Today’s Peregrine Story: #9 My Soap Box

I wrote yesterday about Peregrine’s mother.  Some wonderful things have grown out of that terrible training accident, but I am never very far removed from the consequences. It reached past her life and changed Peregrine’s. I’ve also written about his foaling, how she got down against a stall wall and couldn’t get up. He was boxed in by the corner of the stall, trapped in her pelvis. If I had not been camped out beside her stall, ready to help, I would have lost them both. Peregrine’s spine was damaged by the foaling. That in turn led to his locking stifles which led to a challenging first few years of training which led through a series of twists and turns to clicker training. So again good things came out of a hard beginning.

It has also given me the right to stand on the soap box that actively promotes positive training methods.  When I first started introducing clicker training to the horse world, I was very careful what I said about other training methods. Clicker training was the new kid on the block. If I came in like gang busters denouncing what everyone else was doing and saying “my way is the best”, I’d have been pounced on and crushed – and rightly so. If you push against someone, of course, they are going to push back.

So I chose not to comment on what was occurring in the rest of the equine training community. At times this was incredibly difficult. There have been so many emerging trends over the last thirty years. Many, very horse-friendly advances have been made. Acupuncture, chiropractic work, physical therapies of many varieties are now common. But why do we need so many interventions? In many cases it is because we also have so many “methods” that are so very hard on horses. Strip away the rhetoric, and you will see revealed some horrific things being done in the name of training.

The words often sound great. Everyone talks about partnership, harmony, etc.. But when you turn the sound down on the videos and watch what is actually being done to horses, it is at times nothing more than abuse.

I remember watching one video where the trainer’s solution to a needle shy horse was to run him to exhaustion in a round pen. The horse was wearing a rope halter to which was attached a long lead. He was trapped between the lead controlling his head and a rope lassoed around his hind leg. A strong twenty-something handler had a hold of the lead. The trainer was riding a stocky quarter horse, controlling from the saddle the rope around the horse’s hind leg.

Every few minutes the trainer would tighten the rope, and the horse would go bucking and pitching around the pen. Then they would back off and give the horse a short break. The horse’s sides were heaving from fear and exertion.  The trainer, meanwhile, was telling stories about how much he was helping this horse to get along with people. He was like a skilled magician distracting an audience away from the things he didn’t want them to see.

After about forty minutes of this, his assistant did indeed manage to wrestle this horse into a head lock and give him a pretend shot. As his owner walked him out of the round pen, the trainer told her the horse might be a bit stiff for a few days, and he’d need some ointment for the rope burns on his hock.

I was horrified. Whatever happened to safety always comes first!? Whatever happened to common sense and humane handling!?

The trainer never asked for a physical history on this horse. Did he have any hock or hind end issues that might be made worse by this kind of handling? Suspending a horse as they did between the two ropes could easily have resulted in an injury to his pelvis, his spine, his hind legs. He could have ended up with the same kind of neurological damage that had so crippled Peregrine’s mother. Was it worth it? All this just to give a shot! When you see the videos from the zoos and aquariums showing wild animals – whales, dolphins, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons etc. – voluntarily presenting themselves for shots and blood draws, you have to question these methods.

This is a soap box I have earned the right to stand on because for over thirty years I have lived with the consequences of this sort of “get it done at any cost” training approach. We do get to stand up for our horses and say find a different way, find a better way. Find a humane way.

And always, always – safety does come first.

Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine.  We have learned some hard lessons together, but we have come safely through to this.

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