I went to see the Monty Roberts show in Helsinki. It took three and a half hours in all, of which I suppose about half an hour was spent on a break, enabling the audience to buy Roberts’ books and Dually halters and have their picture taken with Roberts. In effect Roberts spent three hours with five different horses, of which the Finnhorse was brought there so that a complete layman could demonstrate the join-up with it. One horse was a youngster to be saddled and ridden for the first time, one horse was afraid of the clippers, one of plastic bags and odd surfaces and one of loading into the trailer.
Because I’ve had a recurrent feeling of having spent the show night in a parallel universe of some sort, I’m going to try to analyze why. As I said earlier on Facebook, I went to the show fully expecting to see good horse training. I’ve read Monty Roberts books, too. If it had been a radio show I would have left believing that the training had been good. As I’ve read in a couple of other blogs: Roberts speaks so nicely of horses.
I’ve never in my life heard anyone talk as beautifully and emotionally of both horses and the fact that violence is no solution when you work with horses. Roberts has a way with words and speaks with a gentle, even, almost hypnotic tone. The show has been carefully scripted from beginning to end and Roberts has his audience in his hand within minutes. He talks about how the most important thing is that the horse has fun and the second most important that you have fun. He talks about how his own father broke 72 bones in his son’s body before he was twelve. He speaks of how violence is never the solution and how no horse will be beaten with a whip tonight.
I find myself nodding. I agree with almost everything.
Violence free training?
But wait a minute. How much of the words are matched by what I see tonight? The introduction of saddle and rider to a young horse is done using a visibly well tried formula and as I don’t know how people in general do that (I only know how I and a couple of colleagues like to do it) it may be that everyone else in the audience thinks it great. My eyes tell me that the young horse looks more and more sour as the training goes on, but nothing radical happens. When Mr. Roberts shows the young horse the saddle he narrates an imaginary conversation between the horse and himself, something like this:
”Is that a saddle, Mr. Roberts? If you put that saddle on my back, I will buck it off. My uncle has told me about saddles, Mr. Roberts. He said they tickle.”
And so on. The audience laughs and enjoy themselves. The horse didn’t buck.
Then the young horse is done, having trotted a few laps with the rider on his back, and the next horse is brought in. This horse is afraid of the clippers. At this point the difference between what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing becomes so big that even a seasoned horse person might be forgiven for getting confused. (I think this has a scientific term, when what you hear and what you see are in conflict and what your brain does then. Edited to add: it’s called cognitive dissonance and Wikipedia has something to say about it.) Roberts talks about how he is going to train the horse to stand still first and then gradually habituate him to the the clippers using three different electric toothbrushes with similar noise to the clippers.
The way Roberts goes about teaching the horse how to stand still, however, looks anything but natural, gentle and nonviolent. It basically consists of punishing the horse every time it moves by yanking hard on the line connected to the Dually halter. The halter has two lengths of thinnish rope going over the nose, which tighten when the halter is tightened, so it’s not such a gentle piece of equipment.
This is using punishment as a training method: if the horse does the ”wrong” thing according to the human holding the rope, it gets yanked at. If you want to get an idea of how this may feel to the horse you can put two similar lengths of rope across your own wrist and after watching the video clip to see what kind of movement to make, ask a friend to give a yank. One time, or ten, or a hundred.
Because the huge arena is in itself a stressful environment for the horse, this horse too felt the need to move its feet. This is actually a good way for a trainer to diagnose when the horse is a bit tense: if the horse feels the need to walk when being habituated to something, it may be that the horse is tense. The more stressful the situation, the harder it gets for the horse to keep on standing still.
And yes, I too think that horses should learn to stand still. But this too is easiest learned at home, when the horse is calm, and doesn’t need great force. It is enough to just ask the horse repeatedly to stand still if it moves. You can ask as nicely as anything, and the horse will still learn. Generalising, so that the horse does the same thing reliably anywhere (starting in easier places and gradually moving on to the more difficult ones, perhaps one day ending up in this very arena) does take a bit more time.
In Roberts’ case what happened was that because the clipper shy horse was too stressed, it wasn’t able to keep from moving. Not until it had been punished dozens, or even a hundred times. In addition to the pictures I also took a minute-long video clip where you can see Monty Roberts yanking the Dually halter at least eleven times. This is at the end of the part where he was teaching the horse to stand, and he used the audience (a couple of thousand people present, he said) to provoke the horse to move. First he asked the audience to all clap their hands together once: the horse spooked and was punished. Mr. Roberts used the words ”scold” and ”school” to refer to the punishment, but seen from a purely training point of view they’re punishments. Look at the minute long video and ask yourself: is this really violence free training?
Before we go on (and yes, the video clip is coming) let me repeat that I agree with almost everything Mr. Roberts said. Violence is no solution and it is perfectly possible to train horses without violence. You need to train horses to know what they are to do and if they are afraid, they should be gradually habituated. Horses are still sometimes treated with appalling cruelty and everyone should learn how to treat them better. Horses use mainly body language and expressions to communicate between themselves and some of those can be used in training them.
I’d also shortly like to talk about what a reasonable amount of force is, because it depends on the situation. If the horse has a bad colic and needs to be treated at a veterinary clinic, I can completely understand if it is loaded any way that is successful. Then you fix the loading problem. Or if a horse has a gaping wound: even I absolutely agree with making the horse stand still for treatment.
But this horse was afraid of the clippers: a small machine that takes off the horse’s winter coat. Not a life or death kind of problem, just one that makes the horse dry a bit quicker after riding. Then using force instead of systematic desensitization is in my opinion at the very least unneccessary – and you would have a hard time arguing that there is no use of force in the video clip. I wait with great interest to see if anyone does argue that.
Yes, the video clip is only one minute and ten seconds long. I’m primarily an animal trainer and photographer and only at that point did I remember that my camera also has a video button. That same horse was trained for perhaps twenty-five minutes in all. First Mr. Roberts demonstrated that the horse really was afraid of the clippers, then there was the Join-up ritual, taking a few minutes, and then the horse was taught to stand still after which the toothbrushes were brought in. You may however believe me when I say that the horse didn’t stand still all the time for those, because the training was done far too fast for the horse to be able to.
I know that the organisers, Mr. Roberts or someone who was in the audience has the whole sequence of the ”clipper horse” on video. If you find it online, watch it carefully, without the sound turned on. Look at what happens, not at what someone tells you happens.
This video clip has no sound as I deliberately removed it. Mr. Roberts was talking in a very gentle voice about how ”it doesn’t matter that the horse moved, he is testing everything now.” He sounds infinitely understanding and calm. But because people have a tendency to believe what they’re told, I turned the sound off. Look at the horse and the man and at what happens.
I’d like to add that I too think that a horse should never be allowed to run into a person even if it spooks. If it does, you can ask it to move away using enough force to make sure it does. But the ”clipper horse” was never anywhere near doing that.
I can understand that if you were in the audience, you feel upset. It’s very difficult to admit to having been taken in by something. Having believed what you were told even if you saw something else. It’s always easier to shoot the messenger and say they are wrong. Even I think it’s damn embarrassing that I was caught up in the feeling during the show, even if only now and then. And of course it’s still possible that I am completely wrong and Mr. Roberts was completely right. (I don’t think so, but I’m keeping the possibility in mind.)
You’re allowed to comment: I’ve had just about 100% positive response on Facebook and in this blog but I have no illusions that everyone agrees with me. I promise to approve critical comments too, as long as they’re even a tiny bit on the polite side. I’m also interested in what people who have seen Roberts before and this time have to say: was this a different show? Or has he always been like this?
Because according to Facebook wisdom any criticism without a solution is only temper (or however that saying goes in English) I’ll try to write the next post about how you should go about systematically desensitizing a horse to whatever it fears.
And to add a note about the Helsinki arena and horses: a few days later I watched the international show jumping there and it was a really nice experience. The horses knew their jobs, they have been started at home, then taken next door to a small show, then a bigger show – they all looked okay. They weren’t taken straight from their home to the huge arena to learn new things or to see things they’re afraid of. The difference was huge.
Edited to add my original post about Roberts with link to the FB images:
I had feedback from a couple of people that my Monty Roberts status update was so diplomatically worded that it gave the impression I liked Roberts. This is a clarifying status update: I didn’t. Here are 180 pictures I took during the show: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151901621859350.1073741828.772309349&type=1&l=5e843ab400
Even though (having intermittently worked as an animal trainer and photographer in the movie and advertising industry) I can appreciate a well organised show and even though the horses in Tuesday’s show apparently learned the things they should in a very short time: no, I didn’t like the way Roberts trained horses. I haven’t seen that hard-handed horse handling in decades nor such ugly yanking on a harsh equipment, i.e. a halter that tightens around the nose. Nor have I seen so many horses forced into a state of frozen watchfulness nor have I ever in my life seen such a nasty case of flooding as was used on the horse that was afraid of the clippers.
Our Finnish animal protection law states that an animal should not be unneccessarily frightened. If it is possible to quickly and efficiently desensitize an animal to a frightening stimulus below the fear treshold, so the animal isn’t frightened, why wouldn’t you do it that way? Sure, it doesn’t look as dramatic. It doesn’t make for as good a show.
I can fully understand that people are carried along in a kind of group frenzy during the show. Even I thought at times, that ”this wasn’t so bad after all”. But when you strip away the pretty phrases about non-violence and the adage that both horse and human has fun when training this way, this is what happened:
A horse was brought to a frightening environment (a huge arena with thousands of people) and led around the round pen a little. Then the horse was let loose and a line thrown at it, until the horse ran around the round pen. Then the horse was taught that only when you walk behind the human, you get left alone.
Then the horse was caught and taught that no matter what you do, you get punished by the trainer yanking at the lead rope, the halter tightening around your nose, and only when you walk with your head behind the trainer – or when you stand still – you are left in peace. Anyone who has watched horses kept in adequate conditions know, that this has nothing at all to do with the natural behaviour of the horse.
A seasoned horse person who was present said, that it’s great that Mr. Roberts doesn’t hit the horses with a whip. But what is the yanking on the Dually halter about? As you know, training a young horse to accept equipment and a rider is a subject close to my heart. Done so that the horse associates a calm, relaxed and positive state of mind with it.
The pictures show the two first horses: the first was introduced to a saddle and rider, the second was afraid of the clippers.
As a final clarifying note: I also am of the opinion that a horse must do what it is told, once it has learned to do it. But the way something is taught to the horse matters.