Identity Crisis?

There are so many words in our vocabulary yet none of them seems to help me define definitively what label I place on the type of training I do.

Even when I say the word ‘training’ it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I feel like my work-play with my horses is more about a dialogue, or a conversation, even verging on communion. To say ‘training’ evokes images of a teacher and student. More often than not, my horses are the teacher, and I am the student.

Here is a fabulous article by a dog trainer encountering a similar conundrum called Why is Positive a Negative, by Gillian Ridgeway, from a website I dearly love, called Dog Star Daily.

She writes:

Rewarding a dog for a job well done is positive dog training. It does not mean that we want dog owners to allow their dogs to take charge or to call the shots.

I think her statement encapsulates why equine positive reinforcement training is tough for folks to get excited about. We humans are afraid that our horses will take charge and call the shots if we’re not in the ‘leadership’ position.

In my experience with my horses, I’ve found this to be  an absolutely unnecessary concern, especially when I listened to what my horses had to say. Suddenly all sorts of things became possible when I stopped using punishment, pressure, force or fear as a means to define our relationship.

I consider myself in a unique place. I never had formal riding lessons, or a seasoned horse person to show me the ropes. I just had the backyard ponies of my youth, and then my herd of four as an adult. I happened upon horses that didn’t respond well to ‘traditional’ horse training methods, and their voices were what inspired me to venture out of the box.

Because of my horses’ voices I started considering the idea that I am a being that happened to land in a human body, and my horse is a being that happened to land in a horse body.  I like what happens when I can relate to my horses as being-to-being rather than create a division or hierarchy or rank system with me ruling as the high and mighty human, the all knowing one.

When I view my horses equal in their being-ness, they seem to respond with an eagerness and an interest in me that I hadn’t experienced when I viewed my horse as creatures beneath me (pun intended).

So for me, if I’m communicating being-to-being, it’s not in my nature to whack or stomp at the other being as a way to say something. Methods of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning have been typically what I do, but when I try to explain this, just the word ‘positive reinforcement’ stirs up all sorts of misleading notions, as the above article explains.

It’s fascinating to me that Gillian’s article explains the process of a dog learning to hold a dumbbell for competitive obedience competition. She explains how the use of positive reinforcement to encourage the dog to hold the dumbbell creates a much different outcome than reprimanding the dog for dropping it.

This behavior, learning to hold an object, is basically the cornerstone behavior of what I do with my horses. It’s one behavior that I don’t think you could ‘pressure and release’ a horse into doing. I have to attract my horse into holding the object.

It can get confusing. I use elements of training techniques that have labels. I use Clicker Training. I use Target Training. I use Operant Conditioning.

But that’s not all I do.

At the core, the magic is in making the horse feel really good about doing what I ask. The behavior I request is elicited out of an invitation, out of the future possibility of something feeling great.

And then as always, I feel great when my horse feels great but then that takes too long to say as a way to identify what I do! Unless I shorten it a bit and become a “Feel Good Facilitator.”

Until then, I will remain a hopelessly long winded; attraction-based, positive reinforcement, clicker-er, target-er, operant condition-er, being-to-being communicator.



2 thoughts on “Identity Crisis?

  1. Great post 🙂 I had always felt maybe I was a bit strange as I have always viewed all my animals as equal beings. I try to treat them in the same way I would like to be treated. I treat them as my friends, which they are.

    I used to have a riding instructor who constantly told me; “horses are not your friends” which I felt was such a sad thing to say. I would like my horse to do things for me because she wants to, because it’s nice and feels good….not because I can make her, make it unpleasant and uncomfortable until she complies. I would like us to mutually enjoy our time together. I agree it’s hard to explain to people what you do, it goes beyond words, it’s a little more than just clicker, it’s love, friendship and communication too.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words and your note!

      I’d have been a really lonely child if my backyard pony was not my best friend! I really think the Golden Rule applies to all sentient beings.

      I just visited your blog. I’m in love with your mare. She is stunning and you’ve done fabulous things with her.

      And your ART! What a beautiful expression of how much you love your feathered and four legged friends. It’s mind blowing to see how much that love shines through in your brush strokes. Amazing. Thank you for what you do.


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