This natural horsemanship instructor had nothing natural in her working methods… Unless you consider kicking a horse as natural…
Written by Epona.tv staff on 09.01.2013 in Welfare
”Albert Einstein: One of his sayings was that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. With the horses, I found people doing things over and over and thinking: It’s going to work, it’s going to work, it’s going to work.”
These words are from part four of our series with Italian horseman, BHS Fellow and equine behavioural scientist Angelo Telatin. The timing of the quote could not have been better, because right now, everyone is talking about a French ”Natural Horsemanship” instructor who has jerked , whipped and kicked her way to social media fame. If you were not around to see it before it was removed, a version of the video can still be viewed here.
What kind of insanity makes a person do… well, that… in front of a camera? What kind of insanity makes a person laugh while they are violently assaulting an animal? And all in the name of horse welfare? For Ms Aurélie Merlin belongs to a group of people who believe that whipping and kicking a horse can be justified by its alleged end: Horse welfare.
The spectacularly over-simplified logic goes as follows. Horses need a strong leader. You can be that leader. All you have to do is convince the horse, which you do by telling him where to go and when. Once the horse does everything you say, you’ll be like his horsey guru person and he will never have to worry about anything again because he can count on you making every single decision, however minute, on his behalf. In your horse’s universe, you will be God. You will legislate, enforce and judge. You will be all powerful. One is tempted do add: Muahahahahahha.
By causing pain and intimidating your horse, you will eventually convince him that you are his best shot at survival. By depriving him of resources and constantly keeping him on the lookout for nasty surprises in a series of contrived ”Games” (Muahahahaha), you will eventually bring him to a point where he isn’t even going to contemplate breaking wind without your express permission. He will be your humble servant, your slave… and of course your devoted friend all at the same time.
Sorry, but what kind of sicko stalker type would find such a scenario appealing? Who wants to make friends by way of intimidation and exhaustion?
We’ll tell you who. Desperate, well intentioned people who are unlucky enough to have come across the wrong professional. It doesn’t end with the dominance dogmatists, you see. They may be the extreme poster boys for the concept, but there are many who set themselves apart from the likes of Ms Merlin only by degrees. The horse must know who’s boss… for his own sake! Really? Not even a little bit for your sake?
We’d like to take this opportunity to stick our hands up and admit that we have in the past been far too uncritical of some trainers who are basically a lot like Parelli without the hats and cheesy music.
We thought it was all about the problem with dominance theory. We thought that if everyone knew that horses don’t stay up at night, plotting how to dethrone you, it would all be okay. We didn’t think that anyone aware of the irrefutable inculpability of a horse would ever do something horrible to it.
We were wrong. Because humankind, it seems, will be the boss. And when it becomes unfashionable to be the boss for the sake of being the boss, Man will invent excuses for being the boss. ”My horse needs me to be the boss because he needs a leader” - when that becomes unfashionable, Man will invent another reason why he must be the boss. ”My horse needs me to be the boss because it has been scientifically shown that he must be under stimulus control or he’ll be terribly confused and conflicted and danger will ensue.”
Yes, horses need to learn how to be handled safely. And no, that’s not a carte blanche for you to switch off your brain and beat them up. You have a choice. You can walk away. You can try again tomorrow. You can lower the criteria for success. No matter what you think you know, there are guys out there training even difficult horses without going totally overboard with pain, fear and intimidation. If you’re not as clever as they are - if you fail when trying to be kind, then you have our deepest sympathy. You should not be training difficult horses. They might get hurt.
It’s not about dominance theory. It’s about getting the Hell over ourselves and realising that horses don’t really need us. They only depend on us because we keep them locked up. If ever mankind finally works out how to blow up the world and wipe out the human race, there’ll be just horses and cockroaches roaming the wastelands. Horses are awesome. They are big and strong and without malice. They can live in the Sahara or in Siberia. Unless there is a drought or disease, a feral horse population will double in four years. They eat grass, for Christ’s sake. They are hyper-sustainable, carbontastic super beings. But we lock them up and make them do tricks and that’s on us. If we get stepped on, bitten or kicked in the process, then we’d really be a bunch of massive girls’ blouses if we were to take it out on them in the name of “safety”, let alone “horse welfare.”
Above all, how can we claim to love and befriend these beings, if we don’t even take responsibility for what happens when we step into their space and make silly requests that they let us sit on their backs? Yes, it sucks to be kicked, bitten, stepped on, run down etc. It really does. It also sucks to wipe out on your surf board, but you’d never blame those pissy waves for testing the boundaries. If you were to climb the fence and go visit the lions in the zoo, you’d be mauled and devoured. That would totally suck, but it would also really be your own fault. Horses are no more responsible than lions for keeping you safe. You are responsible for keeping you safe. If being around horses gets you squashed, that’s your problem.
The problem with thinking that our control over a horse is somehow inherently beneficial to the horse is that the answer to every problem will be ”more control” and we will not even have our consciences to keep us in check, because in our delusion that we’re ”doing it for the horse”, we’ll be applying as much pressure and even pain as we like… guilt free. That’s messed up, so let’s cut it out.
If a horse doesn’t want to do something, how about we work out why and fix it instead of just making him do it? That’s the message of Angelo Telatin. ”If it didn’t work the first two times, it’s probably not going to work. So you have to step back and have a look and try something else.”
This is why we need learning theory and ethology. This is why we need the nuances of behavioural psychology, even though it’s perfectly possible to train horses without. We need to know as much as possible because when stuff doesn’t work, we have to be able to think of ”something else” instead of always just going for ”something more”. The latter may lead to compliance but only the former will lead to the kind of learning we’d all like to think we offer our horses.
Here’s to 2013. May it be the year when homo sapiens gets over himself. Not likely. Until that happens, can we just tone down the ego crap, please. And stop beating up animals for our own mistakes.