Here We Go Again - Catherine Bell

(Or 6 reasons why I can have an opinion on an event I didn't attend)

Back to list of articles

What a few months it's been. We've had the build-up, when the organisers of Horseman's Calling - the first Natural Horsemanship competition in the UK - tried to woo us and convince it would be an ethical event and have welfare high on the agenda. We've had the event itself, when those who had been there told us it was wonderful and that those of us who hadn't been there were not allowed an opinion. And then we've had the aftermath, with the release of an article and video footage from Epona, which showed us all exactly how highly welfare had been valued, compared with entertainment and getting the job done.

It's a fair point, to say that you need to see an event before you're in a position to comment on it. After all, I wouldn't be particularly enamoured with a personal critique from someone who hadn't bothered to turn up and see what I did. But it's not quite that straightforward. For the following six reasons, I actually think that it is justified for behaviourists to have an opinion on natural horsemanship events we choose not to attend. I'll leave you to decide whether or not you agree.

We've seen so many trainers....

Firstly, Natural Horsemanship has been popular in the UK for a good 20 years now. We have had - and made the most of - many opportunities to watch a whole range of practitioners and draw some reasonably consistent conclusions about the types of training that we see. To be fair, there are minor differences between them all so there is always the chance that we do a practitioner a disservice by assuming that he/she will be like the rest. But it is a reasonable starting position and I actually look forward to being proved wrong.

When I have been to see, and been disappointed by, trainers, the minute I voice my opinion I have been told that I went with a closed mind. Or that the trainer is continually evolving and has now started training in a different way. But what about the times when I went with an open mind, looking forward to something on the recommendation of someone I thought I could trust? How many more times must I have my hopes dashed before I can be allowed to have a reasonable educated guess about the nature of the training? When I watched the Epona video footage I felt a real sense of weariness. I have been watching this sort of training for 10-15 years. And I have been disliking it for almost as long. I have actively tried to see as many different trainers as I could and I have generally gone with an attitude of trying to learn from experienced horsemen - even if I wasn't sure about the techniques, I still enjoy seeing skill and ability in employing those techniques. Some trainers I have watched showed nice examples of competent training, well-timed pressure and release, sensitivity to the horse's needs, an honest match between their theories and practical application of those theories. The vast majority didn't even show that.

We know how pressure can be applied to a horse and how that horse might respond.....

Secondly, there are only so many ways you can apply pressure to a horse. And there are only so many euphemisms you can use to disguise the fact that you are applying quite a lot of pressure to that horse. And there are only so many ways a horse can respond to that pressure. I've seen pressure applied via ropes thrown to send a horse into flight (without an escape route), via ropes "thwacked" on the ground, via shaken plastic bags, via threatening body language, via subtle and not so subtle messages sent along a rope to a narrow rope halter (which applies considerable pressure to the horse's face when it pulls tight), via the forced exposure of the horse to something he is afraid of. And various combinations of these techniques, with just the right amount of escalated pressure to ensure that the horse knows what will happen if he doesn't comply. Of course, it's not generally described like this - trainers are more likely to talk about raising energy (ie escalating the pressure), the horse "choosing to put pressure on himself", the "softness" of the materials used to make the ropes (not so soft when you consider half a tonne of frightened horse pulling it tight across his face in his attempt to escape), point out their use of "positive reinforcement" (except light rubs in amongst the aversive is not likely to be perceived by the horse as very "positive") or make light of how silly a horse is to be afraid of something as innocuous as a plastic bag.

Despite the wide array of ways in which we can deliver - and disguise - these "do as I say or I'll hurt/scare you" messages to the horse, horses tend to respond in four ways - flight, fight, freeze or fidget. True flight is generally not an option because event organisers tend to keep the doors shut and/or the horse meets the end of a painful rope pretty quickly. Some horses fight back but most will comply as best they can - sometimes freezing in a "giving in" sort of compliance, often "fidgeting" via whatever displacement or conflict behaviours they can engage in without risking further confrontation. Considering that demonstration horses are almost always in a stressful situation, with their sympathetic nervous systems highly aroused, it is remarkable that they can engage their rational thought processes and sift their way through the often confusing signals from the trainer and work out how to release the pressure. It's a rare, admirable human who can act calmly when frightened yet we expect it of horses all the time.

So while there maybe some wonderfully creative and imaginative trainers out there who have come up some new and innovative ways of applying pressure to a horse so that he complies with the trainer's requests, I am somewhat sceptical that it will be so wildly different from these other techniques and have significantly more beneficial effects on the horses. As always, I would love to be proved wrong.....

We know the effects of pressure on processes within the horse's brain....

Closely related, at number three we have the fact that, however the trainer opts to use pressure and release, we know enough from psychology and neurophysiology for us to understand the effects of methods rooted in punishment and negative reinforcement. Horse owners who buy in to natural horsemanship techniques are lured by the promise of the harmonious relationship they can build with their horse. We are told that if the methods were so aversive then owners wouldn't submit their horses to it. Sadly that simply isn't true. Euphemistic, flowery language coupled with extremely competent marketing means that owners will allow an awful lot of aversive training as a means to obtaining the horse they want. And many owners now regret that, having seen the effect it had on their horses. If you want to build a positive relationship with someone, the vast majority of your interactions need to be positive. The horse needs to see you as a positive addition to his life, not something to endure for a while. The sight of you should be triggering the dopamine-releasing circuits in the brain, not the defence mechanisms. If you have the attitude that the desired end justifies any means of achieving your goals, think very carefully about for how long and how deeply the horse will associate humans with the training he has received.

We see the whole process, not just the bit which makes the trainer look good....

Moving on to my fourth reason - by relying on second-hand, sensationalist information about an event I am told I'm being unfair and only picking fault with the most extreme parts, instead of looking at the big picture and final results. After all some of these horses would not be alive were it not for the flooding techniques which had saved them. Putting aside for now the highly debatable question as to whether a horse is better off dead or routinely subjected to highly aversive "training", we have to question how many "moments in time" it takes before they start to join up and become a reliable indicator of what is going on. I have seen many images that would appall me if they were taken of my horse. Or as a result of my handling - even if they were just short moments in a largely ok training session. The final results of a training process depend so much, via Pavlovian conditioning, on how that process was implemented. If flooding has been used to force a horse to suppress his fears, that apparently relaxed horse you see in the happy PR photos is probably not feeling quite as you hope he is feeling. Humans now have a better understanding of the implications of suppressing their feelings in the name of the "British stiff upper lip"; why would a suppressed horse feel relaxed?

Not only is the apparent relaxation following aversive training highly deceptive, we also need to think about what happens when the horse and owner return home. Some horses are sufficiently flooded that the unwanted behaviours do not return. Some owners are sufficiently able to emulate the trainer and repeat the training as problems resurface. Some - to their credit - are not. And behaviourists see those "final results" in the form of defensive aggression, passivity and/or "depression" in horses whose owners eventually turn to us for help. Oh yes, we definitely see those final results in the big picture and are justified in having an opinion on them.

We have so many alternative means of achieving the same goals

Next - behaviourists are not, as often accused, just trying to peddle "the one true way" when, after all, all horses are different. Which is presumably why NH trainers need such a wide variety of pressure techniques so as to find the one best suited to exploiting the fears of any particular individual. I find this wonderfully ironic. We have lots of alternatives to natural horsemanship without resorting to aversives; improving the lifestyle and environment of the horse, making use of shaping, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement with very mild non-escalating pressure, simply allowing time. Any good behaviourist will be aiming to meet the individual horse's ethological and psychological needs. I'm yet to meet a horse whose unwanted behaviour is caused by an absence of discomfort, fear or confusion - hence my aversion to methods which actively or inadvertently incorporate them. And I think the inadvertent outcomes of natural horsemanship are critical; I don't think that most people are out to confuse, hurt or frighten their horses. But there is a big mismatch between what people want for their horses and what people will do to their horses in pursuit of those goals.

We have fundamental, ethical reasons for not participating.....

Finally, instead of criticising an event, we are often told we should be putting our training techniques where our mouths are and participate. I'm almost tempted by this. It would be great to show everyone what amazing work we can do. But there is a problem. I might not like what takes place at these big demonstration style events but, critically, I don't agree with the actual event itself. Horses learn best when in a place they feel safe, close to their companions and with a trainer who will allow the horse the time he needs. So a large, strange environment with lots of people and loud commentary, strange horses, a potentially long journey beforehand, a trainer who has a set amount of time to "prove himself" to the audience, let alone a competitive element.... all these factors make the event stressful and not conducive to learning before you even start. That's not an evasive cop-out. It's the equivalent of a bank robber who, when he is told he shouldn't be robbing banks, responds by offering the critic the opportunity to do a better job of robbing a bank. An appropriate learning environment is not a luxury, too impractical for us all to provide. It is a fundamental requirement of any training; the safety - physical and emotional - of the horse and humans depends on it.

So there we have it. Six reasons. I truly believe that there comes a point when we have sufficiently good understanding of how a horse experiences certain training approaches that we don't need to watch every last demonstration. We can not rely on event marketing to ensure that something is "for the good of the horse"; of course they are going to tell us that. Now they need to demonstrate it. Equine welfare depends on the knowledge and experience of people who understand the fundamentals of equine ethological and behavioural needs, not those who make a living out of "making the wrong answers uncomfortable" for the horse. But what do I know? These are merely the unapologetic and uncompromising opinions of someone who shouldn't have them.

Reprinted with kind permission from Catherine Bell