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You cannot make a horse respect you; you can only be the sort of person a horse will respect!
Quote Mark


Traditional Trainer or Modern Trainer?



Often “modern” trainers talk about traditional training with a sense of moral high ground and perhaps a note of superiority creeping into the voice during any comparison of tradition and modern horse training. I think the term traditional is often incorrectly used as a substitute label for a belief that a method of training is wrong, old fashioned and out dated.  So, what is traditional and what is modern?  It seems to me that if we are to make any reasonable comparison we should first establish what might be encompassed in these ideologies. 


Perhaps we should turn to the dictionary for a more accurate definition? 

TRADITIONAL; handing down from generation to generation of opinions and practises; the belief or practise thus passed on.


If we take this meaning of traditional, it encompasses many successful styles of riding and training such as the European Riding Schools, The British Horse Society, Germanic Dressage trainers as well as the Vaqueros to name but a few. Through these methods of training the potential of the horse as an athletic performer has been stretched considerably.  These traditional methods have in many cases stood the test of time and have been extremely successful at getting horses to do what trainers wanted them to do. These traditional methods worked and continue to work or they would have been abandoned long ago.


So if the negative classification “traditional” is not due the length of time a method has survived or the success it has enjoyed, it must relate to the content of the training method. Exploring the content of traditional methods we find a common thread through them all. No matter how well concealed or attractively labelled there is a definite content of punishment and force that seem to run through these methods. The use of punishment or avoidance of negative stimulus to motivate horses learning, is perhaps one mark of traditional training. The whip and the spur are the most obvious aids of the traditional methods.


Having identified what we mean through the term traditional it is equally important to consider, what is modern? In the dictionary modern simply refers to; of present or recent times. Again here lies a problem, traditional trainers are improving their skill and updating techniques and are still currently used in the vast majority of training yards around the world, so they must be modern. However, just because a method is currently being used doesn’t make it modern.


When we talk of modern training we are really talking of the methods of motivating the horses’ performance. Many people now consider a method of training to be modern provided it appears to use a minimum amount of force and therefore many Natural Horsemanship methods fall in to this category.


However, I am not sure that we have finished the evolution of horse training just yet. While Natural Horsemanship may be relatively recent is it really modern?  If we look at the training of a few other species we find the answer to this question.


In modern marine mammal training the use of the scientific principle of behaviour are the natural choice of trainers. Dog training is evolving into the more common place use of operant conditioning in the form of clicker training.  Zoos are happy to use positive reinforcement to train large often potentially dangerous animals to comply with the challenging difficulties of confinement and zoo management.


For me, modern horsemanship is not Natural Horsemanship, which is just a step on the evolution of equine training, but rather modern is the applied science of behaviour.  Behaviour is a method of training where the rules are studied, proven and where the principles can be applied in different species.  The principles of behaviour underpin all other training methods and this is why I believe that behaviour training is the most modern and up to date ways of training equine currently available.


Having identified likely traits and examples of both modern and traditional methods of training we can make a comparison between traditional force based methods of training and the application of the science of behaviour.   


Difference No 1 - The way the horse is motivated.

In traditional training, punishment or the avoidance of negative stimuli are the main motivating elements of training. The horse works to avoid the whip or release the pressure of the spur and bit. In modern training, the use of positive reinforcement for desirable behaviours is a common motivation for the horse. When negative reinforcement is used in modern training it is used minimally and is not escalated to excessive physical force. In modern training the use of punishment is highly undesirable.


Difference No 2 - How mistakes are viewed.

Mistakes made during traditional training are seen as a hindrance and are the cause of frustration which slows learning down. Mistakes are seen as something to be avoided as much as possible. Modern training on the other hand, expects the horse to make mistakes. Mistakes are seen as essential to learning, hence the term trial and error learning.  The modern trainer recognises that during the process of learning, mistakes provide the horse with important feed back on consequences of their behaviour.



Difference No 3 - The use of successive approximation.

Modern trainers understand the process of shaping behaviour and create written shaping plans for their training goals. Small logical steps in the learning process are considered essential. Desired behaviours are broken into as many small steps as possible and each step is completed before training progresses. In traditional training there is an awareness that horses have to learn things in the correct order, but the steps are generally large and no written plan exists.



Difference No 4 - The thinking required of the animal.

In traditional training the horse is required to comply and perform with what is expected of it when asked, without question.  The traditionally trained horse has to get on with doing what it is told to or face the consequences.   The horse is not allowed to have an opinion and if it does, it is often considered to be stubborn or difficult.  Questioning the process of learning and experimentation are not acceptable in traditional methods of training. Modern trainers want the horse to think and experiment with the learning process. In fact, modern trainers use operant conditioning which requires the horse to solve problems and think for itself.


Difference No 5 – The application of direction

In modern training the use of operant conditioning means that the horse is encouraged to offer behaviours. The horse is likely to offer behaviours because it is motivated to seek the positive consequences of their actions and the trainer selects the appropriate behaviour to reinforce. In essence the horse performs and the trainer responds. In more traditional training the trainer applies pressure through the aids and the horse tries to find the behaviour that will avoid the discomfort. The trainer gives instructions and direction to the horse through force and physical discomfort that are likely to result in a desired behaviour. In other words the trainer acts and the horse reacts.


Difference No 6 - Understanding the science.

Traditional trainers know what to do to get the horse to comply, but not always why it works. Traditional trainers tend to have very little understanding of the consequences of the application of punishment on learning but they know it might get the desired results. Traditional methods of training use the principles of the science of behaviour even though they do not realise it or do not really understand the correct application. Modern trainers fully understand the consequences and effects of punishment, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement on equine behaviour. The modern trainer understands a full range of scientific principles, such as counter conditioning, systematic desensitisation and flooding and knows how to use it appropriately.




Difference No 7 - Asking why behaviour exists

Modern trainers spend a great deal of time asking, “Why does my horse behave the way it does?” Accepting that horses have a reason for everything they do is the mark of a modern trainer. Understanding the causes of behaviour allows the modern trainer to apply the correct training to each and every training situation. The modern trainer thinks with the horses’ brain and in doing so empathises with the horse.  Traditional training tends to expect the horse to get on with it. Consideration of the horses’ emotions is not a notable part of traditional training. Traditional training focuses more on how to over come difficulties without much consideration for the reason they may exist.


Difference No 8 - Methods of getting results

Traditional training tends to have a set pattern of training that is applied to all horses and all problems.  No consideration is given to the horses’ individual distinctiveness or learning style, every animal is expected to fit the method. Modern trainers tend to have ten solutions to one problem and not one solution to ten problems. Modern trainers find the best approach to each individual horse and adapt their training to suit each horse as an individual. If one way of teaching a desired behaviour is not working, a modern trainer will try something else and keep trying new things until they succeed without ever resulting to physical force.


Difference No 9 - Blame and labelling

In traditional training methods problems and errors in the training process tend to be blamed on the horse. Horses are labelled as stubborn, difficult or naughty and the trainer then acts towards the horse according to the given label. In more modern training the trainer takes full responsibility for any problems or difficulties that arise during training. Blame is negative and unproductive, responsibility is constructive. By taking responsibility for a problem the modern trainer remains in control of the situation and can change the outcome by changing their behaviour. When the horse is blamed for the problem then the trainer can do little but wait for the horse to do something different. 


Difference No 10 - Control

The traditional trainer wants control and dominance over the horse and is happy to show the horse “who is boss” and “teach them a lesson.” The modern trainer wants a partnership and a balanced relationship with equal input from each side.


Difference No 11 – How the trainer views the horse

Modern trainers understand the complexities of working with a flight animal that still requires every generation to be domesticated.  Modern trainers understand the true nature of equine to be fearful inquisitiveness.  Modern trainers believe in the true nature of equines, namely that they are adaptable willing creatures who will comply with the requirements of a much weaker and slower species.  Horses are stronger and faster than we are and in truth do not have to do anything we want, yet in most cases they do.  It is widely believed in traditional training that horses can be deliberately lazy and do things to deliberately upset the trainer.   The traditional trainer is more inclined to call the horse stupid or label them as awkward and deliberately difficult. The traditional trainer is more likely to become frustrated at the horses poor performance than the modern trainer.


Perhaps by now you are thinking am I a modern trainer?  Well the answer lies in how you think and behave as much as in how your horse behaves.  Do you understand the science of behaviour and the applications of principles such as positive and negative reinforcement, extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery?  Do you create a detailed shaping plan before you commence training and for each lesson do you shape the desired behaviour correctly?  Do you put the horse first and create a win win situation every time?  Do you use systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to over come the fears and phobias your horse may have?  Do you have a partnership with your horse and are you happy to accept the responsibility for problems? Does your horse show enthusiasm for training sessions and even after mistakes continue to show enthusiasm for learning?   Do you look for behaviours to reward rather than behaviours to shut down or punish? If you answered yes to all the above then the chances are you are a modern trainer and you should reward yourself for your enlightened behaviour and thinking.


Unfortunately despite my best efforts to classify training methods there really are no hard and fast rules for the label of traditional or modern. Age of the method certainly does not determine whether it is traditional. Twenty four centuries ago, I am pretty sure Xenophon would have been considered modern. In fact he describes the effects of both positive and negative reinforcement 2,400 years before they are “discovered.” Much of his writing speaks with compassion and empathy for the horses’ plight and it still has relevance today.


In 1959 Üdo Burger in his book, The way to Perfect Horsemanship, writes “All horses must eventually learn to stretch the reins and none are incapable of doing so. To form the horse into the shape that will give the rider complete control, a certain tension of the reins is essential. However, it should not be forgotten that horses are not all made the same: we will never be able to effect radical change in the shape of a body and we cannot expect to mould two horses into an identical form.”


Many “traditional” trainers have a great understanding and empathy with the horse, they have soft hands and can help the horse to learn what is required of it with the minimum of pressure or force. Many trainers who would be considered “modern” have poor timing, use excessive amounts of punishment and negative reinforcement and force the horse to comply all of which is carefully concealed with clever marketing and scientifically  incorrect analysis.


Given the same length of time and quality of animal the results achieved by a modern or traditional trainer could produce a performance of identical standards. It is obvious that the difference between traditional and modern training lies not in the results but more in how the behaviour was achieved. The thought processes and behaviour of the trainer is the difference between traditional and modern methods.


Crediting the horse with emotions and empathising with their difficulties in adapting to domestication are the great leaps forward in human thinking that have allowed us to improve equine training, which we can compare to traditional methods. Understanding the practical application of the science of behaviour is the development that will create the modern trainer of the future.


As always we “modern” trainers should guard against complacency working to improve and understand more in the hope that we are just part of the evolution in horsemanship and that in time, better and even more “modern” methods of training will advance our partnership with the horse.


So perhaps for the time being we should not compare modern and traditional, as the saying goes “don’t compete create.”



© Ben Hart September 2006



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