Manners! (First in a series of 3 articles for Horsemanship Magazine)

I was recently trimming a client's horse's hooves and - as is often the case - when the horse objected a little by fidgeting, the owner held her tightly and said "OY, manners".

I think the horse could have said the same thing to me. What was I thinking? I'm a relative stranger, expecting her to pick a foot up for a prolonged length of time while her companions had wandered away. I asked her "nicely" and am extremely patient around horses who find trimming visits difficult, but still... It is a big ask.

We tend to use the term "manners" as a euphemism for "do as I say". And because we know what we mean when we bark our "OY, manners", we probably assume way too much about what the horse thinks we mean. What do horses think? Do they understand the concept of manners? Or is it more that they just learn how to respond to our requests in any given situation?

Horses are social animals and, assuming a horse has grown up to experience at least some semblance of herd life, he will have some idea of how society is structured. He will understand how to behave in particular situations and which horses prize which resources. He will know when he should persevere with his choices and when to concede to another horse. He will know what it means when a horse makes a particular facial or behavioural expression in his direction and, crucially, he will know how to respond if he wants to avoid or encourage any further escalation of that behaviour. Likewise he will know how to elicit affiliative behaviours, such as mutual grooming, in such a way that the companion horse understands the request. All things considered, most horses are pretty good at behaving appropriately in their own society.

unhappy or bad-mannered 1. This was such a "bad mannered" horse that he "needed" all this extra tack to "teach" him. Don't let the absurdity of this extreme example cloud your judgement, we do the equivalent all the time

But what about when they interact with humans? We need to look at how horses learn...

I think horses have phenomenal cognitive abilities and are far from stupid. You only have to think about all the requests humans make of them, from dressage to herding to gymkhana games, there is no question that they are incredibly good at working out what we want and then complying with our requests. Most of what horses learn to do, in response to our requests, is via operant conditioning. We ask the horse to do something and, through a process of trial and error, the horse learns the correct behaviour. If we offer a food reward in response to the horse touching a target then we positively reinforce the touch. If we ask a moving horse to stop by tightening the reins, then we release the pressure to negatively reinforce "stopping". If we "thwack" a rope on the ground to stop a horse coming too close to us then we positively punish the act of coming too close. Withholding scratches from a horse who is barging in his enthusiasm for them is one of the few ways we might use negative punishment with horses. In summary, we increase the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring in the future by reinforcing behaviours we want; we decrease the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring in the future by punishing behaviours we don't want. If we do this by the addition of something then we define the reinforcement or punishment as positive; if we do it by the removal of something then we define the reinforcement or punishment as negative. There are ethical issues associated with the means by which we teach behaviours and I do not necessarily advocate performing those examples I have used here. But that is a whole new article...

So returning to the idea of "manners" - we probably want the typical "well-mannered" horse to lead nicely, to stand quietly when we want to do things to him and to stop and go when requested. These behaviours are all taught via operant conditioning, as described above. We can teach leading, standing, going and stopping all via positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment or negative punishment. Or we could use a combination of them (again, I am not commenting here on which I would recommend...). The important thing to remember is that we have taught a series of behaviours that the horse can understand, with consequences for performing or not performing them.

Not only that, we want those behaviours to remain reliable even when we are at a show or trying to load or on a busy road or when being handled by vet/farrier/trimmer. We can achieve this via a process called generalisation. Once a behaviour is secure in a home, safe environment with familiar people, we can gradually extend our request, or "shape the behaviour", to become secure in other environments, with strangers present and/or with various stressors nearby. The process of generalisation of these simple behaviours to all situations is hard for the horse. If the horse "fails" to do so then he has not "forgotten" your training or "lost his manners". He has simply been placed in a situation with which he cannot yet cope.

Once we have taught all of these behaviours in all of these different locations and we have achieved an impressive level of generalisation we can then question whether the horse has learnt anything more than the simple "stimulus-response" pairings of Skinnerist behaviourism. There are indeed other ways in which horses learn, not least via classical conditioning - just as Pavlov's dogs developed spontaneous salivation when they heard the bell, horses develop spontaneous feelings of pleasure or anxiety when we arrive at the yard, depending on their experiences with us...

But this isn't the same as the horse grouping together all of the stimulus-response pairings that we have taught and conceptualising them as "manners', or things to aspire to in order to be a high-functioning member of a horse-human relationship. I think it is difficult to see them as anything other than a collection of learnt behaviours. He will certainly learn what happens to him if he fails to behave in the way expected of him and, if the consequence is sufficiently aversive, he might reconsider and behave as requested. And the experience will probably add weight to his classically conditioned associations of the aversive stimulus with the human.

2. Good manners or a good relationship? They are not the same thing... relationship

Does this mean that I have been over-generous in my assessment of horses as having high cognitive abilities? I believe not. I'm the last person to do horses the disservice of belittling their intelligence. Horses can function very highly as horses, just as humans can function very highly as humans. But our abilities to communicate advanced concepts across species are really not what they need to be.

Instead of thinking so much about the very human concept of manners - and, as the mother of two small boys, this subject is dear to my heart because I think so much of the way we teach children "manners" is equally via punishment of misdemeanours, which is conceptualised more as "harsh parenting" than "manners" - I find it much more useful to think about what are reasonable requests to ask of horses. For example, expecting a flight animal to stand still in the presence of something of which he is frightened is not a reasonable request and we should not be surprised if he inadvertently pushes into us. If we do manage to "succeed" in teaching a horse to stand quietly in the presence of any scary stimulus then we should question the wisdom of encouraging him to suppress his emotions, the equine equivalent of "the stiff upper lip".

We could go as far as to consider that making an unreasonable request of a horse is not very well-mannered of us and think about how we could behave more appropriately towards the horse. How does that help us keep our horse still for the farrier though? Forward planning is key - what does the horse need in order for him to be able to stand still? Hay? Companions? Slow, ethical training? A horribly sticky treat lick?! Consideration of equine needs are the ways we can help a horse succeed in domestication. Permitting him choice, and listening to the answers he gives us, seems to me to be a much sounder foundation for a healthy horse-human relationship than blindly insisting on "manners".

Irritated Horse 3. It was pretty impolite of me to ask for a photo opportunity from my horse when he was eating. No wonder he looks a bit annoyed, and rightly so...
Copyright Catherine Bell 2015