Cath Henshall and her horse Tonto, training with a remote control car. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Sydney scientists have challenged the theory behind a popular horse training technique which has been used to train hundreds of thousands of horses around the world, including those of the Queen.
The Join Up technique, developed by famed American trainer, Monty Roberts, author of the The Man Who Listens to Horses, is said to rely on a special non-verbal horse language to alter the animals' behaviour.
But a study led by equine scientist, Cath Henshall, in which people were replaced by remote control cars, suggests the method works by scaring the animals into submission.
The Join Up technique starts with a trainer chasing an untrained horse around a round pen. As the trainer reduces the intensity of the chasing, the horse approaches and the trainer pats the horse and walks away.
Ms Henshall, who is completing a masters in animal science from the University of Sydney, said the approach is considered humane because no physical pressure is applied to the animal's body and the horse chooses its trainer.
''Two main features of the method are that it depends on the human trainer being able to communicate with the horse using 'horse' body language, and that it is a humane form of training. Our study casts doubt on both those claims,'' she said.
However, Mr Roberts dismissed the findings of the study as an ''absolute joke'', saying the research was an attempt to discredit him.
Ms Henshall and her collaborators, University of Sydney professor, Paul McGreevy, and Italian research vet, Barbara Padalino, used remote control cars to chase 23 horses around a pen.
''The purpose was to see whether we could use a non-human stimulus to get the same kinds of responses that a human can,'' she said.
They found the remote control car could elicit a very similar response in the horse - not running from the car, and eventually approaching the toy - as Mr Robert's method.
The results confirm that the reason the Join Up technique works is because removing something the creature finds aversive is rewarding, a behaviour principle known as negative reinforcement, Ms Henshall said.
''The animal doesn't like being chased, it doesn't like being frightened so it learns very quickly how to stop being chased by coming towards the thing that frightens it.''
Ms Henshall will present her findings at the International Society for Equitation Science conference in Edinburgh next week.
She questioned the humaneness of deliberately scaring a horse.
Mr Roberts said his Join Up method used both positive and negative reinforcement, and negative reinforcement could be a ''good thing''.
''How do you get a horse to move off your leg? You lay your leg against the horse with pressure and then when the horse steps away you remove the pressure - that's negative reinforcement,'' said Mr Roberts, who advocates non-violence and does not use implements such as whips to restrain or control his horses.
He also rejected the study's notion that his methods were inhumane.
''Everybody that ever works with a horse stresses a horse. You will stress a horse when you bring him out of a meadow,'' Mr Roberts, who will visit Australia in August, said.
They had to go through a certain amount of stress to accept they were going to live with humans, he said.
''My life's goal is to leave the world a better place than I found it for horses and people too.''