Stupid Study

I came across an article about a stupid study, and i just had to comment.  I couldn’t find the original study, so I wasn’t able to verify any of what’s written in this article.  But from what I can tell, it seems like a pretty crap study.  It sounds a lot like they set out with a conclusion in mind, designed a study that would prove it, and then congratulated themselves on being right all along.

The theory was that nervous people make horses calmer.  Take a minute to let that soak in.

Here’s the link.

Now, I can understand a schoolmaster—or even an unbroken horse—feeling less threatened by someone green and vulnerable placed at the center of a situation like this versus, say, a more confident handler venturing in there with the intention of “being the alpha,” who is naturally going to provoke a more wary, nervous response in the horse.  If the study was just making the distinction between horses' responses to people who seem to know what they are doing and those who don't, maybe I could get behind it...  Horses probably do just dismiss people who they know are scared of them.  It makes perfect sense.

Of course the horses don’t perceive a threat from the inexperienced and nervous novices, blindfolded or not.  And horses that have had good handling throughout their lives can be very tolerant, particularly of inexperienced and nervous beginners who pose them no threat and mean them no obvious harm.  But to draw from that the broader conclusion that all horses are automatically calmed by all nervous people—and worse, made nervous by calm people!—flies in the face of every good horseman’s common sense and experience.

And to extend that out to generalized herd behavior, again, defies observation.  Horses grazing at pasture may relax while they post vigilant sentries to keep an eye out for danger, but one very nervous horse on high alert will definitely set all of them on high alert.  Anyone who’s been around horses for any period of time knows this.  And anyone with a close horse-human relationship knows that a nervous/tense handler or rider has the same effect on a horse as that fellow herd member on high alert does. 

I know, for example, when I'm riding a horse that is about to blow, I can usually avert a major crisis by taking a deep breath, relaxing my body, softening my feel on the reins, petting them, and making a conscious effort to remain calm, even though the instinct is to grab a handful of reins, clamp on for dear life and prepare for the coming explosion.  By relaxing, I can feel the horse relax with me, and I can usually prevent or lessen what would otherwise be a major spook or other problem.  But the opposite is also true; if I tense up in an already stressful situation, I know my horse is going feel it and feed into it, and it is only going to exacerbate the problem.  Horse and human emotions can become a vicious circle, with nervousness, fear, frustration or anger feeding into one another.  Which is why calmness and patience play such an important part in the discipline of good horsemanship.  Horsemanship is a form of meditation as much as a sport.

When horses trust us, they look to us for cues on how to behave and, if we are nervous or tense, they will pick up on it and mirror it, even if they don’t know why.  Often, if our horses are nervous and tense, it will make us nervous and tense as well.  We do affect one another closely, and it is not always clear whose emotional state initiates.  But I fail to see how our being nervous will calm a horse or vice versa.  Rather, if we can discipline ourselves to relax, they will often trust us and relax as well, even if they don’t know why.  That’s part of the magic of the horse-human bond.  And it’s part of why I don’t buy this study.  Experience just doesn’t bear it out.  At least not my experience…

What's your experience been?

Horsemanshipjm elliott