Training and Instinct

pookabridle_bvcIn the last Horseblog I talked about a particular stallion and his spring rituals. I’ve since been able to catch a short video of his space-claiming process, which I’ve posted here. It comes complete with roll-roll-roll and rearandpawtheAIR.

Watching him do this, and watching his mares drive him nutty with their own spring hormones, while also keeping him in training, has put me in mind of what training is. Or rather, what it’s often perceived as, versus how it actually works.

If you run a search on “horse training,” a lot of what will come up will have to do with overcoming the horse’s natural instincts. There’s also quite a bit about dominating him, and being the dominant herd member. But is this really what works, or what is actually happening in the mind of this alien species?

Anthropology, which of course is the study of human cultures, has been undergoing a bit of an upheaval in recent years, as a small group of anthropologists and social psychologists have questioned the entire basis of modern anthropological study–namely, that the culture regarded as the norm and used as the baseline for the majority of studies may in fact be an extreme outlier. This is controversial to say the least, but it opens up a whole new world of understanding for the horse trainer–or the writer. It not only suggests that we should examine our assumptions early and often and with great care, but it also asks us to keep an open mind about the way the “other” acts and thinks.

So with horse training in the Western world these days, several assumptions are often at work.

Horses are prey animals and all their instincts are related to their status as food for predators (and humans are predators).

Horses are herd animals and all their actions and reactions are based on a pattern of dominance and submission.

Horses are entirely ruled by instinct (as determined by their status as prey animals and their status in the herd), and training for the most part involves teaching them to overcome that instinct in order to be suitable for human use.

Hence the popular assumptions:

Your horse would rather be out grazing with his buddies than doing anything with you. You have to impose your will on him in order to get him to work.

Your horse is not very intelligent. He’s mostly just a whole lot of flight instinct and a whole lot of food tropism.

Stallions are hormone-crazed maniacs who are incapable of any kind of function aside from that of breeding. And mares, of course, are just as crazy, though they tend to be more of the week-a-month persuasion.

Anyone who attributes feelings (especially anger or affection) to a horse is anthropomorphizing. A horse is not capable of emotion. He’s entirely driven by instinct (as above).

Some of this I think is motivated by concerns for safety. If a trainer has to deal with clients who persist in seeing horses or ponies as cute cuddly toys or large hairy humans with poor verbal skills, he may be tempted to lay down the law that This Is An Alien Species With Its Own Agenda And It Does Not Think Like You At All. So he lays it on thick about the herd and the instincts and the hormones, because he can’t see any other way to impress on the client (and the client’s possibly litigious family) that these are not necessarily tame lions.

But there’s also a significant component of human exceptionalism, and specifically Western exceptionalism. The idea that humans are the pinnacle of creation, that only humans are capable of higher brain functions, that emotions are unique to humans, and that communication and social structure and culture in general are human traits and no other animal shares them, is falling into disrepute, but horse trainers as a group tend to be a pretty conservative bunch. Even the ones who challenge the dominance paradigm and the prey-animal modality may still insist that horses are mostly about instinct.

There is some truth in all of it. It applies to humans, too. Our genes, our instincts, and our culture all play major roles in the ways in which we process data. In order to survive as social animals, we have to overcome certain instincts–hormones and aggression, for example. And yet, as the WEIRD study argues, much of what we ascribe to genes and instinct may in fact be cultural.

With horses, certain things appear to be a given: prey animal, herbivore, herd animal with a fluid but fairly well-established hierarchy and social structure. Gender and hormones play a distinct role in behavior. The stallion is driven to patrol his territory and drive off threats to it. The mare is tightly focused on the stallion when in season, and will have little or no use for him outside of it; she protects her foals fiercely in the first couple of weeks but then gradually allows them to grow away from her. Both sexes congregate in bands, though the herd stallion will drive off or destroy rival stallions (but he may allow one or more subordinate stallions to breed his mother and daughters).

When we domesticate the horse, we tend to let the mare be a mare, since spaying is a difficult and expensive operation, but castrating the stallion, especially as a youngster, is basically outpatient surgery. So most riding horses in the West are geldings, and geldings are what most horse people are familiar with and relate to. That leaves the hormone crew to myth and legend (though mares are tolerated for riding), and the rest of the truisms about prey, herds, and intelligence remain more or less intact.

So are we really fighting instinct every step of the way when we train a horse? Is horse training a massive exercise in Stockholm syndrome, not to mention mental and physical abuse?

That guy who stars in the video? Twenty minutes later he was clean, saddled, and peacefully doing his warmups in the space he’d claimed. There was a little rumbling as we went by the mares, but after a time or two he had focused on his exercises. Stretching. Bending. Remembering to breathe (he tends to hold his breath when he concentrates). Directing his energy toward another kind of dance.

In the wild that energy would be spent fighting other stallions, going after predators, and breeding mares. He’d also probably be dead by this point; life expectancy of a feral horse is about 15-20 years, versus 25-30 for a domesticated horse, and he’s 16. If he was still alive, he’d be a scarred old warrior, whereas for his breed and degree of use, he’s still a relatively young horse with just a few scars (the goat that gored him, the neighbors’ puppies that went after him and tried to take him down but luckily thought the hamstrings were in the front–he had a somewhat exciting youth).

He gets handled every day, several times a day. The instinct to challenge authority and then to be authority is strong, as is the drive to respond to the mares when it’s time to breed them. But he also has an instinct to give way to the alpha female, which I am, and the instinct to cooperate within the herd–and that herd includes humans.

There’s a social contract in effect. He gets to do his own thing on his own time (of which the video is a good example). When he’s with me, certain rules have to apply, simply because humans are relatively tiny and extremely fragile.

We don’t use extreme technology here: spiked bits and headstalls, coercive tiedowns, whipping, spurring, electric shock, etc., etc., et gawdawful cetera. We go more for mutual agreement and common benefit. (Hmmm, anthropomorphism, says the Traditional Trainer.)

He doesn’t get to breed and fight at will, but he does get to be a dance partner. Work is play–and it’s mental as well as physical. Riding figures and courses of barrels and poles, learning to balance himself and the rider, going out and exploring new territory, doing groundwork in coordination with the human–these all direct his energy and keep him fresh and, yes, I’ll use the word: happy.

Would he be happier on the range? Maybe. But after going on five hundred years of concentrated breeding, in some ways he’s diverged from the original model. He’s designed for the dance. He’s bred to focus on humans. He’s just a little more inclined to cooperate, and a fair bit easier to work with when there are mares in the mix. He has a high tolerance for repetitive arena exercises, as well as considerable stamina for them. Even his balance is distinctive: he’s built and inclined to sit down behind and raise the front–lousy for speed, excellent for standing his ground and fighting. Or, as it happens, for carrying a rider without tripping and falling on his nose.

All of that plays into the training process. It’s cooperative rather than coercive. Where the instincts are useful–the extra bit of oomph from the hormones, the heightened sensitivity to signals and guidance–we encourage them. Where they’re counterproductive (running after mares rather than paying attention to the human), we encourage him to change his focus. We end up with a partnership, and a horse who comes willingly when he sees his saddle.

I guess we could say that we’ve nurtured the instinct to cooperate, to form a herd and work within the herd, and turned it into a herd of two: horse and rider; and sometimes even three, when the trainer joins the group. Instead of suppressing the instinct (or distorting it into dominance/submission or predator/prey), we’ve turned it into a training tool. It makes for a happier horse, and healthier, too.



Training and Instinct — 13 Comments

  1. Work is play

    And that, in a nutshell, is one thing so many ‘experts’ miss. There isn’t a gap in a horse’s natural behaviour for ‘work’ – for doing things that are uncomfortable mentally and physically. Of course they would rather hang out with their mates in a field.
    But when interacting with humans is fun – when it means a horse gets to do new, interesting things in a pleasant environment in company they enjoy – it totally fits into the ‘play’ slot that most higher animals have; particularly content animals that have all of their other needs met. But this means that people need to listen, and accept that horses might have a mind of their own, and that sometimes compromises need to be made, and that sometimes ‘ok, we’ll try again tomorrow’ is the best answer.

  2. My trainer emphasizes that horses prefer predictable patterns and routines when being handled, and I really do think he’s right. In watching the horses who’ve been socialized to his barn and his patterns of handling horses (like my Mocha and several other horses in the barn who were either born there or have spent a lot of time there), they respond to the routines and expect the patterns. One could argue that his training routines encourage horses to seek patterns (which is not a bad thing when handling reiners and other pattern performers). But he prizes consistency from horse and human alike, and his barn is heavy on the thinking, smart horses (from stock horse bloodlines).

    Working with a smart mare is a lot like working with a stallion, just different hormones. When my mare comes out of her stall or out of her turnout, she’s ready to go work, and when she’s in heat, she wants to work harder for some reason. In training her, I’ve found that she needs to be able to make sense of what I’m asking her to do, and the fastest way for her to catch on to what she’s being asked to do is to show her the balance part of it. Which sometimes means schooling stuff at speed–allowing her to bomb around at high speed in counter-canter (after schooling outside bends at high speed) was what finally got her to accept that skill as useful. Once she figures out the rhythm and balance of what I’m asking her to do, and that there is rhythm and balance to it, then she does that particular task. Ergo, lead changes every few strides on the rail are now becoming accepted as normal, and sufficiently normal that we do them in warmup. But we had to do them pretty dang fast at first….

  3. The same myth holds true for dogs. The whole alpha-dog-dominance theory was based on discredited research involving traumatized groups of wolves that were forced into proximity. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved to cooperate with humans, and have a spectrum of behaviors designed to reduce friction among themselves. When trainers treat dogs as pack members to be crushed into submission, either by force or by “flooding” them with painful or terrifying stimulation, the dogs may “behave” simply because they have given up. They no longer spontaneously offer natural behaviors.

    By far the most effective training techniques center around positive reinforcement, which allows us humans to communicate (desired behavior = “yes!”/click! = treat/high-value-goodness) what it is we’re asking of the dog. We use rewards as a basic biological language, and we create an environment in which the dog learns by success, not by confusion and punishment. The dog then works freely and joyously.

    I say, “work,” because most dogs, even non-working breeds, need a job. Like horses, they thrive on mental as well as physical exercise. It can be a structured job, like agility competition or Treiball or herding sheep, or it can arise creatively from each family/dog. (One of Oka’s “jobs” was preventing the younger cats from bullying the geriatric one. Another was escorting me in and out while I hung up the laundry. And defending the household against the Evil Laser Bug. Throughout each day, he was asked to do many small tasks.)

    • And we’re still learning about dogs (our oldest domestic partner), and ourselves in the process. One writer speculated that dogs and humans domesticated each other about 135,000 years ago. Observations by both species led to the conclusion that active cooperation by both parties led to bigger, easier hunts that yielded much more food than competing for the same game, or trying to eat each other. Domestic partnering brought shared security duties, taking care of the youngest and oldest of both kinds, raising and herding of other species of animals, and even the benefits of snuggling together in bad weather. Plus lots more varied play time, which both species value highly.In the area of scientific inquiry, recent reports note that the asymmetrical differences on all human faces comes, at least in part, to the fact that all humans give facial hints to emotional content on the right side of the face. No matter “handedness” in any other sense, all humans give hints at their inner emotions on the right side of the face, and only the right side.This, in turn, led to the discovery that all humans tend instinctively to glance to their left with dealing with others. This is so universal that almost nobody noticed it until recently, because there are no counter-examples. The real kicker is that dogs had this figured out long before we noticed it on our own. Dogs will automatically use the left eye to look for emotional cues from the right side of the human face. They do not exhibit that behavior when dealing with other dogs, or any other creature. They learned about this human quirk long ago, but left us in the dark about it until we finally figured it out for ourselves. :)So there’s things out there still waiting for us to discover about the thought processes of “simple domesticated animals”, including ourselves. That includes the 40% “unused capacity” of the human brain that is busy with various tasks already, including the conscious training of it for personalized “instinctive skills” that we tend to call “intuition”.

      • Sorry for the big grey blob of text. I’m still trying to figure out what subset of HTML this editor likes, or how to get back and re-edit.

  4. Horses in the wild spend most of their time and effort organizing for food, shelter, defense, and rearing the young. Put them in a happy herd with an understanding human leader, and they’re in a minor horse heaven. With the most serious business-of-the-day under proper management, horses have the time and emotional freedom to think, play, try stupid stunts, develop a taste for work that pleases both them and their humans, and become more individualistic within a herd that’s more a social club than a survival mechanism.

    In these near-ideal settings, I’ve noticed equine egos come in two sizes, large and gigantic. The trick is to steer them into directions that horse and human agree are fun and productive. Just discourage the horse from galloping up to you for a work/play session, and trying to keep you in the ring working with him after you’ve had enough. 🙂

    And I know that chunky “little” stallion (all stallions are 19hh in their minds), likes “claiming his space” before getting to work to impress those mares with his warp engines and those cute little ears that any mare would love to see on her foal. THEN comes the rest of his routine, which is to show how talented he is working/playing with his human.

    This is also why geldings of this type need special attention of their own. With fewer hormones to bother with, they have more excess time and intelligence to plan out new ways of having fun, and/or world conquest. Keep ’em busy with plenty of toys, and be especially careful if they team up with another gelding. Geldings probably generate more face-palms for humans than all the mares and stallions combined. 🙂

    Not bad for a species some people still think is hard-wired just to be meat-on-the-hoof for predators. Keep them mentally challenged, and prove to them that the alpha human is even a more precious addition than even the alpha mare. A horse that is happy with his work and social life has a lot going for him, too

  5. Great comments, thank you, guys! Very good expansion and clarification there.

    Geldings certainly are their own thing. And do their own thing. Mares and stallions are busy ruling and populating the world. Geldings have brain space for Happy Evil.

  6. Sideways to the main point of the post, but I couldn’t let this pass without comment: the WEIRD cultures are very much the basis of psychological study, not anthropological. If anything, the reverse is true in anthropology; until fairly recently, the field was assumed to focus on everybody but WEIRD people. Non-western people, non-industrialized people, etc. It’s only in the last couple of decades that you’ve started to get anthropologists working at home (and stepping on the toes of the sociologists in the process, though our methods and questions tend to differ from theirs).

    As for the training, it’s only an exercise in Stockholm Syndrome if you view child-rearing the same way. 🙂 True, our options for communicating with horses are more limited than with children — once the children become verbal, that is — but there’s still communication. And yeah, the traditionalist view seems heavily rooted in the twin assumptions that a) humans aren’t animals with instincts and b) no (non-human) animal is capable of anything like higher brain function. To which I sez, hah.

    • The point I took from the WEIRD study was that the baseline is considered to be the Western culture/mindset, and that non-Western cultures are judged/tested/studied and then evaluated according to methods developed for and within that mindset. I had heard this from grad-school friends in anthro actually, many years ago, who added that standard anthro assumptions and practices also tended to be heavily weighted toward the male gaze. The assumptions of the observers were strongly affecting their interpretations of the data. Students who questioned this were silenced or encouraged to change their major.

      In fact, the guy who developed the WEIRD study started in Anthro. He went to Psych because Anthro rejected him.

      This is not an uncommon result when a scientist questions the core assumptions of his field. He has to step sideways or step out.

  7. I’m having a great time with the gelding I am riding right now because he’s very motivated to communicate with me. Temperamentally he’s the opposite of Pooka -both anxious and lazy, so that I have to somehow get him moving forward without hurting his feelings. On his good days, though, he tells me things through his back and the rhythm of his gait and through the reins. I can’t describe it any better than that. This horse is teaching me about balance and contact, and I’m pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

    • I think they do. The instinct to cooperate becomes an instinct to teach. (And if you watch them interact in a herd, they do a fair bit of teaching and learning from each other, too.)