It seems the horsey side of the internet has been set ablaze by this “study” out of Australia about round pen training. I cannot find a link to the exact study just articles about it. They used remote control cars to mimic a “join up” and concluded we were using fear as the horse’s motivation to join up with us. I personally am calling the study erroneous. One I can’t find anywhere where they used any form of scientific methodology. There is no hypothesis, no control group nothing that makes this a true study. The one video they post online only shows the end outcome and is only 21 seconds long.
I get what they are trying to prove but I think they are interpreting the data wrong. Of course the horses are scared of the car, most unhandled horses are scared of humans too. Would they prefer the old method of tying them up and “sacking them out” because that creates less fear, right? The head researcher Cath Henshall says she was prompted to do the study because of online posts telling people to stick horses in the round pen and chase them around. Well I agree that is not a fantastic training method and at that point all you are doing is getting them some exercise.
At some point in a horse’s life with humans the horse is going to be uncomfortable. It is just the way it is. It is the trade for the horse to be fed regularly and have shelter. How much discomfort or fear is acceptable. Well of course that depends on the horse and its previous interactions with the stimulus. Whether human or remote control car. A horse that was born and raised on the remuda is certainly going to have different expectations than a 20 year old lesson horse around people forever.
One big question I have out of this study is did they specifically note fear signs. I see no mention of data regarding seeing fear or anxiety signs. So how did they come to the conclusion the horses were reacting out of fear? Again these were horses who had been previously handled by humans so they shouldn’t have a huge fear factors. Ideally they should have done the study with unbroke animals.
Another thing that I had a question about was the mention of sound.
The horses heard a warning signal (an electronic tone) for ten seconds, and then the car began to chase the horses around the pen, which caused them to react with a flight response.
If the horse stopped and turned to face the car (“avoidance” instead of “flight”), then the car would stop, and so would the warning signal. They would hear a different sound instead–what the researchers referred to as a “safety” signal. But if the horse moved away again, then the car and warning signal would start up again. These training sessions would last for a maximum of 90 seconds, Henshall said.
Did they mimic the experiment without sound? How then could they be certain the horses weren’t responding to the sound and only the car stimulus? Anyone who has a horse that is voice trained knows that sound can be a very good aid so why did they use two separate stimuli?
We use tools everyday in our relationship with horses. All are an extension of ourselves. So wouldn’t a differential diagnosis be to confirm what these trainers are doing. That a join up is so inherently ingrained in a horse’s behavior that even substituting a machine for a human also allows the horse to join up? Why could this not be the conclusion?
I agree using the round pen to “chase around” a horse in an attempt to solve behavior problems alone is not going to be the answer. But using the round pen as a tool of training with a plan in mind is not going to be detrimental to the horse. There are far crueler methods of training that could be studied, hello rolkur, but trying to discredit something that has made lives better for thousands of horses is ridiculous. Way more research needs to be done. How about comparing Monty Roberts (they specifically mention him and he is not happy) methods to the old school tie em down, tack em up, ride em methods and see what causes more stress for the horses. Please include things that actually indicate stress, like heart rates, visual clues etc. Without it everything mention is just inference and opinion.