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Classical methods = abusive old-style training?

From: Brittney

Dear Dr. Jahiel, I have been reading some of your articles and think they are very good and clear. Just one thing really bothers me, you don't seem to have respect for the great new trainers of our Age. I have been training horses for five years (I am fourteen years old). And I have a lot of Respect for the great trainers who teach Natural ways of being kind to horses. The old ways are bad and should be forgotten because we are better today and we know it matters to be kind to horses. The Old ways of training were very abusing and brutal. I can tell by reading your articles that you know a lot about horses and also you have a PHD so you are a very educated person. But you repeatingly advertise the classical methods. I do not understand. Can you explain to me why does a respected and educated personage such as yourself still defend these abusing old ways? To beat horses to force them to learn is not the way now a days, we have better ways that are natural and teach the horses by our being their kind leaders. I hope that you will think of this and reconsider why you advertise these abusing methods. Thank You.

Yours Sincerely, from another Horse Trainer, Brittney


Hi Brittney!

Your letter raises some interesting points. I think we should begin by separating what's new from what's old, what's new-style from what's old-style, and what's abusive from what isn't abusive.

"Classical" doesn't mean "surrounded by pieces of crumbling marble statues", and it doesn't mean "unkind to horses". "Classical" means "time-tested and proven", and the aim of classical training is, and has always been, the complete development of the total horse and rider - physical, mental, emotional, and, if you will, spiritual. This isn't achieved through pain or fear, either for the horse or the rider, but through thoughtful, kind, and patient work and lots of it. It's unfortunate that the classical methods of training, as they were actually used and written about, have been drastically misrepresented by people who are busy attempting to make fortunes "reinventing" horsemanship. There is only one thing you can say about people who are marketing their "brand" of horsemanship by saying that all other methods were cruel: They are just plain WRONG. By confusing the public and trying to convince them that "classical", "old-style", "old-fashioned" methods - and, in fact, all methods but their own - are cruel and abusive, they've created a nonexistent division, with themselves as the "good guys" on one side, and everyone else as the "bad guys" on the other side.

The problem here is that the claims are untrue and the division is imaginary. This kind of misinformation is easy to disseminate. It's also - sadly - easy to convince people that it's true, because so many people, all well-meaning, and all interested in the kind and sensible treatment of horses, come to it with no solid foundation of knowledge that would let them separate substance from hype.

People have been writing and practicing sound horsemanship for thousands of years - you might want to look at the writings of Xenophon, for example. He wrote about horses and their training in very kind, positive ways, and he wasn't claiming that his ideas or methods were new, because even then, they weren't.

I know that many people live in areas where they have no exposure to truly good teaching and training, and that's sad, but it doesn't have to keep you from acquiring an education. You can always read! Read Xenophon. Read about the history, traditions, and performances of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. Read about Australia's Kell Jeffery, the horse-breaker who originated much of what is being marketed (and claimed as original) today by American entrepreneurs. Read about the schools of horsemanship that developed over centuries in Europe, and about the American officers who were sent to many of those Europan schools to learn classical methods of training and riding, so that they could come home and educate and train the horses and humans of the US Cavalry. Read about horsemanship on ranches in the Old West. On television, in movies, and in the false claims of hucksters, you'll hear about nothing but the rough-and-ready, violent methods of horse-breaking, but if you'll dig a little deeper, you'll find that there has always been another, parallel tradition of "gentling" horses, and that the best trainers of the time were highly respected and much in demand. The one thing you'll find that all of these people had in common is that their focus was always on the education and welfare of the horses in their care - NOT on the glorification of themselves or on the peddling of merchandise.

There are no truly new methods of working with horses. There are some new "cookbook-style" versions of old methods, packaged attractively, accompanied by "special" equipment to be purchased by the rider. These are, for the most part, aimed at people who have little or no experience with horses. They're available to everyone, easy to understand and to use, but the downside of "easy" is that they offer a very limited and superficial understanding of horses and horsemanship. Then there are older versions of old methods, offered in the traditional way - through a long process of apprenticeship. These offer a very profound understanding of horses and horsemanship, and the apprenticeship method is ideal for those who want to devote their lives to the study of horsemanship, but it's not necessarily appropriate for, or even available to, the majority of riders who just want to learn as much as they can about their horses while they continue to live their normal lives.

If you are learning to train horses, good for you! I expect you are truly interested in learning everything you can about horses and horsemanship. Try not to close too many doors - good trainers, like bad trainers, come from all countries and wear all kinds of hats. Find a good instructor. Take lessons, participate in clinics, read books, and take every opportunity to watch good riders and good trainers in action. Develop your critical faculty so that you can see clearly and draw correct conclusions about what you're seeing. It's important to be able to distinguish between trainers who actually walk the walk, and those who only talk the talk. If you learn to understand horses, you'll be able to evaluate trainers based on the horses' reactions to them - not on their talk or their advertising.

The more you read, the more you'll find that the "new, natural" ways aren't really either new or natural. From the horse's point of view, there is nothing natural about being ridden. Round-pen work, for instance, isn't new - it's a very old way of beginning the education of a horse by asserting dominance over the animal. Using body language to maneuver horses around isn't new, either. Chasing horses into exhaustion isn't new - it's a very old method of capturing horses. Clicker training isn't new - it's a form of operant conditioning involving the use of a bridging signal. These can all be useful techniques, but it's a great mistake to look at any or all of them and imagine that they represent a revolution. What they represent is, in effect, new bottles for old wine. ;-)

The trouble with criticizing the "old ways" of training is that you have to be more specific - WHICH old ways? Some were abusive. Some were cruel. Some were neither, and the best of the old ways - and yes, that would be the classical system - were based on a deep understanding of, and respect and kindness toward, the horse. The more you learn about the "old ways", the more "newness" you'll discover.

And speaking of "new ways"... I'd like to say that we've gone beyond cruel and abusive methods of horse-training and horse-handling, and that those things no longer exist. Unfortunately, they DO exist, and are often used by the very people who claim that their methods are natural, new, and kind. Please don't be too impressed with labels, or with fortunes spent on advertising. You need to be able to stand back and look at what is actually going on. What matters - what has always mattered - is the horses themselves. If you are going to be a horse trainer, you need to have clear eyes, a clear head, a good education and strong principles, so that you will be able to understand horses, do what's right for them, and stand up for them when necessary.

Being a horse-trainer is an important job. If you're going to be good at it - and I hope you will be - you'll need a solid foundation on which to build, and a context that will allow you to separate what's true from what's nothing more than marketing hype. For this, once again, you'll need to learn, watch, and read. Don't discount the past or let others convince you that 'old' is 'bad'. In some ways, "new" can be very good indeed - certainly in the medical arena, we're steadily learning more about diagnosis, treatments, and therapy. But although diagnostic equipment has changed dramatically over the years, horses and humans have not. All of today's good ideas about training and horse-human relationships are either reinventions or echoes of old ideas.

Jessica

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