Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions

Dr. Nancy Diehl shares her views on things that can cause horse-human communication to go awry.
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Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions
Co-being refers to a state of relationship in which each partner evolves to “fit” better with each other. | Photo: iStock
Q: What are some common misconceptions or myths about human-equine communication and interactions?

—K.S., via e-mail

A: This is a great question, but a really difficult one to answer. Misconceptions can range from mistakes of fact, disagreement about terminology, and practical or academic disagreement on theory. For most horse people, I think misconceptions come about because of the wide variety of people in the industry maybe using terms incorrectly, or maybe just using different descriptors of the same thing. I think all of these are prevalent in horse behavior topics.

One big part of human-horse interaction that I think is rife with misconceptions is in how we talk about training horses. I feel quite strongly is that, in this arena, behavior-modification principles are science, and they really work. You’ve heard me talk a lot about using positive and negative reinforcement, and also conditioned responses, habituation, desensitization, and other means by which we know horses (and other animals and people) learn stuff. This is all what I mean by behavior modification. True, it doesn’t presume horses have any great cognitive capacity, so perhaps it can seem dismissive of the honored position in which we sometimes put our horses. But these are methods that we absolutely know will work for us to train horses from the most minor daily interactions to very advanced athletic endeavors

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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