Common Ground Through Common Language


As we study the work of the great masters we can see many were highly educated and wrote eloquently on the training of the horse while others used colloquial sayings and a philosophical approach to teach their concepts to students.  Certainly Tom and Ray fit into the category of philosophers with their approach to teaching horsemanship.  Their sayings have become legendary in many circles and as we have previously argued, adhere to what we call the science of learning theory. 

Trainers, teachers, parents, virtually anyone that is trying to teach a sentient being anything is using some form of learning theory.  Having said that, there are many versions of learning theory and new ones are evolving as our understanding of how brains work increases daily.  It may help to digress for a moment and point out that before we had what we call science today, we had Natural philosophy.  The answer was in nature.  The word philosophy meant the love of wisdom (from the Greek Philo- love of and Sophia-wisdom), the wisdom came from nature.  As our knowledge of the world increased from our ability to observe, test events and phenomena, we came to what we now call science.  In fact as late as 1687 when Sir Isaac Newton published “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia” (Latin for Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy) we did not call it science; it was still a version of Natural Philosophy.  

As time passed and knowledge increased specific disciplines evolved from Natural philosophy such as Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Anthropology and Psychology and many more. Learning theories are central to the discipline of psychology and it is impossible to separate the history of learning theories from the history of psychology. The components of learning theories occurred in nature and thus are what we argue is “the nature of natural”.  They occur in nature.  The masters being natural philosophers observed the underlying principles and applied them to their world, including the training of Equus cabalas, the horse. 

What is the real problem since all trainers use some components of learning theory?   We advocate the better application of Learning theory through knowledge and the desire to care for and train our equine friends in a more ethical and humane manner recognizing that horses are essentially prisoners, most would not chose the lives they have.

After all, punishment is a component of learning theory; it is a way to learn.  To understand how to apply all the components of learning theory one must become a part time philosopher.  Part of philosophy is to think more rationally, to think better, to think more systematically.  Simply put Ray Hunt wrote in his book “Think Harmony with Horses” in very large letters THINK.  In order to think better one must have some basic understanding of the principals involved in learning.

However as we delve into Equitation Science and try to show how great horseman used it, and created sayings to guide their students we run into a problem with language. That is what was meant by the guiding maxim’s that refer to some basic principle that is covered in Learning Theory. Most trainers have their own version or interpretation of what is happening with the horse. In doing so they often use their own version of what that is with their own selected language. This can be, and often is very confusing for students, especially if they are learning from different trainers or encounter different philosophies along their educational equestrian journey.

One of the best examples of how one simple equestrian phrase, can take on a life of its own is the term “On the Bit”.  The term “On the Bit” was created without really understanding what it meant in French when it was translated to English.  This one little phrase became the mantra of generations of riders and countless horses being pulled together in a rather physical assault in direct misunderstanding of classical riding principles. Here is a link to a well written and thoughtful article.  The effect of this one example underscores the need to be mindful of operating from a point of common language.

We’ll be following Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt’s philosophies along with many of their now famous students. Tom and Ray often had great sayings concerning behaviors that have been passed down to their students who share their philosophy. Let’s take a look at some of those sayings and how they may be translated into a common language, the language of science. The point in all of it would be to know what all trainers are saying when they either give advice or analyze a particular behavior.

Many of the sayings involve the process known as shaping. That is taking small increments of a behavior that when executed are being rewarded and become consistent as learning occurs. In science this is known as successive approximations that build towards the final desired behavior. The desired behavior is achieved by incrementally asking for more complexity but is rewarded in increments, successive approximations, as the horse understands and then executes. Tom and Ray may have said: “Reward the slightest change and the smallest try”.  Nuno Oliviera may have said: “Ask often; be content with little, reward largely”. All of these involve the process of shaping a behavior to the desired end.

Being a good shaper is the key to successful training. Essentially that means that you are rewarding many small steps along the way and not asking for too much all at once. Tom may have said: “first one, then two, then three or four then four or more”. In which case he may have been talking about steps or some other incremental movement towards the behavior he was teaching. Nuno said: “Never demand more of a horse than that which he is ready to give”.


Good shaping involves understanding the movements to be taught so that the trainer/shaper will understand what little bit to reward. Then get that consistently and move on to the next level of difficulty. These levels are called criteria in Science. The criteria necessary in the trainers/shapers plan that he is going to reward. Upping the criteria means that the trainee, the horse (in this case) has to try a little harder to get rewarded. This may mean more steps, bigger steps, faster steps, or something that is more complex than the original reward based behavior. This is known as variable reinforcement that produces a reward within itself, within the brain of the trainee/horse. That reward is dopamine and it happens to you when you stand in front of a slot machine blindly pumping money in and pulling the lever, waiting for those few coins to come out that keep you playing (much to the delight of the casino).



At this you are probably saying Dah, who doesn’t do that? Well, many don’t, and in fact most people ask for too much too soon and since the horse, Tom again, “only knows self-preservation” he may start to try to protect himself because what little he may have tried didn’t work, which then often produces conflict. Conflict resolution, in the horse, can result in some version of the flight response or perhaps the opposition response (usually comes first) neither of which are a desirable outcome. In all the cases we are talking about the removal of pressure as the reward. The release of pressure is the reward of which we speak. The pressure itself is a motivator (at least meant to be) to the horse to move in some way to produce a way out through trial and error learning and to produce a release of pressure, a reward for his behavior. I reward for moving his feet/body in a certain incremental manner towards the desired complete behavior.

A good shaper/trainer is always trying to create something he can reward, something that will get him to let go, which will establish in the trainee/horse cause and effect. The horse’s behavior can produce rewards, he can and does have some control over his environment. This overall concept is Operant Conditioning. Operating in the environment behaviors can produce a change for better or for worse! Latter we will be introducing Positive reinforcement to the mix, hang tight on that one for now. (see rules of shaping for more detail on the web site The Nature of Natural)

My point here is there is a universal language that if used, could take out the trainer specific versions of how the horse works. In cases as I have just pointed out, the great horseman were solidly based in science and through understanding, effective communication can be developed which will benefit both the horse and the student of horsemanship. So we will always try to make these associations to build a solid and universal language than can be used no matter who barn you walk into. And eventually, through a deeper understanding of equitation science evaluate trainers or horseman in general based on known principles.

Let’s look at some others just for fun! Tom Dorrance said: “It’s the approach; it means so much to the horse”. Again, you may be saying well dah! Who doesn’t know that? Although when asked many people if not most would agree that how you approach a horse is important, not enough of them give it enough thought before they actually do it. Science would probably call this an Intention Move. And it would cover many aspects of handling horses including the cues you may want to send him when at Liberty or on lead.

On the horse’s side of the equation the Clever Hans Effect will always be in play. If you are unfamiliar with the Clever Hans effect, please refer to Equitation Science pages 14 thru 16. This affect greatly affects learning tests. In short, horses are very good at watching you! Watching you in painful detail so much so you should be glad you are not trying to get a date with this horse. What does that mean? It means that your intentions are a dead giveaway to the horse.



That is why it means so much, and when, as once again our man Tom points out; “The horse only knows self-preservation, and he is so full of it”, your intentions as you approach better be to his liking. So the approached you use to get to your horse, to catch your horse, to send or ask for something of your horse are very important. The approaches, as viewed as Intentional moves, then take on a whole new meaning for the trainer, in that they are not just when you are walking up to the horse for the first time. There is intention in and approaches for everything you do with him including when you ride. How you approach, or gather the reins, how your seat and legs are initiated, how you handle the lead rope on the ground. I could go on and on but surely you have the idea by now. And remember, Oscar Phungst, the man that determined that Clever Hans could not count, could never get him to make a mistake, even though he knew he was picking up on some very small body language that he was displaying. Old Hans had his number and your horse will get yours very quickly, use Intention Moves/Approaches wisely.



We could go on with many more examples and will throughout the courses, and writings that demonstrate some form of learning or training methods. The take away here is that there is a common language with accepted definitions that actually sync with the great horseman of the worlds sayings and advice to their students. If we take the time to learn it we will all be on the same page and be able to analyze behaviors, create solutions and move towards our goals without confusion of language. We will continue to use this language and when necessary define it and sync it to relevant horse culture for the example.


Thanks for checking in.

The Nature of Natural Crew