Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Conventional vs "Natural" Training Smackdown!

The Horse | Conventional vs. Natural Training: Which is Less Stressful?

 
I
 didn’t think this topic was still under discussion to the extent that actual research was being done, but lo and behold, it is! A research group at the University of Lublin in Poland has taken the...uh...bull by the horns and put 32 Arabian colts and fillies to the test.  The results as noted in the article linked above are pretty much what most of us expected:  "Natural" is less stressful than conventional training methods based on heart rates monitored before, during, and after three checkpoints in the process.

It's laudable that someone is finally putting numbers to the suppositions that have been bandied about for the past decade or so, but I can't help but wonder if this is really a definitive determination.  After all, I, after having spent a couple of hours watching my daughter during her Bob Jeffreys natural horsemanship training program, and after watching her work with her horse at home afterwards, launched myself into the round pen and promptly scared both my horse and myself with my inability to control anything at all.  The part where I hit myself in the eye with the clip end of the lead rope I was "naturally" swinging to move the horse off me (he was literally standing on me at the time) was more comic relief than even my daughter could stand as she doubled over in hysterics.  Walking and chewing gum is still a goal now that I've found that moving quickly in the round pen results in my sitting in the dirt while the horse "naturally" laughs his ass off from across the pen.
"Want to see natural?  Wave that flag in my face one more time
and watch where I plant it."

So, calling on my years in the rat lab at Clark University, the first question that comes to mind is how to control for individual differences in trainers.  The summary in The Horse suggests that there were three groups of humans:  Natural tainers, Conventional trainers, and the guys with the heart monitors.  But it's not very clear as to how many of each were involved and if there was any overlap of chore assignments.  I'm not suggesting that the results were skewed, only that, as Margaret Mead discovered and made famous with her Tribriand Islanders studies, results are contaminated by the very act of viewing the subjects, hence the participant and non-participant observer stringency.  Individual differences in the humans involved, their ability levels (or lack thereof), and the minute differences in the way each related to each of the horses in the program would have made the outcome anything but pure.  

Pidge backs Pinky the One-Eyed Wonder App for the first time.
Pigeon Training--all Natural all the time
Add the fact that training of any kind really can't be called "natural" since in their native habitat there are no gremlins flogging the horses either conventionally or naturally to do anything.  As Curt Pate, one of the Big Name Natural Horsemanship Trainers, told us avid followers in an AQHA-sponsored clinic, there's nothing natural about what we do with horses, "and [gesturing at the reining show going on around us] this is the worst of all".  
   
Curt Pate tells his "challenge" pony a story about
the Bad Ol' Days
On the other hand, what is being referred to as "conventional" training in the study involves such trappings as a hot walker.  A hot walker.  I've never been closer than 50 feet to a hot walker, let alone had one to work with.  I'm not trying to tear the study apart, but how many times have you conventional types (of which I was one for probably 30 years before John Lyons appeared on the horizon and GaWaNi Ponyboy had me Being One with my herd in the pasture) had access to a hot walker?  

This reminds me very much of the saddle pad comparison that didn't use the pads most of us have on hand and judged reindeer fur to be the best option for impact-reduction in English riding.  I had to google "reindeer fur saddle pads" to discover there actually are some and they are readily available for the price of a second mortgage on your trailer (with living quarters).  As much as I'm thrilled that the research is being done, it's my most personal opinion that reality has to be accounted for for the results to have meaning.  In my corner of the twigs, "conventional" training has often included such thrilling endeavors as blindfolding a horse, tripping him, then sitting on his head to "teach him respect".  It has involved tying one front leg to the saddle horn and longeing the youngster till he falls down or quits being "stubborn".  And it has brought out the very worst in horsemen and horses for generations.  Putting a horse on a hot walker then longeing him doesn't really smack of the realities of conventional training methods.  And "using body language to communicate" is a pretty vague description of the "natural" style.  

We need more research, and this science of horsemanship is truly in its infancy.  Here's hoping more researchers will have the opportunity to put their efforts into play.  Donations to equine science programs across the land couldn't hurt.  Think how many horses could be saved from doom if they were properly trained and cared for?  Rutgers, Cornell, and many other universities are working hard to make strides (no pun intended) in the horse management biz.  Think about them when you want to toss cash at a horse-related program.

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