Dog’s Eye View: Old time cowboys
December 9, 2017
Whoa. Wait a minute. Isn't this column about dogs? Yes it is, but something came to mind about a month ago when I was having a conversation with a veterinarian friend. We were discussing the value and wisdom of horse (and dog) trainers who lived during a time when the scientific knowledge of learning and behavior change in animals was not as available to us all as it is today.
Were these horsemen ignorant of the ways and behavior of horses? No. Did they not train horses to become useful for the work that needed to be done on the ranch? Yes.
Two such cowboys I know personally are Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. I met Tom Dorrance when he was 84 years old. I had not ever before met a kinder, gentler and more soft spoken man with a greater knowledge of horses and how they operate.
He left me in awe. He told us that when he was a child that his job on their cattle ranch was to go out on a hillside and keep an eye on the ranch horse herd. He learned a lot by just patiently observing horses. He had an open and inquiring mind.
I met Ray Hunt after reading about him in Western Horseman magazine. He was offering a colt starting clinic in Jackson, Wyoming and I had a little quarter horse mare that I wanted to get started under the guidance of a true horseman.
Ray and Tom were friends. Tom was the mentor. Ray told us he trained horses for years until he ran across a horse that wouldn't put up with him. That's when he sought out Tom. He was a very honest and humble man.
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Both men have written books about their journey with horses. Tom Dorrance wrote "True Unity – Willing Communication Between Horse and Human” and Ray Hunt wrote "Think Harmony With Horses – An In-depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship.” I cherish my dog eared, highlighted copies, but confess that I had to read and re-read them to try to understand their language and thought process.
In person, working with these men as a student was non-threatening and comfortable. They saw our horses' behavior far ahead of what we could even begin to notice. We noticed things when the behavior was already past. But that was what they were there for; to teach us to be better observers and communicators.
Referring back to the first paragraph above, I was re-reading a chapter in a book entitled, "How 2 Train A ________ – From Aardvarks to Zebras, Applied Behavior Science has a Rational Prescription for Creating Behavior Change," by Patricia Barlow-Irick, Ph.D. Chapter 19, is titled “Cowboy Interlude,” a translation of Ray Hunt into Applied Animal Behavior Analysis.
This fascinating chapter consists of two columns on each page. The column on the right quotes Ray, "The horse is an individual and that is why I say he's entitled to his thoughts just as you are entitled to yours." The column on the left interprets this as, "Each animal brings its own history of reinforcement to the corral."
Another statement by Ray is, "Respect is understanding, not fear." The translation is, "Fear is an emotional arousal that is always a problem. No type of training profits from it."
One that I really like is, "The horse learns not to be particular if the rider is not particular." The analysis states, "The horse will discriminate or generalize according to what it is conditioned to do."
To me, accurate empirical observation and wisdom is valuable, but I always want to know why. I find it easier to comprehend the language of learning and behavior change when the concepts are presented in current scientific terminology. We are, then, all speaking the same language.
Both of these men sought a kinder and more informed way of working with horses. Their influence changed the way many horsemen approach training. And so it has also happened in the world of dogs.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with more than 30 years of experience.