People often chat to me about how frequently they second-guess themselves and their training choices. Sometimes they have a strong background in traditional or natural horsemanship but it feels like something is missing in their relationship with their horses. Maybe they find themselves flitting from one 'method' or trainer to the next, unable to commit to any one thing for long enough to see real results (or a lack of) before moving onto something else. Maybe they have followed a particular 'guru' or style of training but something has happened that they're uncomfortable with, to make them question their loyalty to that person or method. Often they are absolutely convinced of the benefits of positive reinforcement for horses, but peer pressure from friends, coaches or social media and the desire to conform is overwhelming and causes them to continually doubt themselves. And often they really want to train under a positive reinforcement paradigm, but old habits keep getting in the way.
Regardless, my heart truly goes out to those people. To you, if you're one of them. I've been there. What it means is that you are a seeker of truth, you're trying to better yourself for the sake of your horse, you're thinking critically and striving for improvement. That's a beautiful thing.
And I get it - there's so much information available out there, online and in person, and it seems that each trainer you listen to, or article you read, is recommending different methods/techniques (and sometimes dishing out judgement or subtle derision of alternative ways of doing things). It can be difficult to sort through it all and feel confident and consistent in which parts you should take home and actually implement with your horse. This is only made worse when the path you're walking is a lonely one, and outside of the accepted mainstream, such as it is for positive reinforcement or clicker trainers.
I have personally sat in the audience at clinics of very well-known and respected international horsemen and listened to them mock and denigrate positive reinforcement training, while clearly having little to no idea of how it works (let alone having given it a proper try themselves). I have left those clinics rather irritated at the ego on display, but still with a degree of respect for the horsemanship they practice and with a few ideas to take home with me.
"Knowledge makes people humble. Arrogance makes people ignorant."
Sometimes people comment how lucky I am to have "found my path" and have so much clarity and confidence in how I want to train (and how I don't). Yes I do feel pretty secure in my training choices, at a basic level, but it's still an ongoing journey and I still question myself constantly and doubt myself regularly.
After all, this is an ongoing and lifelong process. I'm constantly playing 'devils advocate' with myself, watching other trainers (of all species) and questioning the way I do things or whether I could improve what I'm doing. I think that's important to do, but it often actually causes me to feel less sure of myself! Such is life. I've learned to be ok with this sort of discomfort, it comes with stretching outside of comfort zones and it's a temporary feeling. As I work through the new ideas in my mind, or with my horses, or in conversation with peers and mentors, I consolidate and integrate and then continue on. I'm sure this is a process most people are familiar with to some extent.
Also, these things take time - for over 15 years I have been working through questions like
"What feels right to me?"
"How can I balance what is best for the animal with what is practical and efficient?"
"Where do I sit ethically on that spectrum?"
"How can I combine the useful parts of both 'common practice' and 'best practice' without compromising my integrity?"
Crucially, I've had some really challenging life experiences that helped cement my own ethical code when it comes to horses, and form the basis of my unrelenting dedication to empathetic and ethical training. During these times I doubted my own decisions and skills, felt lost, beat myself up, flailed around a bit then (eventually) found solid earth again and emerged stronger and more confident and with the benefit of hindsight. As usual, it's the difficult times in life that provide the biggest insights and catapult us on our way to clarity.
Bear with me here, and I'll give you an example. When I think back 12 years or so to when I was a Customs drug dog handler, I vividly recall my frustration and ethical quandary over the way I was made to 'teach' my dog Oscar 'obedience'. (Clue: with a choke chain). "Get more muscle into it. Correct him harder. HARDER." was the constant refrain, until I snuck away one lunch break with a clicker and some biscuits, hid behind a warehouse out the back of the airport and taught him what he needed to know, MY way. A few months later down in Trentham I had to bite my tongue and hide my tears of empathy when the police dog trainer in charge of our graduation course took Oscar's lead from me and jerked the chain so hard he yelped and was thrown off his feet (he was a very large black Labrador, so there was some force behind that 'correction'). *
There were a few reasons I left that job but that was definitely part of it. To this day I question whether I could have been a better advocate for my dog, but the reality is I was young and relatively inexperienced, and working without proper support or mentorship in a military-style hierarchy. Regardless, I left the dog section even more convinced that I needed to follow my gut and stick with reward-based training, much more aware of the gaps in my own knowledge and capabilities, and absolutely adamant that I would never again put myself in the situation of being powerless and forced to follow someone else's orders on how to train my animals. To this day, if I am taking my horse to a clinic or lesson with someone I haven't trained with before, I remind myself of my role as her advocate and rehearse how I am going to remove her immediately if the need arises. I'm not a fan of conflict so the idea of doing this doesn't sit comfortably but I am ready to do it anyway.
The point of relaying all of this, is that if you're second-guessing yourself, or feeling like you don't know who to listen to or how to proceed, or that things just aren't working for you, please understand that it's totally NORMAL. We all feel like that at different stages and many of us throughout our lives!
Some of my "tribe"
So in practical terms, what can you do if you're feeling that way?
So there's some slightly rambling thoughts about my own journey (so far) which hopefully helps to make you feel less alone, and also some tips on how to manage the nagging self-doubt or second-guessing that so many of us subject ourselves to. I hope it's helpful.
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* (To be clear, the operational detection work was all trained positively, using play rewards and no corrections. It was the other early-stage obedience stuff that I am describing above. Also, things have improved a lot in NZ drug and explosives detector dog training since then, largely thanks to some inspiring and dedicated trainers who have introduced and implemented marker training into the detector dog community here in NZ. Unfortunately, any improvements were too late for me and Oscar).