Skinning the cat on the road to Rome

People who don’t like to have the practices they sell by way of horse training explained from a psychology, neuroscience or ethology perspective will sometimes try to suggest that doing something as simple as explaining how their method works to them or others who follow them is disrespectful to their ideas or way of thinking.

They will argue that there is more than one way to skin a cat or that several roads lead to Rome or that it’s possible to get 9 by adding 6 and 3 as well as by adding 4 and 5.

They will argue that we should all “respect” each others ideas and opinions about how to form and reinforce or reduce behaviour in a horse.

This always smacks to me of wilful ignorance – when someone rejects information that they could read in any psychology text and shoots the messenger or encourages others to do so, and chooses to disagree with it simply because they don’t like it and the implications of it for what they do to horses.

I respect science and people who rely on it and I actually think that anyone who sells services to other people to teach them how to train horses is negligent if they fail to inform themselves fully about how learning comes about, instead relying on folklore, as the basis for what they sell by way of advice to others.

Because if you don’t know how animals learn then you can give a lot of advice on technique and tools and never produce the end result you want, even if you do it correctly.

Training horses is not simple arithmetic. You can get the same result by frightening or annoying or pressurising a horse until he does what you want or you can teach him by setting him up to do it on his own and rewarding it.

If 9 is behaviour and all you want is some action out of a horse then 5 + 4 or 6 + 3 or 2 + 7 or 11 – 2 are all viable ways to get there. That is not in dispute.

They might all “work” for the trainer or for you to get to 9, but what about how they feel to the horse?

Numbers do not care which way we add them up to get to 9 and vehicles do not care how they are driven to get to Rome.


When we use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning our aim is to expose the horse or donkey, pony or mule to a feared stimulus or situation at a strength at which the animal can cope and shows no fear – and to pair something liked with that in order to change the animal’s perception and emotional response from fear, dislike or avoidance to either neutral or attractive.

When we use positive reinforcement, our aim is to set up the environment so that the animal will choose the behaviour we want more of so that we can mark and reinforce that behaviour with something the animal enjoys, so as to encourage her to repeat it.

In both those cases this involves us actively making effort to avoid the animal experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.

This is very different to traditional or natural horsemanship training in which the animal is put under emotional or physical pressure – some kind of aversive stimulus is applied – until the animal does something we want.

Horses are, for most people I want to train, not just numbers and not vehicles. And the cat does not want to be skinned anyway.

From the point of view of the horse, training horses is not just about getting to 9. It really matters a heck of a lot to the horse which road to Rome you choose to take.