Babies and Horses – The Lies We Are Sold

My heart broke as I read her words: “I let her cry it out, hardest 20 minutes ever, but it worked – she went to sleep!”. Poor baby. Poor Mama.

As a new mum and long-time horse owner, I am constantly amazed by the parallels between baby care advice and horse training advice. In particular, witnessing the shifts from old, outdated ideas, to new gentler methods, as our understanding of the impact of each method improves with scientific study.

We are in the midst of an era of change in the world of animal training. Zoo trainers and dog trainers are leading the way, but many horse trainers are adopting newer, science-based methods and I see parallels with baby care advice shifting in the same direction. However, in these unregulated industries, a lot of outdated advice is still being sold to vulnerable, sleep deprived parents and frustrated horse owners who, for example: Just. Want. The Horse. To. Relax!

In both cases, we can be sold the idea that the end result justifies the means to achieve it, even if everyone hates the process.

The baby cries for a parent who sits on the other side of the door, also crying, in the false belief that they shouldn’t comfort their child, in order to teach her how to go to sleep without help.

The horse owner waves a flag at their horse, who jumps away frightened, pulls on the rope and runs around the pen. The owner flaps the flag until he stands still, in the false belief it will teach him not to be scared of the flag.

It’s a false belief because whilst historically these methods have been justified by the end result, following them doesn’t actually get us the result that’s been sold to us. Instead, we get something that looks a bit similar, but can be damaging to our babies (horse and human) and our relationship with them.

The baby appears to learn to go to sleep and sleep all night, but in reality, she just learns to stop crying in the night time, because no one is coming, even if she needs them to.

The horse doesn’t learn to not fear the flag. He just learns that keeping his feet still will make the scary flag go away.

The horse doesn’t learn to not fear the flag. He just learns that keeping his feet still will make the scary flag go away.

We know this because studies show that the babies and horses in these situations are still stressed, even when they appear to have ‘learned the lesson’. The baby doesn’t cry in the night and the horse stands still whilst the owner waves the flag all around him. On the surface we have the appearance of the end result we wanted, but our babies and horses are stressed and our relationship with them is being damaged.

For anyone who has followed these methods, I doubt this is what you signed up for when you started a training program. We love our horses and our babies and it can be really difficult to know what advice to follow in the minefield of conflicting methods available, especially when a method appears to get results.

My advice is to find something where the process feels as good to you as the end result. If the process feels uncomfortable, makes you cry, or breaks your heart, then your heart is telling you that something is wrong. Look around for an alternative that makes your heart swell with joy and love - whether for your baby or your horse. Then you will know you are on the right track.

© 2021 Sara Jackson


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