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It don’t impress me much

By Suzanne Rogers (www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk) This article was first published on The Equine Independent

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent a massive array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that basically says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”.  However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

‘Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her  harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating - as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their funny video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy!  Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are working with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey as mentioned above. I thought they might also find it ‘funny’ and that I’d have a chance to lead them to discuss  overloading and so on. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message – I was sent a video of a horse competing at high level dressage in an arena. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed at all. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, you can do unethical things with clicker training just as you can with any tool. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements by clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he/she wanted to? Was the training done in a way that wasn’t truly positively reinforcing for the horse? The behaviour in the video showed a very unhappy horse, irrespective of if he/she communicates with the owner through clicker training or other methods.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example – I was sent a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse, bareback, tack free around an arena. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks - accompanied by a message along the lines of “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant, looking for every subtle cue from his owner, most likely because he/she been trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that he has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice, he has become ‘shut down’ and obedient, like a robot. Impressive maybe - but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in a video. However, we should encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such videos and not just what the person who posted the video thinks about it.

I think it is interesting, and sad, that people are so impressed by things we can make horses do and not by things they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can make a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse?  Although I find dressage one of the most unnatural things a horse can do, the common train of thought is that dressage takes the horse’s natural movement and puts it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward onto other people as an amazing piece of horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A group of horses are grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches them with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is rewarded by big scratch from the human. Then horse and owner walk together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the owner lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the owner might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly and calmly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together, and as such he isn’t having to watch his owner for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think is lovely and something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.