Research from the University of Sydney questions whether the round-pen (“Join-up”) training method made famous by Monty Roberts is really as humane as its supporters claim.
Lead researcher was Cath Henshall, an animal science masters degree candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Science.
She explains: “This method of training is widely used around the world and the people that use it claim that it's a humane and kind way to train horses. They also claim that it works because the trainer is able to successfully mimic horse body language and horse behaviour.
“Our study casts doubt on both those claims. We believe that our research highlights the unpleasant underpinnings of round pen horse training and for that reason we caution against its widespread use because it uses fear to gain control of horses."
The technique relies on the trainer using movement and noise to drive the horse around the perimeter of the pen. The trainer gradually reduces their aggressive movements, after which the horse will eventually slow down and approach them.
The researchers used remote control cars to mimic the technique and to eliminate the role of the trainer in imitating the horse's body language.
They believe that the training outcomes were achieved as a result of 'pressure-release' and not the ability of the trainer, or a remote control car, to mimic horse behaviour. "Put simply,” said Henshall, “pressure-release works because the horse finds the pressure applied unpleasant and therefore the removal of the pressure rewarding.”
The response the horse makes immediately before the pressure is removed is what the horse thinks made the pressure go away. When put in the same situation in the future, it is likely to perform that same behaviour to obtain the outcome that it values – safety.
"We 'rewarded' the horses for stopping and turning towards the car with a period of 'safety', when the car didn't chase them as long as they kept facing it. We trained some horses to actually walk up to and touch the car," said Henshall.
“We found that the car is almost as successful as the human trainer, so we think that calls into question whether the horse is responding to the human as though they think the human is another horse. We also confirmed that the reason the training works is for the same reason all horse training and a lot of animal training works. So that it doesn't actually require that you understand horses' body language particularly well. It just requires that you're able to chase and not chase at the right time.”
"Given that we could train horses to produce similar, though not identical responses to those seen in round pen training, but in reaction to non-human stimuli undermines the claim that the human's ability to mimic horse behaviour is an essential component of the technique."
"Although neither Monty Roberts' method nor ours uses pressure applied directly to the horse's body, both apply a form of emotional pressure by scaring and then chasing the horse."
"Our results indicate that because these methods rely on fear and safety, the horse is forced to choose between being repeatedly frightened or remaining with the trainer. We question whether it is humane to rely on fear and its termination to train horses," said Henshall.
"Although it is appealing to think that horses in the round pen choose to follow their trainers because they are responding to us as though we are a horse, we believe that the use of fear has no place in genuinely humane and ethical horse training."
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