the length. It turns out to be a complex issue!

        As for a reference, start with Hanggi’s review
        Hanggi, E. B. (2005). The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed. American Association of Equine Practitioners Proceedings, 51, 246-255.

        You will see the primary sources referenced in that text^ See page 253 (8th page in doc).

        I like how you use Leadership instead of Dominance. And I completely agree with your example! As trainers we need to remain confident, even in the face of aggressive behaviour, and remember that learning principles work. When learning theory is applied we can teach the horse our preferred behaviour from them.

        Great discussion!!
        If I have misinterpreted you or haven’t been clear enough, then feel free to reply again 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s