For a horse-human relationship based on reciprocal expression

Posts tagged ‘cognitive ethology’

Equine Cognitive Revolution

Equine Cognitive Revolution

The important field of cognitive ethology is mainly related with paradigms regarding perception, learning, categorization, memory, spatial cognition, numerosity, communication, language, social cognition, theory of mind, causal reasoning, and metacognition.

Cognitive ethology is also related to a philosofical discussion concerning the anthropocentric and not-anthropocentric vision of the world. It will have a huge cultural impact regarding our relationship with animals. With the question of Animal Awareness, Donald Griffin sought to revolutionize the science of animal behavior by insisting that questions about animal consciousness should be placed firmly in the foreground of a new research-program he labeled ‘‘cognitive ethology.’’

Questions about animal awareness and consciousness are just one corner of a more general set of questions about animal cognition and mind. The so-called “cognitive revolution” that took place during the latter half of the 20th century has already led to many innovative research-experiments by comparative psychologists and ethologists probing the cognitive capacities of animals.

The way of cognitive ethology will revolutionize with ever more power our relationship with animals, especially the horse-human relationship. In classical equestrian world, but also ‘natural horsemanship’ world, ‘clicker training’ world and even the ‘coaching with horses’ world, the animal and also horse-human relationship is still very much defined from a mechanical and behaviouristic point of view. Interaction between horse and human is continuously defined focussing on the behavior we desire from the horse.

Most animals might not stimulate the cognitive interest of human, but at least in their living with humans are more or less left in their own environment. The horse instead almost never lives in an own social environment and their interaction with human is one with continuous expectations.

Horse life is scheduled into phases in which it is pre-defined what it should learn in which moment: handling, haltering, walking, having a saddle. We very precisely define what and when it should learn things, without showing resistance or own initiatives, to respond to our requirements.

So what does this cultural new vision mean, not mechanical and behaviouristic? How is it possible in horse-human relationship? What must we change about our activities with the horses? What impact will it have?

A horse has the capacity and the need to develope his cognition. To understand the world he is living in. Smell it, see it, listen to it, explore it, investigate it. And who are we to decide for the horse if he can or cannot do so?

Start observing the horse.

Create space and time for the horse to explore his environment.

Decentare yourself  in the interaction with the horse.

One of the caracteristics of cognitive learning is the latency. Often you cannot see the immediate result of the learning process. What was elaborated might be used in a future moment, if necessary, and when the circumstance call it. In the cognitive-relationship approach, based on zooanthropological philosophy, it is not interesting what the horse learn, but how it lives the experience together with other horses and/or with human. In fact one of most important aspects in applied equine cognitive ethology is the learning path, not the learning results.

It changes practically everything. But it will bring back a horse free of tension. A horse that is able to elaborate his environment and cope with changes in it. It  creates the possibility to have an ethical and sound horse human-relationship, in which both are able and free to express themselves.

Some examples if you want read more:

– Proceedings of the International Equine Science Meeting 2008/2012 by Kostanze Krueger

– Species of Mind by Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff


Text authors: Francesco De Giorgio, José Maria Schoorl

Photo author: José Maria Schoorl

Learning Horse | Nederlands


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

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