For the love of my horse. Why experience matters when it comes to choosing horse training method
People care about their horses. Or at least, the people I meet in my capacity as an equine behaviour and training consultant care about how their horses feel. Feeling that their horse is in some way frightened, stressed and unhappy is a big driver in finding new solutions. They pick up the phone and call me, and I go and show them how they can change their situation. They are already involved in their horse, and so change comes easily for them. Before I investigated this further, this feature of the relationship between horse and owner was intrinsic; it had not yet reached my conscious appreciation.
Horse owners I interviewed for my pilot investigation into the effects of horse training method on horse welfare and the horse-human relationship made their choices based on how they felt their horse felt. How the horse felt about training was important in determining the success of any attempt to train them, regardless of the actual activity engaged in. An unhappy horse set off a process of problem solving by process of elimination: trialling tried and trusted techniques, talking to their friends and familiar professionals, and then reaching further afield, to the internet, books and magazines. This process went in cycles, always referring back to the horse to determine success or failure.
Delving further with my investigation, I set up the opportunity for horse owners to trial three ways of training the same behaviour in three of their own horses. To teach each horse to lower their head for food, pressure release plus food, or pressure release alone. I gave basic instruction, without divulging technical information that might influence my participants beyond the simple experience. Just from watching I could see that my human participants preferred to give food, because they felt they were rewarding their horse. One owner hated using pressure release alone because it made her feel mean. All of the owners rated higher levels of equine enjoyment when using food compared to only using pressure release – even though all three methods were equally effective in getting the desired behaviour from the horse. The horse’s feelings and enthusiasm for the activity mattered.
There was a dark side though. Even although the food rewards generated such positive feelings, and did result in two out of the three human participants seeking tuition in reward based training for their horses after the study was over, there was an elephant in the room. The food taboo. The power of traditional beliefs and community belonging cannot be underestimated, and I believe they can trump an owner’s feel for their horse, and only experiencing the horse’s feelings can overcome this. More than one participant stated that it was ‘wrong’ to use food to train the horse, even though they never declared the reason why. There was guilty feeling for having trained so successfully with food, but it didn’t necessarily stop them from doing so, or there would have been no lessons later!
The next step (apart from further study to scientifically validate such preliminary findings) is to solve the problem – how can we provide a wider experience of horsemanship practice, so that owners can choose with their (horse’s) heart?