I was at a horse expo watching a trainer crack a bull whip over a horse’s head. She first warned the audience to cover their ears because the crack was going to be loud. The horse couldn’t cover his ears, and he couldn’t get away. Over and over again she cracked the whip around his body. Each time you could see his belly tighten. You know the expression tied up in knots. That’s how this horse was clearly feeling.
This isn’t training. This is learned helplessness.
We know about learned helplessness from some terrible laboratory experiments that were done with dogs. The dogs were restrained in harnesses and given electric shocks through electrodes attached to their foot pads. For the experiment two dogs were yoked together. The first dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever which also stopped the shocks the second dog was receiving. The second dog could not stop the shocks through it’s own actions.
In the second half of the experiment the dogs were placed in a room with a barrier down the center. The floor they were on had electric wires running through it. Again the dogs were shocked. The dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks jumped over the divider and escaped. The dogs that had not been able to control the shocks made no attempt to jump out.
Nothing was restraining them. They could have jumped across the partition to the safety of the other side, but instead they just curled up in a ball and took the shocks. Learned helplessness. They didn’t believe any more that they could escape.
Is this what we want for our horses? The trainer with the bull whip had a benign intent. This horse was pushy and tended to spook. The trainer wanted to be sure the horse was safe for the owner to be around.
Safety does always come first – but that has to mean for BOTH the horse and the handler. The trainer continued to crack the bull whip around this horse. I don’t know how long it continued. I left to find the show management to get it stopped and to issue a complaint.
I know if I push against you, you will push back against me. And I know that we will not all make the same training choices. There are many in the clicker training community who want to avoid the use of leads and any use of pressure. But pressure and release of pressure is our riding language so I’ve made it part of clicker training. I want the horses to learn how to use the information that pressure provides in a constructive way. I want it to mean not do it or else, but follow the hints the pressure is offering and you’ll get to your reinforcer faster. How we teach changes how it is perceived.
We all make different choices. We all draw our lines at different points. People who are exploring coercive, force-based training methods want good things for their horses. They see that the end results can look very light. They see that horses can be responsive. They are afraid of the dangerous behaviors they are dealing with, and they are looking for solutions that work.
I don’t want to push against these good intentions, or the exploration that each of us goes through as we sort out how we want to train. But at some point we all need to remember that it is more than okay, it is our responsibility to stand up for our horses. We are their voice. When we see methods that cross the lines of safe training, we need to be able to move past the words the trainers are using to describe what they are doing and see what is really going on.
Peregrine is a crossover horse. That means he didn’t start out with clicker training. We began with the training methods that were being taught within the general horse community. I learned how to say “now here this! This is what you are to do.” And he learned to say “No, I can’t! I won’t” Instead of getting tougher, I learned to be smarter. Together we found a way to say “Let’s do this together.”
Happy 30th Birthday Peregrine. Thank you for the gift of true partnership you have given me.