Ever since I moved to Virginia (almost 15 years ago now), I have become increasingly interested in horse training techniques. I suspect part of it was because of the sheer availability of horse people, clinics, and events in this area. It's truly mind-boggling to think about the level of access to information that I have. My interest peaked when I got Nimo (almost 13 years ago) because I wanted to do the very best job with him that I could. And I guess I did, using the information I knew at the time. But I wish I had known more and hadn't relied so much on dressage as a foundation for his education. I think dressage, as it is now most often practiced, is not appropriate for any horse, much less a young one, and even the "classical" instruction I had suffered from some serious failures because it only considered the horse under saddle and didn't factor in all the other components of a horse's education (grooming, blanketing, shoeing, trailering, riding outside the arena, etc.).
So, what is natural horsemanship, anyway? To me, it means that a person develops a mutually-desired relationship with a horse (as in, both the horse and the human want to have a relationship) by communicating with it in terms that it understands, without the use of halters, sticks, flags, ropes, fences or any kind of force or abuse (note that abuse can be psychological as well as physical). The end result of the process might be a working ranch horse, a barrel racer, a driving horse, a liberty performer (think Cavalia), or even a pasture companion.
But I'm not sure that most people would consider trying to train a horse without some kind of boundaries to be particularly practical or efficient. Thus, the natural horsemanship programs are available to help us mere mortals navigate the complexities of trying to communicate with a different species. I know there are so many variations, it's hard to lump them into one category, but at a minimum, I think all of them claim that they use the horse's instincts as part of a communication method to train the horse, or if they are bolder, to bond with the horse. Because a bond with one's horse is the Holy Grail of horsemanship, is it not? If you haven't bonded with your horse, then you aren't up to snuff as a rider or an owner.
But what is bonding with your horse? Is it love? Is it trust? Is it respect? Is it the horse accepting you as its leader? Do all of those things need to be present for a bond to be established? Can horses love like people do? Is it really respect when a horse does as a person asks? Is it really trust when a horse seemingly willingly enters a dangerous situation without hesitation? Is it even possible to know?
I truly don't know the answer to any of those questions. I'm not an expert in equine behavior (or human behavior). People don't pay me money to train their horses. In fact, there is only one horse that I can reasonably claim that I've trained, and after 12 years of training him, he's still very much a work in progress, so I'm not even very fast at creating results.
So let's skip the bonding issue and go back to the methods of natural horsemanship. They vary, but a lot of them involve working a horse in a round pen, many use some kind of whip or stick as "an extension of the arm," and some even have special halters or other gadgets that are supposed to help people communicate more effectively with the horse. They often have "games" or rules or some kind of structured approach to working with the horse. There is also typically an element of perceived magic when the founder of a method works with a horse, because he or she walks into a pen with an hysterical or wild or somehow damaged horse and within an hour, the horse is calmly responding to the trainer's cues. And for a natural horsemanship trainer, that is the Holy Grail. Taking a wild or damaged animal and getting his trust and respect and acceptance as a leader in as quick an amount of time as possible means your method must work.
I've been thinking about these different methods a lot over the past couple of years. (I absolutely blame endurance riding for this, because before then, I was perfectly happy to school dressage in the arena and walk my horse for a few miles on some easy trails. Now, I feel compelled to question everything.) I've become a bit more obsessive about my thought process now that I've decided that an adopted mustang is in my future.
I take that adoption very seriously because I feel an incredible sense of responsibility for any horse, but especially for one that essentially has been kidnapped, permanently deprived of its freedom, and subjected to a serious of unpleasant or even terrifying experiences at the hands of humans. From helicopter round-ups that run herds, including foals, for 20 miles and sometimes result in the death of one or more mustangs to imprisonment in small corrals to separation from family, mustangs are degraded in a way that is without compassion and inhumane.
As Amanda pointed out in the comments of my Unbranded post, mustangs are a bit different than the typical domesticated horse, who has likely had at least some [hopefully positive] interaction with humans during its life. So as is pretty typical for me, I've been researching the hell out of how people have been successful in training mustangs. Because if there is ever a time to use natural horsemanship, it seems like working with a mustang would be one of those times.
First, I should point out that training mustangs isn't called training anymore, at least at the introductory level. It's called "gentling." I'm not sure if this is because the word training has negative connotations due to the sometimes vicious methods used to "break" horses over the years, or if it is a nod to the wild nature of the mustang, or if it is a way of distinguishing working with wild horses from their domestic counterparts. It kind of irritates me, though, because it glosses over what a person is really doing.
Gentling a wild horse is explaining to it that it has been taken from its home and its family. It will never see them again. It will never run free again. It will forever be a prisoner of a human being, subject to halters and bridles and saddles and barns and arenas and fences. It will be expected to bond with humans in general and to demonstrate what we perceive to be love, trust, respect, and acquiescence to human leadership. It will eat when we say it can eat, it will go where we say it can go, and it will do what we say it can do. And it will do it in a way that brings honor to its wild counterparts, so that others will go out and gentle them too.
To be honest, it kind of reminds me of the first movie of The Hunger Games series, after Katniss is selected to represent her district. Haymitch acts as a mentor to Katniss and helps her through what is a steep learning curve, so she can be ready to play the game. In addition to being Katniss' mentor, though, he's also the one who has to deliver the bad news and to remind Katniss that she's playing for her life and if she doesn't become more likeable, she's dead.
That process isn't unlike what happens to a wild horse. Either he convinces people that he can play the game of being handled and ridden, or he's dead (or lives a very miserable existence). Except, of course, he doesn't know that is the game. So someone has to explain it to him. Hence the gentling.
After my explanation above, you are probably asking why I would want to adopt a mustang. Well, I very much wish it wasn't an option. I wish that no wild horses were available for adoption. I wish that they all ran free and lived out their lives in a natural habitat with only the occasional human looking at them and taking pictures from a distance for a calendar that a few of us horse lovers would gasp in delight over. Because wild is really better than domesticated for the vast majority of animals, especially when they are born wild.
As it turns out, human beings have qualities that sometimes manifest themselves in horrifying ways. Thus, there are tens of thousands of wild horses being held in captivity with long lives of nothing in front of them (or a fun-filled trip to a slaughter house, which is probably kinder than 20 years in a pen). If I can help one of those horses, I will do it. And if writing about helping one of those horses helps someone else help one of those horses, it is worth doing.
So, let's get back to the point of my post, which, in case you have forgotten, is about natural horsemanship. The concept of natural horsemanship really comes into play when working with mustangs. The traditional method of training involved roping them, sacking them out, and throwing a saddle on, and riding the bucks out, all within a few days or less. (Although to be fair, that was pretty much the same method for working with domestic horses.)
Nowadays, we have been enlightened, so we use round pens, whips, flags, and bamboo sticks. Or if you are really enlightened, you use clicker training. Because I respect the work of those who have gone before me and because I do believe that most people who gentle mustangs have their hearts in the right place, I really wanted to learn how these methods work. But, based on my definition of natural horsemanship (not the one that typifies the industry), they aren't even close. How did I come to that conclusion, you ask?
Well, to start with, I watched the movie Wild Horse Wild Ride. It is a documentary about the Extreme Mustang Makeover event, which is an event where 100 people each adopt a mustang (chosen by lottery, I think) and have 100 days to train it to do awe-inspiring things and exhibit it at a competition and auction, where people bid up to many thousands of dollars to buy these seemingly impressively-trained animals. According to the movie, the Makeover was the brainchild of a mustang advocacy organization in partnership with the BLM, and its purpose is to bring attention to the tens of thousands of mustangs that need a home. By showing people how easily a wild horse can be trained, the event hopes to convince more people to adopt mustangs.
Several people have recommended this movie to me, but I never wanted to watch it until recently. (I mean, how can you train a wild horse to be rideable in 100 days? And why would you want to? Training a horse is years worth of work.) When it occurred to me that soon I would have the resources to be able to adopt and work with a mustang, watching the movie suddenly made sense. So, one day I sat down and watched it. And I spent a lot time with tears running down my cheeks. And they weren't tears of joy or appreciation, either.
In case you were wondering, you don't have to be Monty Roberts or Pat Parelli to enter this Makeover competition. You can just be any idiot off the street who has an approved facility. The range of skills documented by the movie ranged from the few who entered the event every year and were "experienced" mustang trainers to people who had never trained a horse before.
There are no words to describe my horror at the methods used with these horses. My dear readers, these horses were terrified. Just imagine how you would feel if you were taken from your home and family and kept by yourself in a small pen and then "persuaded" to accept someone you didn't know touching you and strapping things to your head and back within a day (yes, one woman was riding her mustang by the end of the first day - she went on to win the competition).
A technique called flooding appeared to be pretty common (because how else are you going to convince a wild horse to become not only rideable within 100 days, but to be able to handle roping tricks, walking onto a moving trailer being hauled around the arena, and performing one-tempi changes under a bareback rider in an indoor arena that she's never been in before?). In case you aren't familiar with it, flooding is a term used to describe overloading an animal with stimuli in order to achieve what appears to be a rapid desensitization to the object or situation.
Beth Gibbons describes the results of flooding far more eloquently than I can (and she's more qualified too).
Continual flooding results in a state called conditioned suppression, where the subject appears shut down and calm. Rather than not being scared of the object anymore they just stop responding and suppress the behaviour as an attempt to cope with the overwhelming situation of which they have no control. Conditioned suppression is in fact the objective of natural horsemanship, it’s what the training aims to achieve, and achieves very quickly due to the clever application of positive punishment and negative reinforcement...If flooding persists the horse will go into a state of learnt helplessness, a permanent shut down state where the horse has learnt that any response is futile. Seligman (1972) found that dogs who had learnt that they could not escape electric shocks simply lay down and whimpered when given the opportunity to escape them in the future. The dogs had learnt to be helpless and passively accept whatever punishment the experimenter subjected them to. This response has been likened to depression in humans. Is this the attitude to training that we want to create in our horses? Because this is what is happening.If you are one of the people who saw Wild Horse Wild Ride and were impressed by how quickly trainers got impressive results with their horses, please realize that flooding was likely the technique used to achieve those results. And even if you have never watched the movie and you never want to work with a wild horse, remember that flooding is an important component of many natural horsemanship methods that are used on domesticated horses. I don't know that flooding can ever be completely avoided when working with horses because there is always a first time for something (like a first show or a first endurance ride), and it may be impossible to know if it will generate enough anxiety in any particular horse to create a shut-down. However, I think understanding what flooding is and realizing that your horse just went through a pretty traumatic experience goes a long way toward providing support to him after the event.
Another technique documented in the movie was the use of a round pen. I will be the first to admit that I have always considered a round pen to be a fundamental tool for any horse's training. I still use one with Nimo sometimes, but he was never scared of me (in fact, I was unable to send him away from me for months after I got him and to this day, unless he spots a choice morsel of grass, he is pretty glued to me, even in a large arena). I use it now to create a smaller working space to help me achieve very specific outcomes that I hope will eventually lead to being able to work with him at liberty.
But a wild horse is a different story. Let me be clear: They are TERRIFIED. That anyone can even set foot within 100 yards of a mustang amazes me because of what these horses go through during capture and holding (ever wonder how mustangs' feet are trimmed or stallions are gelded? - Google it and prepare yourself for a nauseating vision).
So how does it feel to a mustang when he is worked in a round pen?
Let me start off by describing how I think round pen training typically works when used with a wild or even just a difficult domesticated horse. You start off by getting both yourself and the horse into the round pen. The objective is to convince said horse to learn to respect you as its leader. The way you do that is by using pressure and release. You drive the horse enthusiastically forward until he gives you a sign, like looking at you, or in difficult cases, maybe just a softening of the eye or body. Then you step back from driving the horse and give him a break and try to encourage him with your body language to come to you. If he doesn't, you drive him forward again until he looks. Then you back off. You continue this process until the horse learns that total release from the pressure is only possible if he comes up to you and stays near you. Ta da! You are now bonded with your horse!
Honestly, it sounds pretty logical and it used to appeal to my rational way of thinking and desire for a structured way to train a youngster or wild horse. I have no interest in the cowboy methods of using a rope (although I think there is at least one natural horsemanship trainer who uses a rope around a horse's hind leg as part of his backing process) or throwing a saddle on, hanging on, and hoping for the best as the horse bucked and reared its way around the arena.
But is round pen work that uses that kind of pressure and release technique really beneficial to your relationship with your horse?
To make things interesting, let's pretend the horse is actually a human being. In fact, let's say the horse is me.
I'm out hiking in the woods. I've been told that there are bears in the area, but I don't really believe it. And besides, wild animals are more scared of you than you are of them, right? So I'm not worried. My friends think I'm an idiot, but I go out by myself anyway, because what do they know? I have a lovely hike by myself while my friends wait in the car and I congratulate myself on getting some beautiful pictures. About 3 miles out, I decide to head back to the parking lot. I've only got a couple of hours of daylight left, and I want to make sure I get back before dark.
Wait? What's that noise? In the woods? Oh, sh#t! IT'S A BEAR? OMG, OMG, OMG! I start running for my life. And that damn bear keeps following me. And I run, and I run, and I can't get away from him. It's like he's pacing me and just waiting for me to tire before he pounces and eats me. It doesn't take long before I am tired, so very tired. I don't think I can even walk, much less run anymore, and the fear I felt before is deadened. I'm starting to accept that I'm going to be dinner for a bear I didn't even think existed. I slow down and I look back. And a weird thing happens. The bear stops. A part of me wakes up. Hurray! Maybe the bear is tired too - I mean, he has been chasing me for awhile. Maybe I will live! I'm going to get a little further ahead of him, and maybe once he can't see me anymore, I'll be safe!
Oh, no! He's coming after me again! I start running again. But I get tired so quickly. I resign myself once again to my fate. I look back to see how long I have left to live. And the bear stops again. What is going on? Is this some kind of sick game where the bear is trying to draw out the time to my death as long as possible?
You know what? I'm not going to give him the satisfaction. I'm just going to walk up to that bear and end it. I'm not playing anymore. Imagine my surprise when I do just that and the bear GIVES ME SOME BERRIES AND PATS ME ON THE HEAD.
I'm so relieved! He isn't going to eat me after all. He just wanted to touch me. OK, cool. I can deal with that. And now it kind of looks like he wants me to follow him, which seems OK. I mean I have to get back to my friends anyway and that is the direction he's going. So I'm going to hang out with him.
But when I get back to the parking lot, my car isn't there anymore. My friends left me! Now I don't know how I'll get home and I'm scared and it's dark and this bear seems like he wants to help me. I'm going to go home with him tonight. I bet he's got more berries and maybe a shelter.
So I decide to hang out with the bear overnight. And I can tell the bear is trying to tell me something, but I don't know what. The bear gives me some food and water and a shelter. I'm so relieved that I am safe for the night.
But the next day, the bear is different. Now the bear is chasing me again! Ahhhhhh! I better run!
Now, let's say the same pattern of chasing and stopping and berries and shelter at night happens over and over and over. At what point do I start thinking that I have to stay with the bear because running is pointless? 2 days? 3 weeks? 5 months? And then at what point do I start thinking that maybe life isn't so bad with the bear. The bear seems to genuinely want to be around me and care for me. The bear gives me all the food I could want and then he introduces me to other bears who are really nice and then to other people who live with the bears. And the bears and the people become my family. Now how long until I would choose staying with the bear over going back to my friends? 6 months? A year?
If you've stayed with me until this now, I congratulate you:) I'm ready to start making some connections.
First, I don't understand how chasing a prey animal until he tires and/or submits simply to get a release of pressure is a good foundation for a relationship with said animal. My made-up story may have bordered on the ridiculous, but I hope that you could at least see how chasing a mustang around, particularly in a place where he can't escape (like a round pen) might not be the positive start lots of people say it is. And the bond that is thought to be achieved may be bordering on Stockholm syndrome rather than any trust, respect, or recognition of leadership.
Second, the round pen method has as its underlying assumption that the horse must be convinced as soon as possible that a human is a leader. I think this assumption is based on the thought that wild horse herds have a certain pecking order and that there is a single chain of command that is rigid (i.e. never changes due to circumstances). I don't know if that is considered to be true anymore. And I've seen my own horse behave in interesting ways with a herd that indicates there is more to a herd dynamic than simply one leader that everyone follows without question. And, it kind of doesn't make sense that a horse would simply become submissive to another horse because he chases him around. I think certain older mares in a herd are actually considered experts when it comes to knowing where to go for water and food or to escape a predator and that is why the herd follows, not because the mares chased other horses around. And of course, stallions will fight to the death for mares, but that isn't leadership, that is reproductive survival. I guess my point is that I question why a person would think that simply giving release of pressure to a horse would generate any feelings of love or trust or respect or submission.
Third, learning (which is purportedly what we want horses to do when we train them) takes time and CANNOT OCCUR WHEN THE SUBJECT IS STRESSED OR SCARED. How on earth can we expect a horse who is responding instinctively to a stimulus to learn anything? The whole premise of round pen work is that you use the horse's prey animal instincts against him. Prey animals run from danger whenever possible or they fight (or just lay down and die if they are rabbits). So round pen work keeps the horse running (although I've seen some horses fight too, which is a very bad situation) in a state of anxiety in the best case and in a state of terror in the worst case.
Fourth, the significant results are typically seen within just one session of round pen work. Yet, it takes time to develop trust, respect, and love in people, and I see no reason why a horse (assuming he is capable of those emotions in the same way humans are) would be able to go from fear to trust in less than an hour. I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can short-cut the process. And we are certainly unworthy of leadership in any capacity if we can't give the horse more time in a less-stressed environment to understand his situation.
Fifth, not all round pens are that large. Most are smaller than a 20 meter circle, which is sort of the accepted minimum size of a circle that young horses (or older untrained horses) should do. You may argue that it should be 15 meters or 25 meters, but nonetheless, I think most reasonable people can agree that constantly moving in a circle is not the best idea for young legs and joints. Supporters of the round pen technique might challenge me on this point and claim that they only work the horse for 15 minutes (although there are a whole lot of people out there who might consider 30 minutes, 60 minutes, or even 2 hours to be perfectly acceptable). Let me ask how many circles a horse can do in 15 minutes? I don't know, but it's more than 3 in each direction. It might be as many as 50 in each direction, and the horses are going to be trotting, cantering, or even running most of those. THAT IS NOT GOOD. I guess I don't have a scientific study to cite here, but I know that I can feel it in my legs and joints if I just walk around in a few circles, and I can't imagine how sore a horse might be after even a single 15 minute round pen session. And what if you are working with a challenging horse, who is "difficult" and just won't give in? How long will you run him before he responds? By using the round pen as one of the first components in a training program, you are immediately establishing that not only is work with a person scary, but it hurts.
I do know of two cases where the concept of pressure and release was used with wild horses and the results publicized, and I think I would be remiss if I didn't discuss them. However, I want to reiterate that I am not trying to single out a particular trainer. It just happens that these are the two cases I was able to find out about. One was by Monty Roberts himself and the other was by his student, now a trainer-in-her-own right, Kelly Marks.
Monty Roberts worked with a mustang called Shy Boy. According to the website, he did not use a round pen for the work, but did it out in the wild. After 3 days and 100 miles, Roberts had achieved his signature Join-Up with the mustang and took him home to continue to work with him over the next year. Yet, Roberts wondered if despite the Join-Up, Shy Boy would prefer to return to the wild.
So, Roberts takes Shy Boy back to his home territory and releases him back into the wild, where he rejoins his old herd. And the next day, he comes back. The event is documented on camera and is widely heralded as a tear-jerking triumph. I'm going to go out on a limb and pose the question: Is there another explanation for Shy Boy's return?
I'm not convinced that the fact that Shy Boy came back after a night with his old herd means that he loves being with Roberts more than being wild. Because I can't read horse's minds, I don't know for sure what Shy Boy was thinking, but I think there may be a tendency to anthropomorphize this horse's response to being turned loose and returning the next day. Sometimes the life we know and is the most recent is better than the life we used to have. (And there is that saying about not being able to go home again. Things change and they are never the way we remember them in our dreams.) That's why people stay in relationships that aren't working or jobs that suck. And from a horse's point of view, once he understands how things work in captivity, there could very well be an allure to staying in a place where he doesn't have to worry about his life constantly and he doesn't have to struggle for food in the winter and he doesn't have to watch his family and friends being eaten by mountain lions. Presumably, that is why domestication of a variety of species worked in the beginning. There was a mutual benefit. Choosing captivity doesn't necessarily add up to a strong bond or even love for a human, though. It's survival from the perspective of a prey animal. And because the pressure and release method was already used to shape behavior, I question whether the horse really possesses the ability to have free choice.
Of course, maybe Shy Boy did really love Roberts and that is why he returned. Even if that is true, though, I do think it might be unreasonable to use that single event as evidence that if you follow Robert's training program (or something similar), your horse would prefer being with you over another situation.
Robert's student, Kelly Marks, also wanted to try her hand at working with a wild horse. You can watch it for free here: https://vimeo.com/33062665, but I'll do my best to quickly summarize it. Marks wanted to work with a wild horse that had never seen a person because I guess she works with a lot of horses damaged through contact with humans and she wanted a clean slate. She found a herd somewhere out in Africa (maybe, Namibia?) and brought a team with her. They rigged a round pen near a frequently-used watering hole and captured a wild bachelor stallion. I think they worked with him for three days and Marks was able to halter and ride the horse with no drama. Then, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, they captured a second bachelor and did the same thing with him (all the while keeping the first horse in a round pen). After six days, Marks and her rider rode both horses bareback out into the wild and set them free without incident. The conclusion Marks had was that her round pen and training technique (which involved the use of one of those "arm extensions") worked very well with truly wild horses.
Here are my thoughts. My opinion is that the horses they caught were stressed during the process of being caught. They were not hysterical, but they were not calm either. Then the horses were kept separate from other horses for DAYS, and the only contact they had was with Kelly and one or two other members of her team. (She has a rider and a watcher, who tells her what the horse's body language looks like because her method involves never looking the horse directly in the eye.) It did appear that the horses calmly accepted a halter, leading, and being ridden. I think they did so because they were being flooded. I don't know that there was any permanent damage done to the horses because they were released back into the wild, but of course, no follow up was ever done to my knowledge. As I mentioned before in my discussion of flooding, I think that it can be unavoidable, but it should only happen rarely. In this case, after the flooding was over, the horses were released to decompress and enjoy the rest of their lives. THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENS TO ADOPTED MUSTANGS. They endure the flooding over and over and over and never get relief. So my conclusion is that if you happen to need a wild horse for a few days, you can capture him and put him in a round pen and ride him, but then you'd better set him free or you risk creating more problems.
In case you have any doubts at this point, my current state of thinking is that round pens aren't the fix-all tool that I thought they were. I'm not saying they should never be used, and in the hands of a true expert, they may be effective even with young or wild horses. But I'm not an expert and I need to find a way other than pressure and release in a round pen to work with my future mustang.
So what other options are there? Well there's the bamboo pole, otherwise known as a very long extension of one's arm. (See a picture and brief description here: http://www.mustangs4us.com/Gentling%26Training/bamboo_pole_method.htm.) You could also use a fake arm (like Kelly Marks did), a "carrot stick," or a regular whip. But the bamboo pole is typically quite long (maybe 10 feet) and the way I've seen it used is for the person to stand outside or at the very edge of the interior of the wild horse's pen and use the pole to first touch and then rub the horse over his whole body, as he will allow. I think the idea behind this process is to keep the person safer from kicks and bites when the horse gets really scared or doesn't like having a particular area touched.
I'm not opposed to safety when working with horses, particularly those with nano-second response times, but I think there is a problem here. In particular, there is this quote, "the corners of the pen are used to advantage within the bamboo pole method, providing the horse a feeling of relative safety." Umm, what? How does cornering an animal, especially one used to being wild, make it feel safe? I definitely saw this method used in the Wild Horse Wild Ride movie, although I'm not sure how common it was to use it and I wasn't really impressed with seeing it in action.
Here's my thought on this method. It is customary to use a whip as an extension of one's leg in dressage and as an extension of one's arm in lungeing. However, with respect to riding, the horse goes through an educational process wherein it first learns what the leg does and then some kind of bridging technique is used so the horse later associates the whip with the leg commands (ideally, anyway). With lungeing, the whip should have been introduced before the lungeing session and is likely used in conjunction with voice commands at first, so the horse understands the whip's purpose. It doesn't work the other way around. How on earth would you expect a horse to know that the pole is really your arm? And that the pole means no harm? And how well are you really doing in "gentling" your mustang if you feel you don't want to get close enough to get kicked?
Plus, if you really are working with a mustang, that horse already knows what poles are for - they are to coerce him into going someplace he doesn't want to go. BLM staff use poles to herd horses between pens and to force them to load onto trailers. Why would you deliberately use a pole as part of the process that you hope will teach your horse to trust you?
OK, so no round pen and no bamboo pole. What else is there? Well, there is clicker training. I became familiar with clicker training for dogs about 6 years ago when training our then young German Shepherd. I was unhappy with the more traditional training methods that seemed to involve a lot of jerking on a leash, particularly because our dog seemed to be very sensitive. She worried about her surroundings and she was uncomfortable in any situation that wasn't home. So I explored clicker training as a more positive option.
Unfortunately, it was a huge failure. I did have formal instruction for months with a really reputable training center and lots of other dogs seemed to respond very well to the method, but ours didn't. At the time, she wasn't that food oriented, and she just couldn't understand why she would need to sit a whole bunch of times or sit up and lay down and sit up and lay down over and over. She never viewed our training sessions as the game they were supposed to be. Eventually, I gave up on the training center and clicker training and any kind of training with treats.
What our dog needed was to feel comfortable. But she spent most of her time being anxious. Remember what I said above about animals not being able to learn if they are stressed or scared? Our biggest objective was to get her comfortable on a leash being walked in the neighborhood (and then eventually in other places too). So we walked her and we walked her and we walked her. Every day, we took her on 2-3 walks. And not the kind of around the block kind of walks that most people do. We took her for miles on each walk. We walked around our neighborhood and we took her hiking. And we got a front clip harness.
The sheer repetition of the walks helped her feel comfortable and the front clip harness meant that if she went berserk (she was what is called leash aggressive), we could remain calm and know that we could keep her from harming herself or anyone else. It took about a year, I think, and by the time she was two, she was a pleasure to walk. People often comment on well-behaved she is now and it is incredibly rare that she shows any sign of aggression or fear now. I kind of wonder if we did the right thing (because it is very possible that we were using flooding as a technique), but I don't know what other options we had at that point. She is a big dog that needs exercise and stimulation and while we do have a fenced yard now (we didn't at the time she was a puppy), she loves nothing more than to walk to the nearby basketball courts (that are completely fenced) for a session of fetch.
Anyway, back to clicker training. I discovered that clicker training is also used for horses. However, I can't even imagine using it with Nimo. He is so food oriented that the only time I give him treats is when he comes to me in his paddock. He would turn into a 1500 pound monster if I gave him treats otherwise. That said, I know that not all horses are like that.
I did find one mustang organization that uses clicker training for training its mustangs. (You can see a short video of how it works here: http://www.mustangcamp.org/home/train-wild-horses/our-training-program.) Instead of treats, they use hay. I guess because treats are bad for horses? Anyway, it might not surprise you to learn that I have a concern about this method too.
My understanding of clicker training is that you use a very high value treat to initiate the learning process until the animal associates the sound of the clicker with a very pleasurable treat. (I did not see that the organization above ever advanced to the stage where just the clicker is used and not the hay, though.) Hay shouldn't be a high value treat for horses. It's what they need to survive. So I question what has to occur for the horse to consider the hay as a high-value reward. Are the horses kept without hay for several hours before the training so they are hungry? If true, that would concern me because horses need to have 24/7 access to hay and withholding it sets up the potential for a negative component to your relationship with the horse. Maybe the hay is just really great hay that isn't normally fed. Or maybe the horses usually get timothy hay, but the "treat" hay is alfalfa.
Let's assume the latter is true. Now you're using an external motivator to reward the horse's efforts. External motivation isn't necessarily bad, but it typically isn't as powerful or as effective as internal motivation (i.e. you want to do it because you want to do it, not because you get paid or massaged or left alone). I often think of the tendency to feed horses to get them to load on a trailer. For a horse that doesn't want to get on the trailer, no amount or type of food is going to get him on the trailer. At that point, people resort to whips and ropes and other types of force. In an emergency, sometimes you do what you have to do, but as a method of training, that process doesn't work well.
So if a horse really doesn't want to do something, external motivation may not be enough. If that is the only system you've been using, what do you do at that point? Decide the exercise isn't necessary after all? Switch to a different method? Keep trying by chunking the exercise into smaller and smaller pieces, until maybe something works?
And what if you have a horse who doesn't work for external motivation? As a human being, I despise external motivation. I don't like awards (in fact, it embarrasses me to get them now), I don't want extra money, and sometimes even the offering of something extra makes me not want to do the very thing for which the "prize" was offered and that I would have done for free. I'm not sure that is a typical response, but when I was taking my education classes, there was a lot of information presented about how constantly using extrinsic factors to motivate students often has an effect opposite of the one desired, i.e. students shut down and stop learning. I'm not sure if any similar studies have been done on horses, and certainly there are many people who feel clicker training works for their horses, so there may be valid differences between people and horses.
But, if I were going to use clicker training, I would want to know a lot more about how the method taps into how horses learn, because I don't think it is always as simple as clicker trainers make it out to be. Of particular interest to me is that a fellow blogger, Mel, is doing some clicker training with her horses. I would love to read about her experiences (which I think she plans on posting), particularly because of her veterinary background as well as her propensity to delve deeper into the why of things. So the jury is still out for me on clicker training. I'm willing to look into it some more, but I have some reservations about it, particularly with regard to the very first steps taken with a wild horse because presumably you have to get to a point fairly quickly where the horse will get close enough to you to feed, and I haven't seen how that works.
Sigh...so I've either dismissed or tabled all the options that I've seen so far...except one. There's a gentleman name Joe Camp, who's written a few books on the horses he's worked with (including mustangs) and "natural" horse care (I foresee a blog post on that topic in my future...). What I really like about Camp's approach to horse training is what he calls "No Agenda Time." No Agenda Time is a phrase that Camp has coined to describe his approach to getting to know a mustang. It involves the highly technical lawn chair and book as the tools for the technique. Interestingly, he also refers to it as the "lazy man's Join Up." Camp has been and still is a fan of Monty Roberts, but he has decided to use a different approach with his mustangs, although he considers his approach to be similar because he believes both methods involve the horse's choice. I would argue that Camp's method is highly superior to Roberts, at least with respect to wild horses or horses that have had a lot of negative experiences with humans.
The way No Agenda Time works is that you take your lawn chair and your book (and maybe a friend for company) and you sit in the horse's field or paddock every day for an hour or two (or more if you want). You don't talk to the horse (although you might talk to yourself or your friend if you want to). You really don't acknowledge the horse in any way. You just hang out and basically let yourself become the object of the horse's curiosity. And this is where this method is particularly brilliant. It taps into the activation of what is called SEEKING circuitry. Dr. Helen Spence describes the process like this:
Exposing a horse to a novel stimulus, whether in hand or under saddle, in most cases (subject to history) will lead to stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the flight response: increase in heart rate, respiration rate, release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and corticosteroids in preparation for physical exertion and potential injury.Camp used this process with a mustang mare named Saffron and he reports that it took 35 days for her to "Join Up" with him. In other words, it took 35 days for her to acknowledge his presence, come up to him, and allow him to pet her. Camp sees this process as Saffron choosing him as her leader. I'm not sure I buy that because I'm not sure how sitting around in a lawn chair and being non-threatening would be considered qualifications for leadership in the horse world. But even if I don't agree with Camp's conclusions, the method is quite appealing to me.
Given freedom of choice and adequate space the horse will flee to a safe distance and then recover to a parasympathetic state (‘rest and digest’)- think of a horse in a very large pasture, something startles them, they will spook and run, stop, turn, have a look, and once they are sure the threat is gone, they will return to grazing.
In some cases, once fear is gone, horses may exhibit curiosity in response to novelty. Panksepp would describe this as activation of the SEEKING circuitry, and the behaviour is characterized by interested approach. Please note that this occurs through choice and NOT under compulsion.
With repeated exposure to the novel stimulus, in this way, with sufficient respite between each exposure and no negative consequences, i.e. no pain or injury, the horse will ‘habituate’ and there will be a gradual diminishment of the flight response until it is not triggered at all.
After the initial "Join Up," Camp continues to work with Saffron, and you can see the photos of how he gets on Saffron for the first time. There is no halter. There is no saddle. There is no rope. (It does look like he gives her a treat once he gets on, though.) Overall, I like that lack of pressure.
Anyway, right now, Camp's philosophy has got me thinking and wondering, and not in a negative way. I like that there is no coercion. I like that aside from some kind of boundary fence, there really aren't any tools. Obviously, Camp does work with his horses to accept a halter and grooming and other normal, domesticated tasks, but I like the low-tech, horse-first approach, particularly as the first contact made with the horse.
In fact, Camp recommends using No Agenda Time whenever you get a new horse (even if it isn't a mustang) or will be working quite a bit with someone else's horse. He believes that allowing the horse to choose to be around you gives you a stronger foundation for your future work, and I think I can buy that reasoning.
In terms of training once you've gotten through the initial introduction, I'm still thinking. As I said above, I don't like the round pen work for an untrained horse, I don't feel comfortable with arm extensions being used before the arm itself, and I don't want to use any other gadgets or treats at this point (although I might consider those methods as possibilities for a trained horse).
What I wish I could do is channel Mark Rashid. He is by far my favorite clinician and writer and trainer. I've been meaning to do a formal review of his set of DVDs, The Journey to Softness, for awhile, and I'm having trouble articulating what I want to say, so I'll just give you the highlights and save the review for later.
Rashid has evolved in the way that he works with horses (which is one reason why I love him), and he currently uses Aikido (a defensive form of martial art) as part of his horsemanship clinics. He spends a lot of time talking about using internal energy to direct yourself and the horse. There isn't really a specific method or set of steps offered in this video. Rather, it is a call to change yourself if you want to be better with working with horses. And by change yourself, I don't mean get a new outfit and be happy. It is a deep, fundamental change that involves a quiet mind, an ability to focus on your inner self, and a way of thinking that is deliberate. I'm pretty sure it is related to Aikido, and as much as I love Mark Rashid, there is no way I'm going to be doing any martial arts anytime soon. That doesn't mean I can't still learn from him and incorporate some techniques, but I don't think they'll be as effective as if I embraced the whole enchilada.
One thing I do know is that I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of the accepted practices in horse training. And I have to ask myself, "If I wouldn't use this method on a wild horse, why would I use it on a domesticated one?" After all, there is almost no difference in their DNA and they possess the same fundamental needs and instincts.
And to answer my title question, yes, at least some natural horsemanship methods are unethical. I don't think that taking advantage of the prey animal instincts that horses possess is ethical. I don't think that using fear to create a response (or lack of response) is ethical. And I particularly don't think that peddling a special halter or stick or pole is ethical. It isn't so much that I think there is something inherently wrong about the halter or the stick or the pole. They are tools that if used correctly may be able to achieve good results. But if they are sold to people who do not understand the technique or who lack the ability to question the methods, then it is not fair to the horse. You cannot help horses by glossing over the important things that their trainers need to know about behavior and learning.
I think we are bound to continue to educate ourselves about how we care for and interact with our horses (and other animals), and even if you don't agree with my conclusions in this post, I hope that you can at least acknowledge the importance of understanding why we do the things we do when we "train" horses.
So my journey continues...