Monday, October 12, 2009

Are We Herd Members?

Today is a day for some thoughts about people, horses and how we relate to one another. I've been thinking about this in light of some comments from Melissa at Paradigm Farms on my post The Pushy Horse. I really respect Melissa and what she has to say. The topic of our discussion was the question of whether, and how, herd dynamics in horses relate to the role humans should play in the human/horse interaction. I'm well aware - and I know Melissa agrees - that whatever we think about this stuff may or may not be right - only the horses know for sure! So, in the spirit of knowing that I may be wrong about all or part of this, here goes!

There are many ways to work with horses. Some people treat the horse as an object - an instrumentality - only as a means to a human end. I think it is possible to have goals - showing, for example - where the horse - its health and emotional well-being - is taken into account. But in that case the horse isn't being treated as an object, but as a partner in a joint enterprise. I think it's when horses are turned into objects to be used, and used up, for human ends that the greatest risks of mistreatment and even abuse occur. We've all seen it in the warm-up and even the show rings. Of course there are people out there who treat other people as objects, too, and that leads to similarly bad things. Humans can be very goal-directed - it's one of our strengths as a species, but it can also be a weakness when carried to excess or when emotions like anger or impatience enter in.

To oversimplify - humans are about thinking and planning and horses are about being in the moment. Horses are also made to live and interact with other horses in a herd situation. Horse herds have hierarchy, involving more dominant and more submissive horses - and they mostly seem happy with their positions in the order, once the order is established. But, to my mind, it isn't the dominance/submission aspects of inter-horse relations that really provide useful information for us humans in our interactions with horses in many situations. Yes, a dominant alpha horse can move the other horses around, and a less dominant horse will comply to avoid being kicked or bitten, but there's a lot more to horse herd dynamics that that. I also think that our interactions with horses can go beyond herd dynamics. I do think that some of the "move-away" training alphas give to subordinates can be analogized to what we do to make sure we create a safe personal space for ourselves in our work with horses, but for me that's about as far as it goes as a useful model.

I think horses have needs - for food, security and the company of others like themselves. These are overriding needs for the horse, and require that someone - a horse that may well not be the aggressive alpha - provide leadership to the herd. In the wild, there's knowledge and experience required - where to find food and water and safe shelter - and it's often an older, wise mare who fulfills that function. There's a big difference between dominance and leadership. Dominance works through force and the threat of force, and leadership works through knowledge and trust.

Horses and people are in many ways completely alien to each other - our senses operate differently and our ways of life and their requirements have led us to different places as creatures. To me, working with horses doesn't mean that we become like another horse to them - they surely know the difference - nor does it mean that we humanize them and see human ways of thinking and feeling in them. There's a gulf there between horses and humans, and to bridge that gulf, to my way of thinking, requires finding a new middle ground between horses and humans and a shared language, that, while it may draw on elements of horse or human "language", has to involve us entering into a relationship of trust and communication that is shared and which may involve a "reaching across the gap" by both of us. That's where trust comes in - there has to be mutual trust there or there's no realistic prospect of a "conversation".

It seems to me - and I may very well be mischaracterizing or over-simplifying what some people do - that a system based on simply being the horse's alpha, or controlling the body, say in a round pen, misses the point, and can also shade over into coercion if improperly used. To me, applying pressure to the horse is a means of communication - the "ask" - and not a means of requiring the horse to comply - if the horse doesn't have any real option not to comply, then the pressure becomes coercion. If the purpose of round pen work is to establish a means of communication, where there begins to be a conversation about the horse being clued in to your body language, that's well and good, but round pen work where the horse is pressured to run, and run and run, until it simply complies to remove the pressure - there's no choice there - is only coercion in a more subtle form and may do little to advance the conversation or induce trust. Horses are fear/flight animals, and certain horses, due to their temperament, may be particularly fearful or prone to flight, or prone to shutting down and checking out, and I think that at-liberty round pen work may have to be undertaken very carefully with those horses, if at all. I also think a lot of people are into making the wrong thing hard - this can be very important when dealing with things like defining your boundaries/personal space with the horse - but forget about making the right thing easy, which can be even more powerful, but can take more attention, thought and care to bring off.

I also feel a very strong need to be flexible in my approach to the horse, and to try different things until I find what works for a particular horse - this is one of the things I've really enjoyed about learning from Mark Rashid - he treats each horse and rider as an individual, and is always thinking about new and better ways to work with horses. Humans are "systematizers" - we want to have a plan, and know where we're going with it at each step. I think any "system" that prescribes specific limited ways to work with the horse, while it may provide a convenient framework, shouldn't be used in a mechanical way or a lot may be missed. Working with horses, I believe, has to be much more interactive, and requires as much, or more, attention to the interaction on the part of us humans than it does for the horse. Paying attention to what is happening, in a close, detailed way, is something humans don't really do as well as horses - horses are all attention, all the time - it's just that sometimes it's not on you! And we often aren't good listeners - to each other or to our horses - I think our horses often feel like we're so focussed on what we want to say that when the horse starts to say something it just gets interrupted and overridden - that's a good way to end up with a horse that feels there's not much point in trying to have a conversation. (Interestingly enough, one of the exercises we worked on throughout the week-long Mark Rashid clinics was not interrupting each other when we were talking - this carries over to the work with horses.)

A quote from Mark Rashid's book Whole Heart, Whole Horse:

A horse that offers us "good" behavior is simply telling us he's okay with what's going on at that particular moment in his life. A horse that's offering up "bad" behavior is telling us there's a problem, sometimes a major one . . . that needs to be addressed. A horse that is offering up "worrisome" behavior [such as bit chomping, head-shaking, pawing, tail-wringing, etc.] is telling us he doesn't understand something and is struggling with it. . . . [I]t is my belief horses don't distinguish between how they feel and how they act. So if they act a certain way, their actions are reflecting the way they feel. . . . If this is the case, then any behavior a horse offers, good, bad, or indifferent, falls under one category: the horse supplying information about how he feels. (p. 82)

How often do we humans use our bodies to directly express our feelings? Rarely, if at all - the nearest I can come to a human analogy is humans who dance and use their bodies in a deliberate way to create an emotional feeling. But for horses, I think, the expression is much more direct - I feel and I express - not, I feel, I'm thinking about expressing, I express. That intermediate step of thinking about what to do next isn't there in most cases, I think. This is where the bolt, the spin, the buck, the rear and all those other extreme behaviors come from - the emotional fuse blows (particularly if we weren't paying attention to the earlier signals the horse was giving us) and the body acts it out.

And now a few quotes from Ross Jacobs's book Old Men and Horses, which draws in large part on his work with Harry Whitney:

If a person strives to gain the most out of a relationship with a horse, they need to have a fair degree of humility. One needs to accept that the horse has a great deal to teach us and that nobody knows more about the needs of the horse than the horse. From experience, I can tell you that this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Most people have a very strong sense of superiority when it comes to animals. We believe that we are smarter and we know what's best. It's almost impossible to discard this smugness because it is so vigorously fueled by the notion of owning the animal. If I own an animal, I must be the superior. This is how most of us think whether we admit it or not. I believe when we have this attitude toward our horses we inevitably make it the horses' responsibility to obey our wishes. . . .[T]he most important job [people who have horses] have is to make the horse feel good inside himself. [H]aving horses in your life is about accepting a responsibility for their well-being on the inside and on the outside - it isn't about ownership and it isn't about what a horse owes us. (p. 49-51)

I think a large part of [the old men's] secret with horses was that they never saw any horse as other than an equal. Today trainers talk about dominance and submission, alpha horses and herd behaviour. But for the old men, there was never any talk about who was boss and who was in control. To them, working with a horse was a co-operative venture. (p. 63)

There is also a whole panoply of expressions and gestures horses use to communicate that aren't about herd rank, or dominance, or moving another horse out of the way - to limit our understanding to these few "alpha horse" things fails to understand the richness of the ways horses can communicate with each other, and with us. Just think of the glance, the movement of an ear, the wrinkle of a muzzle or forehead, the movement of a head and neck, the degree of tension in a particular muscle - all of this can tell us what the horse is feeling and thinking. Ultimately, I think if we and the horse want to enter into a true dialogue, we need to pay the horse the respect of listening to them as much as they pay us the respect of listening to us, and this requires creating a new, shared language. Think of it as two people who meet, neither having any knowledge of the other's language and having to do a task together - but we don't even have shared social structures, gestures, or thought processes in common, which makes the task even more daunting and mysterious.

I believe in having a horse that understands and abides by the personal space and safety boundaries you consistently maintain with them - this is where the herd hierarchy stuff does come in handy and my horses know and respect (yes, there's that word) these boundaries - horses are large and powerful and we are relatively weak and small and personal safety must come first. The "respect" I expect the horse to show me in connection with my personal space is a respect I have to earn through being clear and consistent about what I want - this is only fair. But I also believe in having a relationship with the horse where we enter into a true conversation, where both parties can "speak" and both parties "listen" as we go about working together on tasks. I do believe that our horses need us to provide leadership and direction in our shared tasks, but in what I do very little of this is about dominance. The best leadership is based on a developed, shared trust and confidence in one another. We need to be fully "there" for the horse in order to provide it with the leadership it needs. Another Mark Rashid quote:

[M]ost of the problems we see boil down to simple miscommunication between the horse and rider. And the vast majority of those miscommunications often boils down to the rider not giving the horse the direction it needs to perform the task properly, or . . . inadvertently taking a little mental break while the horse is still working. (p. 104)

Is it easy? No, it isn't - sometimes I envy people who train according to a "system", because it isn't as hard (for the person) and does get results of a sort, but then I consider the horse and its needs for a true dialogue and what can be achieved together with the horse, and I don't envy them any more. Results don't come as quickly as when a "system" is used, but the results you get are amazing and outstanding and lead to more and better down the road, and they "stick". For me, the work and time are worth it. I'm looking for a willing partner in a shared activity, not just a compliant horse. A final Mark Rashid quote (and may your day include horses!):

One of the reasons some folks aren't sure of the difference between a horse that is "willingly available" and one that is simply "available" is that so many horses out there today are light, but not necessarily soft. . . . The difference for me is that lightness is primarily on the outside of the horse and is mostly technique-based, while softness comes from the inside of the horse and is a combination of technique, trust, conviction, and feel that is exchanged between rider and horse and back again. Softness is a conversation and a way to be, rather than a thing to do. (p. 194)


  1. Kate, I read this post with a lot of interest. I honestly couldn't find anything in it that I did not agree with and this did not surprise me, as most of the time I nod my head in agreement as I read your thoughts. We even seemed to agree that 'respect' - or something similar to it - does come into play. Of course there is so much more to working with horses than the concept of respect or dominance and submission. If the horse doesn't feel like he has a voice when they are with people than it can't be a very pleasant relationship to be in. It is no small wonder that behavior problems would soon follow. I have enjoyed all of your posts and you really make me think about my approach with horses in a more concrete way with your topics.

    I think the best people have some sort of system that they are able to change and modify based on the individual horse they are working with. Even someone like Mark is going to have some type of system or pattern to his approach to evaluate a horse and determine the best path for that individual. It is the people who can only work a rigid system and follow x-y-z steps that really run into trouble. Dawn would be labeled as something extremely negative (like dangerous or over reactive or whatnot) by someone like that, whereas with you she connects more and more every day. A lot of, or maybe most, problem horses are really just in need of the right person that can make that connection and understand the message they are trying to convey.

    As always a great, thought provoking post.

  2. Have to laugh just a little at myself over this issue of respecting my horses. When I have to close Toby's stall gate and he is in the way, I usually say, "Excuse me, Toby, could you move a little, please?" (Or something to that effect...) I never "tell" him or demand or shove him or yell, it's always a polite request. The rest of the world would probably think me a little nutty, but he always complies.

    I tend to be just a polite to Tucker, but he will occasionally pick up a foot or make a "face" at me, at which time, I generally remind him he is being rude and that usually sets him straight.

    Silly as it seems, it's really a matter of expressing my expectations and letting the horse respond in the right way.

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks round pens are overused mediocre-at-best training aids. They certainly have their place, but like any gadget, an over reliance on them diminishes the abilities of both horse and human.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. It would be nice if more people read these quotes and worked toward a better relationship with their horses.I think if more people researched and educated themselves about basic horse needs, there would be better relationships between horse and rider. I never stop learning from my horses they are the greatest teachers.

  5. Some great thoughts--well said. I haven't formulated my ideas about this subject. I do enjoy watching their herd dynamics--I learn a lot from the way they interact--and yet, I wouldn't want to imitate them because I find some of what they do--mean--especially where food is involved.

    I've thoroughly enjoyed watching Beautiful Girl adapt to the domestic horses. I can see that she gives them her submission, but not her heart. Another mare, Cowgirl, follows the 2nd in charge, Red, and she refuses to follow the alpha male. She does, however, allow him (the alpha male) to eat first, she moves out of his way, she fears him. But if he tries to separate her from Red, he will eventually give up the effort because she will slowly escape his control. So, I can see clearly watching them all day from my window overlooking their turnout--they give submission and they give respect and those two things do NOT necessarily go hand in hand.

    It's very rare that any of my horses take advantage of me, and yet, I'm very quiet with them. I'm out in their midst several times a day because I do multiple feedings, turnouts, cleaning stalls, and riding--and that constant interaction has helped me establish boundaries better than anything I've ever tried to do by "training".

    This a very well written post and a lot to mull over as I go through my week.

  6. Kate, this is a VERY well thought out post, and I have to say the same as Melissa -- I can't find any part of it that I disagree with.

    I've been thinking about this issue myself a lot lately, since you posted on it before and started getting all those thought-provoking comments, and the conclusion I've come to is this: I think that horses WILL treat you as another herd member -- if you let them. I think that's what is going on with people who allow the disrespectful behavior -- they're not showing their horses that they have to be treated differently than a pasture mate. If we don't give them a clear set of expectations, then they will treat us in the way that they know -- the way they treat other horses.

    As for your talk about alpha -- I think this word has very different connotations for different people. I like to think that Panama looks to me for leadership, and that is to me what an alpha is -- at least, what a good alpha is. I'm not talking about a horse that is unendingly aggressive toward his pasture mates, but the one that provides true leadership to his herd.

  7. Kate...I am so glad you commented on my Journal so I could find you. This is an outstanding post! You are right on in every aspect. When I have some time, I want to come back and read your other posts. Your writing is clear and very meaningful.

    On worming...(previous post).The biggest vet clinic around here is promoting fecal testing and less worming as it has been overused and not working like it used to.

    I clean my stalls everyday and pick my paddocks and pastures as well. The fecals are clean, and I only worm 2 times a year. Overworming (in my opinion) is like poisioning on a regular basis. I did this (picking paddocks and pastures) before the vets came up with the idea of testing fecals and it really works. Kind of common sense.

  8. Lori Skoog - Thanks for visiting! I've been following the discussion about fecal testing in some of the horse mags and it certainly makes sense to me - you should treat what's there and not what's not. We also have an essentially closed barn, which makes new contamination less likely, at least for some of the worms - wouldn't help with bots, for example, but we don't have a lot of those around our barn. I think it does require keeping on top of things - we've got a variety of owners with their own worming programs and don't have one system we can put all the horses on at this point. But those are good thoughts.

  9. You asked "How often do we humans use our bodies to directly express our feelings? "

    I think we do it all the time; it's just fairly subtle. It's quite hard to keep your body from expressing the emotions you're feeling, actually. When you get scared, you tend to fold up over your core. When you're mad, you tense up. It's harder to consciously figure out what we're seeing, but we instinctively read other humans' body language all the time.

    Great post!

  10. Great post. As a 'human' communication coach I think we could almost uniformly substitute the word 'person' for the word 'horse' in this post and just let it stand.

    I also agree with these thoughts for my work with horses.


  11. Kate,
    A horsewoman after my own heart.
    I feel and think these thoughts everyday with my
    horses. You have written them down eloquently(?)!
    Partnership is a two way street.
    It must be for a successful relationship, horse or human! The rewards to hearing the horse are immense. Thanx for posting this.
    BTW I have another awesome book for you to read.

  12. Kate, as always good words! I agree with Funder though as I think we express ourselves instantly most of the time it's just that we learn how to hide it and we teach how to hide it to our kids from a young age :-(
    I think some horses have learned it too, knowing when to keep quiet and still instead of going with the urge of galloping off.
    Whilst I'm not a believer in the herd dynamics stuff because there are too many non-herd things going on in most horses lives, I think you're right about communication. I so want to be a better listener to my horses.

  13. Kate, I really enjoyed this post. After the Bluebonnet Horse Expo this weekend, I have put a lot of thought into the amount of "pressure" a trainer uses to get a desired response. We had several trainers there, all with varying degrees of how forcefully they would ask a horse to move away one direction or the other, and in all cases, I thought, I would use even less pressure. I also had the privelege of watching a Frank Bell certified trainer work with my foster horse last week, and she uses even less pressure (where pressure is defined as not the hold on the rope, but how much fuss you make to ask a horse for something). I naturally use even less, and seem more keen on noticing when I think my foster horse was getting a little stressed. She did great for the trainer, but I think I am even more relaxed around her when I work with her. Now, the trainer suggested to me that I use more "energy", and in some cases, I think she's right. But other time, I think it's the smallest signal possible that works the best.

    Thanks for the awesome blog!


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