The ‘Horse Waterboarding’ Incident Deconstructed

An equine behaviorist weighs in on “flooding” in horse training and offers a less stressful alternative.
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An equine behaviorist weighs in on the use of “flooding” in horse training and offers a less stressful way to approach fear-based behaviors.

A startling story about the alleged “waterboarding” of a horse exploded on social media last week. The photo that appeared on Facebook showed an immobilized horse—laid out on his side with his legs bound—being drenched with water from a hose. Apparently the goal was to help the horse overcome his fear of water.

This horse wasn’t actually subjected to waterboarding, which is a form of human torture. Instead, it appeared he was subjected to “flooding,” which is a controversial behavior modification technique some trainers use to extinguish fears and phobias. Ironically, in this case the term flooding applies both literally and figuratively. It involves restraining an animal to prevent it from escaping, while exposing it to the feared object at full intensity. The horse in the alleged waterboarding story was afraid of water, so it appears he was restrained and then sprayed with a hose. Most likely the horse eventually stopped struggling and acquiesced.

Flooding triggers distress and panic, and it can result in other problems, as well. Preventing a horse from escaping is difficult and dangerous, and it poses a risk of physical injury to both human and horse. If the horse successfully escapes from the restraint, the effort is in effect rewarded and the reaction can become even worse in the future. During flooding, the horse’s brain is primed for fear conditioning. He might become fearful of people, the location, and anything else associated with the unpleasant experience. It’s a simple equation—“high arousal + exposure to a threat = fear conditioning.” Learned helplessness can also develop when an animal is unable to escape from pain or distress, no matter how hard he tries. It leads to a depressed emotional state that is sometimes mistaken for obedience.

Flooding is commonly used in horse training. It’s dramatic and can get quick results, which rewards the trainer with a strong sense of accomplishment. But when flooding backfires, the problem becomes much worse. For example, I was consulted after a failed flooding attempt involving a young Arabian gelding who was afraid of white plastic bags. The previous trainer had performed flooding by confining the horse in a stall with 100 plastic bags tied to every surface. From what I was told, the horse went berserk—screaming, frantically circling, and kicking the walls. Within a few minutes, he kicked out the stall door and ran off. From that moment on, the horse had refused to enter any stall and was more fearful than ever of plastic bags

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Written by:

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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