Well, it works... Or does it?
I walk into the barn, not sure of what to expect from this first riding lesson. I’m a little worried about the instructors methods and hoping she’s not so harsh that I’ll feel the need to say something.
Immediately creating a mental file in my mind, I notice every horse in the barn. The one to my left is behind bars and is clearly agitated at our presence, bumping sideways up against the bars and tossing his head threateningly while baring his teeth. “Resource guarder” goes on his imaginary file in my mind.
I’m instructed to halter the horse I will be riding, take her out and put her on cross ties. She avoids the halter. Though I could force the issue and just put it on her, I don’t, so the instructor comes in and puts it on herself.
The horse is taken to the end of the barn in order to turn her around and bring her back up to the cross ties since the isle is too tight and cluttered for her to turn there. In this, she is forced to walk by another horse who is guarding his stall and attempting to bite her over the door. There are no bars on this one’s stall and the space is tight enough that she barely has the room to avoid his teeth. It crosses my mind how unfair and stressful this is for the mare that is being forced to walk by this aggressive display, with little room or opportunity to get away.
Once on the cross ties I’m instructed to groom her. She doesn't want to lift her feet for cleaning, so once again the instructor takes over and makes her lift her feet. At this point I’m sure the instructor is thinking I know nothing about horses. Meanwhile, I’m dying a little inside every time she forces the horse to comply without recognizing all of the many signals the horse is giving that she is not OK with what’s going on.
Next the instructor pulls out a saddle. Upon seeing the saddle the horse immediately begins pinning her ears, tossing her head, and snapping at the air. I ask about ulcers and saddle fit. The instructor assures me that the horse is fine and that this is just something that she does. She goes on to inform me that this horse loves her job and loves giving riding lessons.
Ummm…? Are we even talking about the same horse? This horse is definitely NOT fine and I seriously doubt, based on her behavior thus far, that she enjoys her job!
We walk out to the arena and line her up at the mounting block. Surprisingly the horse allows me to get on. We begin a slow walk around the arena. After a few strides, the instructor tells me to “encourage” the horse to walk faster by pressing my heels in to her sides and making clucking noises at her. The horse moves in to a slightly faster walk for a few strides and then goes back to her slower pace. I’m told to make her walk faster; that she’s not walking faster because I’m not being assertive enough. I’m wondering why I need to be so assertive if the horse loves her job.
Next I’m told to “encourage” the horse to move in to a trot (because the walk was going so well?) by once again pressing my heels in to her sides and making clucking sounds. We get to a faster walk again, with much insistence from me, but no trot. The instructor hands me a crop, which I refuse. Instead I hop off, give the horse a mint and thank her for a lovely ride (the horse, not the instructor). The instructor looks exasperated.
Repeat this scenario in every barn across the country, minus the rider that doesn’t take the crop. Different instructors, different students, different horses, but the problems are all the same.
This is the face of the training methods that “work”.
What I find fascinating about these barns full of horses with problems, is the direct contrast between what the people say about the horses and what the horses’ behavior says. I’m told time and time again that pressure and release training “works” and that it’s the most natural way to train a horse. “This is how horses learn and see how well trained they are?” I’m told that the horses love their jobs and are happy, in spite of the multitude of behaviors they exhibit that indicate they’re not.
Difficult to catch, resource guarding, biting, avoiding the halter, fidgeting while being groomed, refusing to lift feet, protesting the saddle, fighting the bit, moving out when someone tries to mount, refusing to walk/trot/canter, throwing their heads up in the air, difficult to lead, biting, kicking, bucking under saddle, etc. All of these behaviors and more can be seen in not just one, but most of the horses in any given stable across the country. Unfortunately, no one really notices. The behaviors are dealt with on an instant by instant basis with little conscious thought from the handlers. No one steps back far enough to see the bigger picture and realize, “Wow, we have a lot of problems in this barn!” and wonder where they went wrong.
I will say, pressure and release training does work, if only that was what people were actually doing. Unfortunately though, most people don’t really understand why or how it works and the foundation of their interactions with their horses is all about “dominance” and “respect”. The problem with this is that dominance and respect are abstract ideas that have absolutely no place in the “antecedent = behavior = consequence” formula that should be the foundation of all our interactions with horses, especially during training.
Because of this, the fallout shows up in the form of all the problem behaviors listed above and many more. The lines between pressure/release and punishment are blurred, and positive reinforcement is mostly accidental, with all of the wrong behaviors being reinforced (think: pawing at the stable door while waiting for food or nipping while searching for a treat on a person).
What “works” doesn’t really work so well when you look at the bigger picture. Sure, people get to ride their horses and think that their relationship with their horse is great, but if you took notice of all the times you jerk on, speak harshly to, push or pull, threaten, or even hit your horse, you might be surprised.
Michelle is an equine training and behavior coach, living in south east Florida. Michelle specializes in helping people train their wild, fearful, and aggressive horses through her unique, virtual coaching programs. Besides coaching, Michelle heads up the equine committee for the Pet Professional Guild and trains privately owned domestic and exotic animals. To find out more about Michelle, visit her page here.