Sunday, November 8, 2009

SeaWorld and Empowered Horses

This past Saturday a friend of mine stopped into the studio to chat a bit. Ted and his wife, Barb, had just returned from a week long holiday in Florida shared with their son, daughter-in-law and delightful seven year old granddaughter, Willow. Ted looked very refreshed and said they'd all had a wonderful time. One of the highlights was a visit to SeaWorld.

Ted relayed to me that prior to the show, the SeaWorld trainers explained the general philosophy of how they interact with and teach these marine mammals to do the amazing things they do.

Some of the noteworthy things Ted related were:
--there is no force involved
--there is no punishment

--undesirable behavior is ignored, not corrected
--copious praise reinforces desired behavior
--food is just one reward, praise and human attention are more appreciated by the animals
--the gate to the back pools is always open so if an animal doesn't want to participate it is free to leave the area
--if an animal does not want to "perform" his part of the show is canceled

In fact, this last element is something that Ted and his family experienced for themselves. The first day they went to see the show, they struck up a conversation with an enthusiastic fellow sitting nearby who was especially addicted to SeaWorld (having made many repeat visits) and enjoyed telling them all the things he'd learned about the type of training that is done to put a show like this together. He also told them that sometimes Shamu refused to perform, and that if this happened they should come back at another time because Shamu's performance was spectacular and worth waiting for. Sure enough, during their first visit, the Shamu Rocks America show had to be called off, but during their next visit, the killer whale was in a better mood and ready to show what he could do, bringing astonishment and awe to the cheering crowds.

I was thrilled with what Ted was telling me because it felt very much like the path of horse/human relations I have been pursuing, and reflected almost word for word the philosophy put forth by Imke Spilker in her book, Empowered Horses. This philosophy is also present in Alexander Nevzorov's work, and there are many similarities as well with the work of Carolyn Resnick.

I quickly did some research on the internet and found a website which provides information on training marine mammals at SeaWorld. Those of you who train horses and are especially drawn to non-coercive means of training will enjoy reading through the way training and behavioral shaping takes place at SeaWorld. Reading about how SeaWorld approaches training once again (as with the way Imke Spilker interacts with horses) also reminds me very much of the philosophy behind the Montessori method of teaching young children.

After reading through the SeaWorld web pages, I was especially impressed with their detailing of what they feel creates an ideal training environment which to my perception seemed remarkably holistic and more of an overall interactive lifestyle which includes, sessions devoted to learning, exercise, relationship, play, husbandry and the shows.

Learning about the way SeaWorld trains these marine animals came at a time when I had just been reading on various Spanish Mustang forums and websites how disgusted many of these trainers are with the surge of enthusiasm dedicated to shifting perceptions of horses as livestock which are to be dominated and used, to that of horses as friends with whom we can have egalitarian relationships that lead to self-actualization for both horse and human.

Here are just a few comments from these various sites that caught my attention because they come from a particular perception that horses will take advantage of humans and harm them if they are not reprimanded, disciplined, punished, etc.

"On the flip side, we have those that will over-gentle the horse and try to treat it like a dog. They do not discipline or follow through. They allow the horse to make decisions and then can't change the behavior because the horse does not take them seriously. These horses are allowed to act like spoiled children and will hurt you if given the chance."

"Too many people equate natural horsemanship with passive, whimpy, non coercive, "training" methods. I am not Ghandi. I am just as violent, (and no more so) than are the horses in my herd. If one of my horses would bite me I would take my natural fist, do my best to make it feel like a natural kick, and try to knock the natural hell out of him. "

"I like your description of how you deal with a ground problem, horse to horse. Himself gets popped in the old kisser or a hard fist on the neck when he deserves it. When it happens, he then looks at me and starts licking his lips or if bridled-up, will spin his bit's cricket roller. Like he knows I caught him crossing a line. And then we're fine. It's the old John Lyon Three Second Rule: If the horse bites or kicks or something along those lines, you have three seconds to kill him. Then you let him know that the world is now OK. Rub him a bit. Love a horse to death and one of you may die."

These types of responses from humans towards a horse's undesirable behavior often yield the results humans are after...but not always, horses are not machines and humans are not always interpreting the horse's state of being accurately (meaning that many times a horse is punished when actually the human is in error or has inappropriately provoked the undesired behavior to begin with). And while one can argue that to discipline a horse in this brusque manner is something horses understand because this is the way they handle disputes amongst themselves has a certain merit--however, it does little to raise the level of communication to a subtler, higher state of understanding that brings out the best in both horse and human. At best, this type of training teaches the horse that if he behaves in a subordinate manner things will go better for him and teaches the human that when the horse shows an opposing reaction, she must assert herself, no matter what it takes, until there is a yielding of the horse's will to hers.

This would be the point of that type of dominator-driven training, I suppose, to create, through the use of force, horses which assume a reliably subordinate behavior (subordinate minded horses are considered safer for humans to be around). A horse must submit to the human handler in all things, like a well tuned mechanized vehicle, if you will, that with the press of a button responds as the human has designed it to do.

The trainers whose comments I've highlighted are probably not mean-minded individuals and likely are not cruel to their horses, but I do feel that they may be mentally stalled in their evolution of horse/human relationships and maintain a certain roughness that will keep them from advancing. They are probably not interested in developing anything other than what they presently practice...they are happy and their horses have come to a place of adjusted contentment. It is not necessarily a bad thing, this relating to horses as subordinate creatures--these trainers are merely capitalizing on the horses natural tendencies to yield to a higher authority...
...its just no longer what I feel compelled to do. I am exploring other means of achieving willing cooperation with horses.

For myself, if I resort to inflicting pain, however brief, to make myself understood to my horse, I feel that I have missed the opportunity to take our relationship to a higher level, i.e. my punitive actions reinforce a certain baseness of character that hold us back from evolving in our understanding of our overall potential in our relationship together.

My understanding of the new philosophy of horse/human relationships (or possibly a revival of an ancient one!) is that it promotes nurturing a means of communication that--while based on what we see horses exhibit amongst themselves and utilizes the type of communication we use amongst our human selves--is ultimately generating a unique (or inherent!) situation that transcends apparent differences between the species. This type of philosophy requires a dedication to developing the relationship first, based on mutual respect, creativity, lack of rigid hierarchy, shared leadership and a complete reversal of perceiving the horse as a useful tool to fulfill human desires.

I should note here that the concept of mutual respect, avoidance of a rigid hierarchy and sharing of leadership are the very things that traditional trainers likely finger as causing "spoiled" horses. No doubt a misapplication of means to achieve "mutual respect" and "shared leadership" occur--similarly a misapplication of means can likewise ruin horses in the dominance oriented manner of training.

My point, and the point that has been made by pacifists all along, is that it is possible to achieve excellent relationships with out the threat of "might makes right". Some ancient cultures flourished as "partnership societies" and though the war-mongers later overtook them and established our present well-ingrained system of "dominator societies" we have within us the capacity to revitalize a more sustainable, egalitarian way of interacting with our world and its inhabitants. What better way to understand this than to restructure our relationships with horses (or killer whales) without resorting to domination and violent measures to gain understanding and compliance from them?

Getting back to the training philosophy of SeaWorld. A man named Chris Rice was able to have a one on one interview with Laura Surovik, one of SeaWorld's killer whale trainers. He relayed elements of this interview in his blog, and I'd like to share a few noteworthy passages here, with readers keeping in mind the parallels to being with horses.

I asked Laura if food was the primary ‘reward’ for the whales’ behaviors. I was surprised at her answer.

“Actually, the whales respond more to attention and love. They’re being fed all day, so a few fish are not so much a reward, just part of our interaction. We take our cues from observing the whales.”

The whales demonstrate her point as they swim around responding to each other’s touch. They continually rub against each other’s backs and sides and bellies and love the attention. It becomes obvious that they especially love this kind of attention from the trainers too. And the trainers are more than happy to give it!

The trainers speak of their work as a “lifestyle commitment,” often spending overnights with the whales.
“It’s a 24/7 kind of life. The whales are like family members to us.”

“You know, Chris, you’re a behaviorist, since you’re a psychology major. You know, having worked with children, and people all over the world, you have to be able to read the situation. Look in the animals’ eyes and read. Are they with me? “Animals have good days and bad days. No different than us."

I'm so glad that Ted stopped by to share his inspirational visit to SeaWorld, it has brought to me an added sense of "rightness" in the path I have been drawn to with our horses here at Ravenseryie.


Janet Grant said...

For the past 2 years, (with the help of a trainer), I have been using clicker training and positive reinforcement training to re-educate my horse, who was previous in an abusive relationship. He responds so well to it, and justs get better every day. The biggest difference is his attitude shift, instead of fearing every interaction with humans, he has come to realize that he can do no wrong (ignore the bad behaviour), and only gets rewarded (small chunks of hay cubes and loads of praise) for the right response. He works very hard to figure out what that 'correct' response is and is by far a happier, safer, less fearful and more confident horse. Fear and tension are a dangerous mindset for a horse to live in.

Anonymous said...

So interesting about the marine mammals! I was at a horse exhibition over the weekend, observing cowboys and others working with horses. They were definitely of the "show 'em who's boss" mindset - they were patient and non-abusive, but still .... The thing that struck me was that, although the horses quickly became compliant, the look in their eyes showed that they were mentally isolated and resigned rather than responding to the people. I think it is difficult for those of us trying to move into a Spilker/Hempfliing/etc. way of working to know how to proceed. It is a matter of groping one's way forward and experimenting - there are no formulae. I wish I were already Hempfling (and so do my horses!!!), but I am not (yet?). Lyons or Parelli offer a pretty much sure-fire way of proceeding - a big improvement over certain more old-fashioned methods, but still not the way we would really like to work with our horses. I use a lot of Lyons, but I'm trying to be less rigid about who's in charge.
I think it is better probably to be like Lynne and swear off any (what FM Alexander calls) "end-gaining" in terms of training or riding and just interact with the horses pretty much on their terms. It's kind of sad when you see the difference between how people relate to little foals and then how they relate to them once training starts.

Yesterday, I decided Chloe really needed to come out of her pasture to get some change of scenery and some attention. I found myself at the gate with a pony at the end of the leadrope who was refusing to move. With Gus I will resort to poking him in the ribs with a finger. (Also I know his occasional reluctance is due to crossing the stony ground right outside his pasture.) However, Chloe is my "Origin" horse, and I have decided to forswear all coercion of that sort. So I just stood not looking at her with the lead rope taut. She finally decided she would come with me. Kind of cheating, but .... ! Anyway she came with me to the round pen and we worked on a couple of things for a very few minutes, and then I took her back. On the way back I stood and chatted for a few minutes with the BO, and Chloe got fed up and started bumping me with her head - of course he pointed out that this was disrespectful of her. But I told him Chloe was Different and that she was allowed to Do Things that other horses weren't! I've known her long enough to know that she doesn't press her advantage but actually appreciates it if you let her "get away with" stuff. I have long been able to "get her to be good." But I don't want her to be good - I want her to be happy!! Since I have really backed off telling her what to do, she has become more trusting. But KFH would HEAL HER AT THE FIRST ENCOUNTER. Arghh! I wish I were KFH or Imke!!!!!

By the way, do y'all have any thoughts about the difference in emphasis between Imke, who seems to back off all thoughts of dominance, and KFH, who emphasizes the need for non-violent dominance.
Also I have become majorly obsessed with the 26 personality types (I have a Sergeant and an Origin and a North Wind, and I ride a possible Prince, and I love them all!!!), and there is NOONE to talk to about it, and I pore over magazine pictures and make the horses at the barn show me their profiles, and puzzle and puzzle and puzzle. Is there anyone out there who wants to discuss?

- June

Anonymous said...

George (fka Buddy) has come to live with us. He's a Sergeant, and he does seem to be fond of clear direction, and he's quite businesslike. He's only greenbroke and hadn't been ridden for two years - he's going to be my 13-year old daughter's horse. We saddle him up free in the round pen, and my daughter's been riding him with just a halter in the round pen. I like doing things in the round pen and not tying the horse up. We're trying to keep things playful and fun. I'm trying to communicate to George: "look what you can do." I'm trying to listen to him and let him tell me what he'd like to work on, when he'd like to stop, etc. He's a horse who's always expressed displeasure very readily (he used to be very aggressive), but I try not to react, other than if he pins his ears when I'm do anything, I just politely ask him to walk out on the circle again, and then he'll tell me when he wants to come back in, and then we'll do whatever it was that he didn't like (usually involving picking up his feet) without any problem. I don't think I need to "make him feel sorry" he was "rude" - I don't need to work him on the circle to the point where he's regretting his mistake - I'm just changing the conversation, and then he knows that when he comes back in we'll go right back to what it was we were doing, and he's fine with that - he doesn't come back in out of desperation.

The other day I had to trim the feet of a rescued yearling who was going to an adoption fair. I way over-pressured him - I should have quit after two feet. I think the amount of pressure you can put on a horse in a round pen is considerable, and it's possible to be quite punitive without ever raising your voice or touching the horse. He got his feet done, but he was mad at me when I let him go and walked off pointedly ignoring me. I was relieved the next day when we were friends again but felt really bad that I had alienated him before.


Lynne Gerard said...

Janet Grant wrote:
"Fear and tension are a dangerous mindset for a horse to live in."

I agree, Janet, and I'm surprised how in the past I often misread my horses...fear and tension is obvious in some horses, in others--those who seem more to just go along with whatever--they stuff it down deep and so the signs are subtler but when they erupt, the potential for a harmful result is much greater.

I've heard so many good things about clicker training and I think its wonderful that it helps bring a better (and more fun) relationship to horses and humans. For whatever reason, I, myself haven't felt compelled to give it a try, but I do know that it works wonders for many people.

June wrote:
"By the way, do y'all have any thoughts about the difference in emphasis between Imke, who seems to back off all thoughts of dominance, and KFH, who emphasizes the need for non-violent dominance."

As always, June, your contributions are thought provoking. I do have some things to discuss on the subject of dominance, I'm just needing time to get it all better sorted out in my mind. It's an important subject and not one to just throw out ideas that haven't been fully reflected upon. So bear with me.

June wrote:
"I was relieved the next day when we were friends again but felt really bad that I had alienated him before."

Imagine what the world would be like if humans were as quick to forgive each other!