image from blog.valleyvet.comResearchers may not have a definite answer to say whether dominant or submissive posture is better for horse owners to get the most positive response--however a recent study shows horse’s ability to recognize between the two postures in humans.

According to Leanne Proops, PhD, horses prefer submissive postures. Proops conducted a study on the topic with colleagues from the University of Sussex Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group and the University of Portsmouth, both in the U.K

Rather than saying her study proves which posture is more effective while training, she simply says it proves horses pick up the difference between submissive and dominant postures.

“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,” Proops said.”

The Experiment

In the study of 30 riding horses, they first eliminated all factors that might influence the horses. They worked with 10 similarly dressed female handlers, all about the same size and body shape. None of the women had relationships with the horses prior to the study, nor were their faces visible as to hide facial expressions.

They first had each individual horse go into an arena with two of these women standing neutrally, facing each other, ignoring the horse, and holding a carrot. That way, Proops said, the horse would have some kind of motivation to approach the humans in the second part of the experiment.

In Phase 2, two of the women stood a few feet apart from each other. One would take on a “dominant” posture: standing tall with legs shoulder-length apart, arms held out to the side, and chest puffed out. The other would take on a “submissive” posture: legs together, crouching slightly, arms tucked in. A third handler would release the horse into the arena. Once it approached one of the two women, the third handler would lead the horse away, walk it in a figure-eight (to reduce the chance that the horse starts to prefer the human on one side or another, as previous research has shown), and release it again.

To reduce the chance that a horse preferred a single handler, the women switched places, sides, and postures several times throughout the study.

The Results

The researchers found that, across the board, the horses showed a strong preference for submissive handlers, Proops said. They approached them more frequently, and not a single horse in the group showed an overall preference for the dominant handler.

 “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,” she said. “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.”

At this stage, it’s impossible to say whether one position is “better” or “worse” than the other, based on the study results. And that’s especially true when it comes to training.

“Successful relationships between horses and people are likely to depend on the context and the individuals involved,” Proops said. “And there is a big difference between showing confidence, being dominant, or being threatening.

“We can’t be sure how the horses in our study interpreted the dominant posture of the unknown people in our study, but it may be that different results are seen when familiar people or different contexts are used,” she continued. “It would be interesting to find out.”

Let us know in the comments which posture your horse prefers while training!

The study, “Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture,” was published in Animal Cognition and evaluated by Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA