I am often asked how I believe we can best support change in the horse world. The change I am referring to is the shift in paradigm from a training approach that focuses predominantly on the use of pressure and release (aversive stimuli),  to one that instead relies mainly (but not exclusively!) on rewards (appetitive stimuli).

Please note, before you read any further. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with this, because it might feel manipulative. I believe that if you are working for the greatest and highest good, with a genuine interest in the best interests of all, then it is never manipulative. If, however, you use these principles for your own personal gain, and at the expense of others, then yes, that is manipulation. What we all need to remember is that we (knowingly or unknowingly) use appetitives and aversives every day in our interactions with people. Every time we criticise, we create discomfort and we shut people down. Eventually we teach them to avoid sharing experiences with us. On the other hand, every time we give support, acknowledgement and praise, we open them up and help them to become more creative, more willing to try new things.

So that said, just how can we support owners and trainers through the evidence based changes that we believe will improve the welfare and ‘happiness’ of their horses?

If we ourselves have fully committed to the new paradigm in our own work with horses, we can do a number of things.
Firstly, we can lead by example. This means that, in our own training, we can demonstrate just what the possibilities are for the horse-human relationship.

Secondly, we can take all the principles that we have learned that help us create behaviour change in horses, and apply them to the people that we meet.
This is what I call ‘Being the Change’ and is inspired by that wonderful Gandhi quote “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world”.

So what does that mean?

Be nice. If you are naturally, genuinely warm and approachable, people (and horses!) will feel much more comfortable around you.

Have integrity. You can’t fake it. People (and horses) are incredibly good at spotting emotional incongruence- in other words, people that say one thing, but are actually feeling something completely different.

Diana Cooper has a very useful way of helping people to tune into this. She says that everyone, no matter how good or bad, has an angel inside, and that we should talk to and see that inner angel in our interactions with them. Counsellors call this unconditional positive regard.

Avoid alienation. It’s so easy to use terminology that helps those ‘in’ the group feel involved, while those on the outside are left floundering and isolated because they have no idea what you mean. So talk in simple terms and use examples that everyone can understand and identify with. Unless of course you are directing your communication to a specific audience, who you know will understand the terms.

Use the principles of shaping behaviour. Recognise the smallest try, and be quick to generously (and genuinely!) reinforce it. (See this post on shaping

Avoid aversives where safe to do so. So if you can safely ignore behaviour that you don’t want, then that means you can use an appetitive (food, physical contact, social recognition, verbal praise… Choose what is most salient (meaningful) and appropriate for the individual in question!) to reinforce the behaviour that you do like.

Always be willing to answer questions, no matter how silly they might seem.

Beware of the guilt trap. Often people taking their first brave steps into this new training paradigm become paralysed by guilt as they realise just how many aversives they have unwittingly used with their horses.

I do my best to help people through this by pointing out just how empowering their new knowledge is, because they can use it to move forwards. There is no need to focus on what is wrong, when we can focus on what is right. How beautiful is that! People need us to repeatedly articulate that. Don’t forget, they have only just stepped away from a societal framework that focuses on mistakes and wrong doing. They need to know that it really is okay to ignore that, and it is even better to focus on what is right, and build from there.

Being different can be very isolating. In the beginning of any wave of change, those most likely to step forward and blaze the trail are the people that care more about being right than they do about being liked. The individuals that don’t really care about what people think of them. The chances are, if you are a professional working already within this new paradigm, that you are a trail blazer. And it is also likely that many of your early clients fall into this category. But as time goes on, you will find, like a ripple spreading out across the ocean, you will start to pick up new people, those who aren’t as comfortable about standing out from the crowd. So create a crowd for them!  Give them social support. Introduce them to a community of like minded people. Many years ago, I instigated ‘tea and buns’ nights for my clients. We just got together and chatted about what we were all doing. It helped them to realise that they were not alone, and gave them the courage to carry on, rather than feeling that they (and I!) were the only crazy folks working this way. Nowadays, through social media, and the many wonderful groups that are available to support those interested in appetitive based training, it is easy for people to access support and not feel alone. However, it really helps if people on your yard can see that what you are doing is practical and it works.

Learn to ‘turn the other cheek’ when you are criticised. Simply ignore it and carry on sharing and being the change with warmth and openness. You don’t have to throw what you are doing down other’s throats. Sooner or later they will see the light that you shine and it will help them to do the same (Marianne Williamson has a wonderful quote about that!).

Finally, help those that you are supporting through change to learn these principles for themselves. Remember, we don’t change people. People change themselves. All we can do is provide a supportive environment and let them get on with it!

Now go my friends, and Be The Change for the Horses.

With love
Helen Spence