Many folks have unfortunately been taught dominance theory; to train a horse you must show the horse who is boss, right, then you can force the horse to win the Kentucky Derby, eh? Well, dominance theory is losing favor with behaviourists. It is the willing partnership that prevails, and the science bears this out. Horses trained up as reliable slaves are not so reliable when it comes to f finding the winner's circle. I had the great privilege to be raised by horses and Indians, so dominance theory was never discussed, considered, or applied, and was never needed to be. Other folks have been taught dominance theory, and many believe in dominance, but not horses.
The term Alpha is often applied to certain resource deprived mares, but the word is misused, and misconstrues behaviour that is a result of stabling and learning (training). Wolf science no longer uses the term alpha for wolves, and nor should horse science, as there is no alpha in natural settings in either species. There are leaders, however, and that is a better term.
Additionally, the term infers a behaviour upon the mare that is not in line with seeing things from the horse's perspective. This mare, the one you all call alpha, or these mares (many stabled mares), because of limited resources, have reverted to an individual survival mode. As well, she has learned (been taught) various unwelcome agonistic behaviours that have been reinforced by horsefolk, it seems.
The equine behaviour educator's goal in consideration of the horse is that all students of equine behaviour come to appreciate this sort of 'alpha" behaviour to be a result of man's restriction of resources, those resources being friends, forage, and locomotion.
As you will see, in natural settings there is no alpha or fixed hierarchy. Leadership is shared and flexible, and agonistic behaviours are rare, and virtually never seen in the context of bullying. The lead mare drinks first not because the she is the toughest and meanest, but because she is the leader. The one who drinks first is the horse most vulnerable to predation (predators lie in wait at water holes, you know). As well, the mare is testing the water. She did not fight to the top to be the one to get in line first to be nailed by the mountain lion, did she? No, she drank first because she was the wisest horse, not the toughest. She is a group survivalist, and as the group leader, she sacrifices her safety for that of the group by drinking first. She tests the water for potability, and she monitors the waterhole for danger and predators.
In natural settings the horse's nature is one of communal, group and herd survival. Most everyone generally and adaptively gets along very well, everyone has a role in the herd, and a responsibility to all of the others. There is no alpha, but there are a variety of leaders. All horses in the harem are trained to lead and be led by all the others. There is no alpha, but there are a variety of leaders. Whoops, I meant the family group rather than harem, as we are no longer using the word harem, please note (why?, pray tell). all horses in the family group are trained by the other horses to lead and be led by all the others. If the wolf comes in from the east and the lead mare is off to the west with the stallion, then another leader rises out of the dust to alert and lead the herd out of danger, orchestrating herd safety. All horses in a herd are taught to be leaders, to both lead and be led, and this is the domestication sugar that allowed horses and folks to merge their social structures.If the wolf comes in from the east and the lead mare is off to the west with the stallion, then another leader rises out of the dust to alert and lead the herd out of danger, orchestrating herd safety. All horses in a herd are taught to be leaders, to both lead and be led, and this is the domestication sugar that allowed horses and folks to merge their social structures.
In the stable, behaviour reverts to the unnatural, abnormal alpha ethogram that you describe due to limited resources.
culpa equestribus non equus
This behaviour some term alpha is not the mare's fault or responsibility, it is ours. She has learned this behaviour from and as a result of us. Mares have a strong tendency to lead, yes, I concur, but we hope to call things as they scientifically are, and view this sort of behaviour from the horse's perspective, rather than from the horsefolk (anthropomorphic) perspective.
Dr Gustafson is a practicing veterinarian, equine behavior educator, and novelist. The application of behavior science enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Behavioral and nutritional strategies enrich the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses who are willing to learn and perform.