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GentleHandsEquine 06-18-2013 11:33 AM

Effects of an onlooking crowd while training a horse?
I've been considering the effects on a horse when a crowd of onlookers gathers around a round pen when you are working on a horse.

I am an Equine Behaviorist and Trainer. I specialize on working with "problem" horses and their owners. Horses who have become lawn ornaments due to their violent, unpredictable, or fearful behavior. These horses have often felt a violent hand, and in turn, react dangerously around humans.

When I have a "problem horse" in the round pen, often boarders and guests of the barn I am visiting will clammer and hang onto the round pen which I am working in. I've observed a variety of particular behaviours in these horses in my years... the first being the scared horse.

A horse whose been dealt with in such a violent manner, that he fears humans. He's confined to a small area, and his predators surround him. He is told to trust and focus on me in the center of the pen, yet his instincts are screaming at him that any one of these "monsters" outside the arena could leap out at any point in time and cause him harm. It's happened before, so what's to say it won't happen again? The horse displays an uncontrollable urge to keep an ear and eye on the monsters which have surrounded him. He appears to lose focus on his trainer due to his concern over his scary on-lookers. Eventually the horse learns to trust me, and follows me as his leader. His fears are left with me, and I show him that I will not allow him to come to harm as long as he is with me. I take on the role as alpha horse. In the wild, their alpha horse leads them and protects them. While the end result is a horse who's dropped his fears for the predators around him due to the security offered by his new found leader.... I cannot help but wonder if a heightened level of adrenaline and fear is put upon the horse, simply by having curious onlookers viewing during his experience. Would a round pen with only the trainer and the horse, and no onlookers be easier for the horse? My guess is yes... but how do you politely ask onlookers to go away? In training the horse, you aim to teach the owner, and whomever else will listen. I enjoy and love that people watch and learn from my techniques. When a boarder comes up to me afterwards and tells me my work is incredible and that they've learned so much. I want this. I want to teach so that I can change the equine world to a much gentler one. But what effect is this having on the horse? And how can we win to gentle the horse, and educate the people at the same time?

The aggressive horse.

A horse whose been so violently handled, that he has become violent and vile towards humans in every action he takes. This horse is typically confined to a stall, and is prevented from coming into contact with humans. This one is easier, I can simply ask the audience to step away and go out of sight so that I can have one on one time with the dangerous horse.

The wild horse.

A horse whose had little or not contact with humans. He is unscarred, a dry sponge ready to absorb whatever is thrown at him. He is weary of his onlookers.... an expected fear of the unknown.. however his most direct attention is on this unusual being who's placed itself unavoidably in his presence. This horse quickly comes to accept me in the pen, and pays no mind to his onlookers.

The proud horse.

An Arabian, saddle bred, a stallion.... we've all seen the proud horse. He sturts and prances... he shows himself to all who will grace him with their eyes... Like a peacock displaying it's feathers... he pays little to no mind of his trainer, and even uses him in part of his act. This horse typically goes onto to show himself in circles as the trainer lunges him. Once he grows tired of his performance, he gradually directs his attention to his trainer. He may occasionally throw a defiant proud head for his audience, but his acts are harmless and graceful.
Would this horse display less if there was a lack of audience to perform for?

And so we are left with these questions:

Overall, does an audience cause an effect for the horse?
How do we ask an audience not to form?
Shall we contact the owner of the horse prior to our session and ask that we train alone?
Have you found this to be a problem when you are training a horse?

palogal 06-18-2013 12:32 PM

If the horse is focused, it doesn't matter who's watching. Other than an initial look around to take I his surroundings the horse should behave the same way weather there is no one around or a crowd. Any other behaviors are the fault of the trainer.

alexischristina 06-18-2013 03:09 PM

I like when people crowd the arena when I'm working with my horse, he can be a bit of a stinker and the crowd definitely distracts him- but on Sunday I was at a show, the warm up ring was packed with trainers and horses, there were people hanging over the fence while I was in my flat classes, as I was doing my jumper round some lady rushed up to the fence to take pictures, we stood waiting for our classes amongst screaming children (BAREFOOT, eek), lots of people, lots of dogs, etc. I want him to be able to work through distractions or feeling 'frightened', to keep his focus and trust on me, and ignore all of that. That wont happen if you push the crowd away while you're training.

The only time I would ask a crowd to diffuse would be in the early training stages of a horse with a severe lack of trust, if the horse is afraid of the trainer that is something that needs to be worked through before dealing with spectators can be tackled, but I wouldn't continue on training in a solitary environment (because what happens when the horse is returned to the owner and blows up because there are people around?). I don't care if the horse is proud or aggressive- they can learn to work through it, it may take longer, but it needs to be done in the long run.

BlueSpark 06-18-2013 03:22 PM

in some cases it makes it harder for the horse to focus on the handler initially, but in the end you have a horse that will focus on its handler in unfamiliar, scary, distracting circumstances, in essence two lessons in one. of course its easier to get a horse to focus when there is only one thing to focus on, but later, when people try to ride that horse in a crowded lesson, take it to a parade, big trail ride, show, etc, it has to learn the lesson anyways. much easier to "kill two birds with one stone".

Corporal 06-18-2013 03:35 PM

You sound like a great trainer. I agree with palogal. Time after time experienced trainers have experienced horses that, after having become afraid show the ability to overcome it faster than most people do. (One of my adult daughters is afraid of the phone!!!) I believe that this is bc of the instinct to follow the herd and leader for survival. A horse "Quaking in his boots", so to speak, and isolated would soon feed a predator. THIS is probably why we like to work with them bc they ARE moldable.
It is inconvenient to have to retrain in less than perfect circumstances, but a horse will boil in a pot of water slowly heating, just like many people do, blithely unaware of any danger once they have been exposed to stimuli enough to ignore it, too.
The best trained horses, IMHO, ALSO need to be protected from people who might harm them, once they are calm and finished and may ridden/handled by just about anybody. I owned a few of these, and yes, I trained them to it, too. =D

Ian McDonald 06-18-2013 09:42 PM

Leslie Desmond talks about this all the time. At clinics she's continually reminding the onlookers to breathe and not to stare the horses in their eyes.

The presence of people certainly has an effect and the absence of distraction would certainly make it easier for the horse to focus on its handler or rider. Though at the same time, remember that horses used to be used for war. It is within their capacity to learn to stay focused amid any kind of distraction. In his book "The Complete Horse Tamer" John Solomon Rarey writes: "That by enabling a horse to examine every object with which we desire to make him familiar, with the organs naturally used for that purpose, viz., seeing, smelling and feeling, you may place or display the object around, over, and on him, provided that it does not actually hurt him or make him feel disagreeable."

My personal feelings are that while I sympathize with the situation, I wouldn't want to shelter a horse from the real world forever. Even if he's had a bad past, without learning to cope with life I don't see that he'd be likely to have much of a future.

JustaSkippenJess 06-18-2013 10:19 PM

Honestly I don't even bat an eye at a crowd or onlookers. The horse I am working with should be focused on me and not anyone else. I don't care if they are novice or advanced. I am the one that demands the respect and that horse will give it to me or work until they do. ESPECIALLY those that are going to be using the horse for shows, rodeos or anywhere that there is going to be people that can potentially be loud. I in no way would shelter ANY horse to being around people or crowds.... to me just sounds like poor training.

Horse Poor 06-19-2013 12:22 AM

Personally, I think you over think things. "Boarders, guests and onlookers" will always be around if the horse you're working with is at a public place…you only notice them because you are the visitor.

TheAQHAGirl 06-19-2013 12:59 AM

While I definitely believe in a claustrophobic behavior coming from a horse because of the amount of people that are surrounding it, but by no means should the horse be paying attention to the people.

When you go to a Dressage competition (high level--Grand Prix) and you have thousands of people in the stadium cheering, screaming, etc. the horse isn't focused on them and doesn't bat an eye to the people, the horse will be in-sync with the person 100%.

However many other people (like what Ian McDonald said) would say not to look the horse in the eyes and to breath, if you were to hold your breath and stare the horse in the eye you give off more of a 'predator' behavior.

tinyliny 06-19-2013 01:07 AM

they don't have to be right up on the fence. They can stand back a bit and still see/learn fine.

If you have a microphone on , you can get your voice out to a speaker and reach the folks with out shouting, and without them needing to be hovering right close. If you're serious about teaching, that kind of equipment is pretty helpful.

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