Reader Letter: Effective Training

I am writing with remarks about the article in the March 2013 copy, Effective Training Means Being Like the Alpha Mare by John Strassburger.

The article caused me great concern about the message it is sending to horse owners, trainers, handlers and others. In my opinion, before talking about correcting and disciplining the horse, the article should have focused on the responsibility of the person to learn and practice the principles of horsemanship and/or consult with a professional to help with ground work. There are no short cuts to good training!!

Following are my specific comments:

Alpha Mare: The term, as used in this article, could easily be misconstrued to mean “dominance over the other.” Often times, the Alpha mare is not the leader of the herd; she alerts the herd to danger; however, the herd chooses the horse to be the leader who they trust and respect. Humans should not act like an alpha mare; they should act with benevolent leadership in the spirit of cooperation. Ask yourself who would like to follow–a benevolent leader or an alpha like person’

The purpose in working with our horses on the ground and under saddle, is to build the horse’s confidence, cooperation, trust and respect. By investing in this process, a partnership and relationship is built between the two. In working with horses in this manner, the horse learns with positive reinforcement, rather than punishment or negative reinforcement. In fact, several studies have shown that horses learn with positive reinforcement and not with punishment.

Horses are preyed-upon animals, and humans are predators. If we slap, pull on the lead ropes for control, yell, or scare the horse in any other manner, we demand obedience through instilling feat, rather than earning it in a positive manner. Hitting, slapping, using the whjp for punishment, is never acceptable. When a person acts like a predator around a horse, he becomes fearful and untrusting. He will lack confidence in himself and lose his respect and trust for his handler. A partnership can never be built under these conditions.

If the horse misbehaves, there is a problem with the relationship between horse and handler. To say “the horse will back down” is to say the handler is dominant over the horse and scares the horse into obedience. It is our responsibility to learn the horse’s language, not the horse’s responsibility to learn ours. If we do not have the skills to communicate with the horse, on the ground or under saddle, the relationship will suffer. If there is no relationship or partnership, you have created a machine, not a living, thinking, breathing willing animal.

“A Method to the Madness” -madness just creates more madness. I don’t believe this sub-title belongs in the article. There is no room for madness, and chaos when working with horses. I vehemently object to and strongly disagree with the following quotes: “….nothing inherently wrong with a physical correction, within limits.” What are the limits’ Whose limits’ All that we do with horses should be in the horse’s best interest–he has no tolerance for physical corrections; “Make sure the energy or strength of the correction matches what the horse is putting out.” If the horse tries to strike and bite at you, an immediate and strong open-handed slap to the chest is appropriate.” This is absolute Madness, and this predator behavior can lead to horses being labeled as dangerous, out of control, etc., etc. This is why so many horses “go down the road.” It is a person problem, not a horse problem.

“The Bottom Line” -The bottom line should be encouraging people to seek professional assistance and knowledge about horsemanship from the masters; i.e., Pat Parelli, Buck Brannaman, Bill and Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Mark Rashid, Kathleen Lindley, Leslie Desmond, Clint Anderson, to name a few. ‘There are many books to read and DVDs to watch to expand one’s knowledge.

I would like to suggest this Bottom Line:

“Profound results are achieved when the human stops perceiving himself as superior to the horse, and explores partnership instead of dominance, willing cooperation instead of force, guidance instead ofpunishment, and mutual respect instead of “alpha” status.” Ray Hunt

L.M., New York

Read John Strassburger’s response here.

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