We finally have quite a foundation of knowledge with research to support it. I wanted to talk about one of the most popular methods to reach “9”. As previously mentioned, there are many different formulas to reach 9. 8+1, 7+2, 6+3, 5+4… but which method should we use? I witnessed and experimented with different training methods to get the results I wanted. As we just talked about how horses think and learn, there are certainly some methods that we can cross off of our list. But what about methods that claims to be ethical? When learning and experimenting my way through training methods, I did run into some that I felt made sense. I tried them, they worked, and then I was sold. I was starting to use “natural horsemanship” as an alternative to traditional Xenophon methodology. I used it on all my horses, purchased the home curriculum and equipment, and taught it to all of my students. My horses were calmer, my results were faster, and there was equine psychology to back it. But what did the research say?
Natural horsemanship uses herd dynamics and horse to horse communication as the foundation for methodology. This is why it all seemed to make sense to me, for the horse. It was clear, and I could observe a herd in pasture and confidently understand where each cue came from. A horse pins their ears and delivers a kick to the chest of another horse, the horse backs up. We mimic this by putting up a snarly face, shaking the lead rope, and/or tapping the horse’s chest with stick; using pressure-release to get the horse to back up. It all mimics the dominance factor of the equine herd hierarchy. Sure, like I said, it makes sense and it works, it is yet just another method to reach 9. However, it all assumes that the horse will consider us part of the herd, another horse, the leader. Where did this assumption come from? Is it possible for the horse to truly think of a predatory two legged creature as one of its own?
While it is suggested by renowned trainers that humans can enter the horse hierarchy through mimicry of behaviors (Roberts, 1997; Parelli, 1995), the research finds this to be muddy waters. Round penning or “join up” has shown to be ineffective in its attempts to be ethical. Studies have shown that a simple hand touching of an unbroken horse raised the same amount of chronic stress as any other aversive stimulus such as a whip (McGreevy, 2004). And it is thought that the horse does not “join up” to the trainer, it simply learns how to avoid being chased (Krueger, 2007). From this perspective it really seems more inhumane. The horse is enclosed and cannot use their flight responses. So the horse remains in a state of hypersensitivity due to the chase. The reward for “joining up” is some “gentling” or petting and rubbing. While scratching and rubbing on the withers or forehead have shown to lower heart rates and stress (Feh and deMaieres, 1993), when applied to round pen training, petting and scratching had no significant effect on the horses’ tendency to then follow trainers in the round pen in a study done by Krueger (2007).
There are many surrounding questions regarding human leadership for the horse. One thing we are trained to assume is that a horse “bonds” to a human and would therefore seek out the human’s companionship. However, there is little evidence that a horse would approach a human in a pasture with anything other than mere curiosity or from being conditioned to do so. Studies show that after a “successful” session of round pen training, horses showed no increase in their tendency to follow trainers (Krueger, 2007). Due to the human chasing, applying pressure, and causing stress in an enclosed area, the horse merely joins the human in a case of “learned hopelessness”. Trainers who base interactions with horses on herd equilibrium: flight, herd instinct, and hierarchy are overlooking the factors of foraging, coalitions, kinship, affiliations, as well as the reality of the effects of conditioning on all innate responses (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). The misunderstanding that training should depend on the horse’s response to “want to bond with us” is anthropomorphic.
If natural horsemanship bases training tactics on the idea of herd dominance, let’s explore what dominance is and why it is important. Dominance refers to an ordering between group-living animals, not necessarily linear (Appleby, 1983) which dictates the priority of access to resources. Drews (1993) defines this as: “an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agnostic interactions, between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome and default response rather than escalation of conflict”. Grazers living in a social setting utilize this language of dominance as strategic survival strategies. Remember survival of the fittest? Fitness pertains to the amount of offspring you have, not the same “fitness” that we tend to think of. Every species wants to live long enough to have optimal amounts of offspring in order for the species to continue to thrive. The language of dominance allows for conflict to be minimized during competition for a valuable resource. Conflicts can harm individual fitness as well as the integrity of the entire herd (Krause and Ruxton, 2002). Dominance is also context specific. A dominant horse in relation to food might not have dominance priority to shelter access (Kiley-Worthington, 1990). So if dominance is constructed to avoid conflict for resources, how does the human fit in the “dominance hierarchy”? They don’t. Humans have no reason to condition a horse to move out of its way in order to obtain the same resources. The horse is simply classically conditioned to move away from the human through force and pressure and “natural horsemanship” becomes a false justification.
Now that we understand that placing the human in the herd is a silly concept that is not biologically accepted by the horse, what about psychologically? Natural horsemanship is classical conditioning through negative reinforcement (the removal of forced pressure in order to encourage a behavior to continue). After the horse learns that they do not want to experience the pressure, they are conditioned to respond to a lesser cue, hence the “whisper, ask, and tell” idea behind increasing pressure. When we compare negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement, what do the results look like? Well, Sankey et al. (2010) put this question to the test and measured and compared equine heart rate and emotional state under the two different types of reinforcement. The team of researchers measured the horses’ short and long term perception of the human, just after training and five months later. 21 ponies underwent experimentation. They were of mixed breeding made up of 11 mares and 10 geldings from two different riding schools. None of which were ever taught to back up nor had prior introduction to the trainer. The ponies were fitted with heart rate monitors in their training sessions which typically lasted one to three minutes, once a day, for five days. Each pony was given three chances, at 10 sec each to respond to the cue “recule!” which is French for “go back!” The negative reinforcement group used an adverse stimulus such as a carrot stick in front of their head and body. By trial one, if the pony did not back, the stick was shook in front of the pony until they stepped back. Right when the pony stepped back, pressure was let off and the pony was led back to its home stall/pasture. The positive reinforcement group was started the same, given the vocal cue, but by the second trial, the experimenter gave the cue and stepped toward the animal with no contact or pressure. When the pony stepped back, following the trainer, a reward of a carrot or pelleted feed was immediately given and the pony was lead back to its home stall/pasture.
Not to my surprise, the results showed numerous statistically significant differences. While none of the ponies understood the vocal command on day one, by day five 11 out of 11 ponies understood from the positive reinforcement (PR) group and 7 out of 10 from the negative reinforcement (NR) group. The PR ponies were quicker to back on command than the NR group. 5 out of 10 NR ponies responded by the second trial, and 2 by the third. All 11 PR ponies responded by trial number two. Behaviors during training sessions differed. Most NR ponies side stepped during their training task while none of the PR ponies did. All NR ponies laid their ears back in at least one of the five day sessions when the carrot stick was applied while all of the PR ponies pricked their ears forwards during an average of three out of five sessions. Most NR ponies were reported to have their head raised with some tossing while backing up. Most PR ponies had their heads either neutral or lowered. The NR ponies displayed hollow necks while backing and PR ponies displayed rounded necks. On day one, before the experiment, the groups showed no difference in heart rates. Over the entire training period the mean heart rate was higher in NR ponies than PR ponies. Studies even indicate that on day one, heart rate increased at the exact moment of agitation from the stick. There was no heart rate increase in the PR group, not even when the experimenter stepped forward toward the pony or while receiving treats. From day three on, the NR ponies showed increased heart rates before the researcher even gave the vocal cue, predicting the averse stimulus. Before training, both groups showed similar interest responses to the human. After training, PR ponies were faster to initiate contact with the trainer and spent more time near the trainer, while only two NR ponies came to greet their trainer. After five months, again only 2 NR ponies came to greet the trainer (one being the same pony as in the short term trial) and 10 out of 11 PR ponies greeted their trainer. PR ponies were faster than NP to initiate contact with an unknown person and spent more time near her. These are astonishing results of only five training days consisting of only one to three minute sessions! The use of positive associations also yielded faster and stronger results with better memory recollection, thus becoming a win across the board. And we have plenty of research to support the interpretation of the results.
Positive reinforcement produces a win for the horses. It showed no signs of increased heart rate or stress, and a win for humans who formed stronger bonds along with faster training success with quality results. Horse are not the only creature to have greater success with positive reinforcement training (rhinoceros: Holden et al. 2006; primates: Laule et al. 2003) and a recent study by Sankey et al. (2010) showed that horses trained with positive reinforcement learnt faster a series of handling and veterinary procedures using such strategies than horses trained without it. Arousal levels need to be significant in order for learning to occur and stress is known to impair attention and learning (Mendl 1999). Stress may drive the attention from the task itself to the human holding the stick which causes the vocal cue to be associated with the stick rather than the task (Shors 2004, Bisaz et al. 2009) as it did with the NR ponies by day three. And as far as behaviors goes, studies show us that head tossing indicates discomfort (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007; Sondergaard and Halekoh 2003) as our PR also ponies displayed. Positive reinforcement promoted roundness and self-carriage, encouraging fundamentals of equitation (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007). Hinde’s study (1979) shows us that a succession of negative interactions can lead to a negative memory of the partner, hence why the recollection and trainer greeting was much higher in PR ponies. It is quite clear for horses and for researchers that human presence with positive reinforcements leads to a more positive perception of human and handling procedures (Hausberger et al. 2008). And other studies (DePassille et al. 1996; Munksgaard et al. 1997) show that fear of humans and handling is reduced in the horse when human presence was associated with food rewards. We already knew that horses have good long term memories, but we have underestimated them. Hanggi and Ingersoll’s 2009 study showed that horses can recall tasks more than ten years later! Horses can also generalize their daily positive human interactions to unknown humans, thus decreasing stress and increasing equine welfare in a human controlled world (Henry et al. 2005), which may be why PR ponies were all more comfortable approaching strangers.
With significant differences all across the board, what does this tell us? Horses, being prey animals, do not look at humans as herd members. As humans, predators, the best thing we can do is train with positive reinforcement. Natural horsemanship is a false justification to use classical conditioning with negative reinforcement, force, and pressure cues. Horses do not bond to a human leader than uses force and domination. Horses bond to humans who create positive associations without force, exhibiting themselves as non-threatening. While taking away negative reinforcement can sometimes be difficult to do, especially when riding, many equitation trainers insist on the importance of secondary positive reinforcements in correspondence with primary ones. Researcher and equestrian Oliveria (1991) would stress for a horseman to have a pocket full of treats when working with a young or green horse. He claimed that people would laugh at him, calling him “unmanly” when he would give treats to his horse. This is the notion in the equine industry; I have witnessed cases of it firsthand. However the research and the data do not lie. The results speak for themselves. If we can all stop looking for the next trend in horse training and just simply start creating more positive associations, we can witness more togetherness and peace among horses and humans. If the pony study showed us one key thing, it is that we only need a few short but positive interactions to truly change horses’ perception of humans. It’s time to create a relationship that can be perceived and interpreted just as it is; a human and a horse.
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