Learning From the “Experts”

For purposes of this article I will use the word “expert” as someone who makes at least part of their living by teaching others about horsemanship (books, videos, clinics, lessons, etc.). I have learned much from experts, mostly by reading and videos. Actually, I should say that I have gotten a lot of information from experts. I don’t truly learn until I take that information and try to practice it. There are some things that some experts teach that work for me while other things don’t. When something doesn’t work for me it could be that I didn’t properly understand and apply the teaching. Or, it could be that in a specific situation with a specific horse and with my specific abilities that particular method just isn’t the right one. Of course there are experts whose advice I simply ignore because it just doesn’t agree with my horsemanship philosophies.

The volume of advice from various experts can all be very confusing and frustrating. Following are some of my thoughts about why I think this is so and what to do about it.

Words Are Problematic

There are a lot of experts who are doing good things and getting good results. However, they’re not always very good at describing what they are doing. Sometimes they use words that some people consider “bad”. For example, one person uses “dominance” in a good way while others talk about it in a bad way. It all depends on what they mean by the word and how they practice it. For example, one expert might state that dominance is bad, that feel is what is required. However, the same expert might also say that in some situations you have to use as much force as necessary. A person observing that trainer who has to escalate their force can conclude that a trainer is dominating the horse, while the trainer may say he’s not dominating the horse, rather he’s using the appropriate level of feel.

Some experts talk a lot about feel or conditioned response but they don’t say much about establishing an alpha or leader position. However, if you do all the things that the expert suggests you will in fact be establishing yourself as the alpha or leader in the horses mind.

Again, “words” are a challenge. One expert says that “alpha” is a bad thing, that you need to be the “elected” or “appointed” leader in the horses’ mind; meaning that a horse will observe you and decide that you’re worth following. Another expert says that the most important thing is control. If you’re not in control, it’s not safe for you or the horse. We poor, non-experts are struggling to figure all this out. Yes, I need to be the alpha; No, I don’t want to be the alpha, I want the horse to choose to follow me. I need to be in control. Having to be “in control” is an ego-centric human behavior and I don’t want to do that. Aaaaahhhhhhh!

Quite frankly, I believe that some of the “word wars” that are taking place between experts (and their followers) are not helpful and they just create confusion for people who are learning about horsemanship. In fact, I believe many experts deliberately use different words from other trainers (and bash the others trainers “bad” words) in order to differentiate themselves in hopes of gaining a following (and business).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for some of the experts who have put their expertise into words. I started out by researching various experts and then choosing to follow the advice of one of these experts. It really got me going and I was quite successful. However, there have been situations where that particular experts’ advice didn’t work for me. I’m sure the expert could have come to my place and gotten the results I was after. In a personal session I would have been able to observe and learn from the expert in a way that I couldn’t learn from a book.

Saying One Thing and Doing Another

As I mentioned above, there are experts who are are doing good things and getting good results. However, they’re not always very good at describing what they are doing. Some are even mistaken in what they are doing that is getting the results that they are after. Let me explain by giving an example.

I watched a video of a world-famous expert and clinician. In this video he was explaining how to get a horse to respond only to a verbal cue. In this case it was getting a horse to stop by saying “whoa”. The clinician stated that there was no physical cue involved, it was all verbal. He demonstrated how to build up to this point. At the end he demonstrated that he was using “whoa” as the only cue and the horse was stopping based only on that verbal command. However, if you watched the video carefully it was clear that the clinician was making an obvious change in his body while saying “whoa”. And yet, the clinician was claiming that he was not using any physical cue. He probably didn’t even realize that he was communicating “whoa” to the horse with his body. This was a case where the clinician was saying one thing and doing something else (probably without realizing it). I hope that someone he knew and trusted pointed this out to him.

Now, I’m not saying that a horse cannot be trained to respond to a verbal cue without any physical cues. However, horses are so tuned into body language and humans are typically so clueless about what their body is communicating that it is truly difficult to not actually be subtly be giving the horse a physical cue while we are issuing a verbal command.

Experts Contradicting Themselves

Sometimes when we are trying to learn from an expert we hear them say one thing and later on we hear them say something else that seems to contradict what they said earlier. Sometimes this is due to our lack of understanding.

For example, we might hear “don’t use pressure on a horse”. Then later we hear “use as much pressure as you need to use to be effective”. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction. The first phrase is a general philosophical statement. It is a goal, something to aspire to. It is supposed to be the place at which we always start in any situation: try to get the horse to respond without using pressure. The second statement (“use as much pressure as you need to use to be effective”) is a practical acknowledgement that in some situations one may need to increase the pressure to be effective. But, this is considered to be a temporary solution as we work toward the point off not having to use pressure. The goal is always to get back to not having to use pressure and to keep working to that end.

However, there are times when the experts are truly contradicting themselves. For example, one expert spends a lot of time talking about the importance of not getting in a hurry, of taking the time that is needed to get the horse to understand and progress. Later on, when talking about how to handle fear, the expert disparages other experts who advocate the taking-your-time method of allowing the horse to face the fearful object and ultimately going up to sniff the object and thinking thru the “fearful” situation and learning how to cope with it. He states that this method “takes too much time”. He goes on to say that in the show ring you can’t do that or you’ll lose points. So, what is this trainers priority anyway? Taking your time so he understands and learns how to deal with fear or earning ribbons in the show ring? This is truly a contradiction. The expert may not realize he’s doing this, but we must learn to recognize contradictions and decide these things for ourselves.

The Experts Are Still Learning

The problem with putting something down in writing (as I am doing now) is that I’m likely going to think and behave differently a year from now than I do now. That’s because I’m still learning and some of the things that I think now are likely to change. 

We must recognize that the “experts” are also in this position. I imaging there are lot of “experts” who have written books or recorded videos who now look back and shake their heads and wish they hadn’t taught some of those things. That’s because they have continued to grow and learn and change.

There’s More Than One Way

Some experts say the reins should only be used to influence vertical and lateral flexion while others say that the reins are used to tell the horse what direction to go. The former say that direction is controlled with the body (e.g, legs, body position) while the latter say that legs should not be used to control direction.

This is an example that is not related to using words in different ways. This is truly a difference in philosophy and training cues. In both schools of thought the experts are truly getting good results. This goes to show that there is frequently more than one way to do something with a horse. It also goes to show that horses are very capable of learning more than one “training type” in order to do the same thing.

As horsemen, the more “ways” to do something that we are aware of the more options we have at our disposal. Some horses might respond better to one method than another and we should be sensitive enough to each horse to recognize this. Or, we might choose one method over another because it just seems to work better for us for some unknown reason. The truly optimal goal would be to have a horse be able to respond to multiple methods. This takes a truly good horseman to be able to communicate clearly to the horse. For example, one time you might turn the horse with the reins and the next time turn him with your body and without the reins.

Getting The Whole Picture

When you read a book, watch a video or attend a clinic, keep in mind that there is a limit to the number of things that can be said due to time limitations. There are other vital things that are not talked about in a single book, video or clinic. In one book the main emphasis is on feel. Leadership, control, alpha concepts are not discussed much. The reader can get the idea that these other topics aren’t important.

Another expert focuses a lot on technique and prescribed step-by-step lessons. Yes, he talks a bit about the proper attitudes toward training horses (e.g. partnership) but he spends a lot of time describing in great detail exact techniques. This is most helpful to many people (including me). However, it’s easy to focus on the techniques and to become too mechanical while missing the feel of the horse.

If we think that we can read one book and put only those things talked about in the book into practice and expect great results we are in for a lot of frustration. We will come to see that there are “holes” or missing information in that particular book or video. In other words, there is no book, video or clinic that can truly give us the whole picture.

I’m not bashing any experts approach. I’m only saying we each have to learn and experiment and figure things out for ourselves. A good horseman will spend a lot of time reading, watching videos, observing and, of course, experimenting. A good horseman will also be skeptical about things they haven’t personally tried until they can prove them out (or disprove them) for themselves. This is the only way we can truly get the whole picture.

Let’s Be Constructive, Not Competitive

It is all to easy too become “groupies” about our favorite experts, use the words they use and bash others who aren’t in our “group”. Let’s recognize that we all learn in different ways and use different words. But, we don’t need to let experts and words divide us against each other. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship no matter what expert you follow or what words you use.