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When dominant body language can backfire when working with horses

Taking more submissive body postures when working with horses can be more helpful in certain situations.

We are often told to be “confident herd leaders” when working with horses, but a new study suggests that more submissive body postures are more helpful in certain situations.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in England tested the willingness of horses to approach individuals displaying various types of body language. The study used 45 riding-school horses and five pairs of demonstrators who were unfamiliar to the horses. For the experiments, each horse was led into an arena, released and allowed to approach either of the demonstrators.

Woman longing a horse

Human body language is a powerful communication tool when working with horses. 

During initial “warm-up” trials, the two demonstrators—women of similar size and build—adopted neutral body positions, faced each other and allowed the horses to approach them to receive food; this ensured that the horses knew that both demonstrators had food. Then the demonstrators took difference stances: One struck a dominant pose, holding her body upright, her chest high and her arms at her sides, while the other stood with her knees slightly bent and her arms folded across her hips to convey submissiveness. The demonstrators, whose faces were mostly covered, stood perfectly still as the horses approached. The trials were repeated with each horse until the two demonstrators had adopted both dominant and submissive postures, standing on both the right and left side of each other, with each horse. All of the experiments were videotaped.

[Click here to learn how to read your horse's body language.]

The researchers then analyzed the tapes to determine each horse’s preference for a dominant or submissive posture and how long it took to make that choice after release. They found that the horses showed a significant preference for submissive body postures: They chose to approach the “submissive” demonstrator 90 times compared to 27 approaches to the “dominant” demonstrator.

How this preference for submissive body postures in people squares with advice to be “confident” around horses is complicated, says Leanne Proops, PhD. “It is highly likely that horses (and other species) prefer to be in the company of submissive individuals in some contexts and dominant individuals in others. For example, horses may avoid eating in close proximity to dominant individuals for fear of aggression, but they may choose to be near dominant individuals when their group is threatened by another group. Studies have also shown that horses learn more readily from dominant group members, for example.”

Proops adds that “successful relationships between horses and people are likely to depend on the context and the individuals involved. There is also a big difference between showing confidence, being dominant or being threatening.”

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For your bookshelf: Equine Behaviour in Mind: Applying Behavioural Science to the Way We Keep, Work and Care for Horses

Overall, however, she says the study serves as yet another reminder that body language, even when it’s very subtle, matters to horses. “What I hope people will take from this study is simply the fact that horses are keenly tuned in to our body language all the time. If we are sensitive to the messages we communicate with our body language, and pay attention to how horses respond to these cues, this in itself will help us to establish good relationships with our horses.”

Reference: “Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture,” Animal Cognition, October 2017

This article was originally published in EQUUS 485, February 2018

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