WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN EQUINE BEHAVIOURIST & A TRAINER?
BY MELANIE WATSON (2022)
Photo credit: Markus Spiske
Like so many, I am celebrating as the lifting of the Covid lockdown rules. They have allowed me to be back out on the road helping horses owners with their troubled horses at home, in my role as horse behaviour expert.
Over the last 3 weeks I have travelled as far as the north of Durham to help a separation anxiety ex racehorse learn how to handle life and train his owner in techniques to keep improvement happening. I’ve been out to 4 places in and around York and North Yorkshire to help a variety of owners with their troubled horses- from a newly imported huge 2 year old gelding learning how to settle into his new world and develop a good relationship with his new owners - to a biting and very unhappy mare who felt she had to defend herself from humans.
Happily, I also have a new client very local to me with a new, under developed, 3 year old filly with trust issues. Being able to just pop over for quick support is great. However, all my clients have access to me on the phone at any time to report worries as well as successes.
There is a massive difference between a horse trainer and a horse behaviour consultant/trainer. Horsey folk don’t always understand that difference in definition. A trainer is someone who follows a certain training ethos or a mix of techniques to train horses to basically do as they are told. Whether it is traditional or classical training or the cowboy route of “Natural Horsemanship”, it always requires pressure on the animal to elicit behaviour change.
This pressure increases until the horse yields to it and gives in or learns how to stop that pressure - by behaving in a certain way. It’s called negative reinforcement ( R-) The horse basically learns how to get rid of that aversive feel. The trouble with this route is that at some point in time it naturally crosses over into punishment. The horse yields because it feels it is being punished (P+) It remembers that feeling and so avoids behaving in such a way for it ever to be repeated. Being kicked by leg on its ribs from the rider is sometimes painful and always uncomfortable, so it learns to move forwards to avoid that happening. The horse learns how to move off leg and therefore reduce uncomfortable feelings.
Being hit with a whip- no matter how lightly the rider may feel they tap it, is still a punishing feel. It is added by the rider when leg pressure fails or it is threatened in ground work when being lunged in a circle. The horse hopefully learns what to do to make it go away- therefore it avoids being punished. Whips behind a horse unwilling to load in a transporter or trailer is very common to see. The horse will load eventually but will not heal its fear of the whole concept of loading and travelling. It’s a human quick fix for the then and there and only makes it worse for the horse for the next time around.
The things I am describing are as natural to the majority of horse owners as breathing air. It is endemically and historically taught as normal practise with horses. We even give young children permission to carry and use whips on their ponies! ☹ Racehorses have to feel the whip on their ribs and haunches for the jockey to squeeze out the last bits of energy left in the horse to make it run faster- for our enjoyment. ☹
So, while these routes are usually successful in our “training the horse” aims, there is always a huge emotional price to be paid by the horse itself. When some of them reach a point where they have lost all confidence or have hit rage at its unfairness and have developed huge fear, avoidance and self-defence responses, we end up with an awful lot of “difficult”, “sensitive”, “dangerous” and “fearful” horses.
The use of force will no longer work with these animals, its further use will basically destroy them.
(As a by note, the rate of attrition in racehorses is enormous and is a huge problem to the industry as the markets are flooded with unwanted, emotionally scarred racehorses. Some are lucky and go for rehabilitation and resale, some are bought as pet or recreational horses because they are cheap, leading to all sorts of future problems because of their mental conditioning. However most go for food chain slaughter.)
The sad thing is that training horses does not need to be this way. Dominance is outdated and damaging. Happily, more and more people are starting to explore new ways of training horses, based on trust, partnership, relationship and none aversive techniques. This is my role as an industry expert. Educating horse owners in behavioural science and evidence based training techniques with the use of systematic desensitising, counter conditioning and marker training. All these routes provide brilliant reinforcement for the animals. Marker training, sometimes known as clicker training, pays the learner. We add good things as an immediate consequence.
My role is to understand the individual horse as a whole. To analyse what elicits the unwanted emotions driving unwanted behaviours. To analyse the role of the environment, analyse the function of the behaviour and its reinforcement history. Behind all behaviour is a need. That need must be identified first and foremost. The behaviours on offer are usually complex- they all need identifying in detail. It’s all very complicated but totally fascinating! Once we all understand everything going on and why, I can then start implementing plans and training protocols for change .
Behaviour modification is a massively complex subject and that is what puts horse behaviour consultants in a totally different category to horse trainers. I have great success in remote consultancy with clients world-wide who are following my advice and making huge progress. It’s weird assessing video footage in the Caribbean when its raining and cold outside of my window! Ditto where the horse lives in a desert environment or a 6 ft in snow environment. However, it is a small world now with the use of technology for face to face phone consultations if I cannot physically be present. Horse are horses wherever they live 😊
BY MELANIE WATSON (2022)
Melanie runs her yard in Skidby, Yorkshire, UK, where she helps horses with an array of emotional difficulties which have led to behavioural 'problems'. She works exclusively with positive reinforcement and all her work is completely horse-led. Melanie is available to visit you for a behaviour or training consultation, and also offers web-based calls.