Despite their size and power, horses can be fragile animals…
As more research is carried out and we gain more knowledge about how horse’s learn, many theories that once seemed plausible become disproved. Particularly in the sector of Natural Horsemanship, lots of methods and responses of the horse to these methods are now able to be seen in a more accurate light, rather than just relying on subjective opinions. This is great news for horses, as with this better understanding the methods of applying stress and sometimes punishment (even accidental) can now be avoided.
So take the fashion of chasing a horse around a round pen, which often involves the use of strong body language, usually also including a whip or rope which is waved at the horse to keep it moving. The horse is confined with no option to leave but the person then ‘invites’ the horse to come towards them by stopping the flapping and waving. If the horse doesn’t take up the invitation, they are chased away again and this continues until the horse does accept the invitation. This is often sold as a method to teach the horse to gain respect and trust in the human as a strong leader, but the reality is the horse is just stressed by the flapping and it stops because it wants the stress to stop. Horses have been shown to move away from remote control cars and even a cockerel and turn towards them when they stop moving. They are not recognising either as leaders, nor gaining respect, it is purely self preservation and a desire to reduce stress.
A similar method involves keeping the horse moving by flapping every time it stops, so the horse keeps moving otherwise the stressor is applied. Again, this is self preservation and avoidance rather than the more humanly convenient interpretation of the horse choosing to work for the handler. Many trainers use a similar principle to load horses into a horsebox, they apply head pressure that is released when the horse moves in the desired direction. This often utilises a rope halter or headcollar designed to increase pressure in order to speed up the process. The horse learns that in order to release the pressure on its head it must move towards the horsebox, which becomes the lesser of the two evils. This method of loading isn’t successful through building trust, as is often thought, it just reaches a result because of the need of the horse to remove the pressure on its head. It makes for a great ego boosting show for the trainer but at what physical and mental cost to the horse?
Another common myth is that when a horse licks and chews, it is said to be accepting the task and understanding what is being asked. In reality, the horse licks and chews as a release of stress, hence it is often seen after an activity and when the activity stops. For example, when the trainer stops flapping in the round pen or removes the saddle from the horse. The horse has found these actions stressful and the lick and chew is the response, it is not that the horse has learnt what has been asked.
There is no doubt that the handler will often reach a goal by using methods involving stress and physical pressure, however we now have far more humane and ethical methods of communication and training available to us. These methods are just as successful but with a far better emotional cost, they just take a greater understanding of equine learning and a willingness to work for the greater good of the horse.