Saturday, April 9, 2016

Live The Questions Now

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with several strangers on Facebook. The subject matter revolved around a video someone had posted of Monty Roberts "training" a horse. I use quotes, because I personally didn't feel this was the way to go about introducing a horse to a plastic bag, which is what Monty was doing on the video. He had the plastic bag on a stick and every now and then would whip it out from behind his back causing the horse to nearly fall over from fear and the attempt to escape. But of course he couldn't escape, because he was in a halter and who else was holding the other end of the lead rope than Monty himself.

There is actually a term for what Monty was doing on that particular video and it's called flooding. Flooding occurs when the animal feels it cannot escape a scary or painful situation. It is psychologically damaging to a horse and often leads to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness unfortunately looks a lot like the state trainers like Monty are looking for. The horse is calm and seemingly nonreactive to stimulus, like the plastic bags. This is not because he no longer is afraid, but because he has shut down emotionally. You could see the horse on the video was heading that way, he was fiercely trying to control his reactions to the bag, but fear itself was still very visibly present: when Monty touched the horse with the plastic bag he did his best to stand stock still even though he was shaking all over.

As you may know, there are several schools of thought on this matter and although some years back I was all for Monty's way of doing it, I have since then jumped ship and  found other ways that feel more humane and do not involve scaring the horse to death.

The discussion around the video was lively and good points were made from both sides.

Was the horse really feeling like it didn't have any options? What about the option of standing stock still? Because it was a viable option and the one that Monty was looking for. Every time the horse stopped, the plastic bag stopped, so doesn't that mean that the horse gets a choice?

Sure, it's like choosing between someone pointing a gun at you or diving into a swimming pool full of alligators. Which one would you choose?

Someone chimed in and argued that horses are often afraid in nature and therefore we should definitely not coddle them, but rather arrange scary situations in the name of training. I agree with  this, as long as we aren't specifically looking to scare the horse. If a horse is afraid of something, say an umbrella, I believe we should definitely introduce him to umbrellas in several different environments. When I say introduce, I mean letting the horse stay as far away from the scary object as necessary for it to remain relatively calm and relaxed. This is important for learning and I don't believe anyone can learn in fear, at least nothing constructive. You can definitely "learn" to be afraid in certain situations, but isn't that the last thing we want the horse to accomplish? So when training a horse, we should always look for sings of worry or anxiety so we can "back off" before the horse crosses over into fear.

Desensitizing takes time. Often I use positive reinforcement, which in practice usually means using a clicker and treats. Sure, it takes longer perhaps this way, but the effects last a life time. I don't believe in ever scaring the horse. Freaking a horse out on purpose does not build trust and trust is key to my relationship with horses and humans alike.

The discussion continued. Someone posted a video of Kyra Kyrklund, a world famous Olympic rider and horse trainer, helping a student train her horse to walk calmly forward during loud applause from the surrounding crowd. This was done by bringing the horse in the arena and asking the crowd to clap very, very quietly. When the horse walked forward in a relaxed manner, the crowd stopped clapping. As the horse progressed, the clapping intensified.

Although the horse on the video never became fearful, Kyra did state that "sometimes we must scare horses" while training them. I'm not sure what she exactly meant with scaring a horse, but the person who posted it used this as an argument against me and my opinions. He wrote:

"Let's see, you state that we should never scare horses when we train them and Kyra Kysklund says we certainly have to sometimes scare the horse in the name of training, who do I believe? Sorry, I think I'll pick the Olympic rider."

Interesting argument. I did not take it personally, because really, everyone has the right to believe whatever and whomever. The truth is: I stopped believing every word Kyra says a long time ago. Just because she is an Olympic rider, does not mean she knows everything about horses. And just because I'm not an Olympic rider, doesn't mean I can't know somethings Olympic riders don't know. I dare say there are not many Olympic riders who spend hours and hours just hanging out with horses doing nothing, learning about their inner world. Nor are there many who have ridden dozens and dozens of horses in bitless bridles. Or tried clicker training. Just as I know an Olympic rider could teach me many things, I believe I could return the favor.

People are so inclined to blindly believe "the authority" especially in the equestrian world. I think perhaps this is the reason it has taken so long for positive change towards compassionate horsemanship to take hold. People don't dare listen to their hearts or think on their own. They would rather believe the trainer, even if she is using questionable methods to get results. I don't know how many people I have met who can't believe some of the stuff they were involved in just in the name of training. The regret is often overwhelming.

"I didn't know", they will say in despair. "If I had understood/said something/known it was wrong/realized/questioned..."

But we don't question. And I know exactly how that is because I used to be this way, too. I believed everything my riding teachers and coaches told me without having the sense to question them. Or to listen to what my gut and sometimes even common sense was telling me. It took me decades to get over that and start thinking with my own brain.

There have been several telling and slightly disturbing studies around our innate need to believe and obey the authority. Perhaps the most famous one is Stanley Milgram's social psychology experiment from 1961 in which a man in a "lab coat" ordered the subject to administer electric shocks to another person when they gave the wrong answer in a test. I have watched a few hours of video footage of the experiment and it is incredible how far people will go in hurting another individual just because a person they perceive as the authority told them to do so. Even when they hear the other people screaming in pain and they themselves are visibly distressed with following the orders, most people will continue the morbid task.

The results of this study, which have been replicated several times in different cultures with similar results, are truly unsettling. But it does explain a lot, doesn't it? We would like to think that we are the individual who would not follow the authority or would at least question their orders, but according to the studies most people don't (even if they think they would). So in that light it is not hard to understand why so many gurus in the horse world are not questioned, even when people clearly witness them abusing a horse.

I do believe everyone has something valuable to add to our learning experience no matter what their background. Sometimes we can learn from a child who looks at our familiar world with new, curious eyes. I'll never forget the moment when my then three year old son asked me why my student's horse had his mouth open. I had never even noticed the horse opening his mouth under saddle! Of course, my knowledge and awareness have increased ten fold since that day, but it is still incredible to think that I did not have the sense to wonder or even notice about the horse's mouth when it was the first thing my son saw.

And what comes to the gurus, experts and professionals... Yes, there are people who know so much and who can give us incredible knowledge. I spent many, many years admiring Kyra Kyrklund and learning from her, and for that I am forever grateful. And I still admire her riding skills. I believe she knows very much about horses. But, even Kyra doesn't know everything. Nobody does.

I believe we should continue to educate ourselves, no matter who we are. We should also continue to look at all the information we receive with a questioning attitude. Is it humane? Does it cause the animal pain or distress? Do I believe it to be correct? Do I believe this is correct because it makes sense to me or do I believe it because someone I think should be an expert said so? There can be a vast difference between the two.

Sometimes, when we look at things from a new angle, everything changes, even the things themselves. And this encourages us to keep finding new angles, new lenses to look through. Or at least that is what happened to me. I sometimes wonder, where does my evolution end. Or is there an end? Sometimes I am acutely aware of my own ignorance and yet other times I feel my progress in my bones.

"Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."   - Rainer Maria Rilke


  1. there is a horrible video of linda and the one eyed horse that does the rounds of scathing frequently.. many years ago I saw it and was shocked , recently I saw it and I saw--- the horse nearly ran her over, time and time again- the horse had no thought for the human... but I never saw how dangerous the horse was the first time I saw it. it took me years to learn.

    1. I know what you mean, if we allow our minds to educate ourselves, our perception of the same things changes over time and we no longer see just the surface of everything, but the deeper layers of both the darkness and the light.

  2. This touches on something I was thinking about the other day- about how I blindly followed the methods of people I perceived as knowing more about horses than I; and how my horses suffered because of my ignorance. I don't like the current "natural horsemanship" movement because it does seem to me to that the horses get very fearful and then submissive and there has to be another way. I don't like scaring them into submission. It is still a journey for me to learn better ways- and will be until the day I die.

    1. I always say: When I stop learning, I must be dead. :-) Good for you for not wanting to scare your animal partners and friends into submission! Good luck on your journey, it's not always easy, but it is definitely worth it.

  3. An American in TokyoApril 12, 2016 at 8:47 PM

    This might be off the subject, but I just wanted to let you know that all the horses at my riding club LOVE plastic bags and the sound they make because they think some yummy carrots or other munchies inside! I guess we "trained" them well! ha ha!

    1. Not off subject at all :-) You did train the horse well, obviously!

  4. Lovely article and I agree. Please read my article of a similar nature. Would love to speak to you, I'm under Chris Anastasy on FB.

    1. Thanks for the link to your article, Dressage For The Rest Of Us! The title "cruelty paradox" says it all. If you want to connect, send me an email at equineinsanity(at)hotmail dot com.

  5. It's great to see you back!! I have missed reading all of your wonderful blogs!! How is Little Love doing? ?♡♡. My old man, Griffin, is still hanging in there at 28. He was diagnosed with Cushings Disease 2 years ago. He is now on medication to control it and is doing very well. I think if you and Lilo every time we go for a walk in the woods (as that is Griffin's favorite thing to do). I look forward to reading more of your posts!! :-)

    1. Hi Karol! Yes, it has been a while. I'm sorry to tell you that Little Love passed away June of last year. She had a neurological condition called shivers and in the end it just got the best of her. :-( I'm glad Griffin is still going strong, 28 is a respectable age!