Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Poisoned cues and Natural horsemanship Part 2

Now that I have explained what a poisoned cue is (or at least had a crack at it!) I am going to attempt to explain what in the heck it has to do with the natural horsemanship movement.

Human error leads to habituation, which leads to more force, louder aids and poisoned cues. Right? That gives me a big bout of learned helplessness just thinking about it! Luckily for us though -- horses are very forgiving.

What I mean by forgiving is not that they are consciously forgiving. They do not understand mistakes or good intentions. They are not forgetful either. Horses have been found to still respond to cues learned 10 years prior with little practice with those cues in between. We all know how amazing the equine memory is! What I mean is that horses are highly specific in what they do remember, or associate, so with training mistakes there is usually a way out. Poisoned cues can be replaced with a new one in it's stead! This-I-believe is why Pat Parelli and the rest of the "Natural"gang came to be so popular ( and rich too you guys want what for a halter!)

I know from personal experience as well with by personal observation that a large percentage of people that are drawn to Parelli are people that already have a horse but problems have come up using the "traditional" method and they are looking for a new way to approach riding and training their horse. Sure they have some clients that have had no prior horse experience but they do market themselves as a solution for the "problem horse". Here is a familiar but hypothetical story to better explain what I mean:

Owner/rider has a horse that bucks under saddle and is UN controllable on the ground. Most likely she has tried many of the traditional methods for fixing the issues by changing the bit, escalating the "aides" using a chain over the nose etc etc, but the horse now just bucks almost every time they ride together and is impossible to catch.

I think that this is because by now most of her aides she uses to communicate with her horse are poisoned cues.The rider when using the reins and her leg now is eliciting a fear response at least some of time-- same with the halter and lead.

Rider finds Parelli program and gives it a try. She buys the new rope halter with the savvy string, and the carrot stick, and starts playing the "7 games". Her horse starts to respond to the porcupine game and seems to be learning. Her horse also seems to be more relaxed and happier in her work. She buys a Parelli hackamore and maybe even a Parelli saddle (gee gads!). Horse seems cured!

The Parelli method says that the training issues were solved by " love, language and leadership " They say this is about communicating to the horse in a language they can understand. They say that playing their seven games and using their method builds respect and makes you your horses leader. The Parelli program is brilliant because it works but not for those reasons above. I think the Parelli system works not because you are talking with your horse or your horse now sees you as a dominant heard member but because they take away your poisoned cues and the negative associations of the equipment that you had and give you NEW equipment and NEW cues. It is a fresh start. The horse is highly specific in his bad associations. Actually just changing minor things in the way you ask and how you ask may actually be a completely new experience for your horse. How brilliant Parelli!

What I do not like is the way the sell it though. Natural horsemanship is not natural. No more natural then other ways. Natural horsemanship professionals are not speaking horse. What they are masters of is negative reinforcement. They know when to release. Just like all really amazing horse trainers out their. All the 7 games are is practicing negative reinforcement. It is just a new package for the same old message. I am glad they are getting rid of some of the mentalities and attitudes of older traditional regimes, however I think people would be better off and their would be a lower percentage of horses redeveloping behavioral issues in the "Natural" world if people actually understood the science behind why all of this stuff works. It is not magic guys! It is behavioral theory plain and simple! :)


  1. wonderful post you've explained it brilliantly!!!!

  2. great post! coming from the "anti-parelli" (I cant stand that whole camp), but I like the way you come about approaching it.

  3. LOL I hear what you're saying. Parelli does what the dog whisperer does - trains people to stop doing the wrong thing over and over. as you said, it's breaking the cycle.

    I think we all find it offensive because of the packaging and marketing jaggernaut, but it's succeeded in changing some attitudes.

    I don't know enough to say it's about "leadership" (more about competence, probably), but for plenty of people it's at least progress. Less horses sent to slaughter - at least one hopes.

    At least it's better than tieing horses heads down to get them to bend at the poll. Talk about a poisoned cue!

  4. Great post! You've done lots of thinking and research on this and I agree with you're perspective of the whole 'Natural Horsemanship' training.

  5. Interesting post. I had never thought of parelli in this light, and can see how this perspective makes a lot of sense. One big reason I think many people are successful with parelli is that many horses and riders just don't know anything about groundwork. By spending more time on the basics (groundwork), especially before riding, and by learning how to better read the horse, many riders are able to be much more successful at communicating with their horses.

    Still, parelli is based on negative reinforcement. And, based on the trainer's timing and mechanical skills, it's still really easy to create poisoned cues. Such as:

    1) Parelli person wiggles rope at phase 1.
    2) Horse backs up 3 steps at a moderate pace and crookedly.
    3) However, horse doesn't know if backing up 3 steps is going to result in a release or in a quick escalation to a phase 4 (ouch!).

    I've seen some really beautiful horses trained using parelli. I've also seen some parelli horses that just made me cringe.

    I think we have to be really careful with escalating pressure (phases) or else we can very easily run into trouble.


  6. I am really happy this connection made sense to you guys, I felt like I was going out on a limb here.
    Breathe- Yes I totally agree with you, I don't mean to pick on Parelli per say. They do provide a wonderful message that says to focus on ground work, and not quick fixes like tie downs etc... I just feel like the message would be so much better without all the magical thinking. Which I guess is what you are saying too. :)

    Mary H.- Good point about the ground work correlating with the success rate! That definitely improves your relationship no matter which method you are using. It is also to point out that Parelli is neg reinforcers. I have also seen some amazing horses through the Parelli system and I have also seen some pretty confused ones as well.

  7. You've definitely given me a lot to think about -- the whole "poisoned cue" concept mmakes a lot of sense!
    And, uuuggghhh, the Parellis -- they are geniuses, but not of horsemanship, of marketing. "Just buy this $60 Carrot Stick and all of your horse problems will melt away!" *rolls eyes*

  8. Hey, I just read an old post where you described your problems with Bodhi's skin allergies. I know two people down here in Miami who have had the same problem, only much more extreme. Interestingly, they both solved it the same way -- flax seed and Wendal's Herbs Stop Itch. Somehow, the combination of the two seems to be magical (plus, the flax makes their coats glossy and gorgeous!).

  9. I will try adding the Flax seed to Bodhi's multitudes of skin treatments this summer then! Cool :) He gets a spray-able topical steroid currently (yuck!) and that of course works the best! Yeah I am afraid his allergies are just going to get worse as he ages, I have seen that happen with others. Poor Haflingers are really prone to skin allergies evidently and putting an alpine pony in the Florida heat does not help of course! Thanks!

  10. I'm having a little trouble writing this without rambling on ad nauseum. Technically I agree with everything you say here, nothing in the "natural horsemanship" movement is actually new, it's really just the application of negative reinforcement, and the big name trainers touting this are masters at it. The thing that makes this "natural" is that horses in a herd are truly the ultimate masters of this technique, it takes very little observation to verify this, quite aggressive during an establish pecking order phase, and extremely subtle once established, but very clearly negative reinforcement is the basic behavior control model horses use on each other. "Natural Horsemanship" has accomplished 3 things that have been missing for thousands of years for the average person: First the term has captured the imagination of the public and brought awareness that has been missing. Second by focusing on the release it is finally understandable what is meant by mounds of jargon used and allows the average person at actually, consciously, change the behavior of their horse. Third, by providing specific ground work exercises that allow a person to practice this technique, while feeling fairly safe on the ground, the average horse owner can become proficient enough to actually be something of a horseman. When ques become "poison ques", replacing them with an alternate que may sort of work initially but without improving ones technique, you quickly have 2 poison ques. By becoming proficient in the release this can be prevented, the horse is so tolerant it will even let us reuse the original que if we are proficient enough. I really suspect that when you see a Pirelli trained horse that is a mess, it is not because the technique is flawed, the persons execution is flawed, hasn't this always been true? As far as making a lot of money from this, so what? This is basic American entrapanuership at its best, find a need and fill it, their financial success is proof that the status quo of horse training was not filling the need.

  11. Very good points, and I agree with your point that horses use neg reinforcement socially It is one of the reasons it works so well with them. Horses and dogs are one of a tiny handful that neg reinforcement even works at all! Ever tried to walk a cat on a leash by the typical pull and release method then you know what I mean.

    I do also agree that unless you understand the mechanisms behind neg reinforcement than any cue you use will eventually be habituated to or poisoned. My perspective is that the "Natural horsemanship" movement is not doing it's job in explaining why their techniques work. I have seen so many horses that made initial improvements fall back into problems because the owner did not really understand the science behind the magic. I never said the training program Parelli uses does not work, I am merely suggesting that it works for reasons they do not explain well enough to their students. It is a failed technology if it is not well enough explained to the student. If people are failing to execute the system correctly then it is the fault of the teacher not the pupil. Same goes for horse back riding. Never the horse always the rider!

  12. What a great topic for discssion you raised, poisoned ques encoumpases a huge chunk of horsemanship. I suspect this is the underlying bread and butter of trainers for decades. "My horse needs a tune up so send him to a trainer for a month, take a lesson or two before bringing him home", repeat in 2 yeas.
    I fully agree that the psychology of negative reinforcement is not explained well by triners, not sure I can call it a failed technology because of that, any more than I can call this laptop failed technology because I don't know how it works, I just need to know how to work it. When I watch trainers on RFD or go to watch a clinic, I generally watch the students more than the trainer, the trainers are so good their horses "get it" so fast it often does look like magic and not training. Students are much slower to understand what they need to be doing and even when the explanation is clear, or seems so, they rarely succeed right off. The difference I do see between now and 30 years ago when I attended some clinics, is the trainers use specific moves to teach principals rather teaching the moves for themselves. Once the students learn the principals of exaggurated body language and release, they accomplish the rest very rapidly. Albiet, some never quite get there, but I do believe a larger percentage succeed than ever before.
    Back when Equus magazine was just getting started they ran an article titled "Rewards Punishments and Bribes" where they clearly laid out the psychological principals involved in influincing behavior. Didn't really advocate one over another just explained how each worked. At the time I expected this would create some stir in the readers letters etc, but it passed almost without notice. In todays world where dominance by physical means is being replaced by dominance because we are smarter, I suspect it would be a major help in understanding the principals.
    The test will be if it stands up over time and if, over time, more people are riding better behaving horses, safer.
    I also believe the better the debate, the better the change gets, thanks for starting such a great topic.

  13. "It is a failed technology if it is not well enough explained to the student. If people are failing to exceute the system correctly then it is the fault of the teacher not the pupil."

    yes. yes. yes.

    Very nicely put. Behavior analysts (and some animal trainers) are fond of saying the animal is always right.

    Our culture is so fond of blaming the student when he/she fails to learn. Rather the student is a relfection of the teacher and teaching.

    If our horses understood what we wanted, knew how to do it and were motivated to do it, they'd be doing it!