Recently I watched a documentary film called In A Whisper. It’s a DVD of a colt starting challenge that was held in Fort Worth in 2002. The three trainers in the competition, Craig Cameron, Pat Parelli and Josh Lyons, each had 2 1/2 hours to start a two year old colt. The horses had very little handling prior to the event, and by the end of the evening, the trainers were riding the colts at a walk, trot and lope, taking them through a small obstacle course, and even roping from their backs.
Impressive? Yes, very. It takes a very skilled and talented horse person to be able to take a horse through basic ground work exercises and then get the horse use to the saddle and rider in under three hours. However, what made an even bigger impression on me was how stressed and uncomfortable the horses look throughout most of the DVD. The horses are pushed hard and have little chance to think about or process anything. There is a bit of snorting and bucking and quite a bit of high headed horses with eyewhites showing.
The DVD is called In a Whisper because the three trainers it features, Josh Lyons, Pat Parelli, and Craig Cameron, are considered modern day horse whisperers. However, their actions resemble something much closer to shouting than whispering. During the skills test at the end, Josh Lyons abstains from loping his colt on the basis that the colt is not ready. In reality, the three colts weren’t ready for the majority of what was ask of them throughout the entire evening.
Many modern trainers focus on bonding with the horse, moving at the horse’s pace, and reducing the high levels of fear and stress often found in traditional training. By working under such a severe time restraint, principles get sacrificed. In the competition at the end, all three trainers are consistently kicking the colts and slapping them with their ropes to keep them moving forward. The colts are nervous and jumpy, and have trouble with many basic tasks, such as standing still, backing up, rein aids and leg aids. Yes all three colts are ridden and complete most of the tasks and obstacle course, but it sure ain’t pretty. And the horses sure don’t look like they’re having much fun.
It’s easy to point an acusatory finger at such an extreme example of rushed training. However, most trainers are guilty at some time or another of rushing the training process. At one time or another, we all ask for too much to soon or put the animal in a situation where they can’t possibly meet expectations. The culprit is usually human-imposed time restraints, whether it’s that big horse show in two months or expecting the dog to behave well in a completely new environment or even just getting frustrated at the animal when training doesn’t progress fast enough to meet your arbitrary goals.
The key to good training is to let it take the time it needs to take. An excellent trainer is to be able to recognize subtle signs of stress, nervousness or fear. New situations, new environments and the learning process can all be incredibly stressful for animals, especially animals who are new to training. When we train slower , build behaviors in small steps and make sure the animal fully understands our requests, training actually takes much less time. This is because we don’t have to waste time later undoing problems caused by sloppy, rushed training.
Pat Parelli, Craig Cameron and Josh Lyons all prove that it is possible to take a completely untrained horse and in 2 1/2 hours ride him through an obstacle course and set of tasks. However, just because something can be done, doesn’t not mean it should be done. Listen to your horse and watch his behavior and body language. He’ll tell you how fast or slow your training should progress.
If you liked this, check out the follow up post, How long does it take to train a horse?