Welcome to the Cardinal Points Farm blog !

Dear friends and fellow animal lovers, here it is ... a blog to discuss training.

My specialty is horse training and dressage, but I’ve applied to my horses many invaluable lessons from other animal trainers. Together we can create a greater awareness of the unlimited potential for greatness that your animals (and you) possess, once you acknowledge that many animal species are intelligent and capable of reasoning and communication.

So let’s get started ! Let's share insights, lesson plans, techniques, videos, pics, stories ... what have you.


Sian Min The
Cardinal Points Farm

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Training Approaches – creating a slave or partner?

As a horse trainer my fundamental goal is for the horse to do certain behaviors upon my request; whether it's to come to me, to walk, to halt, etc.  This can be achieved in different ways.  One is by physical force and contact, (this includes gentle touches, and stronger contact with training aids and equipment).  Another way is where, even without physical contact, the horse does the behavior of its own volition because of the promise of a reward.  Most training approaches use some combination of the two techniques. How much of each depends on a slew of factors that make up an individual training case.

For the horse, the process of learning what its trainer means involves trial-and-error, and guess work.  This is stressful. Uncertainty and doubt are always stressful.  The trainer can minimize the guesswork (and thus the stress) by guiding the horse towards the correct response, in the form of hints.  Then, when the horse submits a correct or incorrect response, the trainer gives immediate unambiguous feedback.

Inconsistent feedback can lead to the horse experiencing repeated failures, frustration and losing confidence.  The horse may then express this as anxiety and fear. Horses with a strong flight response may try to escape the situation mentally and/or physically.

There is no doubt that certain training methods rely on removing independent thought and free will from the animal. These methods aim to instill learned helplessness where the horse feels it has no control over its fate, leaving it no option but to do what the trainer demands.  In these cases when a horse allows itself to be led, or obediently stands motionless during saddling, it may actually feel it has no other choice.  In the uneducated public perception, these essentially enslaved horses are the "good" horses.  But some horses rebel, and these are the "bad" horses who need to be taught "respect".  More on respect in a later post.

I firmly believe that horses, being the intelligent creatures that they are, do not thrive when they feel helpless and enslaved.  A horse will display joy and beauty in its movements, if it performs them because it wants to, rather than because it’s been made to.  The opposite would be behavior that, while obedient, is mechanical and tense.

I train my horses to know that they have a say in what's happening to them.  While some may caution that this could lead to dangerous defiant behavior, I have never encountered that.  While there must exist genuinely rank horses, I believe that for the vast majority, a horse will repay treatment in kind.  This earlier post is an example of  a horse who decides, on his own, to agree to a procedure that must be unpleasant to him: paste worming.   The trainer (me) is actually the one confined, while the horse is at liberty and free to stay or leave.

How do I do this?  The simple answer is through a relationship with the horse on the basis of a clear two-way communication (no ambiguity as to the rules of the game, and the empowerment of the horse to “tell” me what it needs/feels), trust (consistency and fairness in implementing the rules, and TIME to allow the relationship to develop (patience) and prove itself.

When I ask the horse to do something, I need to be able to tell it when it’s done the correct thing, AND encourage it towards doing the correct thing.  This is done with bridges and targets, Bridges are promises of reward (think of a paycheck: low intrinsic value, but it guarantees something of value). Targets are physical objects/locations that have been identified to the horse to guide its behavior. You may have heard of these terms, but here's how I use them:

My bridges are vocal sounds, and sound like the letter X.  I either say it emphatically as one syllable, or as a string of "x"s strung togeter "xxxx..." (it will sound like you're saying "sex-sex-sex-sex..", so be prepared for others giving you strange looks!).  So my vocal bridge is much like a clicker, except I don’t always have to remember to carry a clicker.  Plus, I can vary the quality of the sound of the bridge.

Next post, the detailed how-to … 

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