The Historical and Traditional Dynamics of the Horse and Human Relationship

In this modern world, now more than ever should we be on our guard about what we are learning and where the information is coming from. Throughout my educational career, I developed habits of questioning everything. This later lead to my bachelor’s degree in biology. Anytime information was tossed around, instead of immediately absorbing it, I wanted to make sure the information I was given had measurable reasoning behind it. Horse training is a different story. Throughout our riding careers, starting with riding lessons, we are constantly being given the “how” but never the “why”. Young riders are told how to make a horse move, stop, etc. but they are rarely given explanations as to “why” we do so in a certain fashion. The information is thrown at us from a “professional” and that is that. As long as it gives us the product we are looking for, aka “seems to work”, we never seem to question it and we just simply accept it. As I recently touched on critical thinking within the equine industry, I had my hunches of what I wanted my horse training to look like. I wanted a method that was based on research. I did not search for a quick method based solely on a favored end result. I wanted a method that would be justified on the means of truth and solidity. I wanted to produce outcomes without the use of “tools” that are there to bandage the foundation together. I was looking for horse training that answered the question of “why”, with measurable and empirical support. I just could not get myself to make the claim; “I accepted it because that is what I was taught”.

The end results of horse training methods can look similar, but a trained eye can see the difference between a broken horse and an unlocked horse. Just like 4+5=9, so does 7+2. Oh and there is 8+1. So why is the scientific formula important for deciding what kind of rider or trainer you want to be? I chose not to use the first method that was given to me just because it came from a “professional’s” mouth or just because it lead to 9. Judging training methods based on the final end result gives you a false sense of proper methodology. On the professional side of the horse world, I have witnessed many different ways to reach 9. Some methods I immediately rejected, some were OK, some made no sense, but all in all ,the product was 9. Scientific reasoning will give you the best formula for 9. A method in which you can trace back every bit of reasoning as to why you are using it. One that is produced with ease from both the horse and rider. Fear the trainer who uses a method but has no real idea why they are using it or how it impacts their subject of study (the horse). We need to study in order to produce our magic formula. We need to study other methods, study the horse; the behavior, cognition, survival needs, physical responses, etc. We can produce a formula based on the different aspects and responses of the horse, not just on the desired results. That is exactly what I aimed to do when I started my first graduate school research report.

I am in a theatre/production program with a background in science. My central aim is performance, particularly with horses in circus, but I am a “do-it-yourself” type of person and I train my own trick horses. I’ve been searching for a training method that calls for voluntary participation from the horse. I wish it was as easy as asking the horse and hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. To get as close as we can to such a scenario, we must turn to empirical studies to measure stress responses of the horse under different training methods. Looking at the psychology of the animal, researchers discovered that the horse is a very emotional being. Many domesticated horses we see today are “broken”. In fact, the term that is commonly used for typical training is “breaking”. Horses are so sensitive, yet one way to achieve 9 is to literally break the spirit of the horse. Through being unable to obtain a lifestyle they were designed for, horses learn hopelessness, often face punishment if they do not comply, and therefore readily obey to any demand. And here we find horses that work all day, stay in stalls all day, seem tired and robotic in movements, or fearful and skittish. We know these horses are “broken” based on the simple design of the horse. Horses are giant prey, herd, grazing animals and anthropomorphism has easily taken over the domesticated horses’ lifestyles for thousands of years.

My research brought me to a book found in my school library that was printed in 1771, it is The Art and History of Horsemanship by Richard Berenger. It is a translation of the manual, On Horsemanship,  that was written in 350 BC by Xenophon, a Greek war general and founding father of horsemanship. Drooling, I dove right into these books. I wanted to see what training looked like in the past and I wanted to study the evolution and progression. Everything in life has changed since 350BC; humans evolved which lead to expansion and the origin and evolution of technology. Now humans dominate the world and their potential is endless. They really would not have done so without horses, mostly utilized for battle and colonization. My goodness, would you believe that not much has changed in horse training?! Sadly, I was not shocked. I was actually astonished that Xenophon had a fairly light hand and appeared more sensible than most riders I know today. This methodology from 350BC remains as our framework for modern horsemanship. In fact, there is a German classical riding school called the Xenophon Society that aims for higher equine welfare. His training is widely and historically accepted. He produced ways to find 9. However, has anyone gone back and actually studied the psychological or physiological effects of his training on the equine? Well my researches lead me all the way to 2011! Not until recent years was Xenophon’s training put to scientific research by the International Society for Equitation Science, a nonprofit research based organization dedicated to using science to better equine welfare. ISES found that many of his training methods are based on false assumptions of equine cognition. In other words Xenophon “filled in the blank” on what he imagined was the horse’s ability to learn. When put into empirical studies, his ideas were inaccurate. So what exactly causes these false assumptions? And why haven’t these been addressed until just recently? A little curse called anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is the act of applying human thoughts to animal behavior. We see a horse yawning; we think “oh, he’s so tired”, false. Horses yawn to release stress. Modern humans have an ongoing habit of anthropomorphism. Internet memes of animals in costumes explaining their hangovers fill up social media pages. Just because we as humans would feel more comfortable in a stall during the dark night does not mean that the horse will. They are a different species with different survival skills, genetic makeup, different brain and neuron connections, different diets, different instincts, and altogether different everything. We are just different, but projecting human emotions and thoughts is our easy way around the situation. Horses are so sensitive; they just comply with our demands. 9 can happen after the horse puts up a bit of a fight, gains hopelessness, and finally submits to a human built life, the end. If we only realized what we are actually doing when we do this. Then we can better understand that this is completely unnatural and the horse. Thousands of years later the horse still does not truly adapt to this lifestyle.

A study I came across involving anthropomorphism is a favorite of mine. Back in Berlin in the early twentieth century, clever Hans was believed to possess the abilities to solve complex mathematics, tell time, pick out colors, answer questions about European politics; just to name a few. He would tap his right hoof until he reached the right answer or nod his head. This sparked the interest of psychologist Pfungst. In 1911 he conducted a study that involved 13 people to observe Hans. The observers including professional psychologists, scientists, circus masters, zoo directors, veterinarians, animal trainers, and more. Hans stumped every single one of them! No one could figure out how he was performing such impressive acts of advanced human cognition. After strenuous experiments, Pfungst finally caught onto Han’s cues; a slight lean in from the person asking Hans the question caused him to start stomping, and a slight relaxation when approaching the correct number caused him to stop. This cue was so subtle it was nearly undetectable. So much so that once Pfungst caught onto his genius, he tried to change and cover his own cues during experimentation, yet he still could not fool Hans! Hans was smart. We all give him that. But he was clever in his classically conditioned way, not in ways in which humans perceived his abilities to be. Human abilities, and ones that are too complex for most people. This example is extreme, but real none the less. Anthropomorphism is inevitably part of our psychology, but reeducation and realization of these habits will put us in a better understanding of what relationships with horses actually look like.

Through this new understanding, I have been able to dig through research and information to piece together what I actually see within different training techniques. I have included my works cited; a list of studies in which readers can explore and find more information to fulfill their desire to answer those “why” questions. Throughout my blogs posts I will organize ways in which we first gain proper knowledge. Having an understanding of the animal we are dealing with plus an understanding of how humans tend to think will lay the foundation of our intelligence. It is then with wisdom that we will develop the technique in which we can now act on our new found intelligence. We will work towards an execution of efforts to make a difference in the physical lives and the physical world that exists in front of us. I hope this has opened some doors and minds. Now that we have answered some why questions, next I will dive into empirical research that shows us how horses learn and how humans can use that information to develop a training technique that coincides with equine cognition.

Works Cited

Berenger, Richard. The History and Art of Horsemanship. London, 1771.

Boot, Melanie, McGreevy, Paul D. “The X files: Xenophon re-rexamined through the lens of equitation science.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, vol.8, 2013, pp.367-375.

Tyler, Tom. “If Horses Had Hands.” Society and Animals, vol. 11, no.3, 2013, pp.267-281.

Xenophon Society, 2012. “What does Xenophon Do?” Available at: Accessed 13 December 2016.

Xenophon, Circa 350 BC. “On Horsemanship, by Xenophon.” In: The Project Gutenberg E-Book. Translated by H.G. Dakyns, 1998. Available at: Accessed 12 December 2016.


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