This article is based on my personal observations of wildlife, my experience in horse behavior, and on my empiric work. In this article I will explain the behavioral fundament of the bitless training system I developed. I want to be very clear that you do not have to believe everything I say, and I do not want to convince anyone that my system is the best. My intention is to create a system that can be used for any rider, any horse, in any discipline following the system step by step. I do not have any special powers to deal with horses; I am not a whisperer, and what I do can be done by any one. I am not a scientist nor a veterinarian, and I do not pretend to be. My contribution is just the capacity to have the vision for something new, something that can be done from a different perspective, which is gathered in one system.
My experience in wild Patagonia
Everything started in North Patagonia, in 2000. Whilst I was studying veterinary medicine, I was part of an ethnology team of research. We did a five year research program in northern Patagonia, and we published an ISI scientific paper called “PREY OF BREEDING CHILEAN HAWKS (ACCIPITER CHILENSIS) IN AN ANDEAN NOTHOFAGUS FOREST IN NORTHERN PATAGONIA”. (References below)
We spent all spring and summer seasons during these years observing the nest of a forest raptor called “Peuquito” (Chilean Hawks), never observed and studied before in the Chilean Andes Mountains. One of the most interesting things that caught my attention was the incredible ability of the eyas (newborn hawks) to learn everything they need to survive in just three months’ time. Since their hatching from the egg, until their independence when leaving the nest, I had the possibility to follow every single improvement, every step, every set back. After some time studying these birds, I realized that it was impossible for the eyas to learn all they did in a conscious way. In just a couple weeks they were able to hide from enemies, to communicate with other raptors, among other fascinating things.
I discovered something very interesting, I thought they could be able to learn without knowing they were learning. There was a possibility that they could learn by something like our unconsciousness, because there were no ways to consciously learn that amount of information in the given amount of time. It seemed like all the information went directly to their brain, just as a sponge, without any interference and analysis.
I know there is a genetic factor which helps them to react and learn, and that in some way they already have some things in their genes. I know it is not a very determining factor, because we, as group, used to work on rehabilitation of raptor eyas which accidentally fell from the nest. It took time and an effective system to teach them how to learn everything they needed to know to survive. If the genetic factor were too determining, they would not require rehabilitation whatsoever. Therefore, the first stages of their apprehension is a key factor for their surviving.
Freud and animals
I got very obsessive with this idea, and I wanted to find out if animals had something like the unconscious. I did not find any scientific research about animals and the unconscious the way I thought of it, so I had to study it from human psychology. The first I studied was Freud, so I read his theory about the unconscious. Most of his theories regarding this topic are obsolete today, yet one of the things that seeped through was the fact that the unconscious appears in our dreams, so we have a windows as a possibility to get in to, and know what is inside our unconscious. Freud also talked about the possibility that animals are able to dream about things which play a major role in their existence like food, enemies, territory, etc.
But how can we know if an animal is dreaming, and what’s more, what their dreams are? Then I read that Freud was able to steer the dreams of his patients. So I made a little experiment with my Chilean Fox Terrier, “H-man”. Over the course of a day I did not give him water, and when we went to sleep at night, I stayed awake watching him, waiting for him to give any signal that he was dreaming about water that, which he would be desiring. In the middle of the night, he started to lick the air, only for an instant, just as if he were drinking water. He did so once more, so I finally woke him up to give him water and release his need. The possibility that he was dreaming about drinking water was very high; from this experience I gather that animals could posses something like the unconscious, and it may even be possible to alter it in some way to obtain certain results.
The unconscious does not have the ability to determine what is real and what is not. For instance, when watching a scary movie our unconscious does not immediately rationalize and interpret the situation as staged but as a real event. With this principle I tried to build a system to modify the horse’s mind.
In 2013, I had the chance to rehabilitate a thoroughbred racehorse, at one of Chile’s Racetracks, for a trainer named Carlos Urbina. The horse was called Barrio Cívico, his problem was that he would not stop to walking around his stable day and night. No one was able to make him stop before, so I had to think of something different to treat him. I decided to apply this idea of altering his unconscious. The first thing I did was to diagnose the horse’s condition: the horse was stressed out because he did not tolerate to be locked up in his box for the amount of time he was. Because of this, his behavior (the walking around) was a projection of escape in his from that uncomfortable and stressful reality.
In order to start treating him, I made a collage with images of horses relaxing and grazing in a field. The horse was exposed to these images twenty four hours every day, and his unconscious was analyzing that collage just because he was being exposed to it. The whole idea behind this procedure was that the horse’s unconscious would not discriminate the reality from what he is taking in from hi surroundings, so the collage should make the horse thinks that he is grazing in the field just as the horses in the images, which should make him calm like the horses on the collage.
In one month the horse reduced his behavior around thirty percent. After three months it had been reduced by ninety percent, and he won seven races the year after the treatment.
Then I realized that this was something important to consider. I do not want to call it the unconscious, but I do, just to make it clear and for a better understanding of the concept for the people. I started to think philosophically, and of course it is logical that horses do not know that they are learning, they simply learn, unconsciously. They do not know what learning means, that is a human concept, where we are aware of ourselves and separated from what we are learning. But horses are not separated from what they learn, they become the experience of learning, without analyzing the concept itself. They become dissociated when what they are learning involves dangerous or painful situations. I explained this in further detail in the article called “Understanding Horses”.
Horses, humans and the conscious
Thinking about this, I understood why many training systems do not work as fast as we want to, which is because we pretend that the horse learns consciously, but it is not that way. We apply our way to learn to them, and the horse’s mind has to make a huge effort to understand, and in many cases without any possibility to do it, because to make horses to learn consciously is like to provide them the information with the old 80’s cassettes, instead of doing it with the unconscious, which would be like using a USB stick with millions of bits. It simply is impossible, horses cannot learn complicated things consciously, even if they cooperate.
Humans are not all to good at it either: the psychologist John Bargh from the Department of Psychology of Yale University found in his researches that the human mind uses only fifty bits per seconds to think consciously, which means we can only make a simple mathematical equation. But unconsciously we have eleven million bits per second. In fact, while reading this article you are using thirty bits per second, so that is probably why you will read it more than once to get all the ideas, as I do when reading something new. He also states that if we go to see a new apartment to rent, our unconscious takes about ten minutes to check the surroundings and to make the decision whether it is suitable or not. Consciously, the process would take about four years. The choices we make are tied to our unconscious more than we know, many companies utilize this in marketing strategies. It is logical to think that for animals the unconscious is even more useful, taking into consideration their brain development and evolution.
Bitless system and the conscious
I made a bitless training system based on the ability of the unconscious ability of the horse to learn, that way they do not know that they are learning, but they still do and very rapidly so, just like they would in nature. The variables are slowly introduced into the training method and are eased out just as slowly. This can be visualized with the following example: a rock band is playing music, then the guitar is changed for a cello, later the base guitar for an oboe, and so on, instrument by instrument. That way it is not realized that the whole rock band has been changed for a classical orchestra because it has been done one step at a time. The same principle is applied to the horse’s training process, this is the behavioral foundation of how I train horses to ride from bit to bitless. To understand without consciousness, a beautiful paradox.