Think we're getting close to finally figuring horses out completely? Well, we're not. But the good news is that by working entirely objectively, equitation scientists are beginning to enter into a new dimension of understanding equine behavior. And that, according to a leading equitation scientist, will lead us into a "Golden Age" of horse training.
"Behaviorism has been reborn," said Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed, owner and manager of the Australian Equine Behavior Center and co-author of Equitation Science. He spoke during the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
He explained that "behaviorism"--which started in North America with Harvard University's B.F. Skinner, PhD, in the 1950s but was lost in the 1960s--has been revised and improved and is now evolved into "learning theory." In learning theory, scientists attempt to comprehend the way individual animals acquire information and react to stimuli. It's a theory that seeks to leave behind all our current notions of dominance, respect, and "pecking order," McLean said.
"We've been left with these new-age horse descriptors, like 'this horse is an alpha mare,' or 'this one is dominant' or 'submissive,' 'respectful' or 'disrespectful,'" he explained. "But the trouble with all of these is that the spotlight is firmly on the horse's character and not on the trainer."
He continued, "What learning theory does is give us the ability to turn the mirror towards ourselves and say, 'The problem lies at my feet; I can change this behavior.' (It) may be difficult because all horses are different. Nonetheless, it's possible.' "
Other horse descriptors are not so new-age, and McLean challenges modern-day equine behavior and learning theory scientists to test these as well. Words like "think" and "understand" might not actually apply to horses at all, but could just be projections of our own human cognition.
"We're often very anthropomorphic," he said. "We ascribe human characteristics to horses--frequently."
For example, people might say their horses are "intuitive," he said. Or that they can "think back," or "feel guilty" or "feel remorse." Or we say, "my horse hates this; my horse hates that," or even "my horse hates other horses," McLean said. But do horses hate? Can they feel guilt or remorse? Can they think back? Are they intuitive? Possibly. But until we know for sure, we need to be careful about the terms we use. Otherwise, McLean said, we might be unfair to the horse, expecting too much.