• Julie Taylor

Joining up the dots

Updated: Feb 21, 2018

The other day a photo of some cute mules popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It was a caption competition from The Brooke, and hopeful jokester that I am I decided to take a closer look. I was very surprised to learn that the competition prize was two tickets to a Monty Roberts demo.

I wondered why an excellent charity like The Brooke (please don't stop giving them money, no matter with whom they see fit to fraternize – this is not about that) would find it suitable to help promote a dominance theory touting natural horsemanship trainer. I submitted a delightfully snarky – if I say so myself - entry for the competition and went away scratching my head. A few days later, it came to my attention that Redwings is also promoting Monty Roberts on Facebook by giving away tickets.

I never thought I'd write this blog. I didn't think I had to. I thought that anyone with their horse's best interest at heart had pretty much figured out that chasing him around to make him ”submit” is a bad idea. But I have realised that I'm actually going to have to repeat what many have stated before – I'm going to have to say what should not need to be said anymore. Just because there might be someone reading this who would otherwise not have realised.

So forgive me if you already know what I have to tell you. But here are the many reasons why I think people need to stop doing join up.

Firstly, this training method is based on the misunderstanding that horses perform join up in the wild. Despite the fact that no ethologist studying actual horses in nature has ever claimed to observe it or included it in their publications. I know – Monty Roberts says he saw it when he was a teenager, but he didn't document it and he is not an ethologist. If you believe him, you also have to believe me when I tell you that the moon is made of cheese and that I know this because I went there and tasted it and it tasted just like Roquefort.

There is no evidence that horses chase each other around in the wild in order to obtain submission. There is not even any evidence that submission is a factor in natural horse herds. Even if you take horses out of their natural environment and put them in a round pen together, they still don't do join up. Yes, someone actually did that study and data collection must have been so boring because there was not much running around in circles or anything else we have come to associate with the term join up. There was mostly horses standing around going ”huh?” and ”whatever!”. Licking and chewing was done facing away from the senior horse, which would indicate that these behaviours were not for her benefit.

”But it works” you say. And I will ask you: ”What do you mean by that?”

”Join up makes the horse accept Monty as his leader and follow him around.”

Okay. To discuss this we're first going to need to separate what we know about the concepts ”accepting as leader” and ”following around.” Horses don't by default have leaders as in one horse that everyone follows around. The idea that there is an all knowing matriarch with supreme authority who initiates all the movement and calls all the shots is entirely baseless. She doesn't exist, so you can't take her place. There is no evidence to substantiate the alpha mare theory. It's just a lie you bought because it flattered your ego and eased your fear of losing control. Possibly helped along by observations you have made of hierarchial social structures among your domestic horses and which you subsequently mistook for natural social behaviour.

You are not alone. It's an honest mistake which I have also made myself as have numerous people who are much smarter than I am. But now there is the internet and so many resources on equine behaviour and training available that there is no longer any excuse to believe in dominance theory. Let it go. Even the dog people are moving on for Pete's sake.

As for following, horses follow other animals and even objects around for lots of reasons. A horse might follow another animal around in order to bite it or squash it with his feet. Or because that animal has carrots in its pockets or because it knows how to scratch the horse properly in hard to reach places. It might be out of curiosity or sociability or even friendship. Or it could just be a learned response, established through operant conditioning as in the case of join up.

”What's operant conditioning?”

I'm pretending you asked because I imagine there might be some people who don't know. Operant conditioning is when an animal learns to operate its environment to make things happen or not happen.

A rat in a laboratory presses a lever and food comes out. Or he presses a lever and the floor stops giving him electric shocks. In both cases, the outcome is desirable for the rat, so he learns to repeat the behaviour which leads to the desirable outcome. This kind of operant conditioning is called reinforcement because it reinforces behaviour. It explains why join up ”works” even though it has nothing to do with natural equine body language.

Join up works because the horse learns to repeat the behaviour which makes the pressure go away. Just like pretty much every other type of pressure release training. It's a trick. Nothing more. There is no reason to believe that by following the trainer, the horse is entering into any kind of agreement to do what the trainer wants, let alone accepting the trainer as his leader or protector. The horse may be easier to back or shove into a trailer in the short term, but that likely has more to do with what he's just learned about the futility of running away from things that are scary.

In a scientific study from 2006, the German zoologist Professor Konstanze Krüger showed that horses who had joined up to a trainer in a round pen did not correspondingly seek out the company of the trainer in another location. If join up resulted in a genuine bond, Krüger would have seen horses running to their trainer in any location. But she didn't. Also, if you've ever attended a join up demo, you'll know that these performances require an impressive array of props. Extended arms, dummy riders, anti rearing and bucking gadgets, chutes for trailer loading, pressure halters etc. If join up resulted in trust, none of this equipment would be necessary.

When you watch a round pen demo, the presenter will tell you that he or she is keeping the pressure on, looking for signs of submission. ”Signs of submission” in horses are about as well documented as flying saucers. All the same, you will hear trainers speak of these signs as if their significance is carved in stone. They'll say they're looking for the horse's head to drop, for him to lick and chew and for his ear to lock on them. Sometimes, the trainer will feed the audience some line about sticking out his or her fingers to emulate ”claws”. After showing the horse the ”claws”, the trainer will throw a lunge line at his hind end, which frightens the horse and makes him run forward. Soon, the appearance of the ”claws” will be enough to make the horse predict that a lunge line is about to be thrown at him and he will run faster from the ”claws” alone. This is called Pavlovian or classical conditioning. It's a learned association between sticky out human fingers and more chasing. But the trainer will tell you that he or she is being ”a predator”, thus using the horse's natural instincts to drive him along. This is obviously complete rubbish. Horses are not inherently afraid of sticky out human fingers. Just think about that for a moment. How ludicrous is that assertion? Equines might not be the fastest mopeds on the quayside but they know what claws are and they know that humans don't have them.

Here I was going to get into the absurdity of claiming to behave as a senior member of a horse herd and a predator looking to attack the herd at the same time. But that whole split personality mountain lion/imaginary matriarch show is just too strange for me to even begin to make sense of it. I'll just reassert my strong personal belief that horses are aware that people are neither mountain lions nor horses.

”Oh but you're taking it too literally. Of course horses know that humans are not horses. Join up is about showing the horse that you know how to speak his language so that he can trust you.”

Right. Let's say for argument's sake that join up could do that: Convince my horse I speak his language, thereby inducing him to trust me. Let's play that you're a Professor of Horse Language and I am your pupil coming to you to learn how to communicate with my horse.

Me: ”Hello Professor”

You: ”Well hello there, Julie.”

Me: ”I'd like to learn to talk to my horse in his own language so he'll trust me”

You: ”Sure you would. I can help you with that. What would you like to tell him?”

Me: ”I'd like to tell him that I am bigger and badder than he is and also upset with him for no reason and that he will now pay for this with his life, because I am going to chase him out where the mountain lions are and just watch as they kill and eat him.”

Does anything about that conversation strike you as odd? If I were merely trying to demonstrate to my horse that I understood his nature and was able to communicate in his language, why would I not start by saying something nice? If licking and chewing really means ”I am not a threat to you” why am I not the one licking and chewing? I'll tell you why:

Because none of this is about actual equine body language. It's about training a horse to follow a human by using pressure and release. It's about teaching a trick that looks like bonding and selling it to impatient people who are unwilling or unable to spend the weeks and months it actually takes to form a real connection with a horse.

Nobody knows for sure why horses lick and chew. If I told you that my horse licked and chewed because he was trying to communicate a preference for the colour purple or the smell of patchouli, would you take my word for it? Or might you consider asking me to point you in the direction of some actual evidence to substantiate my interpretation? Please tell me in the comments. And please ask your local round pen trainer to provide evidence that licking and chewing is horse language for ”I am willing to negotiate with you and let you chair the meeting.” If possible, video their attempt to respond and post it on YouTube so that I can laugh at it while I drink my morning coffee.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever for licking and chewing as an appeasement behaviour in horses, round pen trainers can routinely be heard talking of licking and chewing as submissive behaviour as if it's set in stone. This interpretation of licking and chewing is central to the round penning performance where the audience is told to ”look out for the signs of submission.” When – inevitably – the fleeing horse starts to slow down and drop the head as predicted by the trainer and every other horse in the history of horses, the audience tends to accept this as indicative of submission. Once the licking and chewing starts, they're completely convinced. After all, the trainer predicted the horse's behaviour. And nobody who is right about one thing has ever been wrong about something else, right? As the horse starts to turn his attention to the trainer in a bid to work out how to switch off the chasing, the trainer tones down the pressure, which reinforces the behaviour until the horse is actually following the trainer. The audience is told that the horse has voluntarily chosen the trainer as its leader. They accept this as the truth because without a basic understanding of operant conditioning, join up appears to be magic, and any explanation seems plausible enough.

In reality, the horse can't escape from the human. Contrary to what the audience is told, he is not "free to run away". Where would he go? No matter how fast he runs, he can't increase the distance between himself and the human. But he can avoid the chasing by following the human. So that's what he does. In a scientific study by Cath Henshall, horses learned to do the exact same thing in the round pen with an electric toy car playing the part of the ”alpha mare”. This tells us that join up is not social behaviour inherent to the horse. It's just behaviour – modified by operant conditioning.

We can't train or even hang out with horses without exchanging reinforcers and punishers, but we should call things by their proper names. And we should not train tricks and fool others into thinking they are signs of sincere trust and affection. My congratulations to the join up people for having embraced learning theory terminology in recent years. But there is still the matter of the gigantic elephant in the room: Horses don't do join up. It is not natural and it is not necessary. At best, it scares the horse a little bit or a lot. At worst, it perpetuates the myth that "badly behaved" horses just need to be shown who is the boss.

Even if you insist on having a horse who follows you around like an obedient gun dog, there are other ways to achieve this using operant conditioning. You could do it without even having to chase him. You could clicker train him to follow you to earn food treats. ”Oh but I don't want him to follow me because he wants the treats in my pocket.” No? That's understandable. I feel the same way. But then surely, you also wouldn't want him to follow you because he's afraid of what you might do to him if he goes away. Right? Nobody would want their horse to follow them out of fear, which is why round pen trainers don't tell you that what they teach is simply about avoidance. Your horse ”pretending” he loves you so that you won't go mental and start chasing him again. How lovely.

”But there was a scientific study and it showed that Join Up is better than conventional training.”

No it didn't. Did you even read it? There was a scientific study. But it didn't compare join up with ”conventional training”. It compared Monty Roberts – a celebrity horseman with 50 years of experience and a special penchant for starting horses in a short time – with some seemingly random BHS chap called Phil Roelich who had 12 years of experience not starting horses in a short time at all. As it happens, the study concluded that Monty Roberts fared better at starting his 7 horses in a short time in that his horses had lower maximum heart rates during first saddling and backing and scored higher in the ridden tests. I wonder why anybody would be surprised. You don't get to be the Queen's rockstar horse whisperer unless you've got some skill at getting horses to do what you want them to do.

The problem is that Monty Roberts could be the most effective horse trainer in the world and that still would not prove that he couldn't be even better if he stopped doing join up.

The study entitled ”A Comparison of the Monty Roberts Technique with a Conventional UK Technique for Initial Training of Riding Horses” has been touted far and wide as evidence that join up works. At MontyRoberts.com, the method is now marketed as ”Scientifically Proven” based on this study. I find such a claim to be a bit of a stretch and I'll try to explain why.

The study did not include data on heart rate variability or salivary cortisol, which is normally quite handy when measuring stress. If you've ever been for a pleasant jog, you'll know that an elevated pulse does not automatically mean that you're frightened. There was also no recording of conflict behaviour during the 20 days of training green horses to be ridden, which would otherwise have given a nice idea of what the horses thought of the experience. Finally, there was a failure to disclose in the published paper the fact that its main author Dr. Veronica Fowler had been ”proudly part of Intelligent Horsemanship as the horse psychology project supervisor” according to a Monty Roberts newsletter from 2009.

Intelligent Horsemanship is a company which represents Monty Roberts and the Join Up method in the UK and which obviously has a strong financial interest in the method being scientifically validated.

Dr. Fowler's professional involvement with Intelligent Horsemanship and her expressed belief in join up as a humane training method should ideally not affect the outcome of her study and certainly, the results of the study could still be legitimate. But knowing that the author of the study had an interest in one outcome over another would affect one's understanding of the study's credibility. That's why many reputable journals have a policy of disclosure of conflicts of interest.

The study design itself also gives grounds for concern. The ”Conventional Trainer” was never going to be training such green horses to back up in 20 days and it has to be assumed that the study authors knew this when they designed the obstacle and flat work ridden tests to include backing up.

According to the published study: ”..none of the CT horses which were entered had been successfully trained to back-up as this is not a common practice of the CT in horses less than a year into their training. Therefore any obstacles requiring a back-up were not attempted and were scored as zero for this task.”

Surely, if you're going to compare the work of two trainers, you'd design a study which included only trials which both trainers could be expected to complete in the time provided. Wouldn't you?

Apart from doing better in the obstacle and flat work ridden tests, the join up trained horses also had a lower maximum heart rate during their first saddling and first ride. According to the study authors, however, this could simply be down to the fact that the Conventionally Trained horses had just been lunged before this event.

”Lunging may also have been responsible for the increases in heart rate in CT horses observed during first rider, since although it was not used during the analysis period, it had been used immediately prior to first rider in all cases.”

Right then. That's some fairly useless data then, isn't it? Here's where heart rate variability and salivary cortisol data might have come in handy. Not to mention recorded conflict behaviours, which leads me to my next problem with this study. Both trainers were allowed to request a selection of equipment prior to beginning the training the horses. Mr. Conventional Training, Phil Roelich asked for these things:

Lunging cavesson, lunge whip, saddle, bridle, reins, girths, lunge line, long lines, numnah, breast plate, side reins, eggbutt snaffle bit, stirrups, stirrup leathers, and a 6-foot turnout rug.

Pretty standard stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Now check out the kind of gear requested by Monty Roberts:

Round pen, Dually halter, long-lines, dummy rider, dummy legs, giddy-up rope (plaited rope one meter in length), girth, western saddle, stirrups and stirrup leathers, saddle pad, bridle, reins, Monty Roberts eggbutt snaffle bit, breast plate, side reins, pacifiers, wood tapper, life sized dummy rider, buckstopper, umbrella, clippers, and plastic bag on stick.

The items which stand out here are the dummy rider and the buck stopper. The dummy rider is a fake person who can be strapped to the saddle and will not fall off no matter how much the horse bucks. In addition to the dummy rider, Monty Roberts had a flesh and blood assistant trainer who did all his breaking in for him.

The buck stopper is a rope that goes from the saddle, along the crest of the neck and down the face to the gums under the horse's top lip. As the name implies, it discourages the horse from bucking. But don't worry, it's "non violent" according to MontyRoberts.com.

All the same, Monty Roberts' website does provide the following advice regarding the buck stopper: "The Buck Stopper should only be used with remedial horses that have made bucking with a rider a regular pattern of behavior." As well as: ”Do not use the Buck Stopper on horses that are just learning to accept a saddle and rider”

Apparently, this does not apply to Monty Roberts himself. According to the published study, the buck stopper was indeed used several times during the 20 days of training previously untrained horses.

With that kind of gear, even my granny could break in young horses. The dummy and assistant riders eliminate risk to the trainer while the buck stopper teaches the horse that bucking is painful and futile. If you don't have to worry about getting yourself killed, you're going to be a lot more Gung-ho about the progression rate of starting a young horse than you would have been if pushing the horse over threshold involved actual danger to your person. According to the paper ”..all seven horses trained by the MRT accepted their first rider on day 1” - well, whoop-de-doo I say. Wouldn't it be cool if they released all the video files from the training days? It might be interesting to see exactly what the study authors mean by ”accepted”.

Meanwhile, Phil Roelich was the one who got on each of ”his” horses and did the riding himself. I have no idea what kind of trainer Mr. Roelich is and I'm not really a fan of what normally passes for ”Conventional Training”. But any comparison between the rate of progress of Mr. Roelich and Mr. Roberts under the circumstances described in the paper is silly. And pretending as if this study says anything at all about the validity of join up compared to other methods is downright oafish. Even the study authors agree that the data does not really tell us much.

I'll leave it up to Dr. Fowler et al to sum up what this scientific study says about the validity of join up:

”In the present study only one measure of physiological/psychological stress, that is, heart rate was measured. We are therefore reluctant to make strong inferences about the welfare of horses trained using the two techniques since it is not possible to completely isolate the influence of workload and anxiety on measured heart rates (Physick-Sheard et al. 2000). A further study using a range of measures of welfare, such as HRV, conflict behaviors, and salivary cortisol levels is required to enable firmer conclusions on the relative effect of the techniques on welfare to be drawn. ”

As you will have worked out by now, the ”scientific proof” that join up is good for horses is just a little bit flimsy. And the evidence that join up has anything to do with natural equine social behaviour, body language or ”leadership” is non existent. There is no doubt that join up is a very effective method of making a horse follow a person or a toy car around a small enclosure. If that's the scope of your equestrian ambitions, by all means hurry up and get yourself to a demo. If you want a true connection, you'll still have work like a horse to earn it.

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