Bridging the divides.

In a discussion forum recently, an article written by a professional positive reinforcement (R+) horse trainer on the meaning of the lick and chew came up for discussion.

It was bursting with science about learning, and the nervous system, and it was discussing the connection between stress and the lick and chew. So far so good.

However, references were also made in comparison to natural horsemanship (NH) and traditional horsemanship (TH) training, specifically comparing ‘reward based training vs ‘dominance based training’ and how in the author’s opinion, using dominance causes a rise in stress (hence the lick and chew) and that this was bad for the horse.

That point became a central one for discussion in the ensuing thread, and a few horror stories and the resultant bashing of NH and TH at its worse ensued.

This bothered me, a lot, because it is very common, no matter which camp you are in, to see articles and blogs that point out and criticise the very worst seen in any other method than that of the given author. It bothered me because of the generalisation too. ‘Traditional’ and ‘Natural’ horsemanship both stand alone as terms that encompass a vast variety and level of techniques, knowledge, skills, tools, and attitudes within their scope, let alone lumping them both together.

This tendency for ‘us vs them’ seems to pop up in A few (not all!) R+ articles right now, I believe, because clicker trainers are the new kids on the block and they have had to struggle to prove that clicker training is relevant to horses (and oh boy, it is!) in a world that is steeped in the tradition of centuries without a click.

I can actually recall seeing Natural Horsemanship articles making similar comparisons to Traditional Horsemanship twenty odd years ago, and it didn’t help much then, either. One of the worst things Pat Parelli, as the man who coined the phrase ‘Natural Horsemanship’, ever said, despite it being more true than not in many places, was ‘watch what everyone else is doing and do the opposite’. The immediate effect that had on the ‘everyone else’ was not to embrace his ideas!

I personally love clicker training, but I myself have recently experienced the raised eyebrows and dismissive comments from the yet uninitiated on hearing me click, which was entirely reminiscent of similar incidences with TH friends in the past when I first crossed into the ‘darklands’ of NH.

I am forever the filling in the sandwich!

But, regardless where your thoughts lay, putting each other down stands directly between any student who feels judged by this sort of opinion, and new knowledge that could help them become a better horseperson.

It encourages division between us, and the ones that suffer most from this are the horses.

So, why do we do it?

I think that the reason why this type of sweeping judgment occurs is twofold.

Firstly; it’s self defence. In the case I’m speaking of, clicker training and R+ is relatively uncommon and rather different from the traditional horsemanship methods, and some practitioners are naturally defensive because they have been scoffed at. (Anyone who started NH 15 years plus ago will also know the feeling well! I lost friends over it.)

It hurts and irritates, especially when you know your thing is a really good thing (and CT is!). If you have been wrongfully belittled, it’s even understandable to want to demonise the belittlers in return. Even if you don’t, just the inherent subtext that ‘this is a better way’ implies to others that the very thing that they are doing instead is being judged by you, even if it genuinely isn’t intended.

Remember, we are talking about people’s life passion in many cases. And so the conversation devolves as everyone gets defensive and puts the shields up.

Science is one way to validate what we do, and it backs it up very well. Most clicker trainers I know are extremely knowledgeable people. Their shield is made of science, but that shield also can imply that the other sucks, when it is skewed by assumptions about what exactly ‘everyone else’ is doing. Which leads to the second reason.

Secondly: ignorance and assumption. Many of the disaffected really do believe NH/TH is fear based training, and usually for very good reasons. They have seen it happening. Or they themselves were taught it by someone who didn’t understand the principles (and there are principles!) and therefore found it didn’t help them or their horses. We’ve all seen the mistreatment of horses at shows. Emotions rise with expectations, practises such as Rollkur for dressage, rapping for showjumping, and soring for the Big Lick all effect. It’s a sad truth that because horses are associated with horse sports, that people judge winners to be the epitome of good horsemanship, and obviously this is not the case when horses are suffering for their ribbons.

We all make easy assumptions that fit with our own bias; and this is not just with horses; it’s an issue in every polemic argument that exists. I am suggesting that perhaps the method is not necessarily the problem, but rather it’s the polemics thinking itself.

Any ethical trainer, wanting to differentiate from unethical practice, knows what she doesn’t want to do, and that is training that uses force, fear, and intimidation. Yes, abusive training does exist, but that does not mean that everyone with a rope in one hand without a clicker in the other is abusive.

Force, fear and intimidation are a subset that fall under the term ‘dominance’; and even the perpetrators themselves who do abuse, justify this abuse by saying ‘dominance is natural’. The word ‘dominance’ is reduced and misunderstood by both the people using it badly, and any people looking for them to use as an example of what not to do.

Words easily become misused when we are looking for extremes to fuel our polemic points of view.

The word ‘dominant’ is a perfect example. If you look in the dictionary, it actually means ‘to use power and influence over others’, not specifically to abuse power and intimidate. Yes, that is still definitely a subset, but it’s not what the word is meant to express in its entirety.

eg as a salesperson I dominate my market, but not by bullying.

Then, on checking the animal behaviour science definition of the word, it tells us that to be dominant means no more than ‘to have preferred access to resources’.

So by those two official definitions, literally any and all ‘training’ is ‘dominant’. Including positive reinforcement.

It’s a subtle point, but an important one. And it’s the reason I put ‘dominance based training’ in inverted commas.

We don’t usually call any training outright ‘punishment based’, but that is the implication of differentiating between ‘dominant based’ vs ‘reward based’ and as we know, labels do filter our view of things. It’s a mental trick that takes the ‘reinforcement’ out of the vernacular- it’s now reduced to either positive or negative in all the lay associations- and then puts the spotlight on the positive ‘punishment’ that is the alternative to the negative ‘reinforcement’.

Of course we can do the same thing to R+ and reduce it to all be about the need/desire for food, and infer that it’s only through the withholding of food that the animal performs. ‘Resource management’ is a term used in labs to describe starving the rats before an experiment so they are more desperate to try an R+ based experiment; and that is not exactly a kindness, right?

However, it’s also a cheap shot to imply that is what all R+ trainers are up to (they most certainly are NOT) and we need to stop taking cheap shots.

Most people I know are not deliberately withholding food OR threatening to physically harm their horse. Yes, many other people do use punishment, but those are not the ones who will change because they read an article shaming them. More usually the reaction is to double down and to deny.

We know not to label our horses, and yet we do it to each other.

We see what we expect to see. And by this I do not mean that we cannot recognise real abuse when we see it.

What I mean is we can mistakenly label anything ‘dominant’ as abuse; and that that is an error.

Today we have so much information freely available at our fingertips. Behavioural science has reached the laity, and is out there for all to discover, and people from all over the spectrum eagerly read and absorb the information and reflect upon it…and all too often, through partial understanding and various forms of bias, start putting some sort of spin on it. Not understanding as much as we think we do is one part of the problem.

There is much misunderstanding and making of assumptions between the ‘us and them’ mindsetters.

One very common misperception is that NH/TH does not include any R+; or that if it does, it’s ‘pressure with a click’. This can be true, but it’s a mistake that knowledge can easily rectify. You can do both, provided you and your horse are very clear on which you are using and when.

I personally know that it is very possible to be a mixed methodologist without poisoning cues or charming aversives.

However that is true today, before the science hit the mainstream, we didn’t think in terms of R+ vs R-. We just trained horses. Sometimes we used pressure, sometimes we used rewards. Most people who were interested in partnership and connection did a bit of both, completely unaware that there were scientific labels that differentiated the practice. Yes, without a doubt our methodology was flawed. We didn’t know about bridging/marking, we didn’t understand any of the scientific terms either. But those who did well with horses learned to have good focus, feel, timing and balance in all aspects of interaction.

I know that for many traditionalists, using food rewards was a no no; because they did not understand R+ as a method, or even how to give a treat without causing issues with biting. That is a symptom of ignorance and incomplete horsemanship, and even protectiveness as in not wanting to model behaviour to others that might get someone else bitten, or not wanting to risk teaching it to a horse who may get in trouble for it later in less experienced hands. Mostly I think it came down to habit, belief and preference.

What it is not, is a prerequisite to being a traditionalist.

Nevertheless, most traditional people I grew up with still hand fed their horses, and rewarded them for trying.

With the advent of NH, for me, came actual overt permission- we were encouraged to use food rewards, specifically as an alternative to pressure, especially with horses that needed to find their motivation. We did trail rides with carrots hidden at certain destinations. We would ask for go once, take what was offered, and on arrival at the cache, let the horses find the food. Or we would take a long focus on a clump of grass, ride to it, and wait, and now allow him to graze. Doing that alone has made a vast difference to how all my horses view heading out for a ride; as it addresses go and whoa, and teaches the horse that it pays to follow my focus, and a cue for when it’s ok to eat. Win win.

What I was actually told not to do by NH was to kick my horses to go (I was told that if I kick, I deserved to be bucked off), pull the reins to stop, or to nag nag nag with pressure. By the time we were riding, our horses understood the cue for ‘go’; because we had thinly sliced the lessons beforehand in groundwork to make it clear. Yes, successive approximations, even if we didn’t know the term. If we needed to start two steps in front of a barrel loaded with carrots, that’s what we did.

I’m not saying that is the only way, but it was a part of the menu, to be chosen depending upon the horse and the circumstances. And circumstances and how the horse is feeling in the moment is very relevant to this conversation, because anyone who spends any time with practically any horse knows that when they get scared, then food becomes much less motivating. Sometimes, in a scary situation, that horse can’t even see me, let alone my treat pouch, and while I’m waiting for a behaviour that I can reward, I could get killed by my horse panicking in the process. So that brings up another aspect.


So let’s talk about another badly misunderstood word; stress.

This is another thing to consider. Not all, but some R+ purists (such as in the article I was reading) are perpetuating a myth that in training, any stress experienced at all is ‘bad’.

The reasoning is that it is unethical to use fear and intimidation to force an animal to comply.

I totally agree with that.

However, it is very seldom that I read any opinion that makes this point without it also implying that not only is ‘dominance based’ training unethical, but that the creation of fear is actually the central point of natural or traditional horsemanship.

The words ‘dominance based’ and ‘pressure based’ training are used to describe NH/TH; but the translation implied for both terms is ‘fear/pain/intimidation/force/punishment based’; in a manner that suggests that is the intended lever. ‘Do it or else’ in other words. A threat in every interaction. While this certainly is true of some people, I posit, that for many others, that this is more an accident born of lack of skill and knowledge, rather than by design.

I think it’s incorrect to imply any differently, and it needs to stop if we are truly wanting to change the world for the better for horses.

There is often a deep misunderstanding of the necessity of stress to provoke any action in life. The word ‘stress’ usually signifies to us one single subset; that of extreme/acute distress.

Google it- ‘workplace stress’ is the first that comes up. We know that prolonged stress is not good for any creature, and because we tend to live like that, and suffer for it, we are wary of it and think it’s all bad.

Think of it this way: survival is stressful.

Stress lives on a continuum stretching from mild discomfort and desire/urge for change (eustress) to full out panic (extreme distress). But no one ever disturbs the status quo of comfort, without some sort of stress, even if the stress concerned is a mere boredom or lack of stimuli. Stress is literally a mechanism for change and for survival. Because of it we seek comfort and love, and avoid discomfort and fear. If being hungry wasn’t a form of stress, we would never bother seeking food. It’s how we survive, learn and grow. It’s natural and normal and necessary, and coping with life is equivalent to being able to deal with stress.

For horses, even more than many creatures because they are prey animals, safety is a very large concern, and therefore stress is a large part of their lives. They know they taste good! From the moment they are born they are ready to run- that’s how evolution has provided for them. They are a precocial species. In order to survive, they need to know how to respond to danger in a manner that serves them. In the wild, the best strategy is to run, or if that fails, fight. Push through the pressure of predation and maybe you’ll be scarred, but you may live.

In the human world, in direct conflict to this instinct, survival usually boils down to knowing how to yield to pressure when their very nature is screaming ‘Fly! Fight! Or Freeze!’

We must be very clear that yielding when stressed is NOT natural to a horse. They need to learn to yield instead of flee, play instead of fight, and to think instead of freeze; and because we create the constraints that they may otherwise harm themselves with (stable doors, fences, bridles, boundaries, roads with traffic, busy competitions full of obstacles and people…absolutely anything that we are responsible for that can create pain and mayhem if crashed into in fear) it’s up to us to teach them.

One inbuilt assumption in the specific article/discussion about the lick and chew that started this ball rolling in my mind, was that the training method itself was the cause of the stress in the first place.

It was not considered that the NH trainers are looking for a way to lower an existing stress (which is usually the immediate goal of looking for the ‘lick and chew’) in order to start training, or that they are methodically building resistance to any future stress (the long game) in tiny increments, whilst honouring thresholds, and knowing full well that before any learning can take place, we need a baseline of calm.

It was not considered in that article that the ‘dominance based trainers’ are working towards creating a resilient learner who knows he can turn to his trainer when the world is on fire. Or perhaps that they are creating a tool so that when they need it, the horse will understand it.

Let’s not wait for the truck to be about to hit us before finding out if our horse can respond to us under stress, in other words.

It was obviously not known to the author that these ideas have been specifically taught to NH students for at least a decade (that was when I first heard the term ‘threshold’ in the context of training horses- despite it being a relatively new discussion for many people today).

Look, far too many purists of any method go the route of badmouthing everything ‘horsemanship’ that went before ‘their’ thing.

The most obvious and common form of this is strawmanning. Basically, they take a caricature ‘worst’ version of a ‘natural horsemanshit’ practitioner (who round pens to death, who recognised no stress thresholds, who frightens, who takes R- to ‘do it or else’ P+ and who never stops escalating -basically an ignorant person who has zero of the NH principles that were the original template- to see the world from the horse’s POV -and instead produces shut down robotic horses) and puts that picture up to harpoon, as if it is actually what all NH’ers aspire to.

It isn’t.

Those folk obviously do exist, but they do not represent the ideal. But NH is now a melting pot of all sorts, and pointing out that guy’s flaws and calling it NH or TH is a slap to everyone else who is not out there torturing their horse.

This particular problem is less so in R+ horsemanship so far because it’s so new, but it could easily happen that some variants will not follow the vital tenets that make R+ so great, and it would be equally unfair to judge the whole by that variant.

It’s basically like taking the worst student of any school, and holding their meanest version up as the gold standard for an entire field of learning.

It’s exactly as unfair and uncalled for as saying ‘all clicker trainers create spoilt horses’.

This is a problem. Not only is it deeply insulting to many people, it causes a divide amongst ethical trainers that is in no way a service to the horses. If people are too defensive to speak to each other, how can we share knowledge? It creates a divide to any learning of NH, or traditional methodology, that is tried and true best practice, and it also cuts off the desire to learn more about R+ in alienated practitioners because the impression is that the critics therein are perceived as so ‘holier than thou’.

And this stuff cuts deep- we are all passionate about what we do and we all have skin in the game.

It also does our own studentship no good. I personally once lost a 10 year life changing head start on my own journey, because I believed a mentor who despised the school that was finally the one to accelerate my learning beyond anything I had ever experienced before. That was a massive lesson in checking my sources and being open minded, and it cost me dearly. Ten years, at my physical peak, wasted.

So if we really want what is best for all horses, we need to stop it. Stop the straw manning, stop denigrating others, stop deliberately inferring that ‘they’ are wrong, no matter which method you support. Every method has its flaws and it’s strengths. Anyone can totally screw it up, and that doesn’t mean they represent the ideal form.

Training is preparation for life, and life is stressful. If you have a layer of bubble wrap between the real world and training, (I’ve heard it being distinguished as ‘management’ vs ‘training’) then what happens when you finally take it off? Likewise in my opinion, anyone who resists R+ in their own training is missing some of the absolute best moments you can possibly have with your horse, including incredible opportunity of bonding, problem solving, and not to mention classically conditioning the horse to just love the sight of you.

What we need to do is concentrate on what we do well, and celebrate it, share it, grow it. If and when we come up against an obstacle that our own preferred method cannot fix today, maybe then we can ask our friends on another path and maybe they will have a solution that helps us.

The bottom line is that good horsemanship across the board has much, much more in common than not. A good horseman or horsewoman has great focus, feel, timing and balance; emotionally, mentally, and physically. He wants what is best for the horse. She is intent on building a reliable, consistent relationship. She understands the relationship between trust, communication, and consensual leadership/followship/fellowship, and strives for the easy flow that occurs when we understand and have confidence in our partnership. He never forsakes ethics or practicality for ideology. His horse knows he can trust him, the horse is calm, because his trainer understands thresholds and he is accessing his seeker sense, he is curious and inspired to try.

We can all aspire to that, right?

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