I want you to think back on a time when you or someone else was working with a horse and something just didn’t feel right about what was being done. The person wasn’t outright beating the horse, we all know that’s wrong, but you just had the feeling that whatever was being done wasn’t ethical, and it wasn’t good for the horse in any sense. My intent for this article is to tell you to listen to those instincts. As horsemen and women who respect the horse as a conscious being, not a machine or a tool for human fun, it is our responsibility to be aware of what we do and watch our horses for signs of pain, fear, and discomfort, because the horse won’t always tell you.
I believe there are several reasons why a lot of mainstream horse training has become “stuck in its ways”, and why many good hearted people unknowingly use training or handling tactics that are painful and even abusive to the horse.
Let’s compare dog training to horse training. I would make the argument, from personal experience, that the idea of positive reinforcement is much more widely accepted and used in dog training circles. In horse training, on the other hand, it is typically not well understood, and some horse trainers will immediately dismiss positive reinforcement as ineffective and coddling. Could one of the reasons be that dogs express pain quicker than horses?
There could be a number of reasons why painful training equipment and abusive tactics continue to be used by many riders and trainers, but is it possible that one of the main reasons people have not taken a second look at some “bad” methods is that the horse is silent? Think about it – what happens if you walk up to a dog and kick it in the stomach? The dog will yelp – most dogs have no problem making noise and letting you know when something hurts. Now walk up to a horse and yank on his bit. (and to be very clear here – yanking a bit causes physical pain to a horse (even a “hard-mouthed” horse), if he can feel a fly on his lips he can sure as heck feel that bit hitting his tender tongue and gums.) But does the horse make a sound? No, he probably throws his head up, but he won’t usually make any noise. Can you imagine if horses shrieked or yelped every time a bit was yanked in their mouths, a spur dug into their side, or a chain tightened across their nose? Perhaps there would be more awareness of how harsh some training tools and methods really are.
I recently reviewed a book on my product reviews site called Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. It was an excellent book on animal behavior and in one particular section, Temple made this same point and also gave it a more scientific backing. Horses are prey animals, therefore they instinctually do not want to draw attention to themselves. Predators, on the other hand, don’t care if other animals know they are nearby. They will yelp and yowl and sometimes be big sissys about pain, where a prey animal knows that to survive, it must put on its poker face and not make a sound. In the wild, a sick or injured animal will be the first to be picked off by a predator, so prey species have learned to remain silent and stoic.
We must take greater care to recognize pain in our horses – look at their eyes and the tightness around their faces, and be aware of that instinctual “this isn’t right” feeling we get when something just doesn’t seem ethical.
My point with this article is not to claim that I never let the butt end of my lead rope or my stick connect with one of my horses if they show dangerous behavior or need more motivational pressure, but physical pain is not the intent, and I strive to be very aware of everything I do and the horse’s reaction to it. I believe that the real problem is that a lot of pain, both physical and emotional, is afflicted on horses, without the person really understanding what they are doing and how it truly affects the horse.
Food for thought, anyway. Your opinion?