Recently I watched a documentary called Blackfish. It’s about a large, male captive killer whale that attacked a number of its handlers and trainers over the years, either hurting or killing them. Cruelty, greed and stupidity knows no bounds in the human race, and for me this film was a prime example.
Killer whales, like dolphins, seals and the like are trained via operant conditioning. Using a whistle, clicker, or other consistent sound, the command is bridged to the reward. So simple. So effective. So powerful. I first stumbled upon clicker training in 1999 at Equine Affair in Kentucky, bought a book written by Alexandra Kurland, and watched a demo with a horse given by a former Sea World trainer, whose name currently escapes me. Naturally, I went home and tried it. I repeat: so simple, so effective, so powerful.
Back to our killer whale… There was no surprise to me that this massive mammal, kept in confinement, often beaten up by other captive whales, sometimes mistreated, drilled repeatedly, and put on public display would turn against those who claimed to love him. Inadequately educated, the ‘trainers’ were chosen for their looks, charisma and ability to engage an audience, not for any real or imagined abilities as animal trainers. Despite all odds, many of these ‘trainers’ lived to tell the tale, only to reinforce the generosity of this individual whale.
I could see ‘it’ (the killings) coming as plain as day. My non-trainer husband, who watched with me, could see ‘it’ coming. In hindsight many of the trainers, at least, could see suggestions. The whale sometimes didn’t listen or ignored the command, and sometimes showed obvious agitation. How embarrassing that that should happen during a live show. The response by the trainers: push harder, or worse, punish the whale by purposely withholding food, which acted as the reward. Behind the scenes, the pushing and the punishing was even more severe.
So what exactly does all this have to do specifically with horses?
I’ve worked with some of the meanest, most aggressive horses. Each and every one of them had good reason to be that way; people made them that way. Consider this your friendly reminder. While the horse is not nearly so big and powerful as a killer whale, it’s still big and powerful enough to put you in the ground before you can blink; always have the utmost respect for that. Pay attention, be observant. Behavior out of character is not to be ignored. Stop. Take a step back. Consider. Punish sparingly and certainly don’t do it out of some warped sense of ‘I’ll teach you a lesson’, because that’s likely to come back and bite you in the ass at some point. Fair and consistent treatment rules the day. Withholding of food or water does nothing more than frustrate an animal that can not reason at the level of a mature adult human. Engage your brain and at least try to recognize that you aren’t the center of the universe. Educate yourself, and be open to further learning.