Horse owners should be careful using videos on the internet as an educational resource to help improve their natural horsemanship skills, the findings of research suggest.
The findings of the Australian study not only found important differences in skill and outcomes between amateur and professional trainers, with likely implications for horse welfare, but also found considerable variations in the techniques used in a round pen training technique they examined.
Researchers Erin Kydd, Barbara Padalino, Cathrynne Henshall and Paul McGreevy noted that natural horsemanship was popular among many amateur and professional trainers.
One method commonly used by them is round pen training, with sessions usually split into a series of bouts comprising two phases: chasing/flight and chasing offset/flight offset.
That said, natural horsemanship training styles were diverse, they noted in their findings, reported in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.
Nonetheless, common to all the natural horsemanship methods reported in the scientific literature is the use of a training technique known as the “chase-away”, which takes place in a round pen.
The horse is initially chased away from the handler with the likes of arm-waving, rope throwing or vocal cues. After a period of flight behaviour such as trotting, cantering or galloping, the intensity of the aversive stimuli is generally reduced. The ultimate goal is to condition the horse to remain close to and follow the trainer.
The removal of the aversive stimulus as soon as the desired response emerges is an example of negative reinforcement.
As with any form of negative reinforcement, it relies on the immediate removal of the aversive stimulus. Failure to do so increases the risk of punishing the desired response instead.
The study team noted that although round pen training was promoted as humane and effective, there were limited studies detailing a typical session and the responses of horses to this training method
The authors noted that this method is frequently advocated on lay forums as a means of resolving a wide range of undesirable horse behaviours.
Their study investigated online videos of round pen training to explore the characteristics of the sessions and test for differences in techniques and outcomes between amateurs and professionals.
The University of Sydney study team defined professionals as those with accompanying online materials that promoted clinics, merchandise or a service to the public.
From more than 300 candidate videos, they selected sample files for 24 amateurs and 21 professionals, all involving horses being training at liberty in a round pen.
Sessions, or portions of sessions, were excluded if the trainer attached equipment, such as a lunge line, directly to the horse, or the horse was saddled, mounted or ridden.
Analysis showed that professionals spent more time looking up at their horses, when transitioning between gaits, than amateurs did.
“The probability of horses following the trainer was not significantly associated with amount of chasing, regardless of category,” they reported. “Given that, according to some practitioners, the following response is a goal of round pen training, this result may prompt caution in those inclined to give chase.”
The study team found that horses handled by professionals showed fewer conflict behaviours, such as kicking, biting, stomping, head-tossing, defecating, bucking and attempting to escape, and fewer oral and head movements (for example, head-lowering, licking and chewing) than those handled by amateurs.
There was considerable variation in the techniques shown by trainers who chose to post their sessions on YouTube, the study team wrote.
“Variation among training technique was demonstrated in the chasing phase, along with the trainer’s cues and the resulting behaviour of the horses.
“These findings have implications for equine welfare and raise questions about the interpretations of equine ethology that natural horsemanship trainers often rely upon.
“They also provide a cautionary tale to those intending to use public sources of information from the internet, such as YouTube, as a guide in training their horses.”
If performed well, round pen training can result in effective training, the researchers said. “However, unquestioning observers may apply techniques without appreciating the problems they are creating for the horse and the violation of a core principle of ethical equitation: to dissociate fear and avoidance responses.”
The study team acknowledged some limitations in their study. For example, videos may have been edited. “Although we expect these video files to represent the trainers’ best practice, they may present an obscured record of authentic practice.”
Due to the variable quality of audio tracks, the videos were scored with sound off. “We accept that this may have overlooked some qualifying remarks by trainers that may, for example, have explained they are showing flaws in their practice to make a certain point.”
“Notwithstanding the study’s acknowledged limitations, we propose that the difference between amateurs and professionals reported here is of importance.
“The current study shows that professionals look up at their horse more than amateurs.”
This, they said, strongly suggested that professionals had better timing and responded to their horse’s behaviour with greater effectiveness than amateurs.
“It is probable that trainers who are paying greater attention to their horse are less likely to observe (or create) conflict behaviours.
“If amateur trainers do not look at their horses as much as professional trainers (as shown in this study), they have more opportunity to, firstly, get their timing wrong . . . and secondly, to miss when the horse is displaying the critical oral and head movements (whose rate may escalate if they are not acted on by the trainer).”
The study team also found that professionals used fewer arm movements per bout than amateurs, which they suggested was another indicator of the skill of professional trainers.
“According to the principles of learning theory, the chasing phase of round pen training should be offset by a period of non-chasing, as the horse begins to follow the trainer.
“However, it is noteworthy that the current data showed no association between the amount of chasing and the following behaviour.
“The following of the trainer is presented as one of the primary goals of round pen training and posited to indicate that the horse views the trainer as a leader and wishes to remain in the human’s company; valuing it as it might value the safety of a herd of conspecific analogues.
“It is likely that triggering the horse to follow is simply a trained response developed through negative reinforcement: the correct application of pressure during the chasing phase and the release of pressure on the moment the horse offers the desired behaviour.
“Indeed, a study conducted by Maros and others indicated that the behaviour of horses following humans was essentially a consequence of training.”
There is, according to the authors, no evidence that the following response confirms that the horse views the trainer as a leader or herd member of higher social status.
“Indeed, the whole question of social order is controversial and its scientific scrutiny is fraught with problems, not least because of the number of variables at play.”
Kydd and her colleagues said it was perhaps not surprising that fewer conflict behaviours were observed in horses with professional handlers compared with those with amateur handlers when horses were cantering and galloping.
“Again, this seems to confirm that the skill of the handler can have a substantial impact on the emergence of behavioural stress responses of the horse during training.
“Overall,” they reported, “these findings highlight the need for selectivity when using the internet as an educational source and the importance of trainer skill and excellent timing when using negative reinforcement in horse training.”
Kydd, Padalino and McGreevy are with the University of Sydney; Henshall is with Hillydale Equine in Inverary, New South Wales.
Kydd E, Padalino B, Henshall C, McGreevy P (2017) An analysis of equine round pen training videos posted online: Differences between amateur and professional trainers. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184851