The Force At The Heart Of A Relationship Of Love
So we love our horses right? We feed them the best, we rug them, tend to their injuries, care for them in old age. They are our willing partners, our friends. They look to us and we to them for companionship and a meaningful relationship. They try hard for us, are willing to please. They are quick learners, obliging, patient and forgiving. At the heart of our relationship with our horses is love. Right?
Maybe. While its true that we love our horses, its not also true that our love means we do the best for them or that in loving them we don’t also harm them. We all know of ponies fed too much hard feed who end up with painful laminitis, or horses kept continuously stabled to protect them from injuring themselves who develop stereotypical behaviours. In the name of making our horses more “beautiful” we clip the hair that protects their ears and the whiskers that protect their noses from bumping into things like electric fences. On cold spring mornings we worry about them feeling the chill and leave the rugs on while we’re at work giving our horse no way to cool down once the sun has come up. These are just some examples where our “love” can lead to outcomes that aren’t actually great for the horse and some cases may lead to or cause actual harm. But more fundamental is the force at the heart of our relationship with our horses. Its force that is unavoidable, necessary and largely invisible from our thinking about how we relate to our horses. In our modern age of viewing horses as companion animals rather than simply tools for transport, warfare or farm work, we don’t like the idea that the relationship we have with our horse relies on force. So we call it all kinds of other nicer sounding terms, such as leadership, respect, communication. We talk about letting the horse choose to do what we want, we hate the brutality and violence of the “old” ways the new kinder methods are supposed to replace. We want our horses to willingly engage with us to achieve shared goals in which they get the same sense of achievement and reward as we do. But call it what you will, the chief way we gain control over our horses and modify their behaviour so they do what we want them to, is via force. And no matter what soothing and comforting terms we may choose to call it, its perceived by the horse as force. So what am I talking about? I am talking about the use of pressure and its removal to handle and train horses. It is the foundation block on which every single horse training method relies. Bit, no bit, saddle, no saddle, ridden or in hand, at liberty, whether western, “natural” or conventional, whether dressage, reining, campdrafting, eventing, trail riding, whether combined with food or not. Its all the same. Fundamentally horses don’t like pressure on their bodies or their minds and they will work to remove it. The removal of the pressure is rewarding. They very quickly learn what behaviour makes the pressure go away and next time they experience that pressure, they will repeat the behaviour that made the pressure go away last time. And in so doing, we gain control over their behaviour.
Pressure can be directly applied to the body via equipment, tack, whips, our bodies. Or it can applied indirectly, as in a round yard where we use the pressure of fear or exercise (join-up-), or the threat of actual pressure on the body (whips used in some liberty training) to motivate the horse to respond as we want. In fact, horses are SO motivated to learn how to escape pressure- whether direct or indirect, that they in fact learn how to avoid it by learning cues that predict when its coming and responding to the cue before the actual pressure arrives. In this way they learn how to not experience the pressure at all. Its technical term is avoidance conditioning and good horse trainers teach their horses how avoid pressure. In so doing they can train their horses to respond to the lightest, tiniest cues such as seat cues, voice cues, hand signals. In these cases the hose’s responses seem magical, as though it is reading the mind of the trainer and delighting in performing whatever the trainer asks of it. But underneath the magic, the force remains. The mechanism by which the horse has learned to perform the avoidance response still via pressure and its removal. The trainer pairs the actual pressure with the voice, seat or gesture cue and the horse makes an association between the two. Over time the horse learns it can avoid the actual pressure by responding to the seat, voice or gesture cue and thereby doesn’t have to feel the pressure at all. Avoiding the pressure is in itself rewarding and motivating enough to allow us to gain control over our horses behaviour in hugely challenging environments such as at shows and exhibitions were we are wowed by amazing liberty work. The imprint of the pressure used to train the original responses can often been seen in these demos in the pinned ears, head shaking or swishing tails of the horse as it complies with what seems like an invisible cue. Its telling us that it remembers the unpleasant or painful pressure that was used to teach it the response in the first place and that the threat of the pressure is always there. Good trainers quickly move from escape learning (releasing the pressure when the horse responds correctly) to avoidance learning (where the horse avoids the pressure completely by responding to a cue which predicts the pressure is coming). Where the horse is mostly performing avoidance responses it will be experiencing very little or only light pressures. But underlying its responses is still the threat of pressure. Without the pressure as the threat, there would be nothing to motivate the horse to keep responding. Its why we revert back to a rein or leg cue when the horse doesn’t respond to the seat or voice cue. We can talk all we like about how we should be using seat cues rather than rein cues to ride our horses but the fact is, without the pressure cues of rein or leg to back them up, our seat cues have very limited effectiveness. Which is probably why so few riders ever completely dispense with tack altogether. Most who ride without saddles or bridles still use a rope around the horse’s neck to apply an actual pressure when the voice or posture cue hasn’t been effective. So when thinking about our horses and what happens when we handle and train them, and in particular, when our horses don’t do what we want and seem to take delight in disappointing or disrespecting us, or when they seem to comply out of sheer gratitude for the opportunity to please us, consider this, that at the heart of your horse’s responses to your cues is a desire to make that pressure go away. Fundamental to our relationship with our horses is using something aversive and unpleasant to motivate them to respond and rewarding them by taking away that unpleasant experience. Not much of choice for our willing partner is it? From the horse’s perspective its; “Do what I want or put up with an annoying, or painful or uncomfortable pressure, or do I do what you want to be free of the pressure or the threat of pressure? Unless the only thing we do with our horses is feed them and maybe give them a scratch on their itchy spots then this force is an unavoidable part of our relationship with our horses. We should be honest about this fundamental fact and its strong potential for harming the welfare of our horses when incorrectly applied.