Skinnerisms and Killer Horses

  • If you want become aware of your own frozen vortices of thought,
  • Shainberg recommends you pay close attention to the way you behave in conversation.
  • When people with set beliefs converse with others,
  • they try to justify their identities by espousing and defending their opinions.
  • The judgments seldom change as a result of any new information they encounter,
  • and they show little interest in allowing any real conversational interaction to take place.
  • A person who is open to the flowing nature of consciousness is more willing to see
  • the frozen conditions of the relationship imposed by such vortices of thought.
  • They are committed to exploring conversational interaction,
  • rather than endlessly repeating a static litany of opinions.
  • Thanks to Ancephaleaosis (click here)

I have rescued and retrained a number of horses labeled as  ‘killer’ horses, only one step from the slaughter-house because they have been decreed too dangerous to live. What I have found is that most of them are frightened, in pain, and confused.  Those are the easy ones.  Once they are healthy and understand what people want, they become fine upstanding citizens of the human/equine community. The difficult ones, the exceptions, are those horses who have learned that the human/horse conversation is based on punishment and reward.  They have learned people will hurt them if they don’t figure out what obscure thing the human wants, so they apply the same dynamic to the humans. They will hurt people who don’t do what they, the horse, wants.

These are the horses who make the most exceptional mounts


they are driven to converse with the humans.

Some of my ‘killer’ horses have decided that their job is to educate people in how to communicate with horses and  have become  the best and safest  school masters I have had the privilege to work with. Others become one person horses, and will never generalize that human beings are kind, consistent, or trustworthy. But, since I do a lot of rescue and rehabilitation, those horses have become my partners in re-schooling  traumatized horses.

My approach also has history behind it. For over two thousand years, the finest light cavalry in the world has ridden without reins. When the chips are down and people lives depend on their horses, they base their relationship on trust. So when I came across an online  discussion recently about a study that resulted in no discernible differences between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’  reinforcement in horse training I just had to put in my two cents worth.  The ‘garbage in, garbage out’ premise implies that if you don’t get meaningful data from your experiment, the first place to look at is your hypothetical framework.

I started out by suggesting that perhaps the study had not  considered what horses actually perceive as positive or negative reinforcement, and that the results were meaningless because the study was fundamentally flawed. This was not well received by the behavioral scientists in the group. Apparently my ignorance of the true definition of  ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ that was the crux of the problem. The definitions offered of positive and  negative included:

  1. Positive as presence and negative as absence of a stimuli
  2. Positive as release and negative as pressure
  3. Positive as pleasure and negative as pain
  4. Positive as reward and negative as punishment
  5. Positive as good and negative as evil

I was impressed by the amorphous quality and number of definitions, and had even more questions including:

  1. How did the researchers know that the horses they worked were aware of the meaning invested by the researchers in the behavior the researchers labeled as stimuli?
  2. Had they considered that the horses might be responding to other input such as the researcher’s body language and emotional states?
  3. The physiology of the perception of pain and pleasure is complex and very much dependent on both circumstance and interpretation. How did they know what horses perceive as pain/pleasure?
  4. How did they decide what horses perceive as reward/punishment and were they aware of their own value judgements?
  5. Had they considered that studying horses that were isolated in a stall 22+ hours a day could distort their results?
  6. Had they considered the effect of their cultural context of good/evil on their value judgements and their hypothesis?

Horses do perceive the world very differently from humans, but instead of exploring that difference, the researchers leapt into defining the subjective attitude of the animals:

  1. Negative attitudes are fearful of
  2. Neutral attitudes are not reacting to, and
  3. Positive attitudes are cooperative with the researchers

Horses reduced to submission by pain and fear may tolerate a person on their back. But when the opportunity or need arises, they will not hesitate to dump their rider and take care of whatever the horse feels is important business. This is when most rider injuries occur (click here for instructions on how to get off a moving horse). Horses who consider their riders friends and allies that have agreed on a mutual task together will go to great lengths to keep their rider on their back. So my questions included:

  1. Is fear either effective or ethical motivation for training horses to work with people?
  2. Is labeling a behavior a ‘neutral’ attitude’ actually using a euphemism for  learned helplessness? (click here)
  3. Does cooperation arising out of coercion through fear actually result in a sound, healthy, reliable mount performing at its best?
  4. Would abuser/victim be a more useful and/or accurate description of most horse training dynamics than predator/prey given the number of ‘natural’ horsemen who have suffered severe child abuse?

My concerns continued to be dismissed, so I got  more confrontational.  I asked,  since children who take animals, confine them and only allow them  food, water, light, exercise, and companionship at random intervals are considered psychologically troubled and often diagnosed as heading towards the anti-social end of the personality spectrum, is any behavioral modification based on experiments that treat animals this way either ethical or effective? B.F. Skinner, who is considered the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, did exactly that.  He then labeled the animals tormented this way in his infamous pigeon experiment ‘superstitious’ when they resorted to repetitive behavior.

Superstitious is a derogatory term that  anthropomorphizes animal behavior and there is another term for such repetitive activity. It is also called  ‘self-stimulating’. It is seen in any animal and most humans who are caged, isolated, and unable to influence their environment. I asked if we need to question the fundamental assumptions of behavioral modification when they fit into the definitions of psychological pathology so very well. Especially considering that over the 50 years that Skinnerism has become mainstream pop psychology, not only have healthy sound horses that perform their work enthusiastically become the rare exception, but equestrian sports now have one of  the highest rates of human injury in any field of athletics.

I was told that bringing up these reservations demonstrates a lack of collegial respect as it puts people working in behavioral modification on the defensive. I find this deeply disturbing as refusing to question one’s hypothesis moves the conversation out of the realm of science and into the realm of belief systems. My questions were so unwelcome that I decided to resort to the blog.  I want to say publicly that clearly people are doing something very very wrong with our equine companions. It is time to change, to question our assumptions, and stop doing harm to both horses and people. What is accepted behavior in the equine industry now is plain and simple just not working!

(click for the beginning or here for more)


7 thoughts on “Skinnerisms and Killer Horses

  1. Your belief in your own depth of experience of equine behaviour, particularly as you have worked to understand horses that humans have alienated to extremes, is really inspiring. I’m glad you have the guts to challenge the scientific community and I share your feelings about rour interreaction with horses. Just discovering your blog and am fascinated by your story….

    • While I am not sure I have any ‘right’ answers my hope is that asking some of the urgent questions about unacknowledged issues might help both the horses and the humans find different ways of being with each other… I appreciate your reading, and thoughtful comments.

  2. Pingback: Welcome to the October 2013 Blog Carnival of Horses | EQUINE Ink

  3. Thanks for the citation. As a guy married to a veterinarian, and as a theoretician with proof of the unity of life, I will echo this wholeheartedly: “It is time to change, to question our assumptions, and stop doing harm to both horses and people.” Indeed.

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