Horses, round pens and natural horsemanship

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Friday’s Opinion

Equine behaviorists have been questioning the methods others are touting as kind or natural approaches to training a horse for a long time. This might be the year more become public and passionate with their convictions. Let’s hope so, as such credentials carry some weight and might even turn a few heads.

There’s nothing inherently natural about throwing tack and a rider on a horse, yet when brought along right, most horses seem to prefer having a job that involves partnering with humans to being left alone in a pasture with a herd.  Unfortunately, most of the celebrated methods du jour stress out the horse beyond the owner’s imagination. That’s not good for the horse, and it’s certainly not a productive approach for building a good relationship (can this really happen if one is making all the demands and the other is expected to comply?).

It’s no secret that Halcyon Acres doesn’t buy into many of the popular (and sometimes very old school) methods of trying to fit any horse into a formula training approach touted to work for all equines. All of these methods fail to include the horse in the conversation – so they’re destined to leave the humans who embrace them (not to mention the horses) frustrated and confused. The tricks are at the forefront. Few provide guidance on how to read and respond to a horse in a way he can appreciate and understand.

Horse round pen training

Round pens are way over-used (and misunderstood) in the United States, and apparently this is now becoming an even bigger problem in the UK and Germany as Pony Clubs and Universities are partnering with marketing machines to encourage methods that label terrified surrender as a bonding experience. If you think your horse learns to trust you because you run him around in a restricted circle until he’s exhausted, think again. Some practitioners boast ‘licking and chewing’ as a sign of submission and associated respect (and this is something to be proud of?), but this can also signal stress.

Do you really want your relationship with your horse to be built on escapist acquiescence? Sure, he’ll likely follow you around once he realizes that’s the only way to get some relief, but that doesn’t mean he likes or trusts you. He’s just trying to survive. You may not want to be on that same horse when you need him to help you get out of trouble. Sometimes, it’s better to have a horse that has been encouraged to think and participate in solutions than one that’s been conditioned to accept a life of mindless servitude.

The problem with round pen training (and the tool itself can be very useful with some horses – provided the training involves activities that include the horse in the conversation) is that most present it as a method for doing something to the horse, instead of with the horse. Those that implement the techniques offered as fix-alls don’t understand how to read and effectively communicate with a horse – a piece the gurus tend to forget to mention. It’s sad to see the fallout for both horses and humans as formulized precepts go very wrong.

Horse credentialed weigh in on round pen training

Since most seem to view titles with acronym suffixes as more credible (and the time and money they spend gaining these credentials should be recognized), let’s hear what they have to say. Special thanks to Stacey Sheley for pointing me to this article and Cavallo Magazine for supplying the quoted content.

Andrew McLean, Australia

Founder of the biggest Centre for Equine Behaviour in Australia, and a member of the International Society of Applied Ethology. He trains problem horses, rides in dressage and military disciplines and is completing a PhD thesis on the mental processes of the horse and its consequences for training. “It has been clearly demonstrated by researchers that unlike other behaviours, fear responses are not subject to extinction. Any fear responses that are provoked by humans (e.g.chasing it around a round pen, Cavallo editor) will indelibly etch on the horse’s memory – the horse associates fear responses with the perception of humans. The trouble is, these associations are not always evident immediately, they come back to “haunt” the relationship at a later point when stress levels are raised. All sorts of chasing horses should therefore be questioned.”

Andy Beck, New Zealand

From the “White Horse Farm Equine Ethology Project” in Northland/New Zealand studies equine behaviour and training methods on Thoroughbreds and Arabs. “The drive away in which the horse is put into ‘flight’ is potentially very frightening.  . . . Horses that have already been well socialised to people become extremely confused by being driven away. The horse has no idea why it is harried and is most likely to experience the method as unpredictable aggression – the last thing a good trainer wants a horse to experience. One of the most basic tenets of good horse management is that the handler is able to control their behaviour so that they do not trigger the response of blind flight as a predator would do.”

Dr. Natalie Waran, Scotland

Expert for Equine Behaviour at the Royal School of Veterinary Sciences of the Scottish University of Edinburgh. “In the UK we are rather getting tired of the join up method especially as this method is not new at all, but the Gyro (a round pen) was used for training horses in Roman times. If the horse is placed in isolation and in an unfamiliar environment and powerful psychological techniques such as those in the join up system are applied, you have to question the effect that has on the animal: The handler becomes an unpredictable dictator and the horse learns to become helpless, activity is reduced and the horse shows licking and chewing – all signs of stress.”

Dr. Dirk Lebelt, Germany

Specialist for Animal Behaviour at the Horse Clinic, Havelland in Brielow/Brandenburg, Germany. “I have some doubts regards the claimed naturalness of round pen training. Even though the control of the movement of a lower status horse by a high status horse is a characteristic of specific equine behaviour. But while under natural conditions the lower status horse is able to evade the aggressions of the higher status animal and may signal its submissiveness, an evasion is impossible within the round pen. In my opinion this explains partly the quick success that often can be observed during round pen training. The horse feels it is at the mercy of the trainer, which is also called “learned helplessness”. This leads to quick submission. How far such a procedure, which surely doesn’t correspond with the specific equine behavioural repertoire, is non-violent or not, depends definitely on the empathy and the experience of the trainer.”

Mary Ann Simonds, USA

Wildlife and Range Ecologist, Equine Behaviourist and Therapist who wrote the Guidelines for Managing Wild Horse Stress for the American Bureau of Land Management (BML) in 1987 She’s also the founder of the Whole Horse Institute in Vancouver/Washington. “In working with many wild horses, I have observed that at first their lips are tight and they are fearful. As they start to let go off their stress, they often will lick and chew – this is however more a sign of relief than of relaxation. But horses will lick and chew, too, when they are in a high state of stress with eyes rolling back, sweating, pawing. But in this situation it demonstrates, I believe, just a way for the horse to release some of the built up stress. . . . Good horse ethologists or trainers take into account the horse’s temperament and level of stress and then design the most appropriate method to help the horse learn with the least amount of stress and fear. Patience, kindness and being able to think like a horse, are the best traits a human educator can have to educate a horse. Join up once started out as a better way to “break” horses, and has just turned into just another way to control horses using techniques they do not all understand.”

Dr. Willa Bohnet, Germany

Biologist and Expert for Equine Behaviour at the Center for AnimalWelfare, School of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Germany “Horses that are generally ready to accept the human being of higher status and to work with him, would be completely confused if they were chased away by the trainer without knowing how they had triggered this behaviour. I once attended a Join up demonstration by a book writing trainer during which he wondered why the mare he was working with would only follow him a few steps. What did the good man do wrong? Every few steps he looked over his shoulder to control if the mare was following him. Every time the mare turned around and ran away. Why? In the horse’s language looking over the shoulder right at someone is a threatening gesture, to which the mare responded correctly.”

Dr. Marthe Kiley, United Kingdom

Eco Research & Education Centre in Devon, UK, and the Grande dame of Animal Behaviour Research. In 1959 she founded the Research Stud Druimghiga. “It is awful that Monty Roberts refers to the behaviour of a predator. I have seen some shocking results of this. It is madness to frighten a frightened horse. This daft idea of “dominance” comes from the male competitive cultural society in which we all live. The fact of the matter is that the equine societies do not need to be based on dominance or competition, their food etc. is either available for every one or no one, only at sexual times there is need for competition between males, and even that rarely occurs in the wild, as the mares rather like their own stallion and are not prepared to put up with intruders.”

Dr. Francis Burton, Scotland

Brain Researcher and Behaviourist at the Institute of Biomedical & Life Sciences of the Scottish University of Glasgow. “I think the horse is already stressed by the time he is “licking and chewing”. This action is caused by a previous adrenaline release. The simple physiological explanation goes: being made to flee – increase in circulating adrenaline – dry mouth – licking. This means a horse may lick and chew following a fright, in which situation it surely cannot mean “I’m a herbivore, and if I’m eating I can’t be afraid of you” . . . I’ve tried “join up” with three horses with whom I already had a trusting relationship. One joined up “classically” and followed me around meekly. The other two displayed signs of being irritated by the procedure, one showed increased aggressiveness towards me. I was left wondering frankly what the point of the exercise was and realized that the driving away had a detrimental effect on the trust that I already had built up.”

Dr. Sue McDonnell, USA

PhD in psychology and physiology and is Head of the Equine Behaviour Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the leading experts for Equine Behaviour in the USA. “Most behaviourists have concerns regards the naturalness of these natural horsemanship methods. Many horse owners who have been exposed to these methods contact our Institute subsequently for help. This indicates that they often encounter complications or even failure. Join up is a weird and ever growing changing combination of procedures that has very few if any practical applications beyond the “show”. Same results can be achieved in much simpler ways, though not as entertaining perhaps.”

Lesley Skipper, USA

Author of the book “Inside your horse’s mind – A Study of Equine Intelligence and Human Prejudice” who owns eight Arabs, Hanoverian and Draught horses. “I have often observed chewing and licking in horses who are anxious about something as evinced by their body language. In some cases it may simply indicate that they are thirsty. This illustrates the need for caution when attributing specific meanings to particular gestures or facial expressions as these can vary according to context. . . .The problem I have with many so-called natural horsemanship methods is that it seems to be based on some very limited observations of free-ranging horses and much of it pertains to stallions rather than mares. The result is that the training methods adopted are based on very simplistic assumptions, which are not necessarily correct.”

Horse crazy or crazed – now what are going to do?

Yes, it’s a long post. Still, maybe those who took the time to read through to the end learned something today. I know I certainly did as I read through the entire article (I’ve condensed it a lot in effort to cull the most salient points for you).

Just because someone is popular, quoted, wealthy or celebrated doesn’t mean they know it all. The next time you put your horse in a round pen, consider how what you are doing may be interpreted by (or hurting) him. One of the greatest things about horses is they can help you grow in really big ways – provided you are open to hearing what they’re trying to say.

Instead of trying to make your horse fit into your program plans, why not ask him to help you learn? With a watchful eye, an open mind and a flexible attitude about what you’ll tackle with training today based on how your horse is responding, you may find your rewards are far greater than you imagined. If your aim is to build a partnership that has you awestruck by how much your horse will do to help you, get out of the round pen and start bonding with your horse through activities that give both of you the freedom of expression and input.

By the way – if your horse training guide claims to have the only answer or offers themselves as a profit, you might consider looking elsewhere. Most talented and aware equine experts are always learning and will seldom present their ideas and experiences as the only way. Seek out people who are humble enough to admit they don’t know it all – and listen to what they have to say. Such treasures will teach you more about horsemanship than any DVD or ‘proven technique.’

Novice or professional, one of the most important thing you can to do start building better relationships and realities with the horses you work with is to adopt how you approach training in a way that considers the horse’s penchants. Learn how to discover what these are through conversations with your horse and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you progress.

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