We hear a lot about “respect” in the horse training world. Especially in natural horsemanship, but what does it mean?
It is a human concept that usually dictates what behaviours we don’t want our horses to perform. So if the horse wont standstill it is deemed disrespectful etc. What happens then is that the horse is “corrected” (euphemism for punishment). This does nothing to tell the horse what to do instead.
1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their qualities or achievements.
2. due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.
How do these definitions fit with the view of horses needing to respect their humans? Can horses have “due regard for the feelings wishes and rights of others”?
Do they have the cognitive abilities needed to have respect?
For me it is the we humans who need to respect the horse, we can have due regard for how our horses feel when we train them.
This link is revealing as they say if the horse doesn’t go forward we use increasing aversive stimuli, spanking first yourself and then the horse. So the horse learns to go forward to avoid the aversive stimuli – how does this instil respect?
How does that fit in with definition number 2? Do horses have no rights in our relationship? Is it “do as I say or else” suffer the consequences?
We all need to decide for ourselves what we are happy doing to our horses and often people do things to the horse rather than it being a partnership.
Does your horse have choice? Is your horse staying with you at liberty because he fears what will happen if he leaves? What happens if he doesn’t obey?
Only you can answer these questions but they do need asking.
We also need to look at the various emotional responses affected using negative and positive reinforcement.
In negative reinforcement there is always the underlying threat of an aversive, this triggers the FEAR system. It may be only mild anxiety but the emotions and accompanying neurotransmitters and hormones of fear are present. Fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting. There are also appeasement behaviours and other signs that a horse is having problems.
In positive reinforcement we trigger the positive emotions, CARE, PLAY although done badly it can trigger RAGE in the form of frustration.
So respect is a human construct and really comes down to training what we want our horses to do.
They do what they have been reinforced for doing, so it your horses isn’t doing what you want then it is a training issue not a lack of respect. Training takes places every time we are interacting with our horses – whether grooming or feeding or walking them to and from the fields.
When using reward based training we can teach the horse what to do as an alternative behaviour, so we can teach him to station on a mat or stand at a stationary target. Once reliably performed a verbal cue “stand” or “wait” can be added. The more reinforcement history a behaviour has the stronger that behaviour becomes.
So instead to saying the horse is disrespectful think of him as being insufficiently trained.
What we wanted is a horse with good impulse control so we feel safe. Horses are large animals and can be dangerous if we don’t understand them.
They don’t instinctively know what we want them to do so we have to train for safety but without suppressing their natural curiosity.
Please ditch the term respect when talking about the horses relationship with humans as they don’t have the cognitive ability to know what “respect” is.
Instead describe what the horse is doing that you don’t like or don’t want him to do and then retrain with +R a behaviour you do want. Also remember all interactions with our horses is training – not just the formal sessions in the school.