Rethink urged of Monty Roberts’ training methods

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Researchers used a remote control car to mimic the actions of a trainer using the Join-Up method, undermining the idea of a human-horse connection.
Researchers used a remote control car to mimic the actions of a trainer using the Join-Up method, undermining the idea of a human-horse connection.

Australian researchers suggest  two techniques in Monty Roberts’ training apply emotional pressure to horses, and their response is based on fear and safety.

Aspects of the horse training method made famous by Roberts, who wrote “The Man Who Listens to Horses”, have been questioned by the  reasearchers.

“This training technique was popularised worldwide by Roberts as the Join-Up method and was used by him to train Queen Elizabeth’s horses at her personal request,” said Cath Henshall, a Master of Animal Science candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney.

Henshall led the research and is presenting her findings at the International Society for Equitation Science conference in Edinburgh on July 17.

“Two main features of the method, also known as round pen horse training, are that it depends on the human trainer being able to communicate with the horse using ‘horse’ body language, and that it is a humane form of training.

“Our study casts doubt on both those claims,” she says.

“We believe that our research highlights the unpleasant underpinnings of round pen horse training and for that reason we caution against its widespread use because it uses fear to gain control of horses.”

As currently practised, the technique relies on the trainer using movement and noise to drive the horse around the perimeter of the pen. The trainer gradually reduces their aggressive movements, after which the horse will eventually slow down and approach them.

The researchers used remote control cars to mimic the technique and to eliminate the assumed essential role of the humans speaking the language of the horse.

“We ‘rewarded’ the horses for stopping and turning towards the car with a period of ‘safety’, when the car didn’t chase them as long as they kept facing it. We trained some horses to actually walk up to and touch the car,” said Henshall.

“Given that we could train horses to produce similar, though not identical responses to those seen in round pen training, but in reaction to non-human stimuli undermines the claim that the human’s ability to mimic horse behaviour is an essential component of the technique.”

The researchers believe that the training outcomes were achieved as a result of ‘pressure-release’ and not the ability of the trainer, or a remote control car, to mimic horse behaviour.

“Put simply, pressure-release works because the horse finds the pressure applied unpleasant and therefore the removal of the pressure rewarding,” said Henshall.

The response the horse makes immediately before the pressure is removed is what the horse thinks made the pressure go away. When put in the same situation in the future, it is likely to perform that same behaviour to obtain the outcome that it values – safety.

“Although neither Monty Roberts’ method nor ours uses pressure applied directly to the horse’s body, both apply a form of emotional pressure by scaring and then chasing the horse.”

Proponents of Join-Up and similar methods claim not only that they are humane because no equipment is used on the horse’s body, but also that the horse can choose whether to approach the trainer.

“Our results indicate that because these methods rely on fear and safety, the horse is forced to choose between being repeatedly frightened or remaining with the trainer. We question whether it is humane to rely on fear and its termination to train horses,” said Henshall.

“Although it is appealing to think that horses in the round pen choose to follow their trainers because they are responding to us as though we are a horse, we believe that the use of fear has no place in genuinely humane and ethical horse training.”

 

 

 

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37 thoughts on “Rethink urged of Monty Roberts’ training methods

  • July 14, 2012 at 9:27 am
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    Uh, duh. Pressure-release is how horses learn. The pressure doesn’t have to be so great as to “emotionally” damage them. I think most horses would freak out being chased by a remote controlled car. I don’t see how that could be the same…

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    • October 26, 2014 at 1:10 pm
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      sorry i dont know how to make my own post! i hated the attitude of this article. Monty Reberts has done as much for the horses of this world as have some of the best trainers/horsemanships that there have ever been. With respect towards this evolutionary milestone that he has made – you could have made your scientific findings without having to discredit his. Dont be a hater – just join the evolutionary pathway and move the journey forward

      Reply
  • July 14, 2012 at 9:43 am
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    Somewhat apples and oranges, isn’t it? My dog loves people. Pretty much all people. My dog also is terrified of RC cars, even when they’re not chasing her. I think they need to rethink their research methodology if they want to prove a valid point.

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  • July 14, 2012 at 10:58 am
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    I don’t understand how any sort of training isn’t pressure-release. I think the amount of fear response is directly coordinated with the amount of pressure applied.

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  • July 14, 2012 at 11:58 am
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    not impressed with this article – Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, etc etc etc have done wonders for the equines of this world. There is a big difference between a whizzy toy car and a human. Horses aren’t frightened of predators they are frightened of predatory behavior. My horses chase each other in the field – duh! PLease be more responsible in your writing or articles. Its like the people who say chocolate is good for you – whilst there may be 1 aspect of eating chocolate that is, it does not outway the other 10 things which are bad for you.

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    • October 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm
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      Well said, ‘j9wow’!– Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli had the best system, that was not in any way ‘cruel’ or mean to any horse. As for the remote car…what a dumb idea that was! The method & concept offered is like
      ‘political correctness’ gone over-board! –
      So, lead-on Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, and all the other greats who have shown what awesome things that horses can enjoy doing, with fully caring and genuinely capeable horse trainers. – Truly awesome!

      Reply
  • July 15, 2012 at 3:08 am
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    C’mon guys, I thought that kiwis were ahead of the bunch when it came to equine intelligence?
    Aren’t we early adopters of new ideas, not religious followers of equine gods?

    “not impressed with this article – Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, etc etc etc have done wonders for the equines of this world.”

    While I agree that natural horsemanship has done a lot to get people thinking about the way they train their horse, and it’s helped people move on from hobbling, laying horses down, or strapping sacks to their backs while throwing rocks at their legs (to “get the buck out”) in order to create a horse that is rideable, I disagree that this should get natural horsemanship techniques a free pass, or to continue unquestioned. We need to be open to continue improving the methods we use to train horses. In general, dog training is light years ahead of horse training – if you saw a dog at Crufts getting hit with a stick for not jumping a hurdle during obedience there would be an immediate uproar! Modern dog trainers use largely positive reinforcement (giving rewards for the right behaviour), while us horse trainers are stuck with negative reinforcement (taking away pressure for the right behaviour) at best, and positive punishment (scientific term – it’s not a positive thing! It means adding a punishment – e.g. hitting, scaring, chasing, loud noise etc) at worst.

    “There is a big difference between a whizzy toy car and a human.” Turns out, that when it comes to round pen training, there’s much less difference than you would expect.

    “Horses aren’t frightened of predators they are frightened of predatory behavior.” Like wiggling ropes, throwing ropes towards them, and making direct, strong eye contact? I’m not saying join-up is not effective as a training technique, as I have used it, and it is, but I’m saying that there are definitely aspects of the technique that use predatory type postures and behaviour to pressure the horse. If it wasn’t unpleasant to the horse, the horse probably wouldn’t bother moving.

    “PLease be more responsible in your writing or articles.” These guys have been amazingly responsible – not only are they reporting the results of a scientific study, they have interviewed the author, and the study has already been accepted for presentation at an international conference, which means that it has been peer-reviewed by top scientists and equine practitioners. That’s not to say that there aren’t valid limitations of the study, as with almost any study of course there are – but if the natural horsemanship crowd came up with more research of this calibre, then I would feel that equine training methods were in good hands.

    Sorry to focus on your comment j9wow – nothing personal, and I hope I didn’t offend. You did a good job of making some clear points, which I wanted to address. 🙂

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    • July 17, 2012 at 8:16 am
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      Intelligent and cogent response.
      I agree that NH has done wonders for horse training but it isn’t magic. It works on the same paradigm of learning theory as any other training technique and how well both reinforcers (- or +) and punishers (- or +)are applied as to how quickly the horse learns, what it learns and how much stress is involved.
      This study has its flaws but it does show learning theory works no matter the INTENTION of the trainer.

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    • December 2, 2012 at 9:09 am
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      Kiwis are New Zealanders not Australians.
      A toy car is far different than a human.
      Monty creates safe, confident horses, don’t see a thing wrong with that.
      If you read about his training of Shy Boy, the mustang, you see that his methods worked on a wild horse, in the wild setting, no round pen ‘forcing’ him to follow him.

      Reply
  • July 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm
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    Good Morning everyone! The author is more than welcome to our place – where ever in the world and meet up and talk and work tighter with horses – let´s find out how horses learn and how they interact with humans and let us put our ego aside and knowledge within.
    We have a scientific study, published already in march 2012 and the horses with their low hart rate and low adrenaline speaks of its own.
    Welcome!

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  • July 17, 2012 at 12:43 pm
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    I think the true test of fear levels can only be from heart rate and adrenaline. Defining a flight response as emotionally damaging seems very short sighted.
    I use Monty’s methods to discipline my young horses to great effect when they try and charge me at dinner time. They learn very quickly that they are not allowed to bowl me over without any physical force. Yes I chase them away but they are not circling me in fear, they look more annoyed and angry than scared, but until they show me they are submissive they are not allowed near their food. I don’t think I’m acting like a predator more like an old mare who the young horse has disrespected.

    Reply
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  • August 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm
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    Absolutely Apples and Oranges!

    I use this method but with my own spin and adjustments as needed on an animal to animal basis.

    I think you’ll find that most of these techniques have been around in different forms/names forever and that clever marketing has made a few A LOT of $$.

    When I use this technique I am asking the horse to work, move – not stand still. They are not flogged around for hrs at speed. In fact a lot of the time they are walking or jogging. When they focus on me as their alpha or simply pay attention to me they expectation of work is lessened or removed.

    Do our kids clean their rooms if they don’t have to? No we ASK if there is refusal we tell and then if there is further resistance we take away privileges or if needed add punishment = negative reinforcement.

    Any training method in the ‘wrong’ hands is has the potential to be cruel learning can be unpleasant and a lot of the time is trial and error. Errors need to be identified and corrected.

    Read your animals people if they are scared change your actions tone things down so the horse is worried but not scared or terrified. LEARN what is fear vs anticipation vs excitement vs play.

    THINK of how you have realised something was not as scary as you first thought……..

    EDUCATE your horses to understand different stimuli and ‘scary’ things.

    Do it wisely and it is safe, humane and ultimately in the interest of the animals and their people.

    Arabians run with their tails and heads held high and can be ‘shaken up’ to show this off BUT contrary to popular, ignorant belief they are NOT ALL scared! It is the people who see experienced people with trained horses do things that have a go without the foundations that end up coming unstuck!

    We don’t grab a foal and tie it up we hold it first so it can’t get away then we guide it to move with us it is all the same – step by step

    Bottom line use your brains and common sense.

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  • January 30, 2013 at 8:31 pm
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    Is this supposed to be surprising? Have they never seen his seminars? Roberts explains in great detail that he is manipulating fear response and the horse’s desire for safety to get the results that he wants. He keeps pushing the horse until he sees them asking for safety then takes off the pressure. These “researchers” just discovered what Roberts explains in detail! Funny.

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  • January 31, 2013 at 4:22 am
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    Let’s take the egos out of it for a second.

    – Roberts himself admits to using fear to get a reaction he wants (BF Skinner says this is ethically invalid unless safety is involved)
    – ‘Equus’ is not a language, it’s a marketing tool. We are not horses. Therefore we cannot be the ‘Alpha’. In the same token if I extend my fingers, I do not look like a lion about to attack.
    – Studies have proven that dominance theory is obsolete. Lets research some Resource Holding Potential theories and look at how horses (an most social animals) aim for cohesion not dominance.
    – Many owners may say that they see their horses chase each other around the field – but have they stopped to ask why? Is there enough suitable space/feed/shade/light/water etc? Is that herd stable where all of the horses in it were ethologically weaned and have secure attachment like they would if in a resource plenty wild scenario?

    Now lets add some emotion – how would you feel if I chased you round and round and round for half an hour in an alien environment, completely on your own, where you couldn’t escape, where I made you change direction repeatedly so you had no idea what the hell was being asked of you. Imagine being so confused of what was being asked of you and the only thing that could stop making you run was to approach the thing that had been chasing you? Yeah, eventually you’d give up and go into conditioned suppression as well.

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  • January 31, 2013 at 7:46 am
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    A piece of lazy, inept research. I’ve read it before and remain unimpressed.

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  • February 6, 2013 at 9:51 am
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    From what I understand, horses in the wild do this to each other. The alpha horse pushes the lower ranking horse away, until that horse asks for a meeting – head dropped, ready to negotiate. It seems kind to me (to use body language they are familiar with) to start a horse in this way.

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  • March 27, 2013 at 2:29 am
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    To all those who have negative comments to make about Monty Roberts’ and other round pen techniques, I notice that none of you have put forward an alternative method of training. You have just criticised what is definitely a gentler method of training in comparison to what went before. Monty himself always says that he is continually striving to better understand the horse and improve his methods. I would much rather follow someone like him than criticise without putting forward any alternative!

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  • April 5, 2013 at 5:20 pm
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    I would be curious to see a video of this car thing… based on the photo provided that horse is exhibiting very different body language in my opinion then the kind of body language exhibited by a horse working in a round pen with a human. It is true that a horse will tend to turn and face something that is scary looking… which is what it looks like it is doing with this car. Whereas in the round pen the horse tends to have very calm body language when it choose to come in, and it exhibits other signs as well, ear locking, licking and chewing… signs that horses show to one another within the herd… not to a predator. I get the impression that these researchers don’t actually have a great understanding of horse body language considering they are doing research on it….

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    • May 15, 2013 at 11:24 pm
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      The ‘licking and chewing’ response could well be a sign of anxiety, as like us humans, horses get a dry mouth when worried and has not been documented in a natural equine herd. I like the research above, but I also like the more humane techniques of Roberts and the like. Can’t we agree that we owe it to our horses to move research forwards, to try and get the best techniques possible for our horses?

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      • October 31, 2013 at 8:15 am
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        I’ve always seen nervous (wide eyes, pinched lips, tension in the shoulders) or annoyance/resentment (relaxed eyes, pinched lips, look like they’re thinking “omg you’re seriously making me do this today?”) being presented before the lick/chew…and after they lick their lips their entire body just relaxes. The pinched lips, high head/tension are usually (in my experience) a sign of mental blockage which is worked out like a knot which is physically shown by the lick/chew.

        It really depends on the horse though, for what methods to use. I used my more NH methods on a stud colt while he was still at his mom’s side – he is only a yearling and he w/t/c with a saddle on a lungeline like he’s 12, completely relaxed and paying attention to me. The other (now ex-) stud colt I had to implement a bit of a more aggressive “traditional” approach to start (when I was halter breaking him) as he had absolutely no respect for my space or me – though we’re slowly switching over to my usual methods as he becomes friendlier. We’re still working on w/t on the lungeline though he will do it with tack. They both greet me at the gate when they see I have their halters. lol. Neither of them are prone to spooking either, unlike horses I’ve seen coming from both more aggressive and less aggressive techniques.

        But, uh…that’s not on the lick/chew tandem. XD

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      • February 24, 2015 at 7:04 am
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        Licking and chewing is not a sign anxiety at all . A horse will chew when relaxed . You can make a horse relax by making him chew .
        This whole article was a waste of time an money on research . You can’t recreate the same case using a rc car instead of a human .

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  • April 9, 2013 at 10:47 pm
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    A horse is a flight animal so it will by its very nature be scared of anything it isn’t used to. I can’t see the relevance of a RC car as the horse would be thinking that it is not an animal sizing it up as prey as they do with humans until they acknowledge (learn) differently. I can remember meeting a stallion called Callen who was in a stall at Flemington. he responded perfectly to Monty’s techniques. he proved to me how right Monty is. Callen also surprised the stable foreman and strapper when he came straight up to me and was quite happy to be patted.

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  • July 26, 2013 at 3:06 am
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    This is one of the stupidest articles I have ever read. These are critics? Aren’t they supposed to be remotely well versed and educated in the thing they are critiquing? Monty Roberts is an amazing trainer and I have used his methods on multiple horses and have seen nothing but positive results. This article is from a bunch of haters.

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  • September 17, 2013 at 12:36 am
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    What a load of rubbish! Learning comes through choices in life which either lead to comfort or discomfort. This applies in any herd/pack environment whether horses, dogs, chickens, and especially humans. I’ve used a blend of Monty’s and Parelli’s techniques on horses, dogs and my kids; so far so good!

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  • September 24, 2013 at 10:02 am
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    I don’t like what I see in the photograph provided. That doesn’t look like a ROUND pen to me. That car appears to be cornering that horse and it is very close. Not Monty’s methods at all – the pen is meant to give the horse space to move.

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  • September 24, 2013 at 7:39 pm
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    Although I think these ‘pioneers’ of natural horsemanship deserve respect and acknowledgement, as with any growth in awareness the world moves past the ‘starting point’ and thus learns more, and changes more. We didn’t stop at a lightbulb after Thomas Edison, and we still haven’t stopped on this particular path – why do we feel the need to stop at Monty Roberts, Pat Parelii, etc when they were just the beginning? We are only scraping the surface of horse-human communication and we will stay there unless we can open ourselves up to ALL flaws in horsemanship. A good mindset to have is ‘would you force your human partner to engage in an activity they didn’t want to, or would you discuss it with them and ask their permission first?’ Apply that to horses and we might just get somewhere. As a side note, Roberts himself repeating enforces the idea that each individual needs to keep questioning his practices with horses and needs to continuously ask questions and learn. Open minds people! That is how any problem, big or small, gets solved.

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  • November 6, 2013 at 9:51 am
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    The female horse in a herd would chase the foals and by doing this she was forcing them out of the herd. If when she stopped chasing them, the foal came to her, the foal was let back into the herd because he became submissive to her. Monty Roberts method has almost the same approach that horses use with each other. So try and tell the horses they’re ’emotionally’ scarring each other…?

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  • April 9, 2014 at 12:36 am
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    Seems like they have totally missed the point. I’m not aware of people using noise in join up either. The car is ‘speaking’ the language of the horse as well, so of course they will join up to it. I suppose the method can be mis understood and maybe abused by some – like all things – but there is no doubt that a correctly executed join up has helped people and their horses form better and safer relationships.

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  • May 3, 2015 at 4:54 am
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    So what do you suggest instead? I’ll take NH over aggressive violent training any day.

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  • May 12, 2015 at 5:12 pm
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    This study appears to prove none of the authors’ conclusions, but is nevertheless very interesting.

    It shows most likely that movement is the principal ingredient of body language, not eye contact or gestures. The car copied the actions of a horse/human in join up, and voila! The horse responded. As you would expect. It proves join up is an integral part of equine psychology. (As if that has not been proved by Monty Roberts and hundreds of his students).

    It proves beyond doubt that “man sees what he wants to see”. The conclusions seem wildly off the mark and irrelevant to the research. It’s quite incredible that the researchers can be so ignorant- except that their prejudice is plain to see. This research was obviously an attempt to discredit, not a scientific experiment conducted in a neutral mind.

    As many posts have mentioned, this is nothing but negative criticism and no alternative is proposed. The horse is a flight animal, and after join up it is not so prone to panic, making it safer to train.

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  • July 6, 2015 at 8:01 pm
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    This article appears to be sourced from the University of Sydney: http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=9617

    Instead of everyone instantly criticising, read the full paper. The proceedings can be found here (paper 25):
    http://www.equitationscience.com/documents/Conferences/ISESConferenceProceedings2012.pdf

    There is also paper in the proceedings referring to the radio control car as a herd leader by the same author (paper 92), examining positive and negative reinforcement.

    The papers are validating the credibility of trainers say are the the benefits of practised methods. That is, the trainers have proposed a hypothesis; the equine behavioural psychologists are testing the hypothesis.

    In science, one must propose a hypothesis and then test it. Then, perform research for alternatives. This takes time and can’t be done in one hit. For a start there isn’t the funding. Second, you have prove/disprove something before going onto the next stage. Third you have to publish the findings so that it can be tested by the academic community. So, finish one phase of research, publish, get feedback (and funding) and then continue onto the next phase.

    There is another paper comparing Monty Roberts’ technique with a conventional UK technique (http://www.caronwhaley.com/Monty_science_trials_paper.pdf) with the result coming out in favour on Monty Roberts’ technique. However, being published in the same year as the two aforementioned papers, they don’t appear to reference each other.

    The author of the first two papers mentioned above has since published more papers in this field.:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy1.athensams.net/science/article/pii/S0168159114000811
    http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy1.athensams.net/science/article/pii/S109002331500146X

    And there are probably more. Have a look, do some reading and then make comment.

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  • October 15, 2015 at 5:21 am
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    Scientists always think they know everything what montey Roberts says is using the same methods as what a horse uses in the wild pressure release I have been working with horses long enough to see this is what they do with a new horse being introduced into a herd ie chasing it around a field until it knows it’s place then allowing it to join the herd the round pen is used as we don’t stand a chance against a horse it runs a lot faster than us you can deny the use of pressure but all animals use some form of pressure to establish discipline you don’t see treeting them for doing the right thing and ignoring bad behaviour get real

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  • October 20, 2015 at 7:00 am
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    By using a radio controlled car only proves that monteys methods do actually work it deeply saddens me that people get so over exited and worked up about this guy’s training methods and other trainers like just because they haven’t got a peace of paper with a degree on it . We alow vets to inflict serious discomfort to animals to but we don’t think twice about it. We need to spend a lot more time looking at the out come rather than spending so much time consantrating on the way it’s solved so many so called behaviourest deliberately prolong a animals suffering just to keep the cash rolling in

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  • November 27, 2016 at 11:37 am
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    It’s too bad these researchers have never actually observed horse behavior or tried to train one to do anything. The small car being active is low to the ground, out of a horses eyesight when his head is up scanning the horizon for a real predator, so the movement is a real panic for the horse.

    For the car to have any worthwhile information the horse must be grazing with his nose at ground level, then his eyes will be able to evaluate just what this object is, that is why the horse eventually turns toward the object lowers his head and decides whether to run or investigate.

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  • August 4, 2017 at 1:49 am
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    I don’t feel its fear more like respect. The horse is trying to determine are you a good leader that I’d be willing to give you respect & follow or not. Horses treat each other in the same manner when left to themselves. No different to humans raising children. Don’t we do the same with our child the right pressure for the right response and more pressure for a negative response so we have children that become respective instead of rebellious. It’s called being a good leader!

    Reply

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