The Paradox of the Positive Trainer

For anyone who has experienced this…

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry, because I’ve experienced it, and I know how it feels.

I’m sorry, because I’ve been guilty of doing it in the past.

I’m sorry, because I know there is a trend to pretend this isn’t happening, or if it is, to dismiss it as comparable to what we see in the general horsemanship community, or to chalk it up to misinterpretation, which just makes us feel worse, or like it’s our fault.

I’m sorry, because I think, as a community, we can do better…

Recently, I have noticed a trend of being dismissive to those trying to bring attention to this very real problem, an implication that maybe those who are trying to talk about this are just misinterpreting and misunderstanding; projecting, even.

Recipients of abusive or aversive interactions are subject to this dismissiveness all too often.

In fact, dismissiveness and invalidation is a tactic often used to gaslight the recipients of these interactions: ”Why are you are making such a big deal out of this?”

In therapy, we learn that we aren’t allowed to decide for other people if we’ve hurt them.

As positive reinforcement trainers, we should know that WE don’t get to determine what is or isn’t aversive, that the recipient determines that.

I want to clarify that I’m not talking about simply ‘feeling judged’ just because others choose to train differently then we do.

I’m talking about personal attacks.

For instance, the person who was called the C word recently because they were trying to discuss the negative reinforcement talk at ASAT.

I’m also talking about passive-aggressive attacks where the antagonist is aware they are causing harm.

I’m also talking about habitually aversive interactions where the antagonist is not aware of their dysfunctional communication style, but is causing harm nonetheless.

No, we aren’t going to dismiss this just because, ‘Negativity is everywhere in the horsemanship community.’

We expect more. As we should.

I think we all understand that those unfamiliar with clicker training or who are not fans of clicker training are not necessarily going to understand or support what we are doing, and that’s OK.

That’s their journey, and this is ours, and we are all free to take our own path.

But when we choose to surround ourselves with those who are supposed to be positive, when we expect to experience positivity and be safe within that group, it’s pretty shocking to get attacked or shamed or experience a barrage of aversive interactions.

In addition, in comparison to the general horsemanship community, these issues are magnified in the subset of the positive reinforcement community because it’s not just our horsemanship in question, but our ethics.

Here we are, excited, thinking we are making a positive change for the horse, only to find out that, for some, our attempts are never going to be good enough or ethical enough, and that we deserve their self-righteous anger or underhanded insinuations.

We don’t need to ‘grow a back bone’ and learn to ignore this, we need to grow a backbone and practice zero tolerance for abusive behavior, and bring awareness to divisive communication so we can do better.

I keep talking about this, and I’m going to keep talking about it, because I keep having the same conversations over and over again with people who have been recipients of it.

They feel discouraged, they feel unsupported, they feel bullied, they feel like they don’t belong, they feel invalidated.

Many of them leave the social media communities, they delete their threads asking for help, they delete hurtful comments, and we don’t hear much from them. But if you’re really looking, and you’re really listening, they’re there.

The truth is, ignoring the problem enables it.

It is our responsibility to set boundaries, especially for vulnerable learners who are just coming into the positive reinforcement community.

Just trying to ’stay positive’ and pretend it’s not happening is not going to make it go away.

As positive reinforcement trainers, we should know better than that: punishment is too reinforcing to the punisher, no matter how ineffective it is, to simply extinguish itself.

Self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating behaviors do not go away on their own.

Unconscious behavioral patterns do not go away unless we bring attention to them first.

Of course, I’m not saying all positive trainers are like this, although I’ve been accused of perpetuating that idea.

Bringing attention to divisiveness is not the same thing as perpetuating it.

There are a lot of really wonderful and encouraging individuals in the community, regardless of where they are in the spectrum of how they apply positive reinforcement in their own horsemanship.

However, there does exist a faction in the community that attacks people constantly and has a very dysfunctional communication style.
Maybe it’s only a handful of individuals, but they can do extensive damage when we fail to set boundaries about this discouraging, divisive, and aversive behavior.

So what do we do?
I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
I believe there has to be an open dialogue about this, and that we can’t fix something if we pretend it’s not happening.



Zero tolerance. The end.

Concern for an animal is never justification for abuse.

Passive-aggressive antagonists know they’re being passive aggressive. Recipients know the antagonist is being passive aggressive. Bystanders know the antagonist is being passive-aggressive.
But they all know that we can’t ‘prove’ it.

Passive aggressive antagonists are adept at gaslighting, and they are counting on everyone being too polite to call them out.

But that is precisely what has to be done.

Odds are, if we feel like someone is baiting us, they probably are, and it’s probably really obvious to everyone observing the interaction.

Asking someone straight out if they’re being passive-aggressive is perfectly acceptable.

If they are aren’t, they‘ll understand; if they are, they’ll have the shocking realization that someone’s called their bluff.

For some of us, we might need to step back and observe ourselves.

Is it possible that WE have a dysfunctional communication style?

I know I used to!

It’s great to be passionate about something, but if we find ourselves only interacting with others when we disagree with them, and not balancing it with positive and encouraging interactions, this is habitually aversive for the other person.

If we really can’t find anything to be positive and encouraging about, we may need to limit our interactions with that person.

You know, “If you don’t have nothin’ nice to say, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

If we find ourselves constantly the ‘victim’ of others misunderstanding us or being defensive with us when we are ‘simply trying to get our point across,’ we may need to step back and realize that we have an aversive and dysfunctional communication style.

If we find ourselves being dismissive when others are trying to tell us they’be been hurt, we might ask ourselves what personal investment we have in the outcome.

At the end of the day, as much as we think we have the right to give others our opinion, we aren’t doing the community any good or the animal any good if we are being divisive.

In closing, no, this doesn’t mean we have to ‘walk around on eggshells’ for fear of ‘offending’ anyone, or that we can’t point out observations and concerns.

Just be a decent human being. It’s not that hard.

If we don’t, we will certainly soon learn as people start communicating and enforcing boundaries.


1 thought on “The Paradox of the Positive Trainer”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. And this applies to every aspect of our lives, not just the world of horses or what training method we use. I want to be a constructive keyboard warrior, not a destructive force.

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