Tag Archives: fight or flight
Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention?

Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention?

When you are with your horse, do you demand his/her complete attention? I don’t.

In the worlds of traditional and natural horsemanship, there is a lot of talk about what constitutes respect. Determining the nature of respect can help you get it from your horse. Commanding his or her full attention while together is an element of respect. Last week I had a conversation with a trainer who was called in to help a horse owner who was having trouble getting the respect of her horse. Here was the problem:

When standing at the end of the lead rope, the horse would twitch an ear away from the owner on occasion. The owner wanted both eyes, and both ears, and a horse at full attention, rather like a soldier in an inspection line. I imagined this owner standing stamping in rage before the horse like a little Hitler. Lots of people want this. I was taught to demand it of my horses early on. But I don’t ask for it anymore, and I hope the trainer succeeds in convincing the horse owner that it’s neither necessary nor desirable to get it.

In horses, attention is not always evidence of respect. Insisting that full attention is evidence of respect is disrespectful of the horse. Watch any clinician who insists on it and you will notice subtle signs of stress in the horses during sessions. When allowed to rest, they really rest. Is this what we really want?

respect negale pas attention

The human nervous system, because we are predators, is capable of complete focus, excluding all stimuli thought to be extraneous to the task at hand. Remember the last time you were trying hard to do something important? You didn’t notice the fact that time was passing, that you were growing hungry, the weather, etc. A horse’s nervous system, because it is a prey animal, is set up differently. In many ways, its perception system is superior because it is capable of multiprocessing. After millennia necessitating attention to all the stimuli in its surroundings, the horse is an expert at dividing its attention. Just because it is aware of what you are asking and the sound of other potential predators in the woods does not mean it is disrespectful.

I would argue that we commit a grievous sin against them in demanding such attention. It is the dark side of anthropomorphism. With our narrower range of processing skills, we move directly to aggression (shaking the lead rope to bring their heads up in momentary alarm, etc.) to get their full attention to try to force them to our way of processing instead of trying to see the world from their point of view: a vastly superior way of looking at the world, especially when it comes to riding and working in partnership. We as predators are too quick to attribute fight to their potential for flight because after thousands of years together, we still do not understand the nature of these large and inscrutable animals.

Demanding a horse’s full attention is a misguided assertion of dominance that disresepectfully discounts their very neurological nature.

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Of Equine Bondage and Bonding

Of Equine Bondage and Bonding

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?
Testing Equine Intelligence
Equine Smarts
The Changing Status of Animals and Human-Animal Bonds

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