Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Training Horses, Now and Then

Let me make it clear from the start that I am not talking about me training horses. Now, then, or ever. I am not a horse trainer, nor do I play one on TV. I just read a lot about horses, and watch the Resident Teen as she rides and works with horses, and admire the trainers who've worked with her and her horse.

But, like most people, I can tell the difference between being mean and being kind. (I often think of the quotation in Melissa Holbrook Pierson's book Dark Horses and Black Beauties regarding lack of compassion: "Whenever people say 'We mustn't be sentimental,' you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add 'We must be realistic,' they mean they are going to make money out of it.'" The cruelties inflicted on Tennessee Walking Horses come to mind.)

There's no end, of course, to the sad stories streaming through news feeds every day about animals and people who'd benefit from some compassion, but what made me dwell on horse training were some old paperbacks I picked up at a thrift store recently.

They are part of a series called "Professor Beery's Illustrated Course in Horse Training." A quick Googling on the topic doesn't provide much illumination, just a few websites that worship him as the greatest trainer ever, a real natural with horses, and other sites that reprint and sell his books.

Although there are nods to not breaking a horse's spirit, to "caressing" the horse when it minds, and to past abuse that contributes to a particular horse's nasty temperament (and the sensible reminder that the horse must obey you--a horse is a lot bigger, after all, and can really do some damage if it doesn't respect you), "Professor" Beery's techniques are pretty jarring in their harshness, involving an awful lot of trussing up horses and yanking their feet out from under them and jerking on their heads.

To wit:

"To subdue a horse properly, he should be thrown on his side to convince him of your power." This involves a lot of ropes, foot straps, and knee pads (for the horse) as well as a lot of people, plus making a great deal of noise with a bunch of frightening objects while the horse lies helplessly on the ground.

Yeah, because this is how you build trust and respect in your equine partner. That guy who looks like an organ grinder is cranking a "horse fiddle"--basically a supersized version of an old-fashioned clacker or rattler used to make noise at festivals and holidays. "It makes a deafening noise," asserts Beery cheerfully.

Teaching a horse to stand for the farrier involves strapping up his foot so it's tied below his belly, and you have to "punish him with the bridle" until he stands nicely.

"The instant the halter is on, remove the lasso from the neck, so that you will not choke him any more than is absolutely necessary."

"Work him hard while the ropes are on, compel  him to fight, and fight hard, show him that you are master, and can handle him as you please."

Got a biter? "Turn the horse loose in an enclosure...and enter the pen with a whip in your right hand and a revolver, loaded with blank cartridges, in the other. As the horse rushes toward you to bite, fire blank cartridges straight up in the air in front of his face. He will whirl and try to kick. As he whirls, hit him a hard stroke with the whip."

Gosh, our horse liked to nip, but nobody suggested we try this method to curb the habit.
Dealing with a horse who breaks straps and pulls on his halter? Just rig up a pulley around his middle and tie it to his halter and then to a post--reasonable enough.

But then, force him to spring forward to ease up on the rope by rushing at him with pans or flinging papers in his face: "have a little limber-lashed whip handy and strike him five or six sharp taps with the lash across the nose...the sudden added punishment about the body and the fright and pain caused by the whip will most certainly bring him forward."

Horse afraid of firecrackers? "Lay the horse on his side. Crack the whip all about him, and make all sorts of other racket. Take fire-crackers and fire them off all around him."

Beery also offered to sell items such as the Beery Pulley Bridle and the Beery Four-in-one Controlling Bit (which can be adjusted for "very severe" action). There are also instructions for how to make a variety of bridles to subdue the horse, such as variations on war bridles...

...which are prohibited by the American Quarter Horse Association at their shows under their "inhumane treatment rules" as being indicative of a "general course of dealing with horses which is unacceptable."  Apparently these bridles can be useful for dealing with emergencies, according to various sources, one of which also warns that "It can be very harsh so I do not recommend it to anyone that is too rough or relies on force too much." Which would seem to rule out "Professor" Beery...

Lest it seem that I still live in the elementary-school world of belief that horses are just big sweet Labrador Retrievers who will Forge a Bond with Your Soul (and only your soul) and am therefore too fuzzy-headed to have an opinion about horses, I will dragoon an actual horsewoman to provide Exhibit A, straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak:
Throughout the ages, many people have chosen to ignore the advice of such classical riding masters as Xenophon, who wrote The Art of Horsemanship in approximately 400 BC. Xenophon advocated a kind and fair regime for the training of horses, but this seems to have been repeatedly forgotten or ignored throughout the centuries. Horrendous practices such as hobbling or physically restraining horses, who are terrified until there is no fight left in them, have arisen.                                                                                                                             Anne Wilson, Top Horse Training Methods Explored
As for all that throwing a horse to the ground--it appears that some horsemen still bring horses to the ground, though it's now called "laying" them down, and I doubt it involves yanking their feet out from under them. An actual horse trainer (unlike moi) makes an interesting point about this process on this website, noting that the laid-down horse is enduring the tonic immobility (TI) of a downed prey animal:
On the psychological side of things, creating TI, or utilizing training methods that don’t allow an animal the opportunity to ‘find the answer’ to relieve physical and mental pressure can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness....Animals who feel they have no control over aversive situations appear passive, demotivated, and depressed....Learned helplessness will trickle over from the situation where it was created, into other areas of the animal’s existence. Although there is no current scientific evidence, could this be what explains the ‘attitude change’ in many horses who undergo being laid down? [source]
I don't know, but it's great to know that horse people are talking about these things.

Back to Beery. Interestingly, his pamphlets and methods aren't even all that original. He started publishing them in 1905. But they're all expounded in an earlier book published in 1887: The Standard Horse Book by circus proprieter and horse trainer Dennis Magner. (It's frequently reprinted but with a warning on the copyright page that "Of course, the reader will realize that many methods of breaking, training, and caring for a horse will have changed since this book was first written some time ago.")

Just another fun day at the Magner riding school.
This wouldn't make your horse distrust you. No, not at all.
"[T]his was the first experience I had of men's kindness; it was all force," laments the feisty mare Ginger in explaining her training to the placid Black Beauty in Anna Sewell's famous book, published in 1877, when such methods were routinely used (although there were plenty of horse trainers who practiced the kindness and patience that Beauty's trainers did, too).

It wasn't that long ago that throwing horses and otherwise subduing them were pretty standard techniques, and I imagine there are still many people who rely on similar shortcuts; the book Horse Breaker by Ed Bateman, Sr., which was published in 1947, relates how weaned colts and fillies were roped and "staked out" to learn to submit to a hackamore and rope around the nose and head while a cowhand "boogers" them into straining against the rope:
This method is strictly western, and often criticized as too severe, but it works for men who make their living riding horses. They know as well as you do a colt on the stake line is a forlorn and desperate animal. Entirely alone for the first time in its life, scared to death...and falling to pieces with each scare, the little fellow has a bad time of it.
Though there seems to be a bit more of a middle ground edging in, as he explains in the next section, in which the horse breaker hops aboard the colt for the first time:
There are no rules and this is no contest. The colt must realize quickly that you are master, but you must not fight it. You are up there to get its respect and confidence, not to conquer it by breaking its heart and will....For the next few days, the horse breaker intensively cultivates that hoss as a friend. No spurts, no quirt, no bit, no unwary moves. Trust a man, little feller; if he's fit to work on a cow and horse ranch, he'll never hurt you.
Bateman's book shows an appreciation for horses as individuals and horsemen as people of integrity who don't abuse them, but it still seems a pretty rough way for a horse to be indoctrinated. One caption about a filly who bolts and drags a handler notes that "Little Sister went to a severe 'schooling' immediately after, which she probably will never forget." Those quotation marks around "schooling"...makes one feel a little uneasy, wondering what's meant by that.

from Horse Breaker by Ed Bateman Sr. (Carl K. Wilson Co., 1947)
At any rate, it's balm to the soul to look at listings of horse-training books at the library and see what words abound nowadays in the titles and subtitles: understanding, gentle, humane, trust, confidence, obedient, safe, leadership, respect, friendship, reliable, accepting, compassionate communication, harmony, "Respect, Patience, and Partnership, No Fear of People or Things, No Fear of Restriction or Restraint." 

I do have a favorite bit in one of Beery's books, however. It's an item that involves only firmness and not harshness, in which the author encourages the rider to urge the horse toward an object that frightens him; while you do this, you are to "speak out commandingly" the following phrase: "Take care, look out, sir! Walk right up to it!"

I am going to try saying that in ringing tones the next time I'm hefted upon some unfortunate horse. That wouldn't embarrass the Resident Teen a bit if she were out riding with me.

For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.--Xenophon

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