About Dogma

Horse with Dogma.1


We all want to understand the things we love. For those who love horses, understanding comes through observation and interaction with a horse, by attending clinics and reading books and browsing web sites, and by listening to the counsel of friends who know horses. We gather information, and try to assemble it into some sensible pattern. We come to believe that we understand.

We don’t understand. Clinics, books, and web sites that focus on horses either get it wrong or get it right but misunderstand why.  And so when we seek the counsel of friends who have read these same books, attended these clinics and browsed these web sites, we are no better off. Such a circular swirl of myths about horses produces a bowl of dogma from which we can’t expect to escape.


Dogma is a system of beliefs or principles that are held so deeply that believers have trouble rationally considering alternatives. Dogma in the world of horses might also be called “common knowledge”, because the belief system is so widely shared and rarely questioned in public. Beliefs seem to be facts when they are almost universally shared.

The business of horses is bound by dogma.

Local dogma can be seen in blanketing. Drive past some horse farms on a 50 degree day, and you’ll see some where all owners have blanketed, and some where no horse is blanketed. Regional dogma can be seen in saddle style and headgear. Visit the southern or western US, and you’ll find near universal use of Western saddles and cowboy hats. Visit the northeastern US, and you’ll find few Western saddles and cowboy hats. Regional dogma may also be seen in preferred competitive events: in the Eastern US and Europe, you’ll find dressage, eventing, jumping, and fox hunting, along with woodland trail riding; in the West, you’ll find none of that, but plenty of barrel racing, team penning, reining, cutting, and team roping.

Easterners are prone to bad thoughts about cowboy hats (not safe!) and Western saddles (too heavy, clunky, and showy!). Westerners are prone to bad thoughts about helmets (for cowards only) and English saddles (for sissies only). But those who laugh at death and wear cowboy hats are typically in a Western saddle, which is very difficult to fall from, whereas those wearing helmets choose English saddles, which are equally difficult to not fall from.

Cutting across regional differences are two contrasting philosophies. These two groups are further divided on whether a horse should be offered a carrot from the hand, and whether a bit is critically important or an instrument of torture. The dogma of Natural horsemanship urges riders to be nice to their horses, but except for the language and saddles we use and clothes we wear, is not much different that traditional horsemanship.

All of these “schools of thought” share a basis in a general horse dogma, and are dogma themselves. They are not science. Some are happy to use a word or two that sound scientific, such as “imprinting” or “reinforcement”, but none appear to be guided by science. Science serves as a kind of shellac to these dogmas, not the bony structure.

You and I both have dogma, though the details might differ. When you and I look at the horse dogma of others — those who believe differently than we do — we politely conclude that their horse dogma is an unexamined mix of truth and baloney. Their dogma defines where they should get their information, the language that they use, the equipment that they buy and the clothing that they wear. It even defines how they describe their horses. It is easy to see dogma in those who don’t share our beliefs, but much harder to see it in ourselves. Our friends and magazines and trainers and favorite web sites all share our dogma, and support it when it comes under attack.

A fundamental question we must ask about our beliefs is this: if a belief is widely held, is it more likely to be right or wrong? It was once dogma that the earth is flat and that tomatoes are poisonous — so we know that dogma is sometimes wrong. But what about some belief like “horses need leadership”? How can we know if this is fact or dogma? For me, the way to sort through this is science, and careful observation when we can do it. Observation can be clouded by dogma, of course, but nothing beats a camera or clipboard for shaking us loose. When someone tells you that horses like to be groomed on the head and upper neck, all we need to do is dash over to Google images, search for “horse allogrooming”, and look carefully. Bam! So much for that belief!

I found dogma very handy in deciding on basic topics that must go into a book like this. If others write about it, then others must be interested in it. I will try to account for the most common horse-related phenomena, including what riders and trainers and charlatans are saying. If thousands are saying the same thing, they are quite possibly all wrong, but they have also inadvertently identified important topics that must be covered, important needs among horse owners. Even if horses aren’t lazy or pushy, we’ll need to figure out what in the world people are talking about.

Only us heretics dare question dogma, but heretics have their place. Without them, we wouldn’t have the BLT, and Columbus wouldn’t have sailed. I’m grateful that folks have stopped burning us at the stake — though that may become fashionable again.

In this book, I will examine most every theme and method in traditional horsemanship and natural horsemanship. I will try to debunk what I believe evangelists have wrong, and advocate where I think they have it right. Of course, if you are trying to be open minded and work your way free from dogma, you’ll need to challenge what I say, too.

Current Dogma is Not Useful

Canada geese fly in a V. They do this, we are told, because it is more aerodynamic, like cyclists slipstreaming their teammates in a peloton. The strongest goose is up front, battling the wind, and the others trail behind him, we are told. I learned these truths in the third grade, and the Internet must have been sitting in my classroom.2

This is dogma. And it is false. Are geese the smartest of birds, and other birds didn’t think of this? Are pelicans so dumb that they choose to plod along single file and battle the headwinds? If we look at fighter pilots, we note that they take the same V-formation when flying over the stadium. And we discover that not only are they lateral and behind or ahead of adjacent planes, but they are also above or below. Do the strongest planes fly in the front? Or do pilots and geese prefer to keep their beaks out of someone else’s butt? Fighter jets and geese may be nimble, but when it comes to sudden fancy footwork, they bumble. Planning ahead is a terrific idea.

If it is a desire to stay out of a goose’s butt that shapes the V, surely individuals in a flock must fly at slightly different altitudes. Let Google prove this: search for “Canada goose flight,” then look at images.  Find photos taken from the side, rather than from below.  You’ll see that there are no photos in which all geese are on the same plane.

While we ponder this, we get thinking about reaction time in geese. If the goose ahead of you turns into your path or begins to brake, you can’t even know this until you see them.  And with your eyes on the side of your head, you may not see them immediately.  So the details of the V-formation are surely controlled, to some extent, by the need to keep other birds in your field of vision.

As for the strongest bird leading the V? Hogwash. The leader is almost always a female, not as strong as the male who trails her. He is happy to follow her to the ends of the earth. She has a mission and that’s fine with him. This is handy, because he can easily keep up with her. Put him in the lead, and the V will stretch until he is lost over the horizon.

If we went around believing everything we are told… we’d be just like we are today. If we want to improve our situation, and sort out the facts and fiction, we need to learn skepticism. I’ve got plenty of it, and will be happy to act as your tour guide here.

Horse sense could come to the rescue, helping us sort through myth and fact. We would need a whole lot of it, of course, and it would need to be coupled with some careful observation. But it hasn’t rescued us yet. This is partly because common sense is not common, and our sources are in such close agreement that we must conclude that something is true if everyone says it is.

But even if common sense about horses is usually wrong, we can’t abandon it. Reason is not treason. Careful observation and thoughtful reasoning must be the foundation of our common sense. It must be filled with deduction (understanding your horse from a knowledge of horses) and induction (understanding horses from a knowledge of your horse and perhaps other information.) Our goal must be to be scientists at all times, asking questions and challenging claims until we think we’ve figured stuff out.

Both horse science and horse sense are going to be needed if we are to dig ourselves out of this quagmire of ignorance about horses.

Why Dogma Fails

Those with dogma on their side don’t seem to dip into the world of science. A recent study of horse owners in the Netherlands3 found that important reported sources for information was their personal contact with other horse enthusiasts (83%), with veterinarians (75%), with farriers (70%), riding instructors (59%), the Internet (59%), horse magazines (59%) and finally books (42%). Books were only slightly more important than studbooks (39%). In all this list, science is represented only by the vets. So science has limited opportunities to touch dogma.

We will need to use reason to work out what we need to know. We’ll need curiosity that is not quenched by self-proclaimed experts. We’ll need science to provide information on those questions. And then we’ll need to bounce back to reason to know how that information can be applied to the original question. Here are two examples: one concerning your horse’s sense of smell, and one concerning his need for leadership.

A horse’s sense of smell. You suspect that your dog has a better sense of smell than you and that he enjoys using his nose. You’ve read about dogs trained to sniff for drugs or fruit or cadavers or bombs. When given the chance your dog prefers a drive in the family car with his nose out the window. So it is reasonable to wonder how he compares with your horse, who also has a pretty big nose. Your training suggests you should look up the answer. You try the Internet. You search for “how good is a horse’s sense of smell.” The first things I find:

  • “The horse’s range of smell is more acute than that of humans but less sensitive than that of dogs.4
  • “It’s generally agreed that dogs are the domestic animals with the most sensitive noses, but horses aren’t far behind.5
  • “Horses have an excellent sense of smell (maybe not as good as a dog, but pretty good)6.“

You don’t need to keep browsing to reach a conclusion: dogs have a better sense of smell than horses, who are better than humans.

The trouble with such a conclusion is that it is a summary of hearsay, not fact. Everyone seems to believe that a dog’s sense of smell is better than that of a horse. To learn the truth, you may need to read an article by the title “Extreme expansion of the olfactory receptor gene repertoire in African elephants and evolutionary dynamics of orthologous gene groups in 13 placental mammals.”7 This report is 11 densely written pages by three Japanese authors that you’ll find in your personal copy of Genome Research — but it was published a few years ago, so perhaps you’ve already read it. In this report, you’ll discover that the horse has 255 more olfactory receptor genes than the dog. If you happen to know how many receptors are typically needed to encode a particular odor, you can now calculate the permutations for dog and horse. Turns out that your horse is about 15 times better than your dog at discriminating scents, and can detect about 1,699,868,436,439,970,000,000,000,000,000 more scents than your dog. Your dog, of course, also kicks butt, and is about 1,385 times better than you.

My point isn’t about a horse’s sense of smell. It is about dogma and about science. When everyone believes something, it does not become more true. The truth can sometimes be found under a rock, or in Genome Research.

Read more about this in the chapter on Smell.

Horses need leadership. You can’t travel far through the words about horses before you encounter someone claiming that “horses need leadership.”

  • “Horses need leadership both on the ground and in the saddle. Leadership is essential to them in the wild; if they don’t have a leader they will become one and make all the decisions as to when to go, when to stay, and when to run.8
  • “Horses need leadership from the owner… Horses are totally reliant on their leader, and they fall into place within the herd based on their rank.9
  • “Horses need leadership and direction, but our approach needs to have a lot of intuitive instincts and a strong ability to have a more flexible leadership.10

You don’t need to keep browsing to reach a conclusion: horses need leadership.

The trouble with such a conclusion is that it is a summary of hearsay, not fact. We can learn the truth by careful observation. Marie Bourjade and her colleagues recently spent hundreds of hours over a two-year period observing Przewalski’s (pronounced shə-val-skee) horses in a semi-free range setting. Przewalski’s horses is the only species of wild horse left on earth. (Mustangs in the West are feral, being derived from domesticated horses.) The difference between wild horses of one subspecies and feral horses of another may be slight, or might be significant. But it seems safer to look for the soul of a horse in something wild, rather than something tied to a hitching post.

Dr. Bourjade’s study used three measures of leadership: departing first, walking in front travel position, and eliciting the joining of mates. But after all of her careful observation, she concluded “We did not find any leader capable of driving most group movements or recruiting mates more quickly than others. Several group members often displayed pre-departure behaviours at the same time, and the simultaneous departure of several individuals was common. We conclude that the decision-making process was shared by several group members … and that the leadership concept did not help to depict individual departure and leading behaviour across movements in both study groups.11

If a herd doesn’t have a leader, how does it decide what to do? Horses have never been in the Boy Scouts or the Army. They have never worked in a corporation. They don’t know about leadership. They know about collective decision making. Collective decision making is what any herd of horses, flock of birds or school of fish does. This concept gives the horse much more credit than the leadership notion, because it recognizes that horses are independent thinkers, even as they love a herd.

You can read more about this in a chapter on Leadership.

In this book, I will examine many notions central to the dogmas traditional horsemanship and natural horsemanship. I will try to debunk what I believe evangelists have wrong, and advocate where I think they have it right. Of course, I won’t likely get it right either, so you’ll need to assess my own claims in reaching your conclusions.

Dogma is not a good thing when it is wrong.12



1 Image source: Dog on top of a horse. Vintage Australian photo postcard.

2 As we think about this: Consider geese coming in for a landing on the water.  Casual observation reveals that some flop from side to side, a move called whiffling. But why do some do this and not others?  A bit more observation reveals that only the large birds, with the biggest wingspans, seem to do it.  And then we reason: if a flock is to land together, and some have longer glide ratios than others, some will be able to coast to a landing, and others will have to brake. Or some will brake, and others will have to brake harder.  Spilling the air by whiffling breaks the lift generated by the wings, and allows a faster decent. For the fastest decent, it seems, some geese have been observed coasting upside down.

Our speculation continues.   What do we know about the largest birds?  If we’ve gone this far, we might as well keep watching.  Soon we learn that it is adult male geese who are much larger than the ladies, who have larger wings and must have more lift. And while we watch this again and again, to be sure, we discover something else: the big boys follow their wives. And so it must be them who do most of the whiffling.  We note that the honks of the two while flying are considerably different. We note that he rarely objects to a direction she chooses.  We begin to suspect that he loves her and that someone’s heart will be broken if a hunter takes one out.

3 Visser, E. Kathalijne, and Elvi EC Van Wijk-Jansen. “Diversity in horse enthusiasts with respect to horse welfare: An explorative study.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 7, no. 5 (2012): 295-304.

4 “Horse Senses” September 24, 2009

5 Briggs, Karen “Equine Sense of Smell” December 11, 2013

6 Guilherme. Comment on The Chronicle of the Horse. June 28, 2009

7 Niimura, Yoshihito, Atsushi Matsui, and Kazushige Touhara. “Extreme expansion of the olfactory receptor gene repertoire in African elephants and evolutionary dynamics of orthologous gene groups in 13 placental mammals.” Genome research 24.9 (2014): 1485-1496.

8 Parelli, Linda. “How to Ride Like a Leader”.

9 “The Herd, The Horse, Behavior Issues & Leadership”

10 Resnick, Carolyn. “There is a Left Brain and a Right Brain Approach to Horses”

11 Bourjade, Marie, Bernard Thierry, Myriam Maumy, and Odile Petit. “Decision‐Making in Przewalski Horses (Equus ferus przewalskii) is Driven by the Ecological Contexts of Collective Movements.” Ethology 115, no. 4 (2009): 321-330.

12 Image source: Twinsday, May 10, 2013.


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