So you want to have a good relationship with your horse.

You are disillusioned with traditional horsemanship so look toward natural horsemanship as a more empathetic way of being with your horse.

Natural horsemanship looks at how horses interact with other horses but it does not see the whole picture. We are not horses and horses know we are not horses, so a horse to horse relationship does not work for an interspecies relationship.

Natural horsemanship is often based on dominance e.g gaining respect from the horse. Horses do not have any concept of our ideas about respect. Also they say we must be the leader of the herd – horse herds are very fluid and have no one leader. The stallion may protect his mares and the most experienced horse may be the one who knows the territory and where the resources are so other horse may follow them. The horse with the most need can also instigate herd movement, the mare with foal at foot may need to drink more so she may move to the watering hole and the herd will follow.

There is also a genre of horsemanship who see mares driving youngsters away and think that is how to gain “respect”. Driving a horse out of a herd is punishment – do we really want to use punishment?

Horses are an affiliative species they need to live in a herd to protect and nurture their young. They cannot afford to fight amongst themselves, and what we see in domestic herds is resource guarding – due to insufficient space and food.

Horses form pair bonds and what we do in domestic situations is move horses around – they have no say in who is in their herd and so friction occurs. We may move horses several times and even if we keep their pair bond it may be difficult for the horses to fit in with a new herd. Even worse is when they are sold to another person and that person expects the horse to compete the next week, It may take a new horse months to feel safe in a new home.

So how we train them also impacts on their emotional wellbeing.

Do you drive your horse away? Do you chase it round a pen ( to gain respect)?

Think about why you do these things and how the horse may feel. Horse are very good at putting up with thing they don’t like, they can’t afford to show fear in the wild and so this impacts on our relationship. We may think we have a calm, relaxed and obedient horse but inside the horse may be just holding things together and suppressing their emotions.

OK I hear you say you love your horse and he loves you, he comes when called, he lets you ride him and seems very obedient.

Ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?

“psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.”

What has this to do with horses? Well we feed them, we keep them safe and we control all aspects of their lives. Does this mean they actually love us, or are happy with our demands upon their time. Does this mean they are happy to go to competitions and perform for us? Does this mean that we can use aversives to train them and they are happy with that?

Both natural horsemanship and traditional horsemanship use mainly negative reinforcement to train horses.
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus to reinforce a behaviour. What people forget is that we first have to apply the aversive stimulus before it can be removed.

Examples are pressure and release, so conventional leg aids, whips, spurs and training sticks. Many of these become conditioned aversives so all we have to do is pick up a stick or whip and the horse knows he must comply to avoid any escalation.

People say their stick is an extension of their arm – so think about what you would do with your arm if you could reach the horse. What happens when you drop the stick or don’t have one? If your horse doesn’t do what you want then you can be sure the stick is a conditioned aversive stimulus that causes a conditioned emotional response.

Horses are very good at learning how to avoid conflict and so they mostly comply with our requests but that does not make it OK to use aversive stimuli to form behaviour.

What is an aversive stimulus and why does it matter?

Dictionary – aversive. adjective. Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behaviour by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behaviour modification.

So why do people use them in horse training?
Mostly because they don’t know any other way to train and they have been taught that they have to use bits and physical pressure to coerce the horse into submission.

Negative reinforcement works because the animal wants to stop the aversive stimulus, so they become compliant.

Why does it matter how we train?

It matters because of how it makes the animal feel, emotions are important, why would we want to cause an animal to learn avoidance e.g he avoids the aversive stimuli if he complies with our request. However if he doesn’t the aversive stimuli is often increased. So there are genres of horsemanship that use phases of aversives stimuli to cause a horse to respond.

Positive punishment is linked to negative reinforcement, e.g the horse stops and refuses to walk forward the rider or handler jerks on the rope or applies pressure with their legs, or even swings to end of the rope at the horse. The horse goes forward – if the stopping becomes less frequent the horse has just been punished. If the rider uses leg aids and the horse goes forwards and the aids are relaxed this is negative reinforcement, the horse learns he can escape the pressure if he goes forward at the first request. If we use voice commands he can avoid all pressure, voice is used in western riding and on the lunge so we don’t have to keep chasing the horse around.

If you hear people say they “corrected” the horse for unwanted behaviour it is a euphemism for punishment.

The alternative.

FEAR and force free, positive reinforcement.
Behaviours are formed by capturing, targeting, and allowing the horse to think for himself, to problem solve.

We set up the environment for them to succeed, we don’t punish non compliance unless it is an unsafe behaviour and then we may instead teach them an alternative behaviour.

Can we use negative reinforcement in an ethical manner? It depends on the horse and how he perceives the stimuli. We can use pressure – not all pressure is aversive, think of scratches, grooming and massage – all may feel good to the horse.
We can use pressure to form a behaviour and counter condition that as a tactile cue.
If we aim to use positive reinforcement as much as possible and avoid any escalation of the negative reinforcement that we need to use then I do think we can be ethical horse trainers.

The world is full of pressure – it may be physical or emotional but we can keep it to a minimum with careful training, desensitisation and counter conditioning, general management of the horses environment and providing all his needs. So friends, forage and freedom to be a horse.

Does Stockholm syndrome apply to horses – I don’t know but some horses do learn to be obedient and love their owners even though the are chased and subjected to escalating negative reinforcement. I will leave it up to you how you interpret your horses behaviour, but it is worth considering how the horse feels about what we do with them.

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