For a horse-human relationship based on reciprocal expression

Archive for April, 2012

Equine Welfare & Wellness: a critical review about “Natural” Horsemanship

The last decade has increasingly developing the Natural Horsemanship, a form of training based on mechanistic negative reinforcement. This method which was later developed by various schools overseas, seduces the owner of the horse creating a sensation of control of the animal. This control, however, is illusive.

The horse subjected to these method of training, learns superficially and reactively. In this way the horse is conditioned to respond precisely to the demands of human and thereby meeting the human expectations of an anthropocentric performance (see photo example below).

But the horse is a complex living being, a system linked to a number of internal variables that responds external variables. The relation and combination of these variables is never a mathematical science that is why many, many, horses respond very negatively to these techniques, arriving to express strong unbalanced emotions due to pressure, often invasive, that is applied in order to have the excellent performance training objective. These emotional unbalances go along with muscle tension states more or less evident, various forms of aggression more or less ritualized, bipolar reactive behaviour, depression, generalized anxiety.

In fact all the Natural Horsemanship methods work mainly on the emotive part of the horse brain (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, read more on “The Emotional Brain” written by Joseph Ledoux). This is due to negative reinforcement  applied during training, but not only (read more on Learning Theory and Instrumental Conditioning). The mechanical exercises and the obsessive request for a desired/correct behaviour in the horse impacts on the emotional status of this animal through the mainly activation of the fast/reactive way, and the significant less activation of the cognitive/slow way (read Ledoux).

Another big problem about Natural Horsemanship is the concept of Leadership. This concept is used as scientific concept applied to training, but in reality is far away from a scientific concept. Scientifically, in nature, social dynamics are situational, not schematical and not one-way action hierarchy. In a herd, depending on the situation, there are different horses with different resource behaviours, there is not a schematical and fixed leadership. In Natural Horsemanship the well-known claim is: “You must become leader of your horse”. This sentence may result in strong and dangerous misunderstandings.

In the video below that I have shot several years ago in the Italian territory of the semi-feral Esperia horses, a young female advances towards me with an explorative/cognitive behaviour. What does she express? How would you look to other horses behind her? Was she looked upon from the other horses as the leader or simply as a mare with more curiosity and explorative behaviour as her personal resources?

That which, as in the case of these “natural methods”, is defined as natural, in reality is out of the natural context for horses. Proponents of these “natural” ways, claim that their techniques are based on observation of the horses in nature and therefore have scientific value.  If you don’t observe in an objective and scientifically prepared way, you can read anything you want as you are often trying to recognize what you already think you will see. Things are different in nature, and the extrapolation of the term “natural” does not honour the specific behavioural and social characteristics of the horse, often leaving physical, mental, social and relationship injury, more or less hidden, with a significative impact on horse welfare and wellness.


Author: Francesco De Giorgio, cognitive ethologist, equine behaviour researcher, horseman.

Photo: Internet source


The inner emotional/cognitive world of the horse

The inner world of the horse includes all the mental dimension, as opposed to a reductionist idea of this animal, as well as others species.

The horse has always been considered a simple organism that responds to linear dynamics, such as stimulus-response or input (stimulation)-output (behaviour).  For example, in all phases of traditional but also “natural” training, the approach has a deterministic, mechanistic, linear, anthropocentric conception.

The cognitive approach does not give space to a reductionist image of the horse, but rather puts him on a level of complexity. These animals with a sophisticated system of mental processing, have the ability to create their own input, their own intention, based on experience that they live. In fact, when talking about cognitive training of the horse, we do not talk about a mere stimulation, but focus on building experiences together.

If we look at the process of horse training, even the most gentle, positive or “natural”, we can immediately understand how the trainer is used to work in a linear and one-way process of stimulation, with no or very few elements of dialogism and cognitive process. In this case the horse is the object of a series of stimuli, in order to obtain a desired behaviour which is often expressed in more or less invasive pressure. In this way the animal is not given the opportunity to significantly creates his personal input and to elaborate his surroundings creating his own perception. This way he does not create its mental/cognitive map, based on own experience, its own species and individual characteristics.

The cognitive-relationship co-training of the horse and also of the trainer, is based on non-linear, non-schematic and not predetermined processes.

In this kind of training, there is no focus on a particular behaviour or result, but on the way the horse elaborates the experience. In fact main characteristic of cognitive learning is the presence of a latency time. You cannot always see what the horse is learning.

Learning means to give new fields of expression of subjectivity, both as experiential capacity, both as interpretative ability, both as operational capability, both as self-perception.

The balanced and sound self-expression of the horse can only be developed in training and interactions where we favour an open and non-linear enviroment, in which the horse builds experience through free exploration both with other horses as with human.

Only this way we can ensure growth and alignment of the inner world of a horse, developing welfare, wellness and a profound relationship between man and horse.

The greatest form of respect towards the horses is to highlight their natural cognitive skills.

Text: Francesco De Giorgio | Photo: José Maria Schoorl

Emotions in horses and in human

The results we can achieve in terms of cognitive development of the horse can be enthusiastic if a person is able to create a dialogue with both the emotional and mental dimension of the horse.

In the first image we see Francesco De Giorgio riding a problematic horse named Cimango, confronted with the powerful ritualization of a horse named Wild Rain. Wild Rain has full freedom of expression, which is the first and most important pillar of Equine Anthrozoology. Cimango relies on Francesco’s calmness, smiling in a critical moment. In this way Cimango handles his  emotions and starts to trigger cognitive processes.

In the second image Wild Rain, after having had the opportunity to express herself, freely calms down and goes into a quiet mode ready for the relationship with Cimango, which in turn activated the cognitive processes becoming open for the relationship with Wild Rain.


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