We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable. ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The horse stood in the center aisle of the barn, his ears alert and his eyes kind. He was a recent purchase from Germany, a three year old warm blood with “issues” as the owner delicately described him to the natural horsemanship trainer she had called for help.
“He’s extremely fearful of the whip or any other object held in a hand. He grows even more anxious when this object is brought closer him, especially over his back. Touching him with it is completely out of question. “
“Really,” the trainer said, “looks like we have a candidate for desensitizing. How is he under saddle?”
“Same thing, I can’t ride with a whip, and if I move around too much in the saddle, he bolts forward.”
The instructor, a calm and determined looking man with an air of competence about him, led the horse into the arena in a rope halter.
After smacking the horse a few times with the end of the long lead rope to establish “reaction and respect” as the trainer explained, he started what he called the desensitizing process.
He held the whip next to the horse, about a foot away from his flanks and started moving it up and down aggressively, making a swishing noise as if he was going to hit the horse. The horse spun around frantically trying to get away from the whip, but the man was quicker and stayed with the horse, constantly moving the whip in an aggressive fashion while pulling the horse’s head to the inside, forcing him on a small circle. The whip whistled through the air. Finally, after spinning around several times, the horse slowed down a fraction. The man slowed down the whip as well. Soon the horse stopped. He shook from head to toe, his skin vibrating all over like it was getting poked by a thousand needles. I could see how afraid he was, but he had already realized that he could not make the whip go away, but if he stopped, he could make it slow down. He had learned that he had a choice between a bad predicament and a worse predicament, and he’d chosen the lesser evil. My heart went out to the young horse as I sat silently in the sidelines of the arena. This kind of “training” is sort of like giving a person with a fear of heights the choice of staying on the ground with man-eating alligators or climbing to “safety” up a 100 foot tree. Everyone would undoubtedly choose to climb the tree, but it wouldn’t mean they would never be afraid of heights again.
“This is really a sensitive horse, but we must teach him to stand still when he’s afraid. Then he’ll stop being afraid,” the trainer said. “Look, he is already better!”
I cared to disagree. The gelding seemed as afraid as he had been twenty minutes earlier, he was just no longer expressing his fear as he knew what the consequences were. I felt sick to my stomach. I remembered witnessing something similar in my son’s swimming class just this fall. My son has never been a great swimmer, but he’s always loved water. One morning, before leaving to school, he broke down crying and told me he didn’t want to swim with his class anymore.
“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.
“I’m afraid of the teacher, she makes me do things.”
“What kind of things?”
My son cried and told me that the teacher was forcing him to go to the deep end of the pool and he was afraid. He had told his teacher that he was afraid, but she hadn’t listened. Just talking about the swimming had my son in tears. I decided to drive to the pool and watch the swimming lesson that day. My son went to school relieved that finally someone was listening to him.
I watched the swimming from a balcony meant for spectators. I had no access to the pools, but at least I could observe what was causing my sons anxiety. What I witnessed broke my heart. The teacher coaxed my crying son to the edge of the 15 feet deep diving pool and then pulled him in despite his obvious resistance. My son panicked and clawing at his teacher tried to climb out of the pool. I watched in rage as the teacher pushed my son down into the water and forced him on his back for the backstroke. Sobbing and with the teacher supporting him, my son managed to make it to the other end of the pool. He clung to the side and I could see he was terrified; he thought he was fighting for his life. Which of course he was; his intense fear had pushed aside any swimming skills he had ever acquired in the seven years of his life.
Helplessly I watched as the swim coach left my son hanging on the edge and went to work with the other kids, who had no problem swimming in the deep pool. Left alone, my son wailed in panic and gripped onto the side of the pool with dear life. He was left there, with his paralyzing fear, for a very long time until he stopped sobbing hysterically. By the time the teacher swam back to him, he was submissively waiting for her. He still was not able to swim across the pool on his own and when he finally was allowed out of the pool, I could see from his posture what kind of psychological damage had just been done before my eyes.
In the arena the man proceeded with the "desensitizing" now touching the horse with the whip over the back. The gelding was emotionally exhausted, but there seemed to be no end to the process. After the horse “accepted” the whip, the trainer attached a plastic bag to the end of the whip and started the practice all over.
The plastic bag prompted even stronger reactions from the horse: now he was terrified. The horse kicked at the man, reared and bucked, trying to free himself from the tight pressure of the halter. His eyes were rolling in his head as he fought to get away from the evil plastic but nothing helped; he was forever trapped on the small circle. Again, the more he moved, the stronger the pressure of the plastic and the whip became, but if he slowed down, the plastic slowed down as well. Finally the horse stood still, his hooves planted into the ground as if he had grown roots. He was breathing heavily and his whole body shook from tremors. I could see how much willpower it took from him not to move. He stood still while the plastic rested on his back, slowly moving over his skin, touching him everywhere. After 60 minutes of torment, he had climbed up the tree away from the alligators. But now he was stuck up in the tree with his fears.
So, what is the logic behind all this? After my son’s swimming lesson I had a lengthy discussions with his school and heard that the swim teacher believed that if my son was exposed to the scary thing i.e the deep pool long enough, he would have to “get over it” and learn to swim. In psychology this is not called desensitizing; it’s called flooding and is used to break extreme phobias. It is not for everybody, and with human patients the most important factor that determines the positive outcome of such a technique, is voluntary participation. Obviously this is not a prerequisite that can be fulfilled with either children or animals. In so many cases when done against one’s will flooding breaks something permanently inside the animal or person. It breaks trust.
Unfortunately the elements that were present in my son’s swim lesson and this particular horsemanship lesson are often present in modern horse training. Ignoring the horse’s emotional state, applying significant amounts of pressure on the animal and using flooding and negative reinforcement as training tools are what horses face day after day. The trainer may not have physically abused the young gelding (apart from in the beginning when he smacked the horse with the lead rope), but in my opinion he did something even worse: abused the horse emotionally.
But the saddest and most disheartening fact is not what this trainer did, but that he did it without realizing the effect of his actions. Despite my feelings over this issue, I can’t even begin to judge this man or other people who train their horses in this manner. I have no doubt in my mind that both the trainer and the owner of this young gelding didn’t mean to harm him; they thought they were helping him. Just like my son’s swim teacher thought she was teaching him how to swim.
There is not a day in my life that I don’t think about this dilemma: Why can other people not see the suffering of these beautiful animals? Why can I? How can I, in an effective way, help people see what I see?
I feel both blessed and cursed with this knowledge. Ignorance is truly bliss, and truth hurts more than words can say, but – that all said, I would never want to turn back on this path I am on. I have yet to talk to the owner of the young horse in this story. I know that when I see her again, she might ask what I thought of her trainer. I hope I can find the right words to reach her at that moment. So often I remain silent, but perhaps it’s time to speak up. The horse owner may never talk to me again, but on the other hand, she may listen.
When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do. ~William Blake
Desensitizing: By repeatedly exposing a horse to low levels of its fears, and having nothing bad and preferably something good (like a treat) occur, the horse ultimately gets used to what he is afraid of.
Flooding: By forcing a horse to deal with something that scares it until he no longer seems fearful. Flooding teaches many scared animals that their only way out of a bad situation is to shut down. Some horses may get over their fear using this technique, but usually lose trust in the trainer during the process.
PS. My son is working with a private swim teacher as well as visiting the pool regularly with me. He still loves water, but it will take lots of patience and time to overcome his fear of swimming in deep water.