Linda Parelli recently increased her notoriety when a YouTube video of her working with a horse received "trial by internet". Her response to the wide-ranging criticisms included the reason that she needed the horse's attention to be focused on her in order to work him safely. This prompted further on-line debate - if you don't like the way Linda Parelli did it, how would *you* get the horse's attention?
For me this begs the question "is it really necessary, or even desirable, to have the horse's attention on the trainer all the time"?
Horses have evolved for 60 million years as a highly successful prey animal. They keep themselves alive by almost continually keeping some of their attention on what could hurt them. They group together in herds to help keep themselves safe and, with rare exceptions when a horse may lie down and sleep watched over by another horse, they are always looking out for themselves and each other. In contrast, humans have been domesticating horses for about 6000 years. We expect to be able to take a horse out of its herd and have it focus on us, and us alone, for periods of typically about an hour, maybe with just the occasional break.
I was watching my horse have a roll recently. We had just come back from a fast ride on a warm day and he is not clipped. He *really* wanted to roll. Yet even though it was something he really wanted to do, he walked around the field, pawed the ground, walked a bit more, looked out to the horizon, walked a bit more, looked to see where the other horses were, looked back to the horizon and then finally had his roll. With so little focused concentration on a behaviour he was really motivated to do, how can we ever hope to have focused concentration on a human whim with little incentive for the horse?
Instead of trying to force the horse to do something that is clearly so unnatural and illogical for it, why don't we work with the horse's behaviour instead of against it?
Most people "need" the horse's attention to be focused on them because they perceive the distracted horse to be dangerous. So what happens if we force the horse to focus? Typically we will be making the horse turn his head in a particular way, maybe towards us if we are on the ground or straight ahead if we are riding. Does this guarantee the horse's attention on the task we are trying to accomplish? Errrrrrm, probably not, the horse could still be thinking about anything (assuming we have not yet become so aversive that we *are* the most threatening stimulus in the horse's environment). Unfortunately, as soon are we become more coercive we just don't know what the horse is thinking. That to me is much more dangerous than being merely distracted.
For the sake of my (and my horse's) safety, my priority is to know as much as I possibly can about what my horse is thinking. That involves using as little coercion as possible and giving him maximum opportunity to express his feelings. What does he like? What doesn't he like? What is worrying him? What does he need to think about before he feels he can safely carry on with the ride? With all this information I almost always know how he will respond in any situation. His responses remain small because he does not have to fight and I can remain relaxed and comfortable with almost anything he does.
Perhaps counter-intuitively for people who have always believed they need to (over-?)control their horse, this does not produce a horse who "takes the mickey" or will always choose not to do any work. When we hack out (on plenty of roads as well as tracks), my horse will want to stop and look at things but it is only ever a brief look to reassure himself that all is ok. If something concerns him, e.g. a manhole cover, we can wait for a gap in the traffic so that he can have enough space to walk around it if he needs to - so much safer than me trying to force him over it, with so many uncertainties in the outcome..... If a horse is more fearful than this and the behaviours likely to be more dramatic, then we should consider very carefully whether the horse should be out and about at all; some careful shaped training in a safe environment would be much more advisable until the horse is feeling more confident.
Reassessing what is reasonable in our horse-human interactions is a vital key to improving our relationships. When things go wrong, we almost always expect the horse to change his behaviour - even if we acknowledge that we have made the mistakes! A healthy relationship requires give and take on both sides of the partnership and, given that generally the horse has not chosen to be part of the partnership, I think it is only fair that we take on a little more responsibility for our behaviours. If we are afraid of something the horse might do (typically through its own fear), then we should be considering how to address our own fears - coercing the horse is not really a valid way of doing this.
How different the Linda Parelli video could have been if, when she realised the horse was so distracted, she had allowed him a few minutes to relax in the environment and taken the time to consider *why* he may have been distracted (including the consideration that apparently he was partially blind, although that was far from the only consideration). This could have been so much more instructive to the thousands of people who watched the video. And it would probably have done her reputation a lot more good as well.....