Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions. Horses are social animals that mainly interact with each other on a bilateral level (i.e. each horse has an individual relationship with each other horse), and it is unlikely that they have the concept of a rank order that includes all members of the group. The study of equine cognitive abilities suggests it is unlikely that they have the mental ability to make such a construct. While older and more experienced members of a group may know their home range and can lead group members to locations where food, water or shelter is available more often than younger, less experienced horses, there is currently no solid evidence of leadership being unique to specific individuals within the social group.
Basing human-horse interactions on a dominance concept may be detrimental to horse welfare. There are, unfortunately, examples of riders, trainers and handlers who – believing they have to place themselves in the ‘alpha position’ in relation to their horse – resort to training procedures and/or practices that elicit fear and, in some cases, may result in abuse. In nature, horses will avoid rather than seek conflict. If approached by an aggressive individual, the predominant type of behaviour a horse will show is escape or avoidance. Trainers, riders and handlers must aim to establish a clear and consistent
relationship with their horses in order to safeguard horse welfare. They should be aware of the possible repercussions of describing their interactions with the horse and their training processes in the context of social organisation.