A Natural Instinct to Dominate

I find it fascinating to watch children talking to animals. It’s almost like studying mustangs. Kids are who we are, in a more natural state.

The toddler wants to pet the cat, cradle the cat like a doll, take the cat for a walk. It’s sweet and childlike, but I’ll also use the word dominate. Is that word too strong for a little girl?

I’ll use that harsh word because the toddler wants to have her way. Game on! Some cats become boneless, as easy to hold as a furry eel. Some stay just barely out of reach, in a sea of table legs or on top the bookshelf. Cats manage to control the environment, holding just at the edge of possibility, only to tease. We don’t commonly use treats with cats, so no baiting. (I know clicker training works, but not usually for toddlers.)

The reason cats and kids are fun to watch is that we’re in on the joke. Cats have that quality humans love/hate; cats have intelligence and autonomy. We know it’s the cat who’s playing, and they have the advantage.

“The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.”  Walter Zettl

It’s easy to rant against domination when it’s physical brutality. Easy to rage against dog fighting and Rollkur. Drawing attention to cruelty is easy because most of us aren’t cruel.

Kids are impatient and kids like to have their way. It’s okay, they’re only kids, but they’re also the perfect expression of our nature. The instinct that we think we’re the boss. It’s how our brain works naturally.

A simple explanation of the difference between us and non-human animals, like horses. Scientists agree that horses have consciousness, defined as being aware of their own body and the surrounding environment. They think. Humans have self-awareness, generally defined as consciousness, as well as the awareness of our existence. We think, and then we think about our thoughts. 

The thought process that makes us feel superior, self-awareness, is also the thing that also gets us in trouble. It’s instinct as pure as a child, our thoughts talk us into thinking we can control outcome. That we can control animals, through our love for them, for their own good.

It sounds like logic seen through our eyes. Of course, the horse, a flight animal, should give up control of his feet to us so we can pick them up; so the farrier can trim him. Of course, he should want to get into a horse trailer, a small noisy metal box, so we can go trail ride, or take him to the vet for an emergency. See it from his side.

While riding, our hands want to control what a horse can look at, where he puts his feet, and the speed he travels. For his own good and our own safety, we alter his balance. We absolutely love to ride (when we are in control.)

Most of us hate an over-controlling quality in other humans, while we enjoy being victims of our own uncontrollable house cats. Even as we still feel somehow that we deserve to control horses. As if building trust was as easy as buying hay.

Stalls. Fly masks. Winter rugs. Vaccines. I love my horse so much, I keep him controlled in a small stall. Where is the place between supporting horses with confidence and loving them into a state of learned helplessness? Between respecting their natural instinct and keeping them safe.

The advantage of giving up the idea that we can control the universe, or even an hour on a horse, is that it puts us back into the conscious part of our brain. It’s where we are more aware of our senses and the natural world around us. Rather than fantasizing about the perfect ride, we are in a position to converse in real time with a real horse. Not as easy intellectualizing about it but infinitely more rewarding.

When you stop and think about it, our natural instincts are a poor match with the natural instinct of a flight animal. Emotions don’t change that. It’s an awareness that we should keep in the forefront of our training: our differences are on a level of instinct, not choice. If we expect a horse to lay down his instincts for us, then we had better be ready to make that same commitment.

What happens when a horse has autonomy? He grows confidence, just like a cat. Yikes.

To them, it would sound like humans saying yes, all the time. Less of the correction of training and more direction to a positive place. It means that we start with acceptance them just the way they are. It sounds simple but saying yes is trickier than it sounds. It isn’t enough love horses, it’s that question of how we show our love. Where is that middle path, between spoiling them by smothering their instinct and supporting them to their best confident selves?

Where to start? First, we must embody that same confidence in ourselves.

Zettl is right; the biggest challenge to partnering with horses is that we can’t have our way. Like a toddler who whines that the cat doesn’t like her, we must find a way to lift our conversation above love or hate, to a place of equality with this intelligent creature. Instead of mitigating our weaknesses, we need to partner our strengths.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Zettl. We’ll do our best.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “A Natural Instinct to Dominate”

  1. You continue to be thought provoking. At this point, I’m close to believing that humans have no business interacting with horses since it serves no purpose other than human satisfaction. They don’t asked to be developed as athletes and our attempts to train in the “right” way, fail. And they’re continually confused and terrified. Dangerous thinking since I am just about to buy a horse.

    • For what it’s worth, I disagree about having no business interacting. For one thing, they need us to feed them. As long as horses, most of them, volunteer, then we should keep trying to do better for them. It’s too late to un-domesticate them. As a trainer who has horses and clients who pull to the arena, I think we are figuring it out and horses can be very confident and fulfilled working, when we evolve past dominance. I’m sorry if I gave the opposite idea. Shannon, thank you for commenting. I do hope you get a horse; we need your awareness in the horse world.

  2. So right and so hard. Sometimes I find myself wanting some acknowledgement or reward for “listening”—don’t you love it now that I’m giving you a voice? Jeez. What they put up with.

  3. Hi, Anna – this blog makes me even more convinced that one can learn a great deal from interacting with cats that translates to interacting with horses. The cat seems even more of an enigma as it is at once both predator and prey. The cat chooses to be with us. What’s the saying? “A dog will obey you, a cat wants to see your resume.” Do we need to brush up our resume’s with our horses?

  4. Hi, Anna – this blog makes me even more convinced that one can learn a great deal from interacting with cats that translates to interacting with horses. The cat seems even more of an enigma as it is at once both predator and prey. The cat chooses to be with us. What’s the saying, “A dog will obey you, a cat wants to see your resume.” Do we need to brush up our resume’s with our horses?

    • Not sure how cats became “gods” and horses became “beasts of burden” but yes, I’m brushing up my resume. Good point, thanks, Delahny. 🙂

  5. This is absolutely beautiful. I am so deeply grateful that I found your books recently and now get to enjoy your blog. So are my horses! :). There are no words….I just take yours in and let them percolate. They so resonate with me every time. Gratitude.. Thank you for sharing your gift and insights.

  6. Anna, I always enjoy reading your posts. Your point of view is always something I can relate to and agree with, however, I find myself disagreeing with this one. I believe that humans’ need to dominate has more to do with an unhealthy ego and a lack of self-awareness. If someone regards their own needs as the only ones that count, then anyone, no matter what species of animal, who stands in the way of getting those needs met must be dominated and conquered. Those who are able to empathize, see a situation from another’s viewpoint, are better at communicating their needs to another without force.

      • Good question. I’ve known so many people who are incapable of empathy, so maybe it’s not instinctual. But then again, we don’t all have the same set of instincts. Wow, this is way too complex for a Friday afternoon!

      • I JUST discovered you Anna; I had read an article a friend shared about Depression; suicide; and Anthony Bourdain. It lead me to another post someone put up about Anthony Bourdain, responding to having won an award for his segment on the Palestinians, in one of his Places Unknown shows. It struck me how empathetic a person he was – (to other humans; not so sure about animals given his culinary proclivities); and how that empathy is what was so attractive really about him..his ability to don the skin of those he ate with. A lack of empathy makes for terrifying people..and the more intelligent they are the worse it gets. I found you when re-reading the article on Depression, and revisiting my long left Word Press site. I love your article; it’s wonderful; and I was so pleasently surprised to find it here on WordPress. Now I want to read more from you. This question on empathy vs. self awareness and control will keep me busy for a bit I think.

  7. I am finding that I don’t have it in me to impose my will on my horse any more, not when I know that she will become unhappy or bored or, worse yet, frightened. I didn’t decide, it just happened, at the same time as my own joints and energy levels deteriorated. So I might just be rationalizing. The pony still needs to be safe for the farrier, the veterinarian, for routine handling, But if it’s for my ego, we’re not doing that any more. Is she happier? Less confident? I don’t know. I don’t even have the benefit of a Cheshire smile 🙂

    • Have the two of you retired? No crime in that, there is a value to companionship. And that last photo I saw of her after her “near death experience” did have a cheshire-like quality, I thought. 🙂 Thanks, Susan.

  8. What a provocative and timely post. As soon as I turn my conscious brain on when I’m around my horses, this issue is at the forefront (thank goodness, I don’t always turn it on, and so I might be more like your girl with the cat?). My dressage teacher often berates me for not being dominant enough. She says “we are the guardians of our horses’ chiropractic wellbeing, and that implies that we often have to say: you will do this shoulder-in now, even if you don’t want to, because you need it.” She will also say: there are those who prefer to take off a bandaid really slowly, and other to rip it off in a split second. Which one is more painful? (Referring to certain training intervention). We bipeds with an overgrowth of brain matter don’t have it easy, do we? Ticks just take what they need. We do, too, but we fret about it.

    • Not my approach to dressage, but we all make decisions about what words mean. If you are in doubt, check it out with your good horse. Best wishes to both of you.

  9. I bought my boy sight unseen via CanterPA over a decade ago, deciding on “him” after a very vivid dream about him. Called the trainer listed, and started the call with “Don’t sell him to anyone else. I’m sending the money” Since then, I have ridden him a handful of times. As his knee got worse, so did my own health. So we are partners “on the ground” He trusts me completely. I have had other, older more experienced horse people tell me that it’s obvious our connection is beyond what they see others having. Or even have with their own horses. But then I began watching the lesson kids, after they were around he and I for a bit. They “want” what he and I have, but they want it NOW. Without asking how long he and I have been together. Without caring about the hows and whys of the relationship. The long hours of soaking his leg, abscesses that I chased around his hoof for weeks. The months of hand walking. The nights of multiple trips back and forth to the barn. The freezing mornings where I brought buckets of hot water to the barn in my SUV, since the water in the barn was frozen solid. They ride with whips, spurs. I never had to use either, on any of my horses. But especially not with the old man. He gets “upset” You can see it in his eyes when a whip is around him. But he trusts me. Implicitly. But it wasnt overnight. And there were times that we tested each other.
    My daughter said, when she was around 5 yrs old “All animals talk. You just have to listen” So true. I just wish I could tell the kids to slow down, wait for it. It will come. But you have to listen.

    • And I think we get farther sometimes in the care we give than the training we undertake. It’s a multi-dimensional thing… us and horses. Your daughter was right. Wonderful comment, thank you for sharing it.

  10. Hi Ms Anna, it’s Dr Penny. I’m in HI, so won’t see you at From The Mother this year. I continue to enjoy your wisdom blog!  Do I have permission to quote you “The biggest challenge to partnering w horses … We need to partner our strengths.” at a Connection Medicine circle I am doing tomorrow at 808 Horse Rescue, w a very special mare named Youka, and her herd of horses, donkeys, steer, pig, goats, cats, dog and humans. Our experiential question of the day is “Can Building Trust Relieve Chronic Pain (in Horse and Human). Should be very interesting!! Shoot me a text if you don’t mind me quoting you?? 808-755-5693Cheers, Penny

  11. People keep asking me why I haven’t ridden Dodger since I brought him home two years ago. I couldn’t find the words until I read yours in this post.

    Truth is…I’m no longer willing to ride a horse on whom my safety depends on skills with tack designed to trump natural instinct.

    It’s a hard thing for me to admit that I am likely only safe on a horse who has graduated from training I was not willing to put Dodger through.

    One day I will be sitting on a fence or standing on a rock and Dodger will sidle up to me and say “get on.”

    Or not.

    • I hate to think something I wrote would keep someone from riding; there are all kinds of tack that promote partnership without pain. I leave the decision to you and Dodger. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michelle.

  12. I think this is what my horses are teaching me. A hard lesson to grasp and a deeper level. I think this may be a compliment – did my previous horse think I had potential and do his best to prepare me for higher education?


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