On Science and Horses

I love science. I always have. We owe many great things in our lives to science. I was lucky to have a riding mentor who devoured what science he could find on anatomy and biomechanics. But when someone talks about “science based” training methods, I just shake my head. If there is one place where science has long let us down, it is in regard to our animal companions. Dogs have been getting increasing attention over the past few years, but only now are they even beginning to tap into equine behavior in any meaningful way – and they are very far from arriving at any meaningful findings that could add up to a training method.

I appreciate the thinking behind those who believe their training is based upon science – I like knowing that what I am doing has a sound and proven basis. However, I find two flaws in this approach. The first is that history is filled with things that humans were successfully doing that science only later showed why those things were successful. I recently heard of a pregnancy detection method that was thousands of years old, involving urinating on grains. More recent scientific experimentation found that it is an accurate measure of pregnancy – but the Ancient Egyptians didn’t need to have a scientist tell them why. It just worked, so they used it. One could argue that someone in Ancient Egypt experimented along the way, and proved cause and effect, in a rather scientific way. I would agree – but that would hold true of much of human history, including horse training.

Photo of Noble's face
Only recently has science shown any interest in what is going on behind that gaze

The other issue I take with believing in “science based” training is that science is rather cold and clinical. Take the concept of operant conditioning, with its quadrants of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. Many people who tout their method as science based are focused on positive reinforcement (R+) as their method. While admirable, it has some pretty big limitations when you are sitting on a large animal moving at any speed. I have yet to find anyone who uses R+ alone to develop a performance horse. That brings us to the reality that the quadrants of operant conditioning were being used in animal training long before they were defined by the likes of B.F. Skinner. But they were applied, for better or worse, in a far more organic way than I see with too many who tout their R+ methods.

Image source ResearchGate

Science has a way, by necessity, of reducing everything into rather ‘clinical’ terms. The best science must operate this way, in order to ensure results are not skewed by personal beliefs. Unfortunately, that led to a “it can’t be true unless science has proven it” mentality with many. Since animals cannot speak in a way that we can understand, and since it suited scientists to view them mechanically, this led to a dismissal (until very recently) of animals having thoughts or emotions. It is in this realm that I have my biggest divide with science.

I grew up at a research university. The leading veterinary school (off and on throughout my lifetime) is housed at this university. Being in the horseworld in this community meant that everyone I knew was student, staff, or faculty of the university – most frequently in animal science/behavior or veterinary medicine. Throughout my childhood and well into my adult life, any time I spoke of my horse’s thought process or emotions I was told this was in my imagination. Horses were not known to think, and animals certainly were not known to have emotions.

In the realm of animals, scientists forgot one major principle – if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it is most likely a duck. Jane Goodall met with much derision in the science community when she began to speak of the chimps she observed as being happy, angry, or grieving. Yet, growing up watching the films of her work, it seemed obvious to me that’s exactly what was going on. Growing up around horses I saw all range of emotions in them. I watched them learn by observation – something science denied possible, until it recently ‘proved’ it, yet any truly observant horseman could have told you long ago.

I am truly appreciative that horses are finally getting scientific attention in something other than how to keep them functional for human use. But I cannot greet as any great breakthrough that they have friends, recognize our emotional state by facial expression, and try to communicate with us (as long as we listen and respond). I have known all of those things for over four decades – and no one can now tell me that I did not know them until science told me. Truly great scientists are, first and foremost, great observers. Truly great horseman have always been the same.

Noble showing me where his halter is hung
Did I really need science to confirm that Noble is communicating something to me?

Sadly, there is still much to be skeptical about with modern equine science. I have seen many studies related to riding, such as bit pressure, that do not take into account the fact that modern riding is very flawed. If you accept that winning Dressage movements are your baseline for a study, you are starting with a flawed baseline, and the resulting findings will be suspect. This is especially true if you start with horses already under saddle, as it is difficult to find horses who are not already traveling behind the vertical and in a flawed manor. I look forward to studies that start with fresh horses and ensure that classically trained equestrians are included. (I was recently told of one that I will share if I can locate it.)

One refuge for the science minded is the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). Their members are largely focused on riding and training topics, and some good information comes out through their conferences and publications. However, one does not need to await their findings in order to develop good riding and training practices. History has preserved for us many methods that are humane, effective, and time tested. We have only to find the common notes that are in those texts, focus on what resonates as kind, and use the horse as our guide. It takes only a good observer, not a scientist, to recognize when your method is well received by the horse and when it is not. Sadly, too many of us listen to humans better than we listen to our horses.

So, by all means listen to science. Just keep in mind that science is made up of many disparate parts that evolve over time. The picture is never complete, nor is it ever prescriptive, as any good scientist will tell you. It is still left to you to try to put the pieces together for yourself. But remember that science is late to the party on some things, so don’t be surprised if what they ‘discover’ is already known by those of us who spend our lives ‘studying’ horses and our counterparts from centuries past.

Ultimately, working with horses is about developing relationships and, as a friend recently pointed out, science has yet to tell us how to do that.

5 replies

  1. I wish more people were aware of ISES and how open and friendly it is to all people – not just academics.

    I was devastated when the conference this year was postponed because I was intending to submit my research for presentation. Next year I guess!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes they are SO worth going to. I had to miss last year though because I was teaching in place of my colleague who was going to present – the northern hemisphere dates never line up well with the southern hemisphere term dates which is a never ending issue. But next year would be super and if you do make it I would love to meet you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ISES is a first baby step in looking for sound means of horse keeping and handling, but they have a LONG way to go. Science is only as good as the questions being asked and that includes questioning our most basic assumptions.
    For example, an ISES forum that addressed how horses can interact freely with each other as they do in nature divided the questions by age and gender entirely ignoring the whole herd dynamic of mixed ages and gender. Stallions that live with a herd are quite gentlemanly. Human studies have shown that people kept in isolation lose the ability to moderate their stress reactions and can develop psychosis. Yet we label stallions as savage according to our human values… even tho we cause the problems when we make sure spend their lives isolated in a box!
    I started blogging on my horse experiences after I got blacklisted in an equine behavior discussion group for questioning the ethics of putting horses in Skinner isolation boxes (stalls) and documenting their self stimulating behaviors. I pointed out that we already know horses that are free to move and socialize rarely start weaving, cribbing or wind-sucking. I said the question we should be asking is how can we keep horses in a way that respects the Five Freedoms so they do not develop ‘vices’.
    Questioning the values of those running the forum made me an undesirable. If I was a horse, I am sure they would have sent me off to the auction without a moments hesitation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Angelo Telatin once said that our studies of horses would be flawed until we had a horse centric approach. It’s getting better, but is still in its infancy, for sure! Just the studies centered on riding are already flawed because they generally start with average riders, so bit pressure, seats, etc. are already flawed, so you cannot even get a baseline. And behavioral studies always seem to start with one bias or another, as those you point out. So, I am encouraged by bits and pieces … but there is a long way to go before science is any kind of a reliable guide.

      Liked by 1 person

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