Heart Horses
Many of us equine-enthusiasts strive for what we consider a special relationship with our ‘heart horse’…
We have millions of definitions, descriptions, stories and romantic ideas of what this “relationship” should be or look like. A common image is a horse and human riding together in a whimsical setting, with no tack or tools to bind them, just two souls connected by the heart. We dream of clear communication letting our horses know exactly what we want from then and when, creating beautiful, dance-like riding. We also dream of a horse who has the self-created desire to comply. The horse who wants to do what we ask, for no other reason than their love for us, their beloved human.

Soon these concepts and thoughts get twisted and contorted – we begin making compromises. We begin to add tools, ropes, straps, whips, spurs, bits, and more, we label these “communication” tools. While they do work to communicate our desires to our horse, they also work to motivate our horse to comply – but how? The motivation that comes from these tools is rooted in avoidance, the horse constantly working to seek relief, escape from us and our tools. But we compromised because in order to achieve our dream, we need some tool to translate and to motivate. We can even eventually fade these tools of forced compliance, once the horse learns them well – is this the end goal? To teach the horse how to successfully avoid pain, fear, discomfort, frustration, without it ever needing to actually be applied? Minimal use of aversives is a great goal, but if we are still using threats, is the horse still complying out of fear, not love?

So what is it? We look further we make more compromises, we push ourselves and our horses, we conform our dreams to more typical goals. When does it become about the love?

But food isn’t better really? I mean we can train all the same behaviors with the use of food rewards and a bridge signal – that’s been proven time and again. We do so with wild animals at zoos, refuges, and marine mammal parks. We teach the wildest and most dangerous of beasts to participate in their own healthcare and husbandry needs – they form loving relationships with their trainers/handlers… Why not horses? Well they’re still just doing it for the food, we switched whips for targets, ropes for clickers, and pain relief for food rewards – we have changed the communication, we have changed the motivation. But the answer is still not “because they love us”, right?

So today I looked up the definition of a relationship, let’s see what a relationship really means – not just our imaginary images and ideas of what it should look like.

Relationship: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.”
“the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.”
Synonyms include: “connection, relation, association, link, correlation, correspondence, parallel, tie-in, tie-up, alliance, bond, interrelation, interconnection”

Then I thought back to the very basics of behavioral science, before clickers and treats, before operant training – we have Classical/Respondent Conditioning. Remember Pavlov? He rang his bell and the dogs salivated for food? The bell had a relationship (association, link, correlation…) with the food. The bell not only predicted the food reward, but the bell began to be tied together with the food, it began to elicit the same emotions. Same with the shock, when a light predicts a shock, the light begins to elicit the same fear, the same emotional response, as the shock itself – without causing harm again. Once conditioned, these basic correlations, relationships, remain strong – though continued correlation is needed to maintain the meaning, the relationship, through the fall outs of real life.

But what does this have to do with us and our horses?
If the bell predicts the food enough, the bell begins to elicit the same emotions as the food itself. If the light predicts the shock, the light begins to elicit the same emotions as the shock. Now if the human is always a part of the picture – the human predicts the bell, which predicts the food, or the human predicts the light which predicts the shock, the human too will be tied up, correlated, a relationship will form.

Which do we want our relationship based on? Which relationship is more like our original dream and future goals? Which elicits the emotions you want your relationship founded on? Both sets of communication/motivation tools provide the same thing (whips, bits, spurs, ropes vs. clicker, target, food) they provide the same level of training, understanding, and motivation. But they both create and inspire different relationships.