A Girl and a Wild Mustang—or “There Are Many ‘Right’ Ways to Train Animals”


A Girl and a Wild Mustang

—or “There Are Many Right Ways to Train Animals”


“A Girl and a Wild Mustang” by Elsa Sinclair is a beautiful documentary—and yes, I’m biased. 

I’ll explain why I find it beautiful and why I’m biased in a while. See, these days a tendency prevails in claiming there’s only one right way for us to interact with our animals. If you adhere to that idea, I fear I have bad news for you. There isn’t only one way to train animals; there are many. Let’s start from the beginning.

If you know a bit about evolutionary biology, you’ll know there are countless more ways to be dead than alive. Once we are alive, there are many ways of living, depending on anatomical, physiological, and environmental constraints. Once we’re over that, we are what we are, based on genetics, epigenetics, early imprinting, education, adaptation, goals, and circumstances.

It’s no surprise we differ from one another, no two humans, dogs, horses, or jellyfish being clones of each other.

In humans, the values, morals, and ethics we acquire throughout life accentuate peculiarities. Perhaps they do also in some other species (the evolutionary biologist suspects); only we don’t know.

Like/don’t like (the Facebook syndrome, as I coined the phenomenon) expresses our normative side (emotions and values) more than their descriptive counterparts (reason and facts). They reveal the radical and inescapable subjectivism and singularity of any conscious living organism—a condition Oriental philosophies heroically attempt to elude. We judge as we find suitable and as we can. We reason, but I’ll argue that normative judgments have the better of their descriptive analogs—at least for the human species at large. Perhaps once that gave us an evolutionarily advantageous edge.

Because we act according to our norms and not de facto facts, disagreement is expectable. Compound that with a good dose of faulty logic—the standard in human reasoning—and the probability of dissent moves one notch up from expectable to inevitable.

White is the safest color for a car, yet silver is the most popular. Why? Because car buyers chose by emotion, not reason. There’s nothing wrong with that (from a logical perspective) as long as we don’t claim that (A) safety is a concern of ours, and (B) color does not matter. Why is that so? Because, although the argument is valid, it is unsound.

The validity of an argument does not depend on its premisses being true, but its soundness does. A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid, and all of its premises are true. In our example above, (B) is false, and the argument is, therefore, unsound. 

There are many ways to train animals, depending on our knowledge, skills, goals, and preferences. Say, we want to establish a reciprocal, beneficial relationship with our dog or horse. We may choose any method we want: reinforcers only, combining reinforcers and inhibitors, a particular lead/leash, food or no food. Different approaches can be equally good. What we cannot do—provided we want to stay rational—is to justify our actions based on values with false facts.

What science tells us, does not oblige us to adopt any one method. Science doesn’t say a particular method is unconditionally better than another. It says that under specific circumstances A rates over B and B over C with a certain probability. A may be better for speed, B for reliability, and C for individual comfort. I choose, you choose, we choose what suits each of us best. We may want to go for speed, reliability, or what feels most comfortable for us. As long as we do not deny the facts science gives us, there’s nothing wrong with any choice of ours. What is wrong (unsound argumentation, as we saw above) is to state that we choose a particular method because of its efficiency for a specific purpose despite science telling us otherwise.

For example, during my career, I have assisted many owners and their animals. Invariably, my first questions would be, “what is your goal?” and “what price are you willing to pay?” And by price, I didn’t mean bucks, dimes, and pennies, but deviating from your values if need be.

Gimmicks—leads, collars, halters, food treats—speed up training a dog or a horse. Using neither is slower, and it requires much more knowledge, skill, and empathy. Again, it depends on what you want.

Students and clients often ask me which lead I recommend or prefer. My answer is always the same. I endorse none, but I can tell you what studies (not opinions) say about the effects of the various types—and you pick one, given your goals and principles. 

If you ask me, I prefer none: no leads/leashes, collars, or any gimmicks. For me, the primary in any relationship with an animal (human or not) is the connection per se. I want it to be one between two free agents: no constraints besides the inevitable of having neighbors and having to share the world with others. That’s me, and I don’t expect you to think likewise—and I wouldn’t dream of imposing my view on you.

Given, I could achieve faster and more accurate and reliable results using other methods. Denying that is out of the question for it would compromise my intellectual integrity, which I am utterly incapable of doing. Blame my genetic constitution, early upbringing, education, and fortuitous circumstances. 

Therefore, I’m willing to pay the price of sticking to my philosophy of life (and being slower, less accurate, etc.)—perhaps because I find the payback worth it. As I write elsewhere, “[…] (I) enjoy the closeness, not the training, not (the) achievement, […] relating to the animal (I) face as a living organism, an equal, a creature (I) meet for a brief moment in space and time.” (Animal Training My Way, 2015).

And so, you make your choices, to which you are fully entitled, and I mine. We are equally right as long as we do not deny facts or use faulty logic in our reasoning—which takes us to “A Girl and a Wild Mustang.”

As to my preferred interaction with animals (humans too), I’d suggest you watch Elsa Sinclair’s “A Girl and a Wild Mustang.” Sinclair made her choices and proved her point. Incidentally, she also proved my case, better than I could have done it—for which I’m grateful. You must see this documentary. 

Sinclair does not impose her thoughts on you, rather states her case. It’s a take it, or leave it. As I said at the start, it’s a beautiful movie, and I am biased. My most avid readers will know right away, barely 30 seconds into the movie, why I recommend it so dearly.

Let me give you a teaser by quoting Sinclair: “Have you ever wondered if a horse would let you ride her if there was no threat of punishment or encouragement of a reward such as food? Would a horse let you ride her simply because you had built a strong relationship?”

I wrote in my book Evolution (2014), “We humans can contemplate nothing without changing it. Yet, the most important, it seems to me, must be to understand, accept, and respect other living beings independently of species and race.” 

That’s a normative statement, all right, and one you may beg to differ. I read, recently, a claim that respect being a human construct, does not exist for dogs. I’ll dispute vigorously that respect is a human construct. Sinclair’s movie is all about mutual respect between human and horse.

“We both have the right to live. I have the right to chase you, you have the right to fly,” the lion says to the gazelle. I suspect respect, as in acting as others have the same freedoms as we do, even though they may conflict with ours, is a fundamental law of nature. If so, this statement of mine, paradoxically enough, will cease to be normative and will become a premise for this universe’s sustainability.

That is something to ponder on.

Photo by Elsa Sinclair. Artwork by Anton Antonsen.

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Animal Training—When Doing Nothing is Doing Right


Years ago, my friends in the US asked me to go with them and see a horse they were considering buying for their daughter.

A couple of hours drive thru Illinois countryside, roads surrounded by never-ending cornfields, took us to a nice, clean and modern kind of an equestrian center where we found the horse and met the owner.

I liked the horse right away, a young, paint, quarter mare. The American quarter horse got its name from being particularly fast on distances up to a quarter mile. Paint horses are white with spots of black, brown or reddish. The American Paint is now a breed of its own. Most paints are levelheaded, versatile and friendly horses. This mare was no exception. She had the looks of being approachable and curious, eager to learn. I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but she couldn’t have been more than three years old. She looked young to me to carry a rider on her back, and I remember asking the owner if they had trained her to it.

“Oh, yes, she is broken to ride, all right,” she answered.

That was not what I asked, but I reckoned I couldn’t get a better answer. What I wanted to know was whether the horse had gone thru any particular groundwork to develop the right muscles and movements necessary to carry the extra weight of a rider. By the way, I don”t know about you, but I dislike immensely the term “horse breaking.” If you really break the horse, you shouldn’t even come close to a horse, and that’s my opinion. If you don’t, but instead train it stepwise, wisely and patiently, you should consider using another term all together—and that’s again my opinion about that.

The young mare was beautiful, but then again I might have been terribly biased, for my heart always beats a tad faster when I see a gentle, paint quarter (or a friendly English cocker spaniel). These are things of the heart that I can’t explain, and don’t feel I need to either.

The owner proceeded to give us a demonstration of the horse’s abilities under saddle. It was a sad showing. The mare trotted and cantered all right, and turned right and left, and stopped and continued, but she looked miserable.

After having finished, the owner invited my friends’ daughter to go for a ride, but she declined, showing the typical shyness of a teenager of her age.

“You go, Roger, take a ride and tell us what you think,” her mum said to me.

“Yes, uncle Roger, please do it,” my niece begged me with that “horsey” expression only teenagers who have been long around horses can give you. I couldn’t refuse her.

And so, I went for a ride, even though, in my opinion, she was a bit too young and untrained. We trotted and cantered right away and, then, we did figure eights and turns. The young mare was entirely different from earlier. She had regained her spirit, and if not completely, then closer to the spirit of her ancestors, the proud horses roaming the plains of the new world.

“Wow,” my friends said almost in a choir, “that was impressing.”

“What did you do?” they asked me, “She behaved totally different with you! It was like a different horse altogether.” The owner pretended not to hear that.

“I did nothing,” I answered, and I was entirely honest. After mounting, I started by having a long talk with the horse, a silent one, that is, for horses don’t understand English and what I had to say was as much to her, the mare, as to myself.

“Ok, horsey, here we are the two of us. I’m sorry, we haven’t even been introduced properly,” I said, “Just do what you feel like doing. I’ll try to be as imperceptible as I possibly can.” And she ran, she trotted and cantered, and I did nothing besides trying not to be a burden, just syncing my movements with hers.

“Go for it, honey,” I thought, “run as much as you fancy, turn whenever you like. You lead, I’ll follow.” And she ran and turned, ears forward one moment, back the next, her mane flying in the wind. “Go, baby, go,” I thought, and she went faster and freer.

After a while, I began “leading the dance,” never used the reins, only changed, slightly, my position on the saddle. I looked left, and she turned left, I looked right, and she turned right, her ears for a moment turning back to me like asking, “Am I doing well?”

Sometimes, doing more does less, doing less does more, and doing nothing does right—and I suspect this is true more often than we reckon.

Featured image: To earn the trust of a horse is the first step toward a good relationship. It takes time to earn it and only one moment to lose it.