The Fine Art of Mediation and Horse Training: Common Ground?

A couple of days ago I was watching Parelli Horsemanship on RFD TV. Half the program was devoted to “asking permission to approach the horse.”

It’s about time! This segment was a thrill for me. Watching Linda Parelli demonstrate how to “go and get your horse” in a polite way was a pleasure. It was the first time I’ve seen anyone in the big-time, TV horse world talk about respect for the horse’s personal space. Extrapolating on the idea of the approach, one can see that the Parellis are not just talking about the initial approach, but about all of horsemanship itself.

To paraphrase Robert Benjamin in his article From the Horse’s Mouth: On the Nature of Equine and Human Negotiations, It’s the difference between attacking the other’s reality and and asking polite permission to enter it. I was struck by how both Benjamin and Johnnie Moore described horsemanship in terms of negotiation. And how they nailed my feelings about most people’s direct approach to human-centered horsemanship. Most trainers teach human-centered horsemanship. Even the much-loved Pony Club of America Manuals work from the premise of the human at the center of the relationship. Though natural horsemanship people talk a lot about the horse, they often forget one thing: interaction between two individuals (the horse and the human) is a negotiation, and the side of the horse must be treated with equal consideration and politeness. Hence the little thrill I got from watching Parelli Natural Horsemanship last night. Did anyone else see it? What do you think?

Both Pat Parelli and Robert Benjamin remind us that humans humans retain more predatory behaviors than we think, and that we do not recognize them when they surface in our negotiations with other humans and with horses. It is when they surface in negotiations with horses that they trouble starts. Benjamin goes a step further by suggesting that we also share some prey behavior with horses “despite the intervening eons of time and the human capacity for reasoning.” He says that our “frequent regressions into tribal behaviors” are a sure sign that we have not abandoned our prey psyche. But I digress.

Benjamin’s main point, and an opinion he apparently shares with Parelli, is that throughout the interactions between horse and trainer, as well as horse and rider,

still part of our Western folklore is the conventional wisdom about how to train, or more bluntly, break a horse. Still practiced in some quarters, in negotiation terms it is a form of ultimatum–”you will do as I demand, or else–the beast needs to be “broken” and bent to the will of the trainer. As herd animals, so the theory goes, they must be forced to regard the human with the complete deference given to a dominant stallion.

This statement applies not only to the initial “gentling” period, but also to anything we teach or ask a horse to do. To illustrate this point, I will describe a simple situation from way back in the annals of learning to ride.

My trainer and I were hacking out on a mountain. My recalcitrant pony thought the better of crossing a creek. We tried one method and one method only: pressure and (hopefully) release applied with considerable force until the pony had no choice but to acquiesce.

I started with gentle pressure on his sides. He stood stock still, quavering with fear. As I increased the pressure, so his efforts to evade it increased. We spun madly on the creek bank (this is how I learned to stay on). Whenever he’d spin one way, I was instructed to force a one reign stop in the other. Man, was I dizzy! The pony stepped up his efforts to avoid pressure by adding backwards movement, at speed. My instructions were to sit tight. We were going to force this issue. He wasn’t going to be allowed to “get away with” not crossing that creek. Long story short, we were there a half hour, I fell off more than once, he was frothing and shaking, and we did eventually cross the creek, like a frog with a rider. His reward for the punishment? A couple of rubs on the neck.

What had just happened? Instead of calming and instructing him, we scared the bejeesus out of him. We forced our own reality on him. YOU WILL DO IT OR ELSE. I don’t think that once he got over, he said to himself, “Oh, ok, that wasn’t so bad.”

If on the other hand, we had allowed the poor little guy to approach the creek in a way that didn’t scare him, perhaps riderless, or after calming him with TTouch, or both, it would have been a more rational crossing. He might have learned something. As it was, he learned only one thing: I have to do what those ladies say, and I have to do it now.

We showed him absolutely no respect. No understanding of his fears. No deference to his existence as a separate individual with boundaries of his own. In short, it was not a negotiation at all. There are many trainers who feel that negotiating with a horse, even in the initial stages, is setting a dangerous precedent, and that the horse must never be allowed to feel her is in charge. Here is where I have come to disagree with those trainers. In a peaceful negotiation, no one is in charge. Each side wins. Each side gets what they need from the interaction. Between man and horse, the horse understands what is being asked, and understands that it is not dangerous or terrifying. Man understands that there is a set of boundaries that apply to what you can ask a horse to do at any given time. The locations of these boundaries change over time. That’s what we can exploit in the training scale, with no harm to either side.

If we had taken even more time (more than a half hour for your first ever creek crossing is not too long), building his skills and comfort level with crossing tasks before we even left the yard; if he had the confidence instilled by work in the labyrinth, for example, that initial crossing might have borne the fruit of cooperation, understanding and mutual respect that Linda Parelli was talking about. For many years, folks in the field of mediation have been watching animal training as a way to hone their craft. I think it’s time for us to start taking cues from them.

I still feel guilty about the way that pony was trained.

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Comment by Jennifer Lamm on August 20, 2010 at 11:44am
Hello Kimberly.. how are you? what an interesting blog... you are right on in my view.... it takes as long as it takes.... there is work that is done called Relationship Training.... the Parelli's work on it... that is why it is so interesting to watch them because you get feeling that they have an emotional connection to the horse... I am training a young horse that has confidence issues and I just work with him alone so he has no outside pressures from other impatient people... :) good luck with your horse learning.... :) JL
Comment by steve critchley on August 19, 2010 at 10:31pm
As a mediator by trade I found your comments intriguing. Am working on a program for leadership that uses the skills of mediation and uses horses to demonstrate voluntary follower-ship....would be interested in hearing more of your thoughts.

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