Why Training Techniques Don’t Work

 

It’s Sunday night and the clinic has ended, but there might be a horse or two that can’t seem to get into the trailer. That isn’t the crazy part. The owner is tired and muttering something about how happy the horse should be to get in the trailer and go home. That part is crazy; the horse has no idea where he is going, just like when he came to the clinic in the first place. The horse doesn’t know what she does, but he does know volumes of things about the clinic and trailer that she doesn’t. The question isn’t intelligence, it’s communication.

Instead, people tend to think everything is a training question. We think we can solve a horse’s problems with training, so we change out of our muck persona and into our training persona, which means without knowing it, we stand in a stiffer, more judgmental way. We might have been humming with the muck fork, but we’re serious as a heart attack now because we have a toolbox where we store techniques that we read about or saw a video on. The techniques were described in undeniable human logic and took years to collect. Maybe you spent a fortune on levels or colors or learning big words in a particular language. Maybe you fell in love with a trainer’s hat. Top hat or wide brim, now you have a few extra hats and a toolbox but many of the techniques contradict each other. Most likely, your baseball hat is twisted backward on your head and your tongue is sticking out the side of your lips. Human calming signal.

What do you have to do to make the technique work? Are you confused or too half-hearted to intimidate the horse? What do you do if your horse doesn’t follow that human logic and gives a different answer? Can you blame it on your own bad timing or lack of focus? Most of us are willing to blame ourselves and try again, harder this time. What if it isn’t you? If techniques worked, would we need a whole toolbox full of them? And for all the listening going on, we never seem to hear much from the horse, do we?

People tell me my training approach is too nebulous. It’s true. You won’t get more technique tools from me to drag around and pull out in a disaster. They wouldn’t work any better than the others because when our horses really need us, it’s too late to hope digging through the toolbox will work.

Training techniques don’t work because of simple math: one plus one equals whatever the horse thinks.

What do a horse trailer and training techniques have in common? They are conversation starters. Just a greeting, but the trailer might have an advantage. The horse can see it. What happens next is what matters: The negotiation between intelligent creatures who think very differently. We think the right technique means we get our way. Here’s where we get the cart before the horse. Horses will pick trust over a technique every time. The truth is that if we can build trust with the horse, then the technique might end up working.

What is the alternative? Say someone has a problem with their horse and contacts me. First, I pretend to be an amateur veterinarian. When a horse changes his behavior, it’s almost always a question of pain. If we know there’s a health or lameness issue and keep working, we break their trust. The horse thinks we don’t listen.

Next, I pretend to be an amateur therapist, starting with a narrative about the horse’s side of things. It isn’t a cute work of fiction. Horses don’t benefit from us romanticizing them or waxing on as if it took a special skill to love horses. Most of us never had a choice. We were born that way and surprisingly, that isn’t what we need therapy for. To the best of our ability, we must try to understand who horses are and how they think, both as a species and as individuals. Now there is a chance we can get past the appearance of behavior to what lies below: To see past the symptom to the cause.

Finally, I pretend to be an amateur negotiator. Negotiating doesn’t mean we win and they lose. It means both sides get some of what they want. It isn’t that a technique worked so much as now there is a tendency in communication. Begin with something you both agree on. It could be that both of you have trailer anxiety, but is that the best place to start? How about agreeing that your horse is a good boy? If the horse feels safe, he is more willing to participate. Get a few easy agreements on your side to start.

Horse training doesn’t mean that we say whoa and the world stops. Training is more like juggling mismatched objects, that spend more time flying in the air at different speeds than they do resting in your palm. Training is a fluid conversation of random parts. Sounds nebulous, right? That’s why it’s smarter business to sell human logic even if it doesn’t work.

Want to know the real reason techniques don’t work? Horses are individuals, but it’s more than that. Horses have a huge amygdala where their emotions live next door to their memory. They are geniuses are recognizing patterns that remind them of other things. It’s how a flight animal survives. It’s why a horse’s first trainer still has an impact even years after the horse has come to you. He cannot forget. Techniques don’t work because some horses require us to redefine patience in almost incomprehensible ways.

The path of a horse and a human is solitary. Even this complex world, it still comes down to you and your horse together in a moment. Unique in every aspect, each horse/human relationship is a living and breathing thing. Horses will trust our intention more than a hollow movement that we call technique. If the horse is afraid, every step forward is a life-or-death challenge. If we can prove ourselves to be worthy of a horse’s trust, there are no obstacles. Training is the art of letting go of an illusion of control and maintaining yourself as a safe place for the horse to come back to.

Techniques don’t work because some horses need us to prove we’re more reliable than their memory. In other words, horses are as concerned with our behavior as we are theirs. It’s a standoff until a leader steps up with a heart big enough to accept the other’s imperfections. Out beyond whips or treats, words or techniques, all the way past notions of right and wrong, is the solitary place where one horse and one human negotiate the gulf of intelligence between them.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

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Anna Blake

37 thoughts on “Why Training Techniques Don’t Work”

  1. It’s funny, but I find it hard to separate building trust and training techniques. I have noticed that horses trained by my trainer would follow him around. And then it started happening with me. I think the right techniques are those that communicate most clearly to that horse what we are asking, and are consistently followed by a release/reward. The trick is finding what communicates to that particular horse. And that means being a psychotherapist and also veterinarian if the horse seems not to get the communication, so I couldn’t agree more with your approach. When things are going well with my horses, it feels more like we are playing. I have no idea why these marvelous animals enjoy playing with me, but it is magical.

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  2. Ow, many barbs struck my heart. I see where I put on my control persona from my back experiences when I interact with my horse. I remember training in the dark ages and a part of that still affects me even though I embrace the new “techniques”. I have learned so much from you on how to be more gentle and aware. Thank you.

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  3. Anna, I love this, and my gratitude and appreciation for your wisdom run deep. Since our conversation last week my horses have made great progress with trailer loading (Drishti has loaded himself multiple times, and Dakota has gotten his front two feet in and goes up to the trailer to check it out of his own accord). The training “techniques” I’ve employed have consisted of standing, listening, breathing, waiting, and saying good boy. I don’t know what their past experiences and memories of loading are, but this process is clearly emotional for both of them.

    I feel like a long-awaited lightbulb went on for me as a result of our phone consultation, and not just about trailer loading. So… thank you.

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  4. Then there’s that time you are trying to load into the trailer and the person that hauled your horse calls him an asshole and you bite your tongue and breathe because you don’t want cause a problem….but then again, showing your horse he means more to you than your ride back would probably be a huge trust builder, not to mention a confidence builder for the human. Thank you for your nebulosity, which was a welcome relief after returning to horses after 30 years and being inundated with methods and systems. Technique doesn’t mean much if you aren’t listening to the song. Sing it!

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  5. Fantastic!

    Nowadays I believe the best training method is time. I give my horses time and sincerity. I try to understand what they are saying and eventually they start to listen to me.

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  6. Thanks for that, Anna! I was recently having a conversation with a friend, who has also spent a lifetime with horses, about how many people have their ‘schools’ of training methods, or follow ‘scientific training methods’ and completely miss that in the end it is about a relationship between a human and a horse. And try as it might, even science hasn’t been able to define relationships or dictate how to make one successful.

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  7. Of all your blogs, and I admit I’ve only followed them for about 3 years, this one really distills the essence of your philosophy. The foundation of trust is what I realize I’ve absorbed. Although I’ve never been involved with the commercial methods, it’s easy to see how people can get sucked in. What you teach is not a bag of tricks. I also love that you pointed out that we can’t help ourselves for loving horses. We’re born that way . Just like Madonna said. 😍

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  8. “It’s why a horse’s first trainer still has an impact even years after the horse has come to you.”
    “Techniques don’t work because some horses need us to prove we’re more reliable than their memory. ”

    These two sentences sum up my horse so beautifully. Almost 13 years together and I feel my horse still doubts my reliability when it comes to trust. We have come a LONG way, but in a scary situation she will still rely on herself rather than fully trust me to take care of her. It took years to figure that out, but given her beginnings – I don’t blame her.

    You write some powerful, sobering words. And I love it.

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    • It’s a process all right. I’m not sure what total trust means… that’s pretty close to learned helplessness. But if she shares the job with you, that’s a great success. Mares are intact, remember. I celebrate your successes with her, Johanna.

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  9. Quickly, fellow readers, before Anna comes back: I’ve fact-checked this and her previous blogs. THEY’RE ALL TRUE!

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  10. Could be the best ever post, with the last two paragraphs being the best ever! My wary little horse whose voice is very loud, but very quiet reminds me of everything you said.

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  11. I will always wonder what Dodger’s first trailer ride was like. When I drove behind his second (and what I thought looked cushy) trailer trip, I could hear him scream through rolled up windows for an hour along I-90. I had no idea trailers came with such trauma. After that, I used trust and lots of time, carrots and a hay bag to get him back into one, but the minute the butt bar went up and the door closed behind it, the diarrhea and screams began. I felt so awful, hating myself for putting our trust account in the red and consoling myself with the knowledge he didn’t have of the much shorter distance and a trail experience he seemed to enjoy…well, until the angry bee hive and the aggressive dog experiences which ended both of our enjoyment. Years have now gone by without trails or trailer rides and I wonder if I should use it as a good time grain station (with and without butt bar up), just in case we ever need to get out of Dodge in a hurry by thinking happy thoughts.

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  12. What good advice you always have! I really like your blog and your approach to horses and the people who love them! Thank you!

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  13. So many pearls of wisdom here Anna!

    Any technique that’s based on trust will work, I’ve found. Because, as you say – horses will trust our intention more than anything else. And they’re so good at picking our intention, we almost think they’re psychic 😉

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  14. Love this post so much. And one of your comments- “when standing around breathing seems complex”..oh yes!! Is hardest thing for us busy humans…

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