The Biological Basis of Submission
The Biological Basis of Submission
By: Andrew McLean
To fully understand submission, you must first realise its reason for being. In living things, every structure and behaviour has a purpose, and living together in social groups has many cost benefit advantages, over being solitary. Group living allows more animals to eat more grass more efficiently. Living in groups, however, poses a number of problems for animals in terms of competition for limited resources such as food and mating partners, so the dominance hierarchy or pecking order has evolved, where aggressive behaviour is thwarted through evolved mechanisms of threat and display. In natural dominance hierarchies, animals occupy their various levels in the hierarchy; it is a relatively harmonious existence, and if the leader is strong and consistent, then harmony reigns beneath. All those below the leader are calmed by the strength and consistency of the leader above, and there is little need for expressions of insecurity such as shying and fear – as all permanent features of the environment are accepted, if they are accepted by the leader. But when the leader’s dominance weakens, and this is perceived by the horse immediately below, conflict behaviour emerges to the appropriate extent, and a mutual grooming session may be finished off with a bite, there will be some invasion of personal space and facing-away behaviour will be shown. Based on those results, the contender may continue to challenge, accept his new hierarchical position, or retreat. When animals have grown up together they form such subtle hierarchies that one is inclined to think there is no hierarchy, for it has its expression only in the subtlest gestures. Social hierarchies are therefore not permanent, and in every horse there is the innate predisposition to test the system and attempt to move up the hierarchy; it is especially evident in mares. The benefits are obvious in improving status, for the higher up the hierarchy, the greater access to better feeding sites of choice, and greater access to the stallion, so that dominant mares will have more opportunity to breed earlier and give birth earlier in the spring, giving the foal the greatest of growth opportunities. Such a system of mobility up and down the hierarchy is highly adaptive for it favours through natural selection the characteristics of dominance, resulting in strong, robust populations. There is another aspect of the evolution of the horse which affects the dominance of horses and that is their predisposition to select highly nutritious grasses and grains. It is important that the horse has evolved a ‘sweet tooth’ so that it can detect and select those grasses in which the sap is rising in early spring so that it gets the earliest start possible to the rising plane of nutrition of springtime. Coupled with this, is the well-known tendency of most horses to change their behaviour with this rising plane of nutrition to the point where the horse becomes dominant and feisty. (Our business of behaviour modification is flooded with behaviour problems in spring!) This increasing dominance is adaptive as it promotes thriving ‘good doers’ to higher levels of the pecking order, facilitating the evolution of animals that are quick to put on weight after the malnourished hardy times of winter. The horse’s body is adapted for these giant swings of energy storage, and it stores energy reserves throughout its entire musculature, rather than in separate body parts like humans. Dominant mares tend to produce dominant foals, simply because of the protection a dominant mare affords, and the early experiences for the foal of being able to invade the space of others with impunity, gives him a head start in the climb up the hierarchy. As with the dog, the domestication of the horse involved, through selective breeding, the dilution of the tendency to dominate strongly, however this trait, along with the flight response, has come back into modern breeds through the development of the racing breeds, as there is a positive correlation, particularly with mares, between racing performance and dominance. An important feature of dominance in the horse is that it is dependant, not on body size but on internal factors including vigour and robustness, psychological factors such as how successful you have been in the past, and who was the first occupier of the patch of ground. Dominance displays can be caused by a trickle down effect from the top of the hierarchy where the leader attacks the one below, then he attacks the next and so on down the line. This is called re-directed aggression. Re-directed aggression occurs in every band of horses (it is seen in all peck-order animals, even humans), but it is more likely to arise in unstable or artificially small populations, such as a pair of horses, where one horse is dominated continuously and the other takes it out on something else, with great ferocity – the ‘something else’ could be another animal or a person. Small groupings are only slightly more natural than solitary horses, and therefore tend to predispose to increased levels of aggression, but of course this is not always the case, as some pairs of horses settle into lifetime peaceful relationships, where the dominance is so subtle and understated that it is barely evident. Paired horses may also lead to greater dependency problems than one finds in natural settings. Submission is very much about the pecking order and obedience. Successful trainers in all disciplines recognise submission and the lack of it, and how to maintain it, but the behavioural basis of submission is one aspect of horse psychology that every horse person should be well acquainted, and it should be a part of the working knowledge of every coach candidate, yet it is staggering how little understood this phenomenon is, in spite of the inroads science has made into other areas of horse management. We have, for example, become so obsessed with rider mechanics and the horse as a system of musculature, that we fail to teach riders adequate training skills, and we often fail to recognise the tendency of horses to form habits, except when they are bad ones. Relaxation in the horse when he is correctly long and low in outline is not primarily because of the stretched muscles along the spinal axis, but is a function of the head carriage itself. It is ‘postural submission’, a universal posture throughout the animal kingdom. When the horse’s head is lowered manually or by the rider, he becomes calmer, and progressively so, the lower the head goes. Horses learn from birth the association of the low head position with calmness, and the raised head with adrenaline/fear. The posture causes the adoption of the behaviour (providing he has freedom from pressure down there). It takes about 30 seconds to achieve relaxation even in an adrenalised horse when the head is lowered. It is always an interesting paradox to note how we humans attribute through our actions and especially our language, considerable reasoning power to the horse, and on the other hand we ride him like he is an automaton. But somewhere in between lies the horse: a social peck-order animal with sharper senses than our own, a superior memory, a great capacity for learning by conditioning, a great capacity to form habits, and like all other ungulates, a poor development of higher mental processes. In addition we apply human connotations of relationship dynamics to the horse and imagine him not only that he is an ‘equal’ partner, but that he desires this. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the domestic horse has been trained to comply as he loses his choices early in his life, beginning generally at weaning time. The horse’s choice, if he could be granted one would be to graze peacefully with his mates. That is not to say that the performance horse is not ‘happy’ doing his job – he is ‘happy’ by virtue of his tendency to form habits – a ‘happy’ horse is one which has clear consistent habits. You could say that a coal-pit pony is ‘happy’ in his habits, because any routine, if there is no conflict, leads to contentment once habits are formed. But let us be quite clear about the origin of this relationship; the notion of co-operation is nonsense if you do not at first accept that the horse has been robbed of his freedom. He has no say in reality as to where you want to ride or lead him, and if he does, we label him disobedient, and his new found incursions into freedom will profit him and result in increasing levels of dominance inspired resistance. This leads to the next incorrect assumption that horses cannot be content being anything but equal. This also is a romantic assumption. The horse is most content living in a stable hierarchy, for that is how it has been for millions of years, and that is how it is for all hierarchal animals, except for the few primates which form coalitions, such as baboons. It really doesn’t matter which position the horse is in the hierarchy, it is just extremely important that the position is defined – ie. he is perfectly content being beneath a clear consistent leader rather than not knowing who the leader is because the dominance is wishy-washy and occasional; so I repeat, for true contentment, the horse needs clear consistent habits, where the rules do not change. When things look like they are becoming equal, then conflict behaviour emerges and animals become anxious and begin to display dominant behaviour in order to resolve the impasse. This behaviour escalates from gestures into threats and finally to aggressive behaviour if the situation is not resolved, when real peace through a structured hierarchy, will reign again. So, in every respect, equality in the pecking order is foreign to the horse and is the source of anxiety. To be blunt, the horse needs to know who is in charge, whether it be you or he, just so long as someone is! In other animal species, it has been well documented that disrupting the pecking order into unresolved equality results in such massive conflict behaviour that many areas of physiology are affected such as the immune system, the digestive system and fecundity. I have seen in horses the same phenomenon where the animal is in conflict and is unable to gain weight no matter how much is eaten, and then will suddenly put on weight when in a settled submissive state. Handling and riding a horse involves, even in the least successful of attempts, some degree of submission because the horse has to some extent complied with the demands of the human, the dominance of the human may be incomplete, if the horse is disobedient in other areas. If the dominance is not complete, then the horse will be in some degree of conflict, and will increase his attempts to resolve the problem. He may behave fearfully, particularly if this results in your stepping back, at which point he can invade your space. But even more pertinently, your lack of leadership will produce the fear response in the horse, for it is highly destabilising to find that the leader above has feet of clay. This is precisely why achieving respect on the ground as well as in the saddle are essential ingredients of an all round respectful attitude. The horse with a dominant attitude on the ground but seems OK under saddle will be much improved under saddle when the ground work is corrected, because the attitude of the horse is not something that he ‘wears’ only in certain situations. If the horse finds chinks in your leadership then he will seek to move up, and part of that conflict behaviour is showing erratic fearful behaviour. As aggression is largely unresolved fear, it may only be a matter of time before some aggressive behaviour shows itself. Real trust is built quite firmly on a foundation of respect. That is, respect for you as a leader, in exactly the same way as happens in the wild. Every horse/human interaction involves the social hierarchy. If you do not insist on obedience on the ground at all times in terms of the horse invading your space, for example, by stepping toward you or by swinging his head so that you have to duck or move, then your horse needs some attitude overhaul. By the same token he should lead and halt in self carriage so that he does not drag on the rope and or tow you about, because once again this is indicative of a lack of submission. Once submissive, the horse becomes even quieter than before. Like all innate behaviour, the instinct of social dominance does not act independently of learned behaviour, and in the horse, it is enhanced or inhibited by the actions of those around him. It is therefore easy to see that conflicts and miscues from the rider or handler can and most frequently account for rising levels of dominance in the riding horse. The main problem areas are giving conflicting messages to the horse, (such as stop and go, at the same time, before either is established), crooked, unbalanced riding, (including uneven rein contact) and not rewarding the performance of each transition and movement in the horse by softening immediately. This last one is something which causes a lot of conflicts especially in young horses, because riders mistakenly believe that the primary rewards are voice or patting rewards, and pay less attention to the timing of their cues and rewards. Patting and voice rewards are learned rewards, not innate ones, and are trained by the relatively short-lived form of learning termed classical conditioning (new associations are learned this way). But the reward that the horse will always seek first is the primary reward of freedom from the pressure in his mouth or body from your hand and leg. When you are applying pressure to the horse’s mouth or body, or when you ‘click’ to him you are negatively reinforcing him when this pressure is removed, and this is the basis for most of the operant things a riding horse learns. By not rewarding the horse through softening, you may cause the onset of conflict behaviour which can show up as some kind of tension or resistance. Dominance generated resistances include jibbing, rearing, spinning, pig-rooting and bucking, and often include tension and fear response behaviour. Then if the horse profits by his resistances, again by the freedom he gets through the removal of your aids, then dominance will become the prime mover for further resistances even when your riding skills are improved, because, like all behaviour patterns, habits are formed (think of the consistent ‘stopper’ at obstacles). This is why behaviour modification is often necessary for such problems, because the horse is now tuned in to his dominance, and because of the intrinsic reward factor the resistances are maintained in spite of excellent coaching in correct position. Once the behaviour has been modified, then good coaching is necessary, as this will prevent the conflict behaviour arising in the future. As I mentioned earlier, you must never underestimate the power of the horse’s ability to form habits. For unlike ourselves, the horse does not act on opinion , free-will choice or understanding in his actions, instead he is guided by positively or negatively reinforced actions, and if they occur frequently, (ie with repetition) then they will become automatic, and therefore habits. All the actions of the jumping, eventing and dressage horse are ultimately automatic, which is why such things as measuring a trakehner fence at 600 metres per minute can happen so instantly and so reliably if the rider’s balance and body are not interfering. For trainers these observations provide enormous opportunities for achieving submission without violence or force; it is all a matter of playing the horse’s natural dominant gestures back to him (as early in his life as possible), and not allowing him to express them in return.
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