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Scientists and Horsemen speak out against Unlicensed Trainers

Here are just a few of the many concerns voiced by scientists around the world about the dangers of unlicensed trainers.

Jean Claude Barrey is a French ethologist who is also a horseman and teacher.  He has authored dozens of books and scientific articles regarding equine behaviour.  In one report he wrote:  “The practices of horse whisperers are not scientific, endorsing instead the fantasises found in children’s books.  They use words like respect and trust, though they should be talking about alienation and brain washing.   They denounce the predator/prey model, yet chase the horse like a hunter primate armed with a carrot stick.  They ignore the fact that any submission achieved by a join up method is provoked by putting the horse into flight and then repeatedly blocking him.   They are efficient manipulators of horses - and not only horses! - who don’t bother about the basis of their practices so long as they obtain rapid results.  One could write a book about what they don’t know, yet teach with self-created diplomas.”   In 1971 M. Barrey founded the Multidisciplinary Research Station in the Puisaye region of France.  

Andy Beck from the “White Horse Farm Equine Ethology Project” in Northland/New Zealand studies equine behaviour and training methods on Thoroughbreds and Arabs.  "The drive away in which the horse is put into ‘flight’ is potentially very frightening. The use of a mask increases the element of panic and the potential for “learned helplessness”.  While this may create an appearance of “control” it has also been shown to impede future learning. There is also the risk of producing abreaction in response to repressed emotion (fear, isolation). Horses that have already been well socialised to people become extremely confused by being driven away. The horse has no idea why it is harried and is most likely to experience the method as unpredictable aggression - the last thing a good trainer wants a horse to experience." 

Dr Francis Burton, Brain Researcher and Behaviourist at the Institute of Biomedical Life Sciences of the Scottish University at Glasgow.  “I’ve tried ‘join-up’ with three horses with whom I already had a trusting relationship. … Two displayed signs of being irritated by the procedure, one showed aggressiveness towards me.  I was left wondering frankly what the point of the exercise was and realized that the driving away had a detrimental effect on the trust that I had already built up.”

Dr. Debbie Goodwin, at the University of Southampton, who is the President of the International Society of Equestrian Science, warned, “When training fails, horses suffer and may pay the ultimate penalty with their lives. They can do nothing to remedy this situation. That responsibility is ours.”

Professor Katherine Houpt, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine.  “To drive the horse away is just a form of negative reinforcement – doing something unpleasant until the horse does what you want.”

From a report on a House of Commons Committee set up to create a new Veterinary Surgeons Act.  "Any new Act should not overload the profession with unnecessary legislation, but it must safeguard the health and welfare of animals and also protect them, and their owners, from those who offer potentially dangerous treatments without sufficient knowledge or training.”

Dr. Martha Kiley Worthington, of the Eco Research and Education Centre in Devon, England:  “It’s awful that these trainers refer to the behaviour of a predator.  I have seen some shocking results of this. It is madness to frighten a frightened horse.  This daft idea of dominance comes from the male competitive cultural society in which we all live. "

Emma Kurrels is a horse trainer who specialises in helping horses traumatised by round-pen training. She runs the Lluest Horse and Pony Trust and Voices for Horses.  When she was told about the damage to Sikunder she wrote, "The toxic trainer who wounded Sikunder has no idea what she is doing and should be stopped by the authorities - because what you describe is not training but ignorance personified. When working to regain trust your aim is NEVER to desensitise - but to allow the horse to gain confidence. Even if this trainer is ignorant enough to think she can remove fear she cannot erase memory. That’s why working with an abused horse is like deactivating a bomb. Horses like Sikunder, who have been victimized by these trainers, can heal - BUT it is impossible to say how long it will take.

Dr. Sue McDonnell,  Head of Equine Behaviour, University of Pennsylvania“Many horse owners who have been exposed to these methods contact our Institute subsequently for help.  This indicates that they often encounter complications or even failure.”

(Some of the above comments were also published in Cavallo Magazine in December, 2003.)

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