Do you ever feel like you are an alien from Planet X who is on a visit to Planet Z? Sometimes in the world of horse blogging, I do. See following dialogue (names are changed and humor introduced so with luck there won't be any hurt feelings):
Kate: Hi, I'm from Planet X and I work with my horses using primarily non-coercive training methods.
Planet Z resident, call her Meg: Oh, you're one of those people from the lunatic asylum . . . and you people practice free love!
(Kate to herself: lunatic asylum? free love?!!! - what have I been missing?)
Kate: um, no, I just ask my horse to do tasks and then shape the tries the horse offers me, using mainly positive reinforcement but also the softest possible pressure followed by a release, until I get the response I want - my goal is to develop a horse with excellent, responsive behavior who is a true partner in anything I choose to do.
Meg: I'll bet you use one of those sticks with a string on the end of it - and do you people put crystals in there too?
Kate: um, no, I don't use any special equipment or follow any specific training program - I try to address each horse's needs as an individual.
Meg: I expect you have hoofprints down your back from your horse taking advantage of you and walking all over you since your horse probably gets to do whatever it wants.
Kate: my horses learn very quickly never to intrude into my personal space - good ground manners and personal safety come first - and my horses do what I ask because they're willing to accept and follow my leadership - but I have to provide clear, consistent, fair leadership first before they're willing to do that.
Meg: Well, I get after my horse any time he does something I don't want, and he knows to respect me and do what I tell him to do.
Kate: If your horse does something you don't want, do you first rule out teeth/pain/metabolic/saddle fit/bit issues or anything you might be doing to cause the behavior?
Meg 1: Yes, I try to do that.
Meg 2: No, I don't believe in that stuff - if my horse misbehaves, I punish him - it's his job to do what I want. (Meg 2s are increasingly rare out there on Planet Z, which is a good thing.)
Kate: But I'm not a horse trainer, only know what I know and only have had the experiences I've had, and sometimes what I do with my horses doesn't work - I'm still learning and expect I'll keep learning up until the last day I work with a horse. Maybe that disqualifies me from having an opinion and maybe it doesn't - you'll have to come to your own decision on that. And maybe I'm wrong and maybe you're right. And maybe there's a middle ground on this topic and maybe there isn't - I wish people from Planet Z didn't have misconceptions about what I am and what I'm saying - I expect I have misconceptions about people from Planet Z too although I did use to live there.
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You get the idea. This type of dialogue shows the gulf that sometimes exists between the way I think and operate (or at least the way I'm able to express it - the fault may well be mine) and those who use "traditional" training methods, including punishment. (I'm not being entirely fair to "Meg" here but just wanted to point out that the communication gulf is there.) When I try to have a dialogue with someone from Planet Z, I feel like they just don't get or hear what I'm saying. Now to be clear, I'm talking about good, caring horse owners who provide excellent care for their horses and care about their welfare. I'm not talking about people who rip up their horses' mouths or sides, hit horses in the face or head or have poor emotional and anger control skills and take out their frustrations by abusing horses. I'm talking about traditional horse training methods that use punishment as a significant training element - it's a world I participated in for many years so I'm pretty familiar with how things work there. The horse does something wrong, you punish the horse - using bit, spur, whip or other means of coercion (such as aggressively running a horse in a round pen) - until the horse does the right thing and then you leave the horse alone.
And to be fair, these methods work pretty well for most horses. I think of horses as falling into roughly four groups (it's actually a continuum) - the not bright, stoic horse; the not bright, sensitive horse; the intelligent, stoic horse; and the intelligent, sensitive horse. Fortunately, many horses are reasonably intelligent and stoic and training methods using punishment can be effective - that's why they're so popular. The horse figures out by trial and error what behaviors elicit punishment and which don't. It worked for me for years until I began to see that it sometimes didn't work - in fact sometimes was disastrous - and I began to think more about the horse's point of view. When traditional training methods are used, a not bright, stoic horse will often become dull and unresponsive (you have to do more to get even less response), a not bright, sensitive horse may become fearful and eventually shut down (and potentially explosive), an intelligent, stoic horse will comply but resent you for it and never be willing and an intelligent, sensitive horse may come completely unglued and even break down mentally - once I started paying attention I began seeing examples of all of these types. I've seen one horse of the fourth type go from a wonderful, competent horse to one that was completely wrecked and unrideable due to being overfaced and then punished repeatedly, and it almost happened to our Dawn.
There's also a "moral" underpinning for traditional horse training that bothers me, a lot. The assumption is that horses have to be dominated and controlled (not directed or led, controlled) to work with us (some folks use "alpha" language to describe this and some don't). I now believe that this concept only has direct application in defining your personal space and making sure you are safe on the ground. I believe it isn't the way to go otherwise - I think you have to provide consistent, fair, clear leadership at all times when around horses if you want to stay safe and have the horse do what you want, but that's not the same thing as dominating the horse. A lot of folks also seem to assume that if the horse does something wrong, it's the horse's fault - I used to believe this too - hence the punishment. Some folks seem to think that horses are always looking for a way to get out of things or to put one over on them. I would describe this approach to horses as adversarial - the horse is an adversary to be dominated/controlled and punished if it does the wrong thing. But all punishment does is focus on the thing you don't want - it does nothing to tell the horse what you do want.
I've also come to believe that intent matters - if you use an aid - whip, spur or bit - as a punishment, you've just contaminated your aids - your horse might be pretty darn responsive afterwards (assuming it even has a clue what you want) because it fears the aid will turn into a punishment. (I do use a whip/crop as a secondary aid to reinforce a primary leg aid by slapping the saddle or my chaps, but I only rarely have to touch the horse with it to do this.) I also firmly believe as I've learned more and become more aware of what I do and communicate (or fail to communicate) when working with a horse, that in a very high percentage of cases, if the horse fails to do what I want it's because of something I've done or failed to do. If I provide leadership and ask in a way that the horse understands, I pretty much always get the behavior I want. It takes more time and effort and attention to work this way and you have to break things down into small steps, but it works - I've seen it work and it works for me. And at the end I have horse that's a partner and not a slave and who has skills that generalize to new situations.
And, to anyone from Planet Z who may be reading, no, that doesn't mean that I let my horses walk all over me or do whatever they want. But maybe I'm just a nut from Planet X . . .