Do Horses Understand the Concept of Respect?

bucking horse leaving stable with man silhouette

Respect: it's one of the main tenets of horsemanship that was drilled into me in my early years. Your horse needs to respect you - and if they don't, you need to make them respect you. This is a universal expectation, regardless of discipline - whether you ride Western, English, or bareback in your back yard, chances are you've had a trainer or riding instructor tell you that you must, under all circumstances, ensure that your horse respects you.

And ideally, it makes sense. Respect is an important aspect of human society. We're taught from a young age to respect our parents and teachers, and to show signs of respect for ourselves and others in day-to-day interactions. Why shouldn't our horses be held to the same ideal? After all, they're 1,000 lb. + animals that could easily harm us if they get too pushy inside of our space.

A horse's respect is important to keeping ourselves safe while dealing with our animals.

It's a great concept, and an important one. But there's just one fly in the ointment: respect is a very human idea, and by just by virtue of being a separate species, horses can't possibly understand exactly what it is we're asking of them when we demand "respect".

Let me explain. When we humans talk about our horses respecting us, it's more than just them knowing not to trample us. We expect it to come from an innate knowing that we are dominant, that we deserve deference and that the horse must always do as we ask. This is the same sentiment we use with our children or other subordinates, quite often. But think about it: whilst we have actively been cultivating a relationship of dominance over horses for centuries, each individual horse does not have the logical reasoning capabilities to understand that this is the case. Horses do not have access to the knowledge of the history of their species. They don't know that for centuries, they have been bred and raised for human use. Their awareness of their lives starts and ends with their own individual experience. There is nothing innate within the horse - not by breeding, nor by some knowledge passed down, that announces to them or clarifies their role in this world that they have been born into. To simply expect a horse to know it ought to "respect" humans is entirely mired in anthropomorphism - the application of human traits to animals.

"Well", you say, "then we should just teach them respect as we train them". An excellent idea! Except, the definition of respect must come under scrutiny. Understanding the way equines think is integral to defining a version of respect that we can reasonably expect from them. And to do that, we have to compare our own definition of respect with something that's most comparable in the equine world.

The human definition of respect, if you go by the dictionary, is as follows:


1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. "the director had a lot of respect for Douglas as an actor" 2. due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. "young people's lack of respect for their parents"

Unfortunately, there are many things we can study with horses, but there's no way for sure to know that they feel "deep admiration" for any person or thing. So let's look at the second definition: "a due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others". This is most likely the definition we're really aiming for when we talk about horses respecting us. We want to know that our horses won't trample us, will show awareness of our personal space, and perhaps even be considerate of our emotional state when we're working with them. We want to see that "due regard" as a sign that they have accepted their own deference.

OK, so now that we have that definition down, we need to draw a relatively equal comparison to horses within their own ethology.

Horses do show signs of affection and antagonism towards one another. But affection or antagonism alone isn't a sign of respect or disrespect. To more closely match the human definition/expectation, it must be borne out of "due regard". So perhaps the closest behavioral phenomenon that we can come up with in the horse world is that of the dominance/submission social order.

It is typically the common thought that there is a defined social rank among horses from top to bottom: for example, A is dominant over B, who is dominant over C, and so on. However, research has shown that the determination of rank is oftentimes more complex than that. A can be dominant over B, who is dominant over C, who is dominant over A. And that order can actually change, depending on several factors, from length of residency in the herd, to a horse leaving the herd, to the birth of a foal that inherits its dam's position, among others. Regardless of the factors, rank is established in equal parts by agonistic behavior (bite and kick threats to other horses, for example) and submissive behavior in response to those threats (lowering the head and turning away, for example).

When a horse shows submission to another horse, it essentially acquiesces its space, food or other resource to the horse that is displaying the increasingly agonistic behavior.

But is this considered respect? A true show of respect, by human definition, would not be the mere acquiescence to threats, but a "due regard" - in other words, the submissive horse would maintain a regard for that dominant horse, regardless of whether they encountered threatening behavior or not.

Outside of the initial agonistic/submissive behaviors, horses do seek to maintain peace within the herd through their rankings. For example, once a "boss mare" is established, she is generally followed by the rest of the herd and eats first, drinks first, decides when to move to a new grazing area, etc. Horses who have already been deemed the submissive half of a dominance equation generally continue to acquiesce to the threats made by the dominant half. Can we consider this respect, per our definition? It does look an awful lot like "respecting the leader", and this is exactly the reasoning used in the common argument that we must get our horses to respect ourselves as their herd leaders. But this type of "respect" is hard won. It is earned by basis of often violent scuffles, and is based more on physical might and personality than some deep philosophical desire to show a due regard for the other horse's feelings. While we can't quantify through research what a feeling of respect might look like among horses, I suspect that it wouldn't be the version of dominance and submission that we commonly see amongst equines in their natural herd dynamics.

Interestingly enough, that very version of dominance and submission seems to be exactly the version of "respect" that humans ask of our equine companions. We reason that if horses push each other around, then that is our right to do the same as their "herd leaders" in order to enforce respect. But it doesn't seem from any vantage point that we can conclude that those dynamics indicate any level of respect, per se. So we have to ask ourselves: is it really respect we want, or is it the ability to bully our horses into submission?

Some horse owners will argue that their horse does respect them - that the horse displays a concern for their emotional well-being, an awareness of their personal space or follows their cues flawlessly in a way that seems to respect their position as herd leader. And I'm sure to some degree these observations are very real and true. But it's important to ask whether these displays of seemingly thoughtful behavior come from an innate respect for human handlers, or whether it's learned behavior by way of punishment and reinforcement. Horses learn by association, and can learn how to avoid behaviors that will garner pressure, as well as learn which behaviors will earn them peace and praise. When given the option, most horses will avoid agonistic behavior by their human handlers - no different from that of other horses within a herd. This would suggest that most likely, horses don't have some sort of innate sense of respect for us; rather they have a keen instinct for self-preservation.

While no studies exist that I am aware of that can measure the concept of respect in the horse's mind, I do think that we have enough information on equine ethology, as well as human psychology, to suggest that perhaps the human expectation of "respect" from our horses needs to be reevaluated as a potentially harmful tradition steeped in anthropomorphism. If we expect a certain level of "respect" that our horses simply can't understand or provide without proper training, the issue crosses from a mere thought exercise into an equine welfare problem. While we can and should train our horses (ideally with positive reinforcement) basic manners that keep ourselves and our physical boundaries safe, this falls under the human responsibility of actively training our animals to understand our cues -- it is not the responsibility of our horses to somehow just know that this is the expectation.

As equestrians, it is our duty to understand the way our horses see the world. We have placed them within the human world, and they do not possess the same tools of thought in order to process our oftentimes vague notions and expectations for the species as a whole. While none of these musings are in any way conclusive or based on any quantitative study other than foundational facts of equine ethology, I do hope that it helps open up a dialogue about how we see horse-human relationships, so we can start to mend them.