At the recent ground work conference I attended, there were two demonstration handlers who were said to be professional trainers. From the first moments, when they were awaiting their demo, there was an aggressiveness to their handling of the horses that bothered me. In most cases, they were handling horses that did not belong to them and were not trained by them (the one trainer did use her own mare in a couple of demos). Yet they were sharply correcting the smallest “offense” by each horse – often seeming to anticipate something that might happen, when there was yet no indication it would. This attitude puzzled me, until the second day when I had an interesting conversation with a student of one of the trainers.
Before I get to the conversation, just a little information about the one area of divergence I had with what was being taught. Although the techniques were sound, and not at all based upon dominance theory, the presenters still referred often to the concept of the Alpha, boss mare, or other dominance-based concept. As I have written before, I do not believe in dominance theory, nor does science bear out the validity of the concept. Far from it – horse herds observed over long term show no such dominant individual dictating the movements of the herd. On the contrary – movement of the herd tends to be made by an individual making a decision, and others choosing to follow. Now, back to the conference …
It was Sunday morning, and one of the aggressive handler/trainers was doing a demonstration. The result was not going well, as the horse in question was reacting violently to the aggressive attitude – and in a short time would be taken over by one of the presenters, and brought back into mental balance. Sitting next to me were two students of the handler in question. One of them started a conversation that went something like this:
Student 1: “One of the hardest things for me to learn was to be aggressive with my horse, to be the boss. But I’ve learned that they need that. More than need it, they actually crave it!”
Before I go on, just let that sink in for a moment. Someone, whose trainer I’m watching battle with a well trained horse, has just told me that horses crave aggression from their handlers! This species who is highly social, generally peaceful (when people don’t make them otherwise), and a prey animal whose main goal is surviving attack from a predator actually craves aggression.
I knew this was risky territory, but I just could not let that pass without comment.
Me: “Actually, the jury is out on the whole dominance, boss mare theory. In fact, multiple studies of feral horse herds have proven that no such thing exists.”
Student 1: “Really? I hadn’t heard anything about that. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.”
Student 2: “Yes, I read about that study. It was very interesting.”
Buoyed by the second student speaking up, I launched into an account of the studies that have found movements of herds are not controlled by a dominant individual – mare or stallion. I talked about the lack of aggression in horse herds, and the far more numerous filial (bonding) behaviors that exist. And then it went where I feared it would.
Student 1: “Well, with all of that in mind, tell me – what do you think about what’s being taught here?”
With that, she pointed to my former teacher, and I knew I was in delicate territory. Fortunately, I’d actually been pondering that very question since the conference began. If I didn’t believe in the “boss mare” theory he referred to, could I still agree with the methods and techniques?
Me: “Well, while I don’t agree with the concept of a ‘boss mare’, the techniques being taught are quite sound. If you think about it, when a horse approaches another horse, the second horse may send a signal to not get too close. If the first horse ignores that signal, and continues in, the second horse will wallop it. So, if the horse crowds you, there should be a common set of signals that says ‘please keep a distance’, and if that doesn’t work, there should be some way to say ‘hey, get back!’ That has nothing to do with dominance – it’s only social politeness.”
Fortunately that seemed to satisfy her, and she vowed to look into the studies I referred to.
I am continually amazed at how aggressive trainers justify their aggression through a mythology of masochistic horses who crave domination. That is not to say that punishment never has a place, and all training can be peaceful and calm at all times – that is as much a myth as the other. But, if punishment or assertive methods become necessary, it should be swift, suitable to the “crime”, and not consider an actual training method. Trying to bite me is worthy of a thump; turning to casually look at something is not (as happened with one of the demo handlers).
In defense of my old teacher, his behavior and training methods are calm, methodical, and in no way reflect a dominance-based approach. Unfortunately, it’s clear that just having the dominance-based rhetoric is enough license for some trainers to justify their own aggressive techniques (both demo handlers were students of his). Anyone who says words don’t matter isn’t really paying attention!
Be good to your horses!