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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Round and round we go

One of the best things about writing the blog posts on is the feedback I get. Both the positive and the negative. The post on join up two days ago received a very long and very displeased comment with lots of questions in it which I particularly liked because it brought up some things I had missed out from the post which need to be addressed. I decided to answer the comment in its own blog post because this stuff is important.

 Comment on the blog post "Joining up the dots" from Mary-Karla Ballen:

”I had to force myself to read this as I am very insulted by the beginning. As I read, I see some validity in your personal aversion to Monty Roberts and his training methods.”

I have nothing personally against Monty Roberts. I don't know him. I have something against what he teaches people about horse behaviour and psychology.

”As for the concept of Natural horsemanship and idea of 'joining up' well you have insulted every single equestrian, cowboy and horse enthusiast that has spent hours watching their horses and trying to figure out how to best navigate the language barrier between horse and rider. You don’t think ‘Natural Horsemanship’ is valid. I will give you that. In today’s world it has become a bunch of gimmicks and games that have nothing to do with what I will call True Horsemanship. You don’t like the phrase ‘join up’ then don’t use it. The Idea behind it is real.”

Well that's the thing. It's not real. The idea that horses bond through assertion of dominance is false. I am sorry if I have insulted ”every single equestrian, cowboy and horse enthusiast that has spent hours watching their horses and trying to figure out how to best navigate the language barrier between horse and rider.” But watching domestic horses squabble over hay piles and thinking you've worked out what they're all about is an insult to every serious horse behaviourist and ethologist working methodically and scientifically to chart the equid ethogram. (Not to mention how offensive it would be to horses, if only they could read.)

Thousands and thousands of hours have been clocked watching real horse behaviour in herds living without human interference as well as in semi feral and domestic groups. How about showing some respect for that?

”You talk about a horses natural social behavior and use one study to refute another, well again you are completely dismissing years of hands on experience of people who have successfully trained horses. People were riding and training horses long before anyone thought to do a study on it.”

The fact that trainers who use join up can be effective is not proof that join up means what you think it means. And it certainly does not validate dominance theory. The success of these trainers can be explained by operant conditioning.

”A couple of points that stick out to me. I hope you can take what you dish because I have not held back my snarky tongue.”

This page welcomes snark. We're all about the snark here.

”You say that there is no scientific answer to what licking and chewing means. OK So here’s the obvious question. If it doesn’t mean what we think then why do horses all over the world have the same response in the same situations?”

The simple and glaringly obvious answer to that is that it means something else. Horses lick and chew during physical therapy, which has lead to the suggestion that it means the horse is releasing tension. Also, when an animal goes into fight or flight mode, fluids are directed away from moist tissues like the mucous membranes in the mouth because these fluids are needed to transport oxygen and glucose in the blood. Licking and chewing could simply have the function of re-moistening the mouth after the horse has been chased and frightened. There are lots of possibilities of what licking and chewing might signify. If you've ever watched a couple of feral colts have it out over who is going to stand closer to an oestrous filly, you'll know that eating and posing a threat are not mutually exclusive. A horse can switch between eating grass and fighting in a split second. The fact that he or she is currently eating says nothing about what they might be doing in three seconds. Finally, there is the possibility that licking and chewing has different meanings in different contexts depending on the horse doing it. Much like humans can smile or lie down or yawn for different reasons.

”If it is not an instinct then what do you suppose all these horses did? A horse in the UK called a horse in the USA who called a horse in Japan so on and so forth and said, “Hey let all your horse friends know that when those humans do this we should lick and chew and that will make them stop what they are doing or at least lessen the pressure” If it was not a logical and instinctual behavior we would not be able to recreate it regularly in horses across the world.”

I would be surprised if horses were calling each other on the telephone. Does that answer your question?

”I don’t have any studies to prove this. Just horses across the world who do it. You don’t have to believe me, trust the horses that do it. They have no reason to lie.”

What you did there was create what is known as a false dichotomy. It's considered very amateurish in a debate. You argue as if there are only two possibilities: The horses are lying or I am wrong. As we all know, horses don't lie, so I must be wrong. Right? No.

You assume that horses all over the world are saying that you are right and I am wrong. That's bold. I like your moxy. But you've missed the point. I am not accusing horses of lying. I am accusing natural horsemanship trainers of misinterpreting and misrepresenting the true nature of horses to their clients.

”You don’t think that a horse dropping its head is submissive or trusting?”

Submissive: No. Trusting: Depends on the context. A shut down, chronically depressed horse will hang his head in resignation. A very sick or injured horse will do the same, regardless of his relationship with the people tending to him. Anyone who has ever trained with a clicker or a rope halter or both knows that a frightened horse can be made to suppress his head elevating response to fear in a matter of minutes. What does it mean when you lower your head? Are you always checking your shoe laces? Are you always bowing to a member of a royal family? Are you always averting your gaze from a former lover? Are you always looking for sea shells? Or can one behaviour have different meanings in different situations?

”How much do you know about horse anatomy?”

Quite a lot.

”Did you know that the easiest way to stun a horse is to hit it on the poll? A practice used by slaughter houses.”

Carry on, I want to see where this is going.

”Have you ever watched a horse that is distressed?”

 Yes, I've attended many round pen demos.

”What’s the first thing they do? Pick their head up.”

Okay. In a state of acute fear, horses naturally elevate their heads.

”Anyone ever have that frightened horse pull its head as high as it can and run backwards almost like they are saying I am not letting you anywhere near my head?”

I think we've all been there at one point or another.

”Alternatively anyone have that horse that is calm and relaxed put his head down to get his face groomed or the bridle put on?”

Hopefully, we've all been there too.

”Maybe by understanding their anatomy it makes more sense why they would be so protective of their heads. ”

I'd wager that nobody who is reading this disputes that horses are naturally protective of their heads.

”I will admit that a horse that has been so abused that the fight has gone out of him will drop its head as well. So is dropping their head always a good thing? No.”

I quite agree.

”But it takes common sense and attention to detail to correctly determine whether a horse is dropping its head because it is relaxed and trusting or because it has given up. A true trainer would never push their horse to the point of hopelessness.”

Yet the theory behind join up is that the horse must be chased until he thinks his life is in danger and begs to be allowed ”back in the herd”. And the reality of join up is that the horse is given no other option than complying with the trainer's wishes or keep running, which no horse can do forever.

”You talk about a horse’s natural social behavior. What about herd and survival instincts. You do know that horses are prey animals right?”

Yes, I know. But thanks for reminding me. (Edit: I have since been notified that - although horses are preyed upon by predators in nature, the terms "prey animal" and "flight animal" when used to describe horses are not as helpful as I thought.)

”As prey animals they rely on the unity of the herd for survival.”

Or in case of said unity being found lacking by the horse, they wander off and join another band. It happens all the time.

”True horsemanship is about using that need to not be a solitary being (easy pickings) and teach a horse to see its human handlers as the herd. ”

I am aware of this theory. Two days ago I wrote a very long blog post about how it's all complete rubbish.

”You don’t believe in a hierarchy in the herd.”

No. Horse society is a lot more complex than the linear pecking orders you've been fed by the popular horse press.

”OK well did you know that the alpha mare and the stallion will protect the herd? Before you believe that you have to believe there is an alpha.”

I know that the stallion's job is to protect the mares and foals and that mares can do a pretty good job of it also, should they lack a stallion. I know that a band can have more than one stallion. I also know there is no such thing as an alpha mare.

”Well let’s see knowing that horses are prey animals that congregate for protection I would wonder what would be the point if there wasn’t a leader. ”

You're losing me a bit here.

”I know when a bunch of people gather together and no one takes control of the group you have people milling around and being unproductive. ”

Horses in the wild are sublimely unproductive. They mostly eat and look at stuff. There is plenty of evidence of that.

”They eventually will splinter and now instead of being a group they are just individuals.”

People might. Yet horses in the wild manage to stay together even though nobody is in charge of where everyone goes or what everyone does. There must be something other than dominance or leadership holding them together. Isn't it exciting how little we really know about their social organisation?

”So what’s the point of being a part of the herd?”

Regardless of what the point is, feral bands will stay together even though they don't appear to have leaders or hierarchies.

”There is no scientific studies on this it is just common sense.”

What you bring to the table here is not common sense. It's just your opinions which would seem to contradict the actual facts in so far as we have any.

”You don’t like Round Pen Training?”

I don't like chasing and flooding. The round pen itself is not the problem. There are some very nice trainers who use round pens to do cool stuff.

”Well what if I said that I was free lunging my horse in a round pen?”


”Would that make you feel better?”

That depends on whether you were chasing the horse and freaking him out and on whether you were simultaneously telling a gaggle of spectators tall tales about imaginary horse body language which isn't real.

”What’s the point of Round pen training or free lunging you ask?”

No I never asked that. I already know the answer.

”Well it’s all about respect.”

And that's not it.

”In the end we are not horses. We can never interact with a horse they way another horse does but we can get the same level of respect from our horses. ”

No, that's the thing. That whole respect and dominance deal is fiction. It's pop ethology. It's not real.

”If you don’t like that idea then go ahead and be that person that can’t catch their horse in turnout. ”

You're doing it again. Another false dichotomy. Either I accept that you are right or I won't be able to catch my horses. I'm sorry but that's not how it works. Lots of people who can "catch" their horses just fine think what you're saying here is complete nonsense. See? There's a third option and there are probably many more.

”After all if you only work with your horse on a lead rope or lunge line or with a bridle when do teach the horse to respect you when none of those tools are available?”

Another false dichotomy: Either one has to chase one's horse and freak him out in a round pen or one is forever doomed to work him on the end of a rope. Except there are other options. Some people work horses at liberty without chasing them. Some people use advance and retreat to get a horse to follow them without ever making him feel afraid. It's a bold, bright world out there and there are many, many ways of being with horses.

”You don’t think having a 1200 + animal respect you is important well that’s fine you can be the person that gets slammed into the stall wall because your horse just can’t wait to eat.”

False dichotomy. Lots of trainers who have left behind the dominance myth are safely and happily interacting with horses. But thanks for the warning all the same. I appreciate that it was given out of genuine concern.

”You don’t think that your horse should learn to respect your space and learn how to deal with fear.”

Those are two different things, you know. I do think horses need to learn to deal with scary things and be safe to handle even in a sticky situation. I don't expect them to know about my ”space” unless I teach them what it is. Neither requires chasing around a round pen.

”Ok you can be the person that gets dragged when their horse bolts while being lead because something spooked it.”

False dichotomy. You really should work on that if you want to argue your views convincingly. Do you really think that getting dragged behind a bolting horse is the only alternative to round penning and dominance training? Is your world that binary?

”You don’t want to be any of those people”

Those people who get squashed and dragged? No, I'd rather not be those people thanks.

”But you still don’t get why you need a round pen to work on these things”

 Nope. I really don't.

”..after all people rode long before the concept of a round pen came up.”

We don't know that. We have no idea who invented roundpenning or riding or which came first as these events likely predate recorded history.

”Well if you don’t think human life should be made easier by new ideas and inventions then I challenge you to be the first one to give up your cell phone and computer and just for giggles let’s throw running water in the mix. After all people did live like that for a long time!”

Oh wait, you think round penning is a recent invention? That explains a lot :)

”You have taken this beautiful and spiritual sport that teaches us as people how to have compassion and through which we can attain such amazing feats as jumping a course or riding to music and dancing on 4 hooves, feats such as riding through trails and absorbing the nature around us and just simply being a part of something that makes us feel bigger then ourselves and you want to turn it into math. ”

No, not really. Considering your chosen philosophy of horsemanship to be silly and outdated is not tantamount to wanting to reduce horsemanship to math. That's another false dichotomy. Incidentally, mathematics originated from philosophy.

”You used your intellect to put down something that you truly don’t understand. ”

I think I understand it quite well but I don't expect we'll agree on that.

”There is an art, a creativity to riding that takes a person from being someone who can stay on to someone who can ride. Our compassion and respect for the grace and beauty of this animal is what makes us horse people.”


”To a point what you say doesn’t matter. Everyone is free to have an opinion.”

Yes. Absolutely everyone. Even me.

”The problem is the condescending way you deliver your OPINION is disrespectful to your readers and the horses you supposedly advocate for.”

Sorry you don't like my tone. But I'm fairly sure I have not offended a single horse with this blog. Not only do they not call each other on the telephone. They can't even read.

”In your tirade you missed one important thing that every true horseperson knows deep in their bones. The horse is the embodiment of grace and spirit.”

I didn't miss that at all. But I confess it was not the central point of that particular post.

”You reduce them to nothing more than the equivalent to lab rats.”

Not that there is anything wrong with rats, but the fact that horses and rats and humans and dogs and goldfish are all capable of being frightened by being chased and of learning through operant conditioning does not make us all the same.

An example: Horses have ears. Rats have ears. Oh no I've done it again. I've reduced horses to the equivalent of lab rats. Except I haven't. I've just pointed out a similarity between the anatomy of a horse and a rat, just as I pointed out the similarity between the way rats learn to press levers and the way horses learn to follow a trainer in a round pen.

”When my horse, who was not treat trained, runs across a 6 acre pasture to come to me she truly wants to be there. ”

I don't doubt it. I'm sure you have a wonderful connection.

”Retired for the last 5 years coming to me means nothing, there is no riding, and there are no treats. There is nothing but me saying hi to an old friend. All the round pen training I did with her, no tools or gimmicks involved just me a lunge whip and my horse in a pen, helped me build a relationship with my horse that has held true long after her career was done.”

I'll take your word for it. It sounds like you did a great job. You seem to be a good trainer who would be able to form a fantastic bond with your horse even without chasing it in a round pen.

”How dare you basically call me stupid for believing in that relationship?”

I never called you stupid. A lot of very smart people have believed in dominance theory and join up in the past. Some still do. Smart people believing in something doesn't make it true, though. And your relationship can be real even if join up is false. Nobody is attacking your bond with your horse. I am questioning your understanding of the true nature of that bond. It could be deeper and more profound than you ever imagined.

”In the end it comes down to this. You are looking for scientific answers to questions that people have been answering for centuries.”

That's the thing about science. It tests whether our assumptions about how stuff works were right in the first place. Sometimes science confirms what we already knew and sometimes it shows us that we were wrong about some things. If join up were real. If horses really performed these behaviours naturally, don't you think they would turn up during some of all those studies into feral horse behaviour where ethologists have sat around and watched horses for days and weeks and recorded all that they did? If leadership were real – if alpha mares existed – don't you think that the scientists studying horses in the wild would see this? Don't you think there would consistently be an actual mare whom everyone followed? But there isn't.

”You are missing the point of the horse and rider relationship.”

 No. Thinking that a connection between a horse and a human has to be about dominance and control is missing the point.

”The best training tool that anyone has is simply common sense. If you had made this a tirade against Monty Roberts I would have been behind you.”

Well, this isn't about Monty Roberts. It's not his fault that he's better at selling the same story everyone else is selling too.

”But you choose to use him as a platform to insult thousands of hard working people who have the deepest respect for Horses.”

I never do anything just to insult anyone. But to be fair, this is not the first blog in which I point out the problems with natural horsemanship dogma. Some people are invariably insulted by this, but these things need to be said.

”Just because he is a big name doesn’t mean his one name represents everyone who believes in the idea of natural horsemanship or whatever name you want to give it”

Of course he doesn't. But as you started out saying: ”You don’t like the phrase ‘join up’ then don’t use it. The Idea behind it is real.”

My post about join up was for everyone who thinks that the idea of getting a horse's ”respect” by chasing it around and becoming its ”leader” is real. So regardless of your feelings for Mr. Roberts, it was also for you. I hope that clears things up. Thanks for taking the time to respond and happy trails.

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