(Archive from BethBehaviourist.co.uk 16/06/2015)
Beth Gibbons MSc
Similar questions are often batted about in my head. Rather than taking so much time to make sure every aspect of training is just right, why don’t I just get on and ride the damn horse? If I used enough force and tenacity then I could just make it happen. Theoretically, let’s imagine that the horse wasn’t comfortable with being ridden out alone on roads. Many would make it happen quite readily there and then, while I would come back to basics and steadily progress. I acknowledge that many approaches and trainers might offer a ‘quick fix’, yielding seemingly rapid results. In this case then why are my standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of horse training so steadfast? Recently I have been considering in a lot of detail the reasons why I uphold such strong morals, beliefs and ethics when it comes to horse training, and in this very personal article I would like to explore and share them with you.
When I was growing up unfortunately our home life was extremely stressful and traumatic. We suffered years of domestic abuse at the hands of a man, the home was no longer a place where we felt safe but a place to be feared. Plagued with uncertainty and unpredictability life was frightening and there was nothing that we could do but endure what happened. There seemed to be no escape and no end.
Throughout this period going to see the horses became an escape, the yard was our sanctuary. In these hard times this oasis of calm and happiness was a lifeline and gave us something to hold onto. However, when you can identify with feelings of terror at the hands of another parallels began to emerge when we watched the way horses were handled, trained and treated. Like us, their life was unpredictable, terrifying and they had no control over it.
Quite often ugly patterns in abuse occur, the victim later becomes the abuser in a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy, continuing the suffering. It takes someone even stronger to break the cycle, to stand up and acknowledge that it is wrong and endeavour to not let it continue. Eventually life became much better for us and the horrors of the past became just bad memories. Due to this experience the way that we interacted with horses changed too, we vowed that they should never feel how we felt for someone else’s gain. Nothing should. And there began a lifelong journey to pursue kinder, more ethical methods of communicating with the animals that had been our saviours.
There are many people who believe that the human species are supreme to all other species; more intelligent and successful. Indeed we are the only species to build space craft or develop such diverse cultures. We have a highly developed cortex allowing us to articulate complex spoken language, problem solve and rationalise. However, we are not as well adapted to the varied habitats as the animals which inhabit them. We are no better at living in water than a fish, we are no better at running than a dog, at climbing than a squirrel. You see where I am coming from, we are not ‘better’, we simply evolved differently for a different niche. We do not have the incredibly developed senses of smell, sight and hearing that the horse possess, and in fact there’s a whole soundscape we cannot hear and colours we’re incapable of imagining. The human is blind to senses such as the electronic fields, echo-location and pheromones, we don’t have the added perception of whiskers or communicate on as many levels as other organisms.
Anthropocentrism is the belief that man is supreme to other species and that the world revolves around him. I believe that we are all equal, all perfectly adapted to the habitat that we evolved in. For this reason I do not believe that humans have the right to cause suffering to others for their own gain, be that other people or animals. Mammals are so remarkably similar to us that it would be reductionist to believe that they did not share a lot of our basic emotions and feelings. “All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals” (Peter Singer). I believe everything should have the right to happiness, to a pain and fear free existence, to themselves. I feel privileged that I get to share my life with horses and do not view them as an object or possession or a right. When I watch them grazing in the field I think ‘I owe you this happiness’ for keeping them confined as my own, not ‘you owe me’.
The alternative of offering a ‘quick, fast fix’ and ‘rapid results’ for me is not an alternative at all. In order to get these results the process is usually harsh and motivated by fear or pain. Making it happen in this manner creates a huge amount of stress for the animal involved, it can’t happen any other way! Processes such as flooding, when the individual cannot escape a scary stimulus and so stops trying to, are often used. Think of it in this context: you are terrified of tarantulas but we want you to not be, fast! There is no way that your mind can make the necessary adjustments and learning to change ‘tarantulas are terrifying’ into ‘tarantulas are really nice’ in an hour, it’s not physically possible. So what we do is cover you in tarantulas and hold you down until you stop screaming and trying to escape, maybe even hit you for these futile attempts. You eventually stop screaming and thrashing around on the ground- are you less scared?
An alternative approach would be to gradually expose you to tarantulas, first a photograph, then one in a box across the room, giving you time and chance to adjust. Which method would you choose? It is the same with our horses.
This cause has become my life’s mission. Not only to help horses and give them the voice which they lack, but also to empower people. By educating people about more ethical and appropriate ways of keeping, managing and dealing with horses I am giving them an alternative to the unacceptable norm. In applying the latest scientific research and making this accessible I am providing the tools with which they can challenge the current practises and reasoning. By constantly developing the kindest and most effective reward based training methods I am advancing the way in which people communicate with their horses and making it a two way conversation. All of this information gives you the power to uphold and be true to your own morals, ethics and beliefs and not simply be bullied into old, outdated, abusive methods.
If you too believe that no animal should suffer at the hands of another, and that pain, force and fear no longer has any place in horse training then together we can forge a new path. We can be the voice that they lack, empower people with education and challenge unethical practices. Because no person has the right to make any other individual suffer for their own gain. No individual should feel like I did as a child.