Tag Archives: respect

The Dominance Model and Horsemanship by Equine Ethology Are Dead

Didn’t the major natural horsemanship names notice?

Way back in 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior wrote a position paper outlining its reasons for eschewing any kind of dominance-based training. Based on the most recent research, their paper is as enlightening to the mindful horse owner as it should be eye-opening to the devotees of such hugely popular pet celebrities as Cesar Millan and other natural horsemanship trainers who may or may not remain nameless as this post progresses.

When you read the quotes below, mentally substitute the word, “horse” when you read “animal,” or “dog.” You’ll be surprised at how this applies.

AVSAB is concerned with the recent reemergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors.

In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views. To understand how and whether to apply dominance theory to behavior in animals, it’s imperative that one first has a basic understanding of the principles.

The reemergence of dominance theory (whether equine, canine or aardvark) has been well-cloaked. It’s now dressed in tight-fitting jeans covering a cute behind, touted by gleaming white teeth in a smiling, animal-loving face. It is couched in terms such as, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard,” and “be the pack leader.” It’s easy for someone who’s not listening critically to get sucked in. When I first saw Cesar Millan on TV, I fell in love with him. It took a while for me to get it. Same with Clinton Anderson. Mindful horsemanship demands critical examination of the underlying premise of any movement, practiced by any trainer, no matter how appealing.

Critical examination of the underlying concepts of dominance training requires first that you know the definition of dominance as it pertains to animal interaction. After all, if you are going to play “animal” with a half ton horse, you’d better get it right.

Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). A dominance-submissive relationship does not exist until one individual consistently submits or defers. In such relationships, priority access exists primarily when the more dominant individual is present to guard the resource.

Between a horse and his (traditional) trainer, the issues of dominance to be worked out have NOTHING to do with guarding resources. No one is trying to beat the other to a mate, to food or water, or to new territory. It’s about rank. Pure and simple.

In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify … are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression.

Humans don’t want to scare off horses so we can get better access to mares or grass. We want to modify their behavior in our own arena. They know we are not horses, and we should know we can’t fool them. To assume that we can is just plain disrespectful. As I’ve said before, to assume that unwanted behaviors result from aggression is a mirror of our own aggression.

These behaviors in horses result from our own clumsy reward structure (or, actually, the lack thereof), and the fact that we are inconsistent and fail to gain the trust of our horses. We keep trying for dominance, when what we really need is leadership.

Basing a “natural” method on part of the story (dominance) and leaving the rest (the fact that the endgame doesn’t exist for both parties) is basic error in thinking. Pros may have better luck at applying dominance theory to human-animal interactions by mimicking horses, but ordinary folk like me can get into trouble quickly. It is dangerous in the short and long term. How?

• It can cause humans to resort to punishment (suppressed aggression), which, according to the AVSAB can result in the animals’ fear and anxiety, all the while not addressing the underlying cause of the undesirable behavior. (AVSAB 2007).

• When you use dominance theory, you fail to recognize that in wild animals, dominant-submissive relationships are established and reinforced through breed-specific warning postures and displays which most humans will never be able to replicate correctly or recognize. This is dangerous. This may also increase the amount of aggression necessary to maintain the dominant position. This often means physical force, or at least more force than strictly necessary for cooperation. This may result in submissive behavior, but we all know that the fearful, downtrodden horse will take every opportunity to kick you when your guard is down, and the aggressive owner will deserve it.

• These dominant-submissive relationships are constantly renegotiated in the wild. They are NOT static. Jostling for rank never ends. In contrast, a calm, secure state of loving cooperation can be maintained indefinitely, so long as the human does nothing to destroy it.

Equine-ethology-based horsemanship methods which rely on the establishment and enforcement of a two-creature hierarchy lead to antagonistic relationships.

Now, would somebody please get me off my soapbox? I’ve been up here for days. My feet are getting soggy.

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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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Horse Training and the Fine Art of Mediation: 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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