Are Horse Starting Competitions Ethical?
Epona TV founder Julie Taylor and equine Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Don Höglund discussJulie Taylor says…
Think about a good, professional horse trainer you know. Imagine calling that person on the phone and telling them you have a completely green horse you’d like them to back for you. Imagine asking them how long they think it’s going to take. What are they going to say? I’m willing to bet that the vast majority will say something like this: “I don’t know. It depends on your horse.”
Great horsemen are the ones who are able to read a horse to see what he is capable of and when he is ready for the next step of his education. Good horsemanship is about knowing when to ask for more and when to let it be. Timing is everything - both in terms of the timing of the individual pressure and release and timing as in the long term planning and execution of a horse’s education. The first kind of timing - the timing of pressure and release - you can display in a colt starting competition, although the pressures you’ll be applying will be stronger and the stress levels higher than if you had been training at home. The horse will not be calm, so the audience will learn nothing about what horses are supposed to look like during backing. More likely, the horses will become still with fright, resigned, and the audience will confuse this state with true calm. Teaching people that a deeply scared animal is in fact a happy and safe animal is not only fraudulent, it’s dangerous because such an animal, in the hands of an average horse person, is an accident waiting to happen.
Timing is also about planning the horse’s progress over weeks and months of careful training - this aspect is completely removed from the equation when a horse has to be started over a couple of days. Indeed, colt starting competitors are often heard saying, “Of course, I’d spend more time on this if this were a horse I had in training at home.” To me, that says it all. The trainers are not showing the audience the best way they know of training a horse. They are only able to show the audience the basic mechanics of pressure and release, which is a fairly small part of the picture.
Given that colt starting competitions can never be truly educational, what is the justification for having them at all? What makes it okay to frighten an animal, only to entertain an audience? These events are no good for the horses because they are backed faster and with more fear and pressure than if they had been in familiar surroundings with more time available. They are also no good for the spectators because they are misinformed about equine body language and the best practice principles of training, which is likely to cause suffering to their own horses and danger to themselves. So for whose sake are these events staged? You do the math.
Don Höglund MS, DVM, says...
Humane, safe, and efficient horse handlers always observe first; what horse, what need, and what behaviour. ‘Three-day Horse Challenges’ are definitely what their name implies: challenging to the horse and the handler. The 100 day horse competitions allow a more appropriate time frame for empowering the human and animal interactions.
The nearly 6,000 year relationship of humans with horses has established traditional equestrian techniques (Olsen, 1998). Recently, a claim has been made that a late twentieth-century revolution in horsemanship has coincided with an evolution in the role horses play in human life (Miller, Lamb, 2005). The horse is now said to be a vehicle for self-improvement and self-titled ‘clinicians’ are prescribing building blocks in neuropsychology, qualitative communication, leadership, and even justice as the basis for this purported “Revolution In Horsemanship” (Miller, Lamb, 2005). Although some horse handling methods proposed by the clinicians of the revolution are likely more humane and some are no-doubt effective, many of the recent emotive neuropsychological declarations prescribed by a few new-age horse clinicians have by-passed the research findings of prevailing psychologists, who developed the fundamentals of learning theory (McGreevy, 2009).
Learning theory has established a set of guidelines based on the science of how animals acquire information that updates their behaviour. Understanding how animals learn should be the first priority of animal handlers. When omitted, horses face inconsistent stimulus from the same handler or between handlers, which can contribute to enduring conflict behaviours.
Modern horse training happens through an anthropomorphic framework. Entire philosophies on human and livestock interaction have relied on interpreting animal behaviour in the context of human behaviour. There is lack of current evidence that animals understand their training, human intention, or experience human motivations. This is not a denial of conscious awareness in animals. It is a rally for veterinarians, animal scientists, and horse handlers not to invoke human conscious feelings in a hypothetical attempt to explain animal behavioural reactions. Though humans obviously experience introspection, thoughts, and something termed emotion, it is unknowable if animals do. The overarching objective of this comment is to remove any hint of mystery or magic from the science and art of horse handling.
So called common sense, every day, emotion-driven anthropomorphic notions widely believed to ‘explain’ behaviour are almost always short summary terms or descriptors for the very classes or domains of behaviour they purport to explain (Gosling, 2000). The ideology behind anthropomorphism, psychological pressure and release philosophy, and the incorporation of aversive stimulus in horse training programs have created a divide between the science of behaviour and the “whispering” applications of horse training.
Strong, positive contributions to the appropriate management of animal behaviour demands precise and unambiguous technique and language. Anthropomorphisms and trending horse training concepts regarding horse behaviour, temperament, and animal chasing techniques have ignored learning theory developed by credible modern psychologists. Equine well-being and the practical power of science are enhanced and strengthened by definitive and logical education instead of the proliferation of misinformation and contradictions. As Professor Paul McGreevy summarises, [“…there is an abiding need to demystify traditional horse training jargon and couch the following discussion in the language of learning theory.”]
Every interaction in any environment involving handlers and the horse creates an opportunity for learning. In short, horse handling of every kind and manner, with the likely exception of fatigue and drug interference with memory, involves learning.
It takes time to develop a stable relationship with the horse. Short competitions can lead audiences of enthusiastic youth into believing that horse handling should happen quickly. Nonetheless, eliminating horse handling demonstrations altogether provides for an equine public with less access to knowledgeable, humane horse handlers. I prefer to take the time necessary to understand how horses learn before merely jumping headlong into short duration, speed training scenarios. It is safer, more humane, and can be efficient.
ABOUT JULIE Julie Taylor was born in 1977 and worked as a freelance lifestyle and equestrian journalist before co-founding Epona.tv in 2007. She is also qualified in equine body work. Julie resides 45 minutes outside Copenhagen with her husband, two children, three Danish Warmblood horses, a border collie and three elderly cats. Epona.tv is an independent online TV channel. “We’re interested in horses in their own right. Not as sports props or extensions of our egos, but as the living, breathing, fun and fascinating creatures that they are,” says Julie. www.epona.tv
ABOUT DON Don Höglund MS, DVM, is Adjunct Associate Professor teaching applied animal behaviour and equine handling at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He officiated the handling of more than 20,000 free-roaming horses and was on the production team of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Paris, France, for The Walt Disney Company. Dr Höglund owns and operates Dairystockmanship.com and presents low-distress stock handling at conventions and farms. He is also the author of the best-selling non-fiction book ‘Nobody’s Horses.’