Mythbusting: Horse training methods were cruel until recently

One of my original pet peeves with “Natural” horsemanship was the mythology they developed that said all horse training/breaking prior to NH had been cruel, rough and had not taken the horse into consideration. By the time these NH guys were making it into public attention, I was already in my twenties. I’d been reading everything I could about horse training, from many “old masters” that included Podhajsky and Museler. I’d already raised one horse from weanling to Pony Club mount, without the aid of a trainer, and had worked with several young horses for other people. So, I knew the deception that was at the heart of their claim. Yet, it persists to this day as part of the NH mythology.

Imagine my delight when I ran into the passages below, from a book written in 1941, showing clearly that the author not only approached training in a positive fashion – more positive, in fact, than the NH crowd – but he clearly understood the behavioral concept of “shaping”.

The book is Horsemanship, by Waldemar Seunig. He begins his section on obedience by pointing out what is still a common misconception about horse training – even among those who do not “beat” their horses as a training method.

The basic mistakes in handling horses are due to the erroneous opinion that the brain of a horse operates like that of a man or a dog, in other words that it operates deductively. For example, a horse shies away from an automobile and is beaten by its rider. We assume that next time it knows … it will be punished if it shies off again; therefore it will cease being shy. But it is entirely wrong to attribute such powers of deduction to the mind of a horse. Its mind is capable only of direct association of ideas, and the next time it encounters an automobile it will shy even more, for it will already have established the direct association of ideas – frightening unknown object (motor car) = blows received when this object appears. Because of its excellent memory, repeated punishment will anchor the association – automobile = beating – as cause and effect so firmly as to turn into an obsession or an “auto-suggestion”.

Aside from obviously decrying harsh handling as a training method, he understands that horses are linear thinkers – cause and effect. In fact, on purely linear tasks (if I do “A” then “B” happens), horses have proven to learn faster than humans, who muddy up the situation with all of their “what ifs”. Where the NH people get this wrong is all their talk of establishing leadership/dominance and their idea that the horse will test you to see who is the leader. That is far too complicated a thought pattern, and it is based upon a myth of horse herd life. Rather, their horses learn associations, based upon the principle described by Seunig, and thus decide what gets them relief and what causes them grief.

The discerning rider will utilize the fact that associations of ideas sink in as obsessions (which may rapidly ruin a horse) for his own purpose – to train the horse correctly – and thus he will never have to use physical constraint, which damages the character and the still undeveloped body of the young horse.

Interesting … no sign of the cruel, forced training methods that characterized “all” horse training before the NH crowd saved us. Too much sarcasm? Sorry. Let’s continue.

Realizing that the horse’s will is governed principally by feelings of pleasure or discomfort, he will influence that will by evoking pleasurable feelings, which he associates with certain actions of the horse as a chain of cause-and-effect ideas. In brief, he will richly reward the horse at the slightest indication of clumsy willingness to comply with any new demands, thus making his own work easier on the morrow. The horse will be sure to note that jumping some obstacle or other, for example, is followed by a reward in the shape of oats or even dismounting and being led back to the stable.

The association of ideas – overcoming the obstacle = oats or the end of work – will be established, and the insignificant feeling of discomfort produced at the outset by the unaccustomed effort of the jump will be largely outweighed by the feeling of pleasure occasioned by eating oats.

I also find it interesting that this busts another training myth – that the concept of positive reinforcement is a modern one. It is particularly common in dog training circles to hear that reward based training only came along very late in the twentieth century – but I have recently heard many “new age” horse trainers making the same claim. Yet, here is someone from much earlier who obviously made liberal use of treats in training.

Next, let’s look at why positive reinforcement is far superior to the “establish yourself as alpha” method in developing a relationship with your horse.

Another important task of the rider is to develop the horse’s confidence in him.

In one of the examples above, dealing with the initial training over obstacles, we had the opportunity of making the exercise a pleasant occurrence for the horse by consistently rewarding it after every willing jump. This not only will help to develop a sure, obedient jumper but will also reinforce the horse’s confidence in the possessor of superior power. It will respect and obey the rider, who also is a friend and comrade, and it will like him as a donor of pleasurable sensations. Such horses will display eagerness to comply with the rider’s will – they will be willingly obedient.

So, either Seunig was a man well ahead of his time, or our modern trainers have invented a mythology about past training methods to improve their own marketability. The overwhelming proof supports the latter, as you can find many early twentieth century authors (and even earlier experts) who write much as Seunig did.

One last point to make, as it is another pet peeve (though this time with positive reinforcement folks) – again, Seunig says it best.

Current books on riding are accused, not entirely without justification, of representing horses as nothing but angels, which appear to wish for nothing than to please their riders if the latter only allow them to do so.

No matter how sensitive and skilful the rider may be, no matter how expertly he rides his spirited young horse, he cannot avoid the remount’s failing to evaluate the well-intentioned efforts of its master correctly or paying more attention to its surroundings than to its rider and plotting childish misbehaviour….

Most young horses are often refractory; they usually desire something other than that desired by the rider at that very moment, even though obedience causes them no pain or perceptible discomfort.

So, when your horse doesn’t obey, or does something that the NH folks tell you is an attempt at dominance, stop and think. Are you giving the right signal? Are you making the right thing a pleasant experience, rather than making the “wrong” thing uncomfortable? Remember, if you “make it uncomfortable to be anywhere but in the horse trailer” as many NH practitioners tell you to do, you are actually setting up a negative association with the trailer (since the trailer is actually there the whole time you are chasing your horse around). Try a little “sugar” instead – reward each small step toward the end goal, and you’ll get there before you know it. But don’t dismiss the idea that your horse may just be expressing a bit of independent thought – which is far from an attempt at dominating you – much as your toddler does when she runs away laughing as you call her!

Be good to your horses … and don’t forget those treats!


4 thoughts on “Mythbusting: Horse training methods were cruel until recently

  1. Well said! Some of the newer “modern” training methods just have me all confused. .. Surely, we cannot have done it wing this whole time. ..
    As for NH. Well, I stay away.


    1. The more I dive into the “old masters”, Elinor, the more impressed I am with how well they understood the horse, and how (basically) consistent their approaches were. New is not always better, to be sure!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I want to believe it was because they lived “closer” to the horse, in a time where man depended on horses for so much more than just personal gratification.
        Perhaps just a romanticized view, but in many training aspects it probably holds true.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you are quite right, Elinor. I think it also was a time when it was accepted that it took a long time to learn any area of specialty, and hard work was expected. We tend to look for the quick road to fame, these days.


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