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Consent In Horse Training

Consent is a human word, it's a construct of sorts. Meaning, it's a word we as humans use for an idea or a concept, it is subjective.

Many other words humans use are constructs. Like ... Intelligence and anxiety. Constructs exist within the human mind and are not directly observable.

"In psychology, a construct is a skill, attribute, or ability that is based on one or more established theories. Constructs exist in the human brain and are not directly observable" - Source

Does this mean that anxiety isn't real? Or intelligence? No, it just means these words are subjective, unlike the word "horse". We know by definition what a horse is or isn't, and it's not up to the individual, their past experiences, various theories, or belief systems.

So why do I choose to use a word like consent to talk about training horses? Do horses even understand the idea of consent? Isn't it just another word like "respect"? Isn't it just another human concept or construct that has no business belonging in the same sentence as "horse training"?

Good question! But first.. let's talk about what "consent-based training" looks like to me when I'm working with horses.


Let's start with an example of a horse that does not like fly spray, or even is fine with it, but I want to make sure they know they have a choice to be fly sprayed or not.

Goal: Fly spray on the horse's body with the horse happy and standing still

Setup: In an open space where the horse is free to walk away (no ropes, tack, fences, people trapping them), and with alternative reinforcement available (grass or hay very close by so the horse can walk away to get away from you/the fly spray but very easily access this other reinforcement).

I will start with teaching the horse a behavior that we can use later as an indicator to both the horse and to myself that what's happening next is the fly spray being spritzed onto the horse's body. This is often referred to as a "start-button behavior".

For this particular scenario, this behavior is going to be touching the fly spray bottle in my hand that I will be using to spray fly spray. I will present the fly spray bottle and when the horse reaches their nose towards it, I will click/mark and reinforce (with food usually) that behavior. Quickly the horse will learn that if they touch the fly spray bottle that gets the click which is followed by the food reinforcer as a reward.

At this stage, the horse does not understand anything other than that touching the fly spray bottle earns the click and reinforcer.

Next, I will begin spritzing a small amount of fly spray (away from the horse for safety and to not scare them) after the horse touches the fly spray bottle, and then click and reinforce. I will repeat this process over and over and over again, gradually progressing towards spraying the actual horse after they touch the bottle, and then follow that with the click and reinforcement.

At this stage, the horse will now begin to pair the touching of the fly spray bottle with being sprayed with the fly spray.

If the horse ever STOPS touching the fly spray bottle or is slower to touch the bottle, we can recognize this as a lack of consent (in other words: they are not sure or okay with what comes after touching the fly spray bottle anymore and so are no longer willing to touch the bottle). If this happens we need to adjust accordingly until we are back to a point at which the horse is comfortable. Maybe we need to slow down, start with plain water, spray away from them for longer, etc.


Some might argue that the horse is just doing what's more reinforcing at that moment. That they are not *really* consenting. Technically, I would say they are right. But I would then argue, when we use the word "consent" for a human situation, are we not also talking about the more reinforcing or less punishing experience for the human too?

When a human gives a doctor consent to operate, they are usually weighing the pros and cons between outcomes. If they get the surgery, they can walk again normally, and maybe even be able to ride again! If they don't, then they may never walk again. So while the surgery may be painful and have a long recovery, they give consent to do the surgery because of the outcomes.

Horses may not be able to weigh pros and cons so far in the future, but they absolutely can chain together events that have been experienced repeatedly in the past. They can absolutely learn that if they walk up to a mounting block the rider will usually get on. And if the learning history tells them having a rider on is typically aversive/unpleasant, when given the option, they will choose to avoid the aversive by not approaching the mounting block. If the learning history tells them having a rider on is typically an appetitive/enjoyable experience, they will likely choose to approach the mounting block to have the rider get on. The trick is here that they have to actually have a choice, which is in itself is a powerful reinforcer, and there needs to be an established learning history so the horse knows what they are saying "yes" or "no" to.

This is often the case with people too though, especially very young people (like children). They often have to experience before they can understand what they are saying yes or no to because they can not have the same conversation an adult can. And this brings us to the major difference in consent for adult humans and our equine learners!

I can not sit down and have a dialogue with a horse, explaining the pros and cons, and have them give me a verbalized answer before ever having experienced it. They have to actually experience and learn to recognize the pattern of cues/stimuli that indicate what's coming next... and then learn how to opt-in or opt-out of that experience. This process doesn't make it any less powerful or necessary for horses though!

Horses can and DO understand choice. Horses, just like people, thrive on being able to control outcomes. ESPECIALLY, especially, when it comes to experiences that could be unpleasant or scary in some way. Giving our horses control over these experiences can turn them quickly from something scary and unpleasant to something comfortable and maybe even enjoyable or fun!

So consent in horse training *is* different from what human consent looks like, but it's based on the same idea and the word can be used without anthropomorphism in my opinion. At the end of the day, it's a construct and has its limitations. But when I'm teaching humans, it's an effective tool and word for explaining an end goal, a desire, a process with which we view our relationship and training of horses through.

In short... I don't teach horses "consent", I teach them behaviors and give them a choice to perform those behaviors. I teach humans consent, and how to look at horse training through the concept of consent, to improve relationships and provide the horse with more control over their experience.

- Adele


If you're interested in learning more about choice and control in horse training, please check out these resources!

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