Linear dominance hierarchies are constructs that were invented to describe the pecking order of chickens. There is no principle that mandates that a hierarchy must be linear. A hierarchy arises from patterns of interactions between two individuals at a time. Personality styles and motivations are just as likely to produce circular or loopy chains of dominance and submission. Access to mates and access to food will not produce similar hierarchies. But the humans promulgate the dominance construct and look for a way to exploit this misunderstood ethological disposition. Because of the primate tendency to look for excuses for outrage, we like to focus on aggression. We feel comfortable as screaming monkeys.
It’s a mistake, though, to think the agonistic interactions are the principle ways horses relate to each other. Horses also cooperate. In fact, they cooperate much more than they compete for dominance, but who notices?
The picture of the fighting horses on this concept map comes from a travel blog about the sport of horse fighting. People bet on the outcomes of pitting stallion against stallion. The human mind would never find a way to bet on the outcome of an allogrooming match. Too boring. This preoccupation we have with agonism leads animal trainers down a dark path where dominance becomes the goal.
Cooperation can be more important than dominance if the animals survive and breed more efficiently as a group than as individuals. Cooperating animals will have higher fitness in environments where they are not forced into competing for survival by scarcity. The balance can shift. The natural environment may offer a habitat that fluctuates between abundance and scarcity, changing the relative value of cooperation and dominance. Both patterns persist.
The competition for mares drives a lot of agonistic interaction among stallions. There are very clear gender differences in aggressive behavior toward other horses, but make no mistake that mares don’t fight. The most common type of mare battle seems to involve going rump to rump to exchange bone-jarring, flesh-cutting kicks until one of them gives up. Because at Mustang Camp we mix arriving horses in new groupings, we see more than a fair share of these contests. But if you look deeper, cooperation is more common, forming the ubiquitous and under-appreciated texture of life as a social equine.
Being an animal trainer, of course I want to exploit any predisposition at all, including the drive for cooperation. I, hereby, propose a different model for horse training based on cooperation. I would like to promote the idea that the Evolution of Cooperation (Axelrod and Hamilton, 1981) provides a very simple set of rules for horse training.
- Be NICE. Never be the first one to employ aversive stimuli.
- Only reference that last transaction with the animal. Did it cooperate or did it defect from the partnership?
- Reciprocate cooperation or retaliate for defection,
- Occasionally don’t retaliate but offer a random act of cooperation.
- Use the least aversive stimulus possible to defect from the partnership.