If Horses Were Dragons

Here’s a piece I wrote for the April issue of the online magazine Going Gaited. As always, I’m exploring why dominance theory is so prevalent in work with horses. It seems like words like leadership, trust, respect, obedience are very popular. I think they’re popular with the human handlers, but do horses view the methods to establish these catch words with the same interest?

I’ve seen so many obedient horses that aren’t happy. They’re behaving out of fear or threat of something irritating happening if they don’t comply. Yes, they are following the leader, but for what reason?

I doubt it’s because following the leader makes sense and brings them joy. I think the reason there is so much emphasis on being the leader is that with a few stomps and waving of arms, the horse appears to respect your space. Is this actual respect, or simply a horse moving away from something that looks menacing? In the following article, I muse about what horse training would like like if they could breath fire and fly. This might making stomping and flapping quickly obsolete!

What if?

Just for fun, let’s pretend our horses are fire-breathing dragons. How would you train them? Keep in mind, with one fiery burst of dragon breath they can torch their stall, the barn, the round pen, fencing or you.  Even if they choose not to set fire to their surroundings, they can simply fly away.

For starters, you could venture out into the dragon’s lair and study dragon behavior. You could imitate the way they blow smoke at each other and flap their wings to establish dominance. You could show the dragon you are in charge (huffing and puffing and flapping) and he should do as you say because you are the higher-ranking dragon.

Is this a viable option with a dragon, or would you be set on fire?

I’m not sure if it applies to dragons, but here’s what the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has to say in their Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals:

“People who rely on dominance theory to train their pets may need to regularly threaten them with aggressive displays or repeatedly use physical force. Conversely, pets subjected to threats or force may not offer submissive behaviors. Instead, they may react with aggression, not because they are trying to be dominant, but because the human threatening them makes them afraid.”

Yikes. These vets seem to confirm the possibility of being set on fire. I would imagine too, the average dragon would have no need to offer submissive behaviors to anyone.

The AVSAB is expressing concern “….with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors.”

Alrighty then. If forcing dogs, or other animals such as our beloved horses into submission to correct behavior problems is not advised, then I’m thinking that there must be a better way.

Fortunately AVSAB has this suggestion:

“The AVSAB emphasizes the standard of care veterinarians specializing in behavior is that dominance theory should not be used as a general guide for behavior modification. Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that behavior modification and training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and avoiding the reinforcement of undesirable behaviors and striving to address the underlying emotional state and motivations, including medical and genetic factors that are driving the undesirable behavior.”

This is great! The training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors. Imagine how much safer you’d feel reinforcing the dragon, or your horse, for keeping all four feet on the ground, by giving them a real reward (food, kind words, soft pat) as opposed to yanking, shanking, yelling, or spanking for leaping in the air!

In my humble opinion, I’d much rather seek to win the heart of the dragon by reward reinforcements rather than take the chance of encouraging aggression, or self protective behaviors by imposing my dominance (if there is such a thing with a dragon).

This is also how I choose to win the heart of my horses. I use attraction-based methods that focus on inviting, attracting and rewarding the desirable behaviors. I’ve never felt comfortable with the dominance-based methods. It took too much energy from me with the fancy footwork needed for the stomping, and shushing and sending. If I was doing rope work, it was all I could do to pay attention to my horse and my feet so I wouldn’t trip.

So, back to the dragon training game. If I were training a dragon and my fancy footwork (huffing and flapping) hadn’t got me burned to a crisp, the dragon could simply set fire to the lunge rope and fly away. My question then becomes, if I wouldn’t train a dragon this way, and the AVSAB recommends the same course of action, why would I want to train my horse in such a manner where I attempt to pull rank to get obedience if it’s not necessary? (And there’s another way that would feel better to the animal)

Once I started training with attraction-based methods, I found the need to use dominance-based communication essentially disappeared. For my horses that responded defensively to pressure, the reward-based communication created pleasant associations of humans and exponentially increased their desire to interact with me.

Instead of exhausting myself and creating the risk of aggressive responses from my horses, I simply made a target stick and started clicking and treating. Suddenly my horses were only offering the behaviors I wanted. They knew that the right answer brought happy times, and the wrong answer had no pay-off, not even an eh-eh, or no-no. For some animals even negative attention is better than no attention. I found that my horses only repeated behaviors that they were reinforced for, either positive or negative. It was in my best interest to pay very close attention to the behaviors I wanted and reinforce those.

My guess is that in the unlikely event that a herd of fire breathing dragons descends on our shores, we’ll be ready. We’ll have clickers, a very long target stick and treat pouch full of dragon delights. But until then we can get plenty of practice in our own pasture creating our own magical world where both horse and human feel good.


7 thoughts on “If Horses Were Dragons

  1. This is positively brilliant. I’ve been reading a great book by Meg Daley Olmert that has some interesting thoughts on how and why dominance training works and doesn’t work. i’d love your thoughts on this. Expect an email!

  2. What a fascinating thought! I have never imagined my horses as dragons, although I do often try to think — would what I am doing now work for a dangerous horse? when I am totally at liberty with no fences in sight? if I had no tack? if my horse were a huge draft horse? The questions quickly expose the pressure-based parts of my training that I want to eliminate. 🙂

    Great blog!


    Cambria Horsemanship: Liberty Dressage Through Play, Feel, and Dance

    • Thanks for your comment. Your questions are exactly why I find positive reinforcement clicker training so effective. One the horse associates the sound of the click with something wonderful, the click becomes a powerful and effective way to keep your horse’s attention. And if you have your horse’s attention, most likely you have its entire body!

      Also too, the click is a sound that can also interrupt the flight response. This makes for a great tool for spooky horses or unpredictable circumstances.


  3. Ah, yes, you must’ve read my most recent blog post — or else your comments are just remarkably appropriate! I’ve been thinking about safe ways to be bridleless and interrupt the flight response. You’re right — linking such a distinct sound as the clicker with a reward, pleasure, and relaxation could be key to a truly safe bridleless horse. Thank you!


    • Also, here’s another wonderful aspect of the click…my theory is that if the click represents something pleasurable, there’s a good chance it may even play a part in the secretion of oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone. This hormone also has a calming, feel good effect, which is much different than the activation of adrenaline….which is most likely at work if a horse is spooked or worried. So if the horse is excited for any reason, the activation of oxytocin may just bring ’em back to earth or at least into eye contact 🙂

      My other thought is that if you are working with your horse in an atmosphere of oxytocin, there’s gonna be a lot of bonding going on, which would also make the horse much more like to stay in communication with you, especially if you’re bridleless. If the best thing in town is on its back, it will definitely increase your horse’s focus on you.

      Keep us posted with your bridleless work! Have you seen the movie Avatar?


      • Yes, I did see Avatar! I was absolutely blown away by the special effects/CGI, but also was impacted by the relationship they had with the dragons, or whatever they were called. 🙂 It made me think of the relationship I want with horses.

        What did you think of it?


      • Of course my favorite part was the relationship portrayed between the riders and the creatures they were riding. It was as if there was no communication until both rider and creature had bonded. The bond was a mutual meeting of the minds based on connection rather than intimidation. I’d love to know the writer’s experience with horses!


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