New Paradigm? Or Standing on the Shoulders of Giants? Part 2

Isaac Newton

For science-based trainers, there have been some really good conversations here recently that are challenging how, in some circles, we assume the need for a ‘new paradigm’ which throws the baby out with the bathwater, and often, influential horsemen under the bus.

Some of these conversations have gained momentum from being discussed at the 2020 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.

For instance, the idea that we can be coercive with positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement isn’t a guarantee we aren’t being mechanical, nor is it a guarantee we aren’t stressing our horse…

Or the idea that traditional cues aren’t necessarily threats, conditioned aversives, but can be used as information…

Or that negative reinforcement can be used as information, like we see with Alexandra Kurland and shaping on a point of contact…

It’s no surprise that Alexandra Kurland is not the first horseman to describ non-escalating pressure…

Getting With the Horse On the Start

If the horse’s feet are still and his head comes up, keep both hands in place the best you can. Without opposing him with force, just try to keep a constant connection on the halter rope and his neck without adding any pressure – and just go along with that head, keeping contact with him and following his movements with your hands as best you can.

Don’t try to hold his head down. The important thing right here is that you get with his feel on the start, even if what he’s doing isn’t exactly what you want.

If you don’t replace time and a gentle following feel with added pressure, he will end up – I’ll say in most cases he will – offering a response in the neighborhood of what you were hoping for.

Then you’d ease off or give a complete release, depending on the horse and the situation. Wait a few seconds before taking a fresh start. This is not a rule, by any means. Where it concerns a person’s safety, if the situation changed on the spur of the moment, experience will help you develop judgment about how much how much firmness might actually be needed.

Bill Dorrance, True Horsemanship Through Feel

If we know we want to continue to evolve our horsemanship, this may mean looking at both established science, and new science like polyvagal theory and somatic affect, etc., and there are some great clinicians and educators out there right now, like Warwick Schiller and and Sarah Schlote, who are doing just that, but I also challenge that there’s nothing new under the sun, that horsemen have been doing these things without a terminology or formal understanding for thousands of years.

I challenge that we can further evolve our horsemanship not just by looking forward, but also by looking back…

When I was talking on the phone with a good friend of mine today, we discussed how we’ve been revisiting our foundation of natural horsemanship from a new perspective of behavioral science, and vice versa.

Which brings me to the idea for a blog series…

Julia & Julia is a movie adapted from a book of the same name by Julia Powell. It follows the misadventures of a writer who blogs about her attempts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in only a year. This is no mean feat. By the end, she’s learned even more about herself than she has about French cooking.

True Horsemanship Through Feel is about as intimidating. It’s a big book, not for light reading, with more concept than technique; one I’ve read, but not recently, and not clear through from the beginning.

Nothing like a little social distancing to make it seem like it might be a summit I might actually be able to scale.

I would like to reapproach this classic, with my new perspective, and I think I would like to share it as a blog series.

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