I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Last fall I met a lady, who had just recently gotten back to horses after years of having nothing to do with riding. The woman owned a big gelding with which she rides trails. She had a kind attitude towards her horse, but was nevertheless going down the traditional route, more or less. We were having a conversation about Little Love’s abusive past and how it affected the present day. I was telling her that it was extremely hard for Little Love to witness the abuse of other horses.
“You mean people at your barn hit their horses?” the woman asked.
“Yes, some do,” I said (this was when I was not yet Lilo’s owner and she was still boarding at the big barn close to my house).
The woman shook her head in disbelief. “I have never hit my horse. Ever.”
Ten minutes later, she showed me one of her many crops. “I always carry a whip when I ride though, but it’s just for encouragement. Like if he stops on the trails, I just tap him with it – to help him.”
Everything is relative, I suppose. Violence is not a black and white issue, but rather another one of those grey matters. Nobody wants to say they hit their horse; it is much easier to use words like encourage, guide, correct, help, tell, tap and even smack. And it is true, there are different levels of abuse. To take a four foot whip and hit the horse as hard as you can surely is different than giving him a few slaps on the shoulder.
Or is it really? What are the mental and emotional consequences for the horse that is subject to such actions? Especially when often this sort of behavior is coupled with extremely bad timing and human emotions that are running high?
Horses, unlike other animals, are trained mainly using negative reinforcement instead of positive reinforcement. In positive reinforcement a desired behavior is rewarded by adding a pleasant stimulus, a reinforcer - such as food, and thus making this response more likely in the future. So, in a nutshell, when we use positive reinforcement training, the animal goes from a neutral state to a positive state. This training method has been highly successful with animals ranging from marine mammals to dogs.
In horse-training, however, we apply pressure to the horse and remove it when the animal gives the desired response. Therefore, the horse starts in a negative condition, but ends in a neutral state. So in a way, you could say that negative reinforcement involves the use of a “pre-punishment”. Of course, the goal is to use as little pressure as possible, but because people don’t know any better, are impatient or have a hard time understanding the principles of this method, they often revert to excessive pressure and even punishment. In addition, the timing of the release is essential for learning, but often becomes equally muddled, leading to severe communication problems. And a confused horse is often subject to more abuse.
I also believe that a training method that is based on using pressure often paves the way to abusive behavior; if a person has already learned that it is alright to kick the horse, the next step i.e. hitting it with a crop is all too easy to take.
While I was in California over the holidays, I ran across my old trainer. She and I have grown miles apart when it comes to horses, but we still greet each other as old (but perhaps a bit apprehensive) friends. Conversation turned to horses, what else, and soon I realized I was listening to my trainer reminiscing about an old acquaintance of ours, a student we once shared.
“Remember how she just couldn’t get the horse to move off her leg,” she laughed. “It was terrible, she kept nudging and nudging and nagging and nagging and the horse just stood there. It took her forever to learn to give the aid and then the correction, then another aid and another correction, and so on, until the horse got it. In the end she barely needed the aid and didn’t have to give the correction.”
Nudging and nagging? Aid and correction? This is smart horse terminology. And with smart I mean it makes everything sound less abusive than it really is. What my old trainer was talking about was her student repeatedly kicking the horse to get the horse forward (nudge and nag). Her advice was to give a lighter leg signal (aid – as if the rider is somehow helping the horse with her leg) and then hit the horse immediately afterwards, if and when he didn’t react (this is called the correction). In the end, as the horse is now anticipating the abuse, he will undoubtedly move off the light leg “aid” out of fear and thus the rider won’t “have to” (as if we had no choice in the matter and it was the horse forcing us to take this route) beat him.
In general, talking about “aids” is slightly misleading. In dressage, this word is used frequently to signify the cues the rider gives to the horse with her leg/reins/seat/whip/spurs. In real life this means the pressure the rider/trainer puts on the horse.
In Equitation Science McGreevy and Andrew McLean (my new holy book, it seems) put it well when they comment on the use of the word “aid” in current horse-training, especially dressage: “This word is antique in origin, derived from the French verb ‘aider’, meaning ‘to help’. The notion that cues in any way offer assistance to horses is anthropocentric and… nourishes the notion of the ‘benevolent’ horse, the horse that is a willing partner. Horse-trainers should respectfully recognize that training is an act of equine exploitation rather than equine enlightenment…”
I find the term “equine exploitation” to the point. Because isn’t that really what current horse-training is? Unfortunately, to train a horse in the competition-driven world, it is hard not to rely on negative reinforcement. Yet, unlike positive reinforcement training, the effects of this method have not been studied much. Many trainers don't even know they are using negative reinforcement, as they confuse it with positive reinforcement. In any case, using such a training method without really understanding the principles of learning theory can lead to the use of excessive pressure and punishment.
The other problem in the realm of competitive equestrian sports is that the rules permit hitting horses with whips. When the FEI states in their General Regulations (2007) that “whipping or beating the horse excessively” is forbidden, they imply that hitting the horse is alright, as long as it’s not excessive. And what exactly is “excessive whipping” and how can any outsider be the judge of that? How can we justify any kind of violence, even if it is not “excessive”?
The FEI is the authority in many parts of the equestrian community. Perhaps they don’t directly affect the majority of riders in the world, but indirectly their violent attitude towards horses is significant, because it trickles down to the grass root equestrians, many of whom are children.
How is it possible that the governing body of competitive equestrian sports is supporting punishment as a training method? What good can ever come from the use of punishment? If it isn’t common sense to realize the long-term disadvantages of abusive training, science backs it up. B.F. Skinner, the American behavioral psychologist, concluded years ago that positive reinforcement was greater to punishment in altering behavior. According to him punishment was not simply the opposite of positive reinforcement; positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioral changes, whereas punishment changes behavior only temporarily and presents many detrimental side effects.
So many people claim they don’t hit their horses. I did, too - once upon a time. And if I did hit them, they certainly “deserved” it (which somehow didn't count as hitting, right?). It is easier to hit a big animal than something smaller, say a dog, which on top of cowering down onto the floor will make pathetic whimpering noises. Horses don’t do that – unfortunately.
A while ago I witnessed someone brushing their horse. The horse was extremely unhappy, pinning his ears back and making threats to bite. The person brushing the horse ignored all this and carried on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And perhaps nothing was; maybe this was how the horse always reacted to brushing.
Finally, after several minutes, the horse crabbed the woman’s arm and bit into it – hard. She yelped in shock.
“How dare you bite me,” she hollered and stared at her horse incredulously. “That’s it, I won’t talk to you anymore,” she continued.
Then, as an afterthought, about ten seconds after the fact, she hit the horse on the neck with her fist. The horse turned his head away; his eyes were tired and there was a sort of accepting look in them. Or was he merely dissociating from the situation? After all, he had tried his best to communicate his feelings to the person brushing him.
Little Love, who had witnessed the whole scene, sighed and chewed and lowered her head. It seemed that she, too, sort of shrugged the incident off. If that horse had flinched or yelped out loud or cowered away from the human who hit him, had it made a difference? Would she have then perhaps seen the consequences of her actions? I’ll never know, because the horse took it like only a horse does, silently, stoically and without an ounce of blame or anger. And before I opened my mouth to share some of my thoughts with the owner, I sent him a message of love – just for encouragement.
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. ~ Salvor Hardin