Clinics and quick fixes

First: Kudos to the woman who put up the video of Mark Todd beating her horse to make it jump into the water. Not an easy thing to do, knowing what the knee-jerk reaction to having your idol’s feet of clay revealed is.

Second: Victim-blaming is an international sport, but no, this is not the rider’s fault. The fault rests squarely on the person wielding the stick. Why? Well, picture it. Sicily, 1920. No, a clinic with an Olympic Gold medallist. You have to be pretty darn immune to pressure to stop and stand up for what you feel is right. After all, you paid to get help and advice. And from an early age, we are all wired and raised to obey authority.

(I know a lot of keyboard warriors say they would have spoken up and defended their horse. Some would. Many, not. Easier said than done. Look up the bystander effect and Milgram’s obedience experiment for starters.)

Clinics are part of the problem

If you’re not a horse person and stumbled across this blog by mistake, so called clinics are a big thing in the horse world. It’s part of a business where trainers and riders are invited to ”hold a clinic” ie. teach for a day or two, in a new place, or country. Meeting riders they have never met before, who expect to get help. The more well-known the rider or trainer is, the bigger expectations, the bigger the fees. So there is pressure. There is also the problem of horses generally being trailered in from their own stables to a new arena, with an audience. To learn something new.

Anyone who knows what kind of animal the horse is also knows that this is not exactly easy for the horses.
Anyone who knows something about animal training know that this is the wrong way to go about it.
If you want an animal to learn something new, you make it easy for them, not hard. You break down the skill you’re going to teach into tens or hundreds of small steps, starting at nothing but a small shift of weight in the right direction, rewarding that, and gradually increasing the difficulty. You set up the horse to succeed, not to fail and be punished for it.

I’m an animal trainer, specialising in horses. I’ve also trained dogs, cats, some chickens, cows, sheep, hamsters, rabbits and helped out with reindeer. But horses are my main species. I don’t have an Olympic medal nor do I draw an audience of hundreds, but I have some experience doing the clinic thing. In the past ten years I travelled more weekends of the year than not here in Finland, meeting new people and new horses, trying my best to help them with whatever they needed help with. Now, partly due to the corona situation, partly because I find it more useful, I write training books and hold webinars instead.

My experience and opinion is that with an animal as sensitive as a horse, even having one unknown person present makes a difference. If the goal is – as it should be for everyone IMO – to make training both efficient and ethical, the ”clinic to fix problems” is not where you should head. Find a good trainer who will help you at home. One who knows what s/he is doing, keeps up with current research into horses and training, one who can come back the next day or week. Or if you take the clinic route, make sure you choose a clinician who won’t compromise horse welfare to make an impact.

I don’t mean the weekend clinic is necessarily a bad thing. I just read of one Finnish dressage rider, Henri Ruoste, who will take his own horses from Germany (?) to Finland to give a clinic, showing how he develops his horses. This is generalising, this is good if you want to compete.

Also I attended a clinic in Sweden by Peggy Hogan where the horses and their people had practised the training online, the horses at home, before the clinic and at the clinic they continued with stuff the horses had already been taught. This is generalising, this is good if you want to train your horse to cope with new environments.

But clinics and quick fixes, clinics and great expectations of big changes? Not.

And because I can feel the comment right around the corner: I too am of the opinion that to keep everyone safe, a stick is fine. If a horse charges you, to save yourself, by all means protect yourself with anything you have to hand. Then you train. After the vet has ruled out pain or treated it.

But it’s not mandatory to jump fences or teach your horse piaffe. It’s just something you happen to want to do. This makes using force, intimidation, causing the horse fear and/or pain is simply not the right thing to do. It also means you lack the necessary skill to train the horse the way it should be trained.
Without conflict, in small steps.
Teaching, not forcing the horse.
It can be done. It should be done.

Julkaissut Minna Tallberg

Hevostenkouluttaja ja valokuvaaja. Horse trainer and photographer.


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