Today I read an article that basically hobbled my brain, preventing me from thinking about anything else until I worked out my feelings about it.

The author of the piece makes some assertions about the relationship between horses and their people that no logical mind can dismiss. However his tone, a sort of, “these are the cold, hard facts for all you hairy-neck-nuzzlers–face up to them!” renders even the most obvious “facts” difficult for the horse-loving heart to accept.

His conclusions appear to result from a utilitarian distillation of natural horsemanship based on equine ethology, in which all relationships (horse-horse and horse-human) are based on dominance hierarchies:

“People and horses don’t “bond in friendship”; all respect emanates from fear… Bonding, as so many are so fond of “saying and doing,” is really “shackles, imprisonment and captivity” for horses. The concept of friendship doesn’t exist between horse and human…not as humans would like it to be.

The author of this article, Mr. Blazer, issues a sharp rebuke to anyone even remotely guilty of anthropomorphism, or of receiving or orchestrating human benefit from contact with horses. NARHA and EAGALA, beware: Mr. Blazer wishes you to know that you and your clients are deluding yourselves. What we perceive as friendship or bonding, he says, is merely respect based on fear.

I looked high and low to find data to support any kind of qualification to Mr. Blazer’s assertions. What I found was that most all discussion of the human-horse bond is skewed toward quantifying the obvious benefits for humans, while little is ever said about possible effects on the horse, or evidence thereof. I am eager to investigate this topic beyond the standard boundaries of evolutionary benefits of domestication. If you have relevant information, please post it here.

In natural horsemanship circles, we hear a lot about respect: how to get it; how to keep it; how to use it to our advantage in riding and training. But who knew that once we have won it, that’s all we really get? And equally important, once won, the horse who has bestowed it benefits not at all?

For horses, respect emanates from fear…. of pain In the herd, when a horse misbehaves, he gets a kick or a bite; he quickly learns to respect another’s space and position in the herd. The pain is what behaviorist call a “re-inforcer”, and the horse learns that the behavior immediately before the pain was “not acceptable.”

While it is an accurate reflection of equine ethology, Mr. Blazer’s comments on negative reinforcers and learning no longer represent current thought and practice in animal training, which has historically followed the trajectory of human behavioral psychology. Behaviorism, in the style of B.F. Skinner, is out of fashion because psychologists have learned a great deal about how and why people learn–the intersection of intellect and emotion which drives learning.

Similarly, we have learned a lot about how horses respond to training. The application of dominance and negative-reinforcement horse training has fallen out of favor with good reason. You have only to look at the catch phrases of some of the most popular trainers around the world for evidence of this: Pat Parelli’s “Love, Language, and Leadership” and Linda Tellington-Jones, “The Touch That Teaches.” In stark contrast, we have the old cowboy way:

An example is the throwing of a horse to the ground—often done by “horse whispers[sic].” Or the tying of a horse’s head to his tail. The horse suffers no pain unless he struggles, and he learns he can eliminate the pain by calm compliance. Other forms of restraint also work…such as tying a horse’s front leg up, or hobbling both hind legs.

Progressive horse trainers have learned that equine learning via this kind of brute Behaviorism is less effective because, on balance, the equine brain is an emotional brain, rather than a conditioned response brain.

This “emotional brain” is inherent in the psychology of the prey animal. Fear, for example, has a prominent evolutionary purpose, providing the horse with a trigger mechanism for survival. Using the fight or flight response, the negative reinforcer, may “train” your horse to fear you, to respect you, and even to do as you command, but it will impede your horse’s learning and his ability to bond with you.

A good equine partner may not in fact be a “trained” horse, but one who is able to respond to changing demands rather than to perform invariable and automatic reactions.

In response to Mr. Blazer, I offer this:
While we cannot quantify or describe the emotional benefits a horse derives from contact with humans, it behooves us to assume the existence for their potential.
Horse are perfect at being horses,” says Evelyn Hanggi, PhD of the Equine Research Foundation, and as such they should be treated accordingly.” If we interact with our horses with dignity, kindness, and positive reinforcement, allowing them the space to think and understand what it is we are asking of them, they will learn, and a bond will form.

No bondage necessary.

For more information on equine learning, visit these sites:
What is Behaviorism?
The Changing Status of Animals and Human-Animal Bonds

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Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 21, 2009 at 12:53pm
I agree with you about the need for horses to have a job being the reason we now have as many as we do. Some would say we have too many for the good of the species.

I don't however, think they need us for a reason to exist.

Perhaps you are right about Mr. Blazer's intent, but I think he overstated it so far that he actually caused offense to me, and that's REALLY hard to do! :)
Comment by J.Everheart on April 21, 2009 at 12:31pm
It sounds like Mr. Blazer is asserting that while humans enjoy the "bond" we think we create with horses, the horses couldn't care less and would actually prefer to be left alone. I don't agree, but would like to make a different point. What horses get out of the human/ horse relationship is a reason to exist! In today's mechanized society, we no longer need horses for transportation, farming or war, which is why they were historically bred. Today they are almost exclusively bred for leisure purposes. If there weren't people who were fascinated by and motivated to achieve a human/horse bond, there would be waaaaaay less horses in the world!
Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 18, 2009 at 5:24pm
Your response has given me an idea for a blog post--thank you! The telephone game is a most excellent metaphor.
Comment by Barbara F. on April 18, 2009 at 11:21am
Hi Kim, I have no first hand experience at all with pro's. who work in Natural Horsemanship, although a friend of mine does work with someone and swears it helps her enormously with her young and very large mare. I do know what you mean about abuse of the concept though, as I have witnessed amateurs bullying their horses and rationalizing it as a natural horsemanship strategy. It's a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, which leads me to the whole idea of what can and cannot be taught in a clinic setting - and how a bit of information taken from a clinic can morph into something completely different after being shared from rider to rider like a broken telephone.
Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 17, 2009 at 11:07pm
You and I agree 100%. I am not sure what you are referring to when you say you don't believe the article.
Comment by Natasha Sukorokoff on April 17, 2009 at 10:15pm
wow that is a really interesting article. that i really dont believe.
of course people have bonds with horses, thats why my horse doesnt immediately bite me when i give her a hug. i have developed bonds with many horses, and i know that when im gone my horse misses me. when i drive up the way at our barn and yell out her name, she always whinnies back to me with a special whinny reserved for those of special importance.
barbara, i am with you as well. this is a case of a relationship that requires both sides to trust and believe in the other that the other wont put them in danger. horses dont try to be bad when they spook, they are trying to protect themselves and you from something they think is scary. and the same goes for people. a horse will trust (at least mine will) that you wont put them in a dangerous situation on purpose, and if you do, then they have confidence that you believe that it is safe.
all in all, horses and humans have very strong bonds, no matter what that article says.
Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 17, 2009 at 9:43am
Barbara, I am with you 100% in the practical manner that you have described. And it also sounds like you are very skilled and have a good time with your horse!
My post and most of my follow-up comments have really been aimed at the more popular, "big money" televised natural horsemanship proponents who talk endlessly about equine ethology as a model for horsemanship and then exploit the dominance issue to their own ends.
Comment by Barbara F. on April 17, 2009 at 9:08am
Hmm, I think (and hope) I am able to incorporate the best ideas from many sources. I am classically trained in dressage, with my foundation coming from two Olympic riders who were trained in Germany. When I am schooling my horse, I set the agenda and the exercises and he responds to my aids. I am in charge and he is my willing partner. I am confident calling him willing, as he has been an easy and relaxed horse to work with and show right up through the FEI level. When I am out hacking in the woods, I am in charge of where we go and the speed we go and he is in charge of negotiating the different footing, hills, etc. with my help. In other words, I don't just throw away the reins down a steep hill and let him tumble, but I allow him to negotiate it in his own way.
When I am on the ground, he is polite and minds his manners. That means no grabbing treats (along with fingers), but taking them politely. No pushing me, pawing at me, biting, etc.
So if I were to summarize the above, yes, I am his leader and he is my follower. I don't know if I think of it it in terms of him needing a leader, more in terms of if you're going to ride a horse, then someone needs to lead or you end up going nowhere. So that's what I believe, in a very long-winded nutshell!
Comment by Kimberly Cox Carneal on April 16, 2009 at 9:01pm
Equine Ethology refers to the anthropology of horses: how and why they behave the way they do toward one another, how their social hierarchies are set up, etc. Natural horsemanship is based on equine ethology--speaking to the horse in the language of the horse, i.e. "you need a leader, so I"ll be your leader."
Are you a devotee? ;)
Comment by Barbara F. on April 16, 2009 at 12:23pm
What's equine ethology Kim? I'm not sure if I'm a devotee or not! ;)

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