How do you evaluate trainers?

We are going today to see Buck, the new documentary about horse trainer Buck Brannaman. If you’re not familiar with Buck, you can watch the trailer on the film’s website. The film is suppose to be great, it’s won quite a few awards, including the audience choice award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (I promise a full review after we see it!)

I really like Buck Brannaman. He’s not a clicker trainer and trains very differently from how I work with our horses. In fact, some of his methods and techniques I’d never use. Still, I like quite a few things about him, mostly from reports I have read from friends who have attended his clinics.

We’ve been discussing “traditional” trainers on one of the clicker training discussion lists I am on. Most clicker trainers I know can’t stand the “harsh” techniques that traditional trainers or natural horsemanship trainers use. The natural horsemanship trainers I know can’t stand traditional horse training tactics. And nobody likes clicker trainers–they are ineffective and are completely spoiling their horses…

It’s amazing the number of trainers I talk to who are like this. They are completely committed to their camp (or cult, as it may be!) to the point that they cannot even consider the perspective or ideas of someone who thinks and trains differently than they do.

I’ll tell you what I’ve learned…. There are quite a few good clicker trainers, some horrible ones, and a few exceptional ones. There are quite a few good traditional trainers, some horrible ones, and a few exceptional ones. There are quite a few good natural horsemanship trainers, some horrible ones, and a few exceptional ones. And so on, insert most any label you want.

I’ve stopped listening to and asking about labels and affiliations. To evaluate someone’s philosophy and techniques, I want to watch the person train. (And actually watch the trainer train, not watch them work with a horse who is already well trained.) I’ve learned over the past several years that there are many people who I might not completely agree with who are still exceptional trainers and who I can still learn some tips and techniques from.

Here’s a few things I look for in a great trainer:

(What would you add to the list?)

1. A great trainer has the horse’s physical and mental welfare in mind.
That is, the training is for the benefit of the horse, not just for the person who is going to ride the horse. Is the trainer concerned with suppling and balancing the horse, as well as correct biomechanics? Is the trainer concerned with helping set the horse up so that he will remain sound for his lifetime? Does the training process and the outcome of training involve a horse who is calm and relaxed?

2. A great trainer understands shaping.
Shaping means building new behavior in reasonable steps. Rather than demanding that a horse do a whole new behavior all at once, a great trainer picks an approximation to that behavior that it would be reasonable to ask the horse to do. Then, over a series of logical steps, the horse learns to do the final behavior. (More info here, about about the difference between splitting/shaping and lumping.)

3. A great trainer is always interested in learning more.
The great trainers I’ve met and watched are always trying to learn how to be better horse people. They’re constantly refining their techniques and methods. They’re also not afraid to watch, listen to, and learn from other horse people. They recognize that everyone has had slightly different experiences and even if you don’t completely agree with someone, you might still be able to learn a few things from that person.

This is my short list, before this post gets too long. Also, I’ll keep it short because I want to know what you would add to this list. How do you evaluate trainers? What do you think makes a great trainer?

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