For a horse-human relationship based on reciprocal expression

Posts tagged ‘equine cognition’

If a horse could open up the black-box of Skinner

Often, when I read or think about the old skinnerian concepts of conditioning, I seem to hear Descartes, a philosopher that several centuries before Skinner, emphasized nonhuman animals simply as machines. Skinner, but before him also Watson and other behaviourists went even beyond Descartes and gave the human animals the same machines-label: With the possibility to be conditioned in every behaviourial aspect of their life, so to arrive to the unhealthy concept of  the “perfect society”.

Regarding horses (and all other animals), my personal opinion is that it is absurd that nowadays there are still many scientists, veterinaries, animal trainers and animal owners that take in good consideration the skinnerian idea about animal minds, applying the behavioristic learning theory which is focused on operant conditioning. By doing so, following the skinnerian idea of animal minds, they actually not consider the mind-activity at all, nor the animal’s perception or ‘less’ observable emotions. Most people are probably not aware of these consequences, as most animals do not tend to yell “you’re not listening to me”.

Also many training and education institutions still take these concepts as important principles in order to learn how to build the “perfect horse” which brings me back to the same unhealthy feeling of the perfect society.

Instead of trying to build a horses that precisely meets our anthropocentric desires in a skinnerian way, in order to respond on the requests of the various equestrian disciplines, we should try to really understand the animal (mind, emotions and needs) and improve horse welfare starting from understanding the animal and his cognitive way of learning and living.

Behaviourism through operant conditioning is widely used to manipulate animal minds (also human minds), during learning and relationship processes. For the horse this often means a stimulated fear for the human, so to better control him, training him ”positive” or “natural” or with soft ”leadership”, but always in a conditioning way where the horse is seen as a stimulus-response machine.

Fortunately there is a world-wide search for better understanding the horse (from the horse’s point of view) and attempts to interact from an ethical perspective. A difficult one, as the standards for “good horsemanship” are almost worldwide alike and based on controlling capacities, causing that those who have a different understanding and a higher sensibility for the horse-human relationship do find a lot of walls around them. But a slow but steady change is occurring.

In this real ethical change about human’s way to look at the horse and the horse-human relationship, cognitive ethology and the zooanthropologic approach are important reference points:

– Cognitive ethology is based on scientific research and also on a philosophical, ethical and cultural approach, which is necessary to accept a new way of thinking. Applied equine cognitive ethology is based on how the horse elaborates information and the meaning for the horse of free exploration, where experience and information is shared in a social equine context;

– In equine zooanthropology the human animal takes a decentralized position in the relationship with the horse and considers the nonhuman animal as sentient living being, with his own individuality, subjectivity and otherness. In this field of activity, during the development of a horse-human relationship, co-training, co-evolution and co-experience are important terms and activities. Human and nonhuman animal, at the same time, each from their different point of view, live the same experience, share intentions and learn together.

Yes, I think that if a horse could open up the black-box of Skinner and would whisper something in it, there would be an echo coming back.

Writer:  Francesco De Giorgio, equine cognitive ethologist and trainer

Francesco De Giorgio is an italian ethologist and applied behaviour researcher, currently living in the Netherlands and working both in Italy as in the Netherlands. He is Guest Lecturer regarding Equine Cognition in several universities and his special field of research is applied social learning in horses. He is a scientist but also a practical man, having a band of eight horses together with his partner in life and work José Maria Schoorl.

Read also:

Bekoff M., Allen C., Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology, MIT Press, 1997

Darwin C., The expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, London: John Murray, 1872

De Giorgio F., Dizionario Italiano/Cavallo – Cavallo/Italiano, Sonda, 2010

De Giorgio F., De Giorgio J., The Cognitive Horse (Comprendere il Cavallo), 2012

Gould S.J., Wonderful life. The Burgess Shale and The Nature of History, W.W. Norton, 1989

Marchesini R.,  Fondamenti di Zooantropologia, Alberto Perdisa Editore, 2005

Shepard P., The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. Washington, D. C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1996.


Horse Culture: Learn by watching others

In this article titled Horse Culture, we don’t talk about equestrian culture: classical riding, saddle, bit, spur, western riding, ricreative riding, history of equitation, horsemanship, natural horsemanship or other disciplines.

In this article we talk about the horse and hìs culture.

In the wild, horses live in a social context. Or better, they live their every day life in a social experience and learning context. As has been observed in other species, also in a horse bands there is a cultural transmission, in which every horse learns from the other. Knowing eachother, especially in a family group, makes it possible for a horse to read the details in what another horse is doing, being able to pick up on it’s intentions and learn and create a shared  culture, by watching and by doing.

It is interesting when a young horse learns from observing an adult experienced horse, but it is even more interesting when horses share an experience and learn together from and with each other.

Most horses in our society do not have family connections. Their social experience and learning context can be stimulated by helping them share experiences. Two young horses for example: A one year old Welsh Cob and a two year old Haflinger/Quarter living together since several months. Facilitating them in the exploration of a novel object, they initially show different timing and different ways in approaching. The Haflinger/Quarter uses more his hoofs and the Welsh Cob more his mouth, but after some moments they begin to explore together in the same way.  The Haflinger/Quarter also with his mouth and the Welsh Cob also with the hoofs. In that moment together, they share their own exploring intents and enrich eachother by experimenting alternatives, creating their own exploring culture.

It is not that one is better than the other in exploring, but simply different. The more important aspect is that they both learn by watching the other.

Konstanze Krueger, one of the world’s most respected scientific experts in equine behaviour, writes: “Since horses constitute a highly social species much of their cognitive abilities might be connected to social experiences. By incorporating social aspects into learning trials it will be possible to gain insight into horses` social learning abilities.”

And more: Horses that live in an anthropic dimension, that live near human, can learn watching human.  Horses watch us, probably more than we watch horses. They learn through human and they create their own idea about human.

Social learning is cognitive learning and cognitive learning improves welfare and wellness.

Writer:  Francesco De Giorgio, equine cognitive ethologist



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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