Friday, April 13, 2012

Understanding the horse emotionally

As of this weekend my schedule will change and I will be restricted to writing at the most once a week - I will try to keep up with once a week though (Fridays).

I have been reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and am feeling enlightened at just about every turn of the page. Something specific jumped out at me though as it pertains to interacting with prey animals and specifically horses the way another prey animal or horse would. A common criticism of Parelli Natural Horsemanship that I hear is that horses do not think we are horses so it is not necessary (and is even silly, ineffective, and dangerous) to interact with them in such a manner. Well of course they do not regard us as horses - they judge what we are and our behaviour based on our smell, the body language we exhibit, and many other signals and factors (many of which we often are not even aware of or do not consider). However this does not negate the importance of speaking to the horse in a manner it genetically understands. The following is an excerpt from the book (bolded parts mine):

Working with the Animal's Nature: Farm Animals
(p. 169)

A human owner has the responsibility to understand and respect his pet's nature. Dogs and cats are predator animals. Dogs are hyper-social animals who live in dominance hierarchies. If you interfere with the hierarchy you can get the low-ranking do or dogs killed by their own pack mates. You have to work with an animal's emotional makeup, not against it.
Domestic animals such as pigs, cattle, and horses are less controlled by purely social stimuli than dogs, so with these animals it's especially important to exert dominance the way another animal would do it. I learned this lesson when I was raising piglets as part of my Ph.D. work in animal behaviour. My piglets lived in a Disneyland of straw with lots of different objects to root and tear up. I would sit with my piglets for hours and watch their behaviour.
The one I named Mellow Pig would instantly roll over when her belly was scratched and would actively solicit people to rub her belly. But the largest pig in the pen did not like being petted at all, and she was the dominant boss hog. She thought she owned the place. Her coloration was what an Illinois farmer calls blue butt; she had white forequarters and a grayish blue-gray rear. I named her Big Gilt.
When Big Gilt reached a hundred pounds, she started biting me whenever I entered the pen. The other pigs sought petting and stroking but Big Gilt disdained it. She just wanted to be boss. The bigger she got the worse the biting got and I had to stop it.
I tried waving my arms at her and shouting, but it didn't help. In desperation once I even tried slapping her big blue butt. That did no good, either. Finally I figured out that I had to act like a pig. I needed to assert my superior dominance by biting and pushing against the side of her neck the same way another, bigger pig would.
So, to simulate another pig biting and shoving against Big Gilt's neck I used a short piece of one-by-four-inch board, about eighteen inches long, to poke and shove her against the fence. That's what the winner pig does: the winner pushes the loser away, or up against a wall. I shoved the end of the board repeatedly against her thick neck and made it very clear that I was stronger, which I was. A full-grown human can still push around a hundred-pound hog. I didn't hurt her, but I did dominate her.
It worked like magic. Big Gilt stopped biting me and I was now Boss Hog. Using the hardwired instinctual behaviour pattern was much more effective than slapping her. The only problem with this method is that it has to be done when the animal is young enough so you can still easily push the pig away. Again, I want to emphasize that I did not beat her up. She was overpowered by a stronger being who applied pressure to the right spot. Pushing the board against her neck turned on a hardwired instinctual submissive behaviour.
After that Big Gilt was now polite when I entered the pen and she never bit me again, but she still did not like petting. One day while I was stroking Mellow Pig on the belly I started to rub Big Gilt on the belly, too. Since I was not the boss she didn't run away, but she clearly didn't like it. The strangest thing happened. Hardwired instinct collided with clear conscious will. Rubbing her belly triggered the instinctual rolling over behaviour, but only the rear end of Big Gilt rolled over. Her front end remained standing when her hind end collapsed. The whole time I was stroking her a horrid growling sound came out of her throat. I had turned on the pleasure response to a belly rub, but the other end of Big Gilt did not want to give in. She did not dare bit me and she did not try to run away, but she surely did not like it.

This may be applied to horses in that it is most effective - almost crucial - to work with the horse in such a way that he understands, in his language so to speak. In a manner that reflects his emotional genetic makeup. When you watch horses in the herd, they exert dominance by moving the submissive horse's feet. They also use increasing pressure, escalating phases of pressure or "ask". This is why techniques that play into this makeup - roundpenning, driving a horse's front and hind ends, directing a horse's feet - are effective. When you consistently establish yourself as the dominant leader, you invite respect and a horse who will follow your leadership without question. Otherwise, the horse will exert dominance over you - someone has to be leader. This should not involve force - it is easy to move a horse's feet using body language. This body language can be clarified to the horse via extensions such as whips or what that extend a person's arm and make their intentions clear. If a person starts with very light, minor phases and escalates to increasing phases of pressure, the horse is permitted to be light, soft, and responsive, but the person is effective as is necessary to solicit a response. Same as in a herd. When laid back ears and a swishing tail are ignored, someone is being chased and possibly bit or kicked. Rhythm to one's pressure is also very important too as rhythm is soothing to the prey animal.

Slapping a horse for "misbehaving" or using positive reinforcement (ie, clicker training) only as primary techniques are not nearly as effective and often ignore the horse's genetic makeup. In my experience, methods that include a variety of types of reinforcement (such as PNH does) and that very thoroughly and directly address the horse's natural tendencies and makeup is much more effective in training. Furthermore, such creates a healthy, balanced and happy horse who understands its role and what is expected of him. Negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, counter-conditioning, etc all have their benefits when combined to address the horse's root nature. If you use techniques that are based primarily on pushing the horse when he is "bad" and rewarding when he is "good" (both arbitrary terms) and that neglect the horse's natural instincts, perhaps it is time to consider other methods that might be more effective when applied correctly. One cannot find true success in ignoring an animal's nature; just as different people communicate best in different manners, so do animals and even horses (which is where it is also very beneficial and even important to understand a horse's 'horsenality').


LadyJennivieve said...

This could also be considered akin to someone learning French instead of shouting at a Frenchman (because of course he will understand you more when you shout like he's deaf).

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! Although I do not work with horses, I do occasionally get the chance to ride, and I will remember these tips.
I don't suppose you would consider sharing this over at Glipho? We're a new social blogging site, and many of our users are horse riders or work with animals themselves- I think it would be very beneficial for them to read through your work here! If you like, come take a look at and see what you think. You can import posts from this existing blog over to Glipho too, it's quite useful!

Thanks for your time, and the truly interesting blog. I look forward to reading more from you!

All the best,


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. Can you give me an example of what I could do with my horse's feet to get him to respect me & so I can get on his wavelength? Do you mean like using my foot to tap the top of his foot, similar to training a horse to square up for halter?
Also, what is a good reward for a horse? Thanks!!!

Horse Halters said...

This is a good read. I am agree with the point that "A human owner has the responsibility to understand and respect his pet's nature."

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