Icelandic Horse Connection

What is Good Horsemanship?

Good horsemanship is hard to describe! It's more than natural horsemanship. It involves working with the whole horse, the inner horse, with the horse's brain, and with respect and consideration for the horse as a living, breathing, intelligent being. All aspects are taken into consideration: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

Good horsemanship does not involve force. Training by domination and force includes more nerve, muscle, and testosterone than brains, and it espouses that the horse doesn't matter--he's only a "vehicle" to get the rider's ego to a certain place. Greed and chauvinism are all too evident in the show or competition world, where the inner horse is sacrificed for the human ego. Horses are also considered disposable. A trainer's experience and successful show record do not necessarily justify his methods.

Good horsemanship, many years ago, was known as "squaw breaking" which refers to starting a horse gently, softly, quietly, respectfully, with clear, calm, consistent, confident communication. Good horsemanship considers the horse as intuitive, imaginative, intelligent, and an adaptable creature with good intentions and a sharing nature. Good horsemanship considers the horse as a partner or collaborator, not a possession or a tool.

From Taoism, a quote advises us to "know the masculine but keep to the feminine." Our well-known good horsemanship trainers, even though they are mostly men, seem to relate to horses from their feminine side; and this makes them great trainers!

Good horsemanship is not one method; it's not something that can be written down step by step. It is dedicated to improving the lives of horses by educating owners. It is understanding the horse, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and bio-mechanically. It is an openness to nonverbal communication and sensory awareness.

Trainers not using good horsemanship feel they must be in control of the horse, dominate him and make him submissive. They are easily intimidated by empowered women (and maybe empowered horses?!?!). Horses trained with good horsemanship use their brains and think; apparently this bothers some people.

Traditional horse training is based on punishment :-(

Trainers who do not use good horsemanship try to elicit a behavior by forcing it from the horse; they fall into using punishment to try to get the desired behavior.

Punishment used alone DOES NOT TEACH. If used as a behavior modification tool, it will ultimately be ineffective because it's suppression effect is ALWAYS temporary.

Punishment always has consequences, and it follows certain rules.

To be effective, punishment must:
  • 1. be severe enough to quickly suppress the unwanted behaviour - within 3-4 repetitions.
  • 2. be applied as the unwanted behaviour is occurring.
  • 3. occur EVERY time the unwanted behaviour occurs.
The possible consequences of punishment are:
  • 1. degradation/destruction of the bond between trainer and trainee
  • 2. redirection of the emotions causing the unwanted behaviour into aggressive behaviours, i.e. attacking the trainer; or self-mutilating/repetitive behaviours, i.e. wind-sucking.
  • 3. increased anxiety in trainee, resulting in further unwanted behaviours, i.e. running away, or "shutting down".
  • 4. possible injury to trainee, depending on the type and severity of the punishment.
  • 5. suppression of operant behaviour in the prescence of the trainer (shutting down)
Long story short, punishment has many more pitfalls as a training technique than reinforcement does. It takes GREAT timing and intelligent application to use punishment effectively. It takes pretty ordinary timing and is much easier to use reinforcement.

Training by force and punishment emits strong hormones like cortisol, within the horse in response to stress, which have a destructive influence on the cerebral cortex. Cortisol is referred to as brain acid due to its destruction of brain cells. Long periods of low-grade stress have actually been shown to cause brain damage in humans. The human and equine brains have the same basic structures. Additionally traumatic or repetitive stressful experiences in childhood actually shape the brain's structure.

Horses trained with force and domination receive cathartic hits to the brain. This is an emotional hit to the deepest part brain. When this occurs it is believed that the effect will stay there forever. Hence, everything and anything that occurred during the training is sent deep and retained. You will forever be attempting to overcome that event in the horses brain when you want a response from him. This is one of the problems of cross-over animals. Cross-over animals are those who were trained initially with force, and then re-trained with operant conditioning. It takes much more time to overcome the previous emotional hits.

Training with good horsemanship emits endorphins within the horse, and helps to create neuro-transmitters within the brain. Linda Tellington-Jones was on target with this many years ago when she introduced head lowering in her horse training method. In the horse and the human, there is a feed-back loop between the limbic system and the cortex. Good horsemanship creates a feed-back loop between the horse and the human. The horse gets feedback from the trainer; the trainer gets feedback from the horse. The feedback encompasses sensory and non-verbal communication. It makes for better inter-species communication.

Most good horsemanship trainers are using operant conditioning (altho they may not be aware of it!) by employing the release of pressure (the reward is the release). Others use operant conditioning by employing "clicker training"--using the clicker and food treats as rewards. In clicker training, the sound of the click is sharp and distinct and can be processed more quickly than any other "yes" signal (even the release). It is processed by the amygdala before the cortex therefore conveying immediate, clear feedback to the horse, which results in rapid learning. Empirically, the outcome of different training programs is usually that, with the clicker, the class curriculum is covered in much less time, with a higher degree of success and retention.

When an animal receives a clear "yes" signal paired with a food reward, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in which produces calmness, warm feelings, contentment, happiness, and less fearfulness.

From a trainer: "I personally know that I can get some behaviors to happen faster with punishment than I can with reinforcement. I was a GOOD trainer in the old school of training. I know I can still stop a [horse] from biting me the old fashioned way with one trial. It takes longer with operant conditioning, but I do so enjoy how I feel now and the journey to the end point is so much nicer, as well as the end product of calm, happy horses."

To learn more about this philosophy, try some of the following books:
  • Taos of Equus, by Linda Kohanov
  • Clicker Training for Your Horse, by Alexandra Kurland
  • Coersion and It's Fallout, by Sidman
  • Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
  • Living Your Dream, by Elisabeth Haug
  • Don't Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor
  • Living with HorsePower, by Rebekah Witter
  • Almost a Whisper: A Holistic Approach to Working with Your Horse, by Sam Powell
  • Let's Ride, by Linda Tellington-Jones
  • The Nature of Horses, Stephen Budiansky
  • Inside Your Horse's Mind, by Leslie Skipper
  • Parelli Horse-man-ship, by Pat Parelli


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