Equine Behavior: The Fence Runner

I saw this post over a year ago – in a question and answer type format – from a well-known equine trainer residing and working in Europe. I will leave names out as I have no desire to disparage anyone personally; my intent in this article is to point out a very small part of the enormous amount of misconceptions regarding equine behavior and the resulting completely inappropriate “fixes” that many people manage to come up with. This is just one of many examples across a variety of behavioral “issues”. It has been my observation that numerous horse owners – at all levels of experience – tend to look to so-called professionals for these “corrections” to their horse’s behavior. Unfortunately far too many even go so far as to idolize their chosen professional horse “guru”, becoming blinded to the animal that is actually standing in front of them. Before you say “I’m not one of those people”, please look carefully in the mirror. I almost once was years ago and I know how easily it can happen, especially when you are either or both, at your wit’s end or a newcomer to the world of horses (which in actuality, many experienced individuals are truly ‘newcomers’ from the horse’s perspective).

The issue presented was this (paraphrased unless indicated as a direct quote):
Owner had gotten a new horse (a mare) three to four months prior to writing to ask for help from the trainer. It was stated that she was “having real problems” when turning the horse out during the day. [Please note it is not specifically stated from where the mare was turned out but given horse keeping practices in this particular European country, as well as indications later in her post, it is quite likely the mare was stalled at least at night, and perhaps some during the day.] The owner went on to say that the mare did not seem to settle down during her time outside and spent the entire time walking and/or galloping up and down the fence line; she perceived the mare to be “unhappy” not to mention the gully along the fence line that had become two feet deep in parts [which could be a danger to the horse]. The owner indicated they had tried the mare “in beside another horse which made no difference”. It is assumed, although not specifically indicated, that this means there was a fence between the two horses.

The trainer’s reply was the requisite acknowledgement of this being a “difficult situation” and causing both the owner and the mare “a great deal of stress”. He went on to state that the mare’s behavior served a purpose and that she was not “just” acting “crazy”, stating that the behavioral display of fence running was a coping mechanism for stress. He went on to say that the fence was what was preventing her from “completing a normal behavioral pattern”, which in this case amounted to her not being able to leave the field and go someplace where she felt more comfortable, according to the trainer. He then falls into the typical conditioning paradigm suggesting that the owner going to the mare when the mare is fence running did nothing but reinforce that behavior. He further stated that this was a complicated behavioral problem with many potential causes. It was suggested that the owner become a “behavioral detective” investigating all aspects of the mare’s environment: how does she behave when stabled, what was her behavior prior to her current home and did she display this same behavior there, what is her current diet, is she experiencing any pain [referring only to somatic, not emotional pain], does she have any current medical conditions. One of the particularly interesting questions the trainer suggests is – where would the mare go if left to her own devices? Once these questions (and a few others) are answered, the trainer indicates he would recommend placing the mare where she appeared to feel comfortable, even if that meant keeping her stabled. He further suggests that he would then recommend behavioral shaping (i.e. operant conditioning) and desensitization plans, the goal of which (not specifically stated in so many words) would be to suppress the reactive behavioral display of fence running. He does also suggest investigating the use of homeopathy, herbals, and/or flower essences as temporary palliative measures.

I have followed the work of this trainer off and on for several years, out of curiosity and a desire to understand the prevailing behaviorism view if nothing else. He advertises himself as a trainer who uses the “practical application of the science of behavior”. That basically translates into not using physically aggressive methods more than “necessary” and relying heavily on behavioral conditioning (shaping; stimulus/response); he is only one of many that fall into this or similar category, collectively characterized by the so-called term of “natural horsemanship” (aka, NH), or even “beyond natural horsemanship”, as some like to refer to it for a marketing twist. Yet not only do the two sides of equine training (traditional vs “natural”) each argue their side is best, we can also find within various NH camps argument of which specific behavioral modification application obtains the best results. And therein lies the issue  nothing is being done to recognize the primary underlying issue as viewed from the horse’s way of seeing, and every approach seeks to “fit” the horse into a human lifestyle so that the horse presents no overt issues during any type of equestrian activity (including the training session itself). Curiously, this false dichotomy with the horse world is not unlike many other false dichotomies involving the natural world – including that of “integrative medicine” .(1)

Horses are a highly social species and, as in many social species, mares are the ones that provide more of the nurturing aspect relative to the stallion (this is not to say stallions do not possess nurturing behavioral aspects). And so we may find that mares tend to be more reactive in displaying their dislikes of being placed in a dysfunctional situation than a gelding perhaps would be.(2) While males certainly do so as well, mares form especially close attachments and it can become very difficult on them to be moved from one home to another; this is something that many people do not seem to recognize. It is my position that we should not try to mold and shape (i.e. condition) the horse’s behavior to what we want it to be, but instead to try to understand it from the horse’s perspective and then provide the appropriate environment that would sustain and nurture a healthy behavioral response based upon the horse’s cognizant relationship with all aspects of that environment.

The two primary issues I see with this situation as described above is that the horse is stalled at least part of the day and she is not allowed time with conspecifics. Many times when a new horse is brought into an existing group, the owner/manager is wary of the potential for aggression between the new member and the existing ones. Even though I heartily disagree with horses changing hands like they are nothing more than a paper commodity (which unfortunately that is all they are for many people), it does happen and occasionally there are legitimate reasons for doing so within a domestic situation. It would be hoped that the existing group already enjoyed as appropriate of a lifestyle as domesticity can allow, and it would certainly be appropriate to physically but not visually separate the newcomer from the existing group for an initial short period of time. However, this separation should be at pasture or at least with freedom to enter and leave a barn or shed at will. How long this separation time should be will likely be dependent upon the newcomer’s previous environment and experiences there. Keeping the newcomer in a stall for even part of the day will serve only to exacerbate any amount of stress she is already experiencing from being moved to a new home. Certainly some interventions with homeopathics, essential oils, and/or flower essences would help ease the transition; this is not something I look upon as palliative but can actually help in removing fears and other debilitating emotions; however, please understand that an appropriate environment is of utmost and first concern (and that includes a species appropriate diet). Under this scenario, depending upon the gender makeup of the existing group and assuming no abnormal resource pressures, physically moving a new mare into it would likely generate only a short display of physical aggression with little if any bodily harm; and this would be a completely normal reaction within these circumstances.

Unfortunately this kind of scenario seldom exists. Most horse owners and managers hold onto the existing false paradigms of dominance and hierarchy within equine groups, and thus will segregate group members based upon not just incorrect behavioristic assumptions but will allow convenience to dictate make-up of group members, especially in boarding situations. Dominance and hierarchical behaviors are resource based behaviors and manifest themselves only when it comes to horses kept in a situation in which the numbers are too great for the space allowed; these kinds of behaviors do not exist in the wild (except in situations of overcrowding and range mismanagement) and the “alpha mare” concept is a completely false one. Behavioral “problems” such as that describe above, and including other stereotypies, will continue so long as we view horses as objects of use and as “dumb” animals that respond to dominance and conditioning. It is not in the least a popular position to state that no horse (or any animal) should be used as a device toward human centric gain – but that is exactly what I am advocating. Until we are able to completely view the horse as a cognizant, sentient being instead of a means to an end, these kinds of aberrant behaviors will perpetuate. Many people profess to “love” their horse, yet they do not hesitate to replace that animal when s/he no longer fits the human’s needs, or to treat the horse inappropriately for the species’ needs. All animals are part of our human universe – they are simply “other nations”, to borrow from a favorite quote of mine by Henry Beston. The current overriding philosophical view of how an animal interacts with his environment is one in which the animal and the environment are two separate organisms. They are not; that cannot be stressed enough. For many years some researchers have held the concept that humans and animals are biologically integrated with their environment; the nervous system is not a separate system per se, but exists as such only when bound up by its environment.(3) Indeed, humans and animals themselves are biologically integrated if we view life forms from with a science of holism. This is a fundamental basis of the overarching concept of the parts-within-a-unity that I adhere to and teach, and is not a new concept, just a very little recognized one. It is a conceptual “systems view”(4) of life forms that also considers that species’ morphology.

(1) Integrative medicine theoretically integrates conventional/western medicine with natural/eastern medicine; this is a false concept based upon a lack of understanding what true disease is.

(2) Dysfunctional is defined here as a biological term simply meaning that an equine ‘herd’ can only be defined as one that is biologically correct within nature – made up of a stallion, a certain number of mares, and the resulting foals living in a species appropriate environment (meaning, not a restricted one). Almost all domestic horse groups can be defined as biologically dysfunctional. This is not to be construed as necessarily an impenetrable barrier but as a place from which to begin to understand the true nature of the horse. This is also not intended to say that a gelding cannot suffer as much emotionally as a mare can when moved from one home to another; and perhaps it is that mares may be moved around more than stallions or even geldings.

(3) Järvilehto, T., 1998. The theory of the organism-environment system: I. Description of the theory. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33 (4), 321–334.

(4) This phrase, “systems view” (of life) borrows from the title of the book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[This article was first written for and published in the Aug 2014 newsletter of the American Council of Animal Naturopathy; it can also be found here on the ACAN blog.]

Animal “Whisperers”

What is wrong with this picture? What is wrong is that this is a completely human centric, human dominated way to approach an animal. It comes from an ego-centered need to control. It is not derived from an understanding of the species. For many people, this is a conscious, desired way of interacting with other species (and even with other humans); and for others it is simply because they have never opened their eyes to see another way. To watch this, one sees a condescending attitude toward the woman, and yet she seems in complete awe of these two, not unlike my memories of young girls swooning over the Beatles (ok…I probably did that part too -)). And this same condescending attitude carries over to interaction with the animals (although this intro video clip does not go so far as to work with the animals – it just leaves you with the feeling that these two animal “gods” will “fix” everything).

Can we live and interact with animals without the need for this kind of domineering approach? Absolutely. The “alpha horse” and “pack leader dog” theories were invalidated quite a number of years ago. Apparently not very many people got the message.  Jose Schoorl put it this way:  “This is so not 2013!”  We do not need to resort to these kinds of emotionally and mentally (and sometimes physically) abusive methods.  Animals communicate – they do it all the time.  We humans have to learn to SHUT UP once in a while and listen.  There is no “whispering” to Milan’s & Parelli’s methods.  With Parelli’s (and others) methods, yes, you typically get a submissive horse that will do “tricks” for you; you get a horse that will obey your commands.  You get a horse that has no depth to the eyes – the soul is lost, the feelings shut down.  It’s called learned helplessness – a recognized psychological disorder.  That is at least until you meet that one horse in a thousand or more that is very strong willed and doesn’t submit as easily.  Then you have to ramp up the physical part; then you get into a fight; then the human gets hurt…then the horse is labeled “crazy” and disposed of.

Learn the participative approach.  Learn to SEE the phenomena that exists between you and the animal – that is where the relationship is.  It is not in you, it is not in the animal – it is that energetic space in between.  It is the dynamic that flows between two beings – of any species.


Photo credit:  LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: Host Cesar Millan and Pat Parelli pose for a picture.  (Photo credit  © Paul Coneys / MPH – Emery/Sumner Joint Venture)


Abuse in Training: Learned Helplessness

We had a discussion surrounding this video on the Equine Zooanthropology group I belong to, and I wanted to post it here for any further discussion and to call attention to it.  This video by a well-known “natural horsemanship” trainer is a prime example of both so-called natural horsemanship (NH) techniques and learned helplessness in horses.  Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape.  Sooner or later, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.  Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this condition will prevent any attempt to escape.

That unfortunately is the ultimate goal of the NH…a training methodology that has been lauded as safe, gentle, and natural for horses.  It is none of those.  It is every bit as abusive as blatant physical abuse…and perhaps even more so as this has long-term emotional affects.  It does not take someone trained in behavior science to see this.

I am not singling this person out for attack – he is nothing more than a representative example of many who adhere to this type of training philosophy (although I’m sure his ego is big enough he would say he is quite different…)

We bring horses into our world, the least we can do is respect them as sentient, biocentric beings, which this man – and many others like him – is doing neither.


It’s been known for decades that animals such as chimpanzees seek out medicinal herbs to treat their diseases. But in recent years, the list of animal pharmacists has grown much longer, and it now appears that the practice of animal self-medication is a lot more widespread than previously thought, according to ecologists.  Source:  U of Michigan, Apr 11, 2013

Read Full Article Here

Zoopharmacognosy is a term used to describe the process by which non-human animals self-medicate.  In the domestic equine world this is a very difficult thing for the horse to accomplish as his world is typically very manipulated.  However horses in a natural environment are perfectly capable of doing this.  Daniel Janzen first observed this behavior in various wild animal species in 1978.  It is an important behavior function for parasite control and general health – the domestic horse can be kept in such an environment!

Applied zoopharmacognosy can be done on a case-by-case basis, using plant extracts and/or essential oils.  Carolyn Ingraham in the UK has been instrumental in bringing a scientific approach to this discipline.

The book, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them, by Cindy Engel is a good read on this subject.

Zoopharmacognosy-Self Medication in Wild Animals-Raman et al

Metacognition in Non-Human Primates

Humans’ closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, have the ability to “think about thinking” – what is called “metacognition,” according to new research by scientists at Georgia State University and the University at Buffalo.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-04-metacognition-ability-limited-humans.html#jCp

Metacognition:  Ability to ‘Think About Thinking’ Not Limited to Humans

Humans’ closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, have the ability to “think about thinking” – what is called “metacognition,” according to new research by scientists at Georgia State University and the University at Buffalo.

Read Article Here


Humans’ closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, have the ability to “think about thinking” – what is called “metacognition,” according to new research by scientists at Georgia State University and the University at Buffalo.Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-04-metacognition-ability-limited-humans.html#jCp