For a horse-human relationship based on reciprocal expression

Posts tagged ‘Natural Horsemanship’

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.

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


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