In a reciprocal relationship, there is no need for leadership.
– from Equus Lost
I believe the biggest, brightest truths are already within us, born in the folds of our brains and the flesh of our hearts and left there to grow. Most of us suspect or intuit these truths, either exploring them with curiosity, or suppressing them if their implications threaten too many of our attachments or beliefs. They lead us step by step (or plague us if we resist) until we find them again; the outer world’s perfect match to our inner knowings, the validation of our truths. And with something like the sentience and cognition of horses – which is the unifying understanding that brings our readers together here – those truths when fully embraced can open new worlds, new ways of being, and sources of peace and growth in our lives.
There is something that happens, at least in this era of valuing facts and evidence, when the slow cogs of science catch up and validate those truths – the final permission, perhaps, to believe and sink into knowing something. When I first stumbled across equine ethology, the biological study of horse behaviour (especially as it occurs in a natural environment), I was excited and relieved to find new pathways to understanding, and facts that challenged how I had originally been taught to be with horses. After a long period of questioning and distancing myself from common practices, and then becoming disillusioned with the “horse whispering” scene, it gave me something solid to sink my hungry (and somewhat nerdy) teeth into. It gave me permission and direction.
Yet Another Angle
Equus Lost? by Dr. Francesco De Giorgio and José De Giorgio-Schoorl will be that permission for many people. For others, it will be a brand new world. And for many more, it will be a refreshing acknowledgment of what they have known and lived for a long time: that horses are complex, social, and highly intelligent beings that have their own way of being in their own environments, and that in light of this we must learn new ways of being with them. According to the Di Giorgios, horses don’t need leaders, they are not “flight” animals, and they don’t need to be trained in order to learn. Depending on what you believe about horses, this might be heresy – or it might be simple common sense.
Based in Francesco De Giorgio’s decades of research in Zooanthropology (the study of animal-human relationship) and Socio-Cognitive Learning (the authors’ particular model for being with animals), this book encourages us to step back and approach horses with open-minded curiosity and respect for them as complete beings. It explores the social and cognitive nature of horses and suggests a way of being with them that sidesteps the dominance paradigm, offering a way to “change your approach from an expectation to a shared experience”.
I use the term “encourage” because, while straight-forward and somewhat technical, the tone of the book is not didactic or pushy, despite the wealth of evidence that could be used more aggressively to “get the point across” and show just how inhumane, or incomplete, the majority of horsemanship theories and practices are. I get the sense that the authors have consciously avoided shaming anyone, choosing to offer a new perspective to consider, rather than dwelling on what we’ve been (perhaps) doing (quite) wrong.
And before you get too doubtful about the scientific approach (if you’re not that kind of learner), I will assure you that there are pictures, stories, and even poems throughout to break up the text. If you have the kind of brain that tunes out around niche-lingo terms like “affiliative and alleviation behavior”, you might struggle a little to stay engaged, but I found the glossary helpful and the pace of the book quite natural and engaging.
To be honest, I did not find much in this book that surprised me or blew me away – which is only to say that, if you observe and listen to your horses for a good long time, you will eventually learn most of what is covered in Equus Lost? from the horses themselves. This is not a criticism of the content, but actually more of an endorsement of its down-to-earthness and comprehensibility. In their own words, “…this is not magical, mystical, or paranormal, but something very concrete, practical, and sustainable for equines and humans in their way of existence.”
The part I found most distinctly helpful was their break-down of operant conditioning – also known as “training”. According to the authors, whether you’re using primarily positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to teach your horse what you’d like them to do, you are, essentially, bypassing the horses’ unique and inherent cognitive abilities.
I have explored treat training along with everything else, but like everything else, it has faded out of my repertoire. I could never quite put my finger on why I wasn’t completely comfortable with it – after all, the horses learned quickly, appeared to enjoy the sessions, and certainly there wasn’t any need for pressure or punishment. But somehow my horses managed to communicate to me that, while they sure liked getting pumped full of treats, we were still missing something important between us when we worked only in this way.
I still hadn’t figured out what that was, exactly, but had settled into a space of non-training (read: I was too tired and busy to do much more than appreciate my herd from the fenceline), and wasn’t giving it a whole lot of dedicated thought. Then I found this passage on treat training and other conditioning approaches:
When operant conditioning is applied in practice, especially after a horse has shown behavior difficulties, the results seem almost magical to the unprepared eye. Horses effectively seem to learn new behaviors quickly. This responds to the trainers’ and owners’ desire to keep things under control, and perfectly meets our need to reassure ourselves we have a horse that we can take care of and that will not cause problems. The horse seems to be a “fast learner.” However, this mechanical and linear method risks damaging a horse’s ability to express himself and his cognitive ability to create his own understanding of a given situation.
…In the horse-human relationship, tricks and treats cannot be used to smooth out and reduce tense behavior. They cannot make it disappear or create in its place an emotionally balanced animal. Our desire for obedience, surrender, and specific reactions makes us cover up behavior and doesn’t allow the horse to use his own social skills and inner intentions. Training methods focus on surrender, ignoring the essence of the horse and his social abilities.
While I think that negative and positive reinforcement are just small parts of the larger whole – the many, many ways in which any being takes in information and learns new behavior – and not in themselves things we can or should isolate as “wrong” or “right”, I also think that any approach taken to an extreme, and taken out of context, always has side effects.
“Training” is essentially taking learning mechanisms out of context and using them to our human advantage. Some people actively want control over their horses, and some want control without punishment. For those of us who want relationship and dialogue above all, and are willing to forego control, it’s helpful to have a framework like this to break it down and go, okay, is this what I really want? Is this method getting me where I want to go? Is this just another way to show off what I can make my horse do? Or do I need to let go and open up further…?
Equus Lost? is not a manual or “how-to” book. If you’re searching for a method or specific exercises, you won’t find them here. In a conversation with José De Giorgio-Schoorl, I gathered that she and Dr. De Giorgio were very careful not to give too much or too little in this book, specifically for the benefit of the horses. We’ve all seen what happens when a little bit of knowledge gets into the wrong hands. I am thinking of the pseudo-psychology that has gone into natural horsemanship techniques; the way that one-dimensional understanding of something like equine behaviour has led to exploitation of the horse’s cooperative, social nature. All of a sudden, everyone’s a roundpen trainer. So while the book is rich in fact, theory, and sentiment, it doesn’t leave the reader with anything very concrete in terms of what to do differently, or where to start making changes, though it does drop a lot of hints.
I personally appreciate this approach, but I know in other times of my life I would be itching for more from these people. I’d be staring at the last page thinking, yes, absolutely yes, but HOW? Consequently, they do offer an extensive training program, a video series on Epona.tv, and workshops in Europe and the UK. If you do want to explore these ideas further, the video series is definitely the most accessible place to start, though you will need an Epona.tv membership (which also gives you access to all kinds of great videos).
Equus Lost? seems to me like a new ground zero for those of us exploring a new paradigm of horse-human relationship – it’s a perfect place to start learning or re-learning about the biological nature of the horse, a concrete foundation to support your ethics and goals, and a wonderful resource to enrich and inform your practice with horses, whatever that might be.
I grabbed this quote from the Equus Lost? Facebook page and I think it sums up the book nicely, and a little cheekily:
“[It’s] time to move from the boring world of anthropocentric horse-human interactions – where training a horse into synchronised movements is still seen as a magical form of bonding – towards something that stops belittling the essence of the horse (and of human coexistence with horses as well).”