Myth #1: It takes a lot of time and effort to teach a horse something new.
We need to work smarter, not harder. Horses do best if taught new things in short sessions, rather than spending hours drilling. And if it isn’t working, if you aren’t seeing progress, then that’s the cue to try something else. Just this week I was struggling to teach a horse a new skill I was pretty excited about. After two days of a 20 minute session each day, I realized that this probably wasn’t the right approach. On a whim, I tried the same approach on another horse, and had him performing the skill in less than 5 minutes flat. It was the right way to teach the second horse, and confirmed that I’m definitely going to have to be creative and find another way to teach the skill to the first horse.
While we’re definitely going to have to put in the time to get a horse fit and strong, and we never want to go faster than the horse is comfortable learning, training a horse shouldn’t take ages or monumental effort. If it does, we’re doing it wrong and need to go back to the drawing board.
Myth #2 – You need special tools or tack.
I completely understand why every clinician out there has their brand name training tools for sale. I mean, I’m trying to make a living in the horse business too, I know how hard it is. But that’s all they’re good for, making some money for the person selling them. You just plain don’t need special equipment to train your horse. And in most cases, you probably shouldn’t use it.
Keep it simple – gimmicks and shortcuts in the form of knotted rope halters, training sticks, draw reins, flip flops, and the list goes on, might give you short term results, but they’ll never be in the best interest of your horse in the long run. Do you want a short term change fueled by force or avoidance of pain? Or a long term relationship with your horse, building their skills and strength so you both get better every day? If the second sounds better to you, save your money and ditch the training aids. They’re much more likely to hinder than to help.
Myth #3 – You have to “be the boss”
For years the approach to training horses was to literally “break” them – break their spirit so they no longer react in ways that humans have deemed inappropriate. You had to be in charge, and your horse had to know it, because otherwise they’d walk all over you. But the science doesn’t support this approach, and dominance theory has been disproven in recent years.
Horses don’t do something because they can “get away with it” or because they “don’t respect you” – horses simply respond in the way they’ve been taught (intentionally or otherwise) or in the way they feel they need to in order to keep themselves safe. Behaviour that is dangerous is usually only seen because the horse has been pushed too far, without understanding, or because they’ve previously learned that response is reinforcing (ie human goes away) – it has nothing to do with dominance or respect. Those are human concepts, and have no place in horsemanship.
Myth #4 – If you use food it isn’t “real training”
This is a pervasive one. I can post a video of a new behaviour that I’m pretty excited about, and I guarantee someone will comment “very nice, but I bet you have a treat in your pocket!” Um … yeah, of course I do, I don’t like to work for free, why should my horses!
When positive reinforcement with food rewards is used to train apex predators to offer their leg for a blood test, or hold their mouths open for dental exams, why are we so resistant to it in horses?
Horses are, through their evolution, meant to be eating for most of their day. Because of that, they’re ideally suited for the use of food during training, and it is highly effective. Once a horse understands the line of communication involved in positive reinforcement, there is no limit to what they can learn, as an engaged, keen and willing participant in everything you do with them.
Training with food rewards is not only definitely “real training” but it’s also the most effective and enjoyable way to train your horse.