I’m not a psychologist, so forgive my massive simplification, but I came across a term a while ago that grabbed my interest – the ‘fundamental attribution error’. Basically, this means that when we see someone doing something, for example running a red traffic light, we tend to think it relates to their personality ('he's an idiot') rather than the situation the person might be in. And the ‘error’ bit would give a clue that we are often wrong in attributing their actions mainly to their personality.
Why did it interest me? Because it is so common in how we view horses. I hear often about horses who are grumpy, moody, vicious and in other ways of bad character, when often they are simply responding to a situation they can’t cope with.
Recently, I visited a client who was concerned about her young horse. Lets call the horse Milly. Milly was lunging over the stable door at people, with her mouth open, ears pinned. Going into the stable with her was a risky business, she would unpredictably lunge at you, or turn her hind quarters and threaten to kick. Recently she’d become much worse when you approached with a head collar.
So, this is a classic case where Milly might be described as being aggressive, grumpy, having a bad attitude and so on. Actually, Milly is afraid of particular situations and events, and having no option to flee in her stable is resorting to defensive threats.
If a horse like Milly is approached with the attitude that she is being, in some way 'bad', or needs to learn manners, the common approach will be to punish her behaviour - making the situation worse. If we realise she is simply showing her fear of a specific situation, we can do something a bit more constructive.
So, what do we do? Retraining Milly to be truly comfortable with people in her stable may take a while. The most immediate problem then, for Milly’s welfare and the safety of her handlers, is to be able to put a head collar on her without scaring her. Then she can be taken out of the stable, turned out into her field, her owner can muck out safely and so on, while she is retrained.
This client very kindly did a little bit of filming while I was there, and even more kindly has allowed me to put the video up on youtube. Of course, being there to work with the horse and owner and not to make a movie, it's just a few wee clips and the progress by the end of the session wasn't filmed - we were both much too absorbed by Milly!
We worked with Milly for a little over an hour, with several long breaks and lots of short ones. In the initial part of the film, she is clearly fearful, and trying to retreat as far as her stable will allow. The second part of the film is taken early on in the ‘retraining’. She is not looking totally relaxed, but is investigating me and the head collar, and I am giving her a very tiny food reward each time she progresses a little in her explorations of the head collar. When I move the head collar towards her, she still backs off, but if I am patient and let her choose to come forward, she is making good progress.
'Milly' before and during first training session
By the end of the session, we had put the head collar on Milly a couple of times, with her full cooperation. She allowed both of us to scratch her withers, and began grooming us back. She certainly did not look like a mare of ‘bad character’, she was more than eager to be friendly to people when she didn’t feel threatened by them.
The outlook for Milly is good – she has a very caring owner, who recognised that this was a problem her horse needed help with, not a bad horse who needed put in her place.