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  • Lauren Fraser, CHBC

The Right Professional for the Job

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

What's the difference between a horse trainer, a riding instructor, and a horse behavior consultant? While it sounds like the start of a really bad joke, it’s a great question to ask! Let’s look at what each profession does.

Horse trainers teach horses new and wanted behaviors.

Using a range of different training methods, horse trainers teach horses to consistently respond to set cues by performing desired behaviors. These behaviors can range from the simple to the complex – such as lowering the head for haltering, learning to accept a rider, perform sliding stops, jump cross country at Rolex, or perform the perfect passage. Just like other equine professionals, many horse trainers specialize in different aspects of horse training, such as colt starting, or training for specific sports or disciplines.

Good horse trainers have excellent timing, progressively shape desired behaviors, and set training situations up so that the horse can easily do what is desired. Good horse trainers – whether they are aware of it or not – use reinforcement to increase desired behaviors. They also avoid the use of punishment, which says 'No' to unwanted behaviors. Punishment can decrease a horse's desire to learn, as well as damage the trust between horse and human. It should be avoided in training.

In Canada, there is no certifying organization or licencing body governing horse trainers. Anyone can work as a horse trainer, without having to prove their skills or knowledge through a testing process. In light of this, when choosing a horse trainer take some time to interview them, and ask to observe them training a horse. Avoid trainers who subscribe to outdated training techniques based on dominance and punishment, or those who use tack or gadgets to speed your horse through training. Also avoid basing your decision solely on what trainers can achieve with horses. One of the saddest facts about horses is that they can learn through methods that are fair and kind, or methods that are harsh and punitive; either way, horses will still win shows and wow the crowds. Results and achievements are no guarantee that a horse was not subjected to harsh training.

If you don’t have the knowledge to train your own horse, you can still help your horse during the training process: by educating yourself on the science behind how horses learn. Such knowledge can help you make good choices when choosing an appropriate trainer.

Riding instructors and coaches teach people how to ride, and/or compete in a specific discipline

Riding instructors and coaches teach people how to ride, or coach them to excel in a specific discipline or horse sport. In Canada, while certification is not required to work as an instructor, there are two voluntary certifying bodies for riding instructors and coaches: Equine Canada (EC), and the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA). Both organizations require that prospective instructors demonstrate hands-on teaching skills, as well as pass oral or written exams based on riding, horse management, and instructing knowledge. Certification with either EC or the CHA does offer owners some reassurance that an instructor will have had to demonstrate a set level of knowledge before achieving certification. Having said that, there are many good instructors who aren’t certified. Interviewing potential instructors and observing a lesson may help you make the best decision for you and your horse.

In addition to having excellent teaching skills, observational skills, and a basic understanding of human psychology, good instructors should also understand the basics of horse training, and have an in-depth knowledge of the sport or discipline they are instructing for. While not a hard and fast rule, in general, dressage instructors may likely have difficulty coaching their students over trail obstacles, while mounted trail instructors may have difficulty teaching piaffe. One is not better than the other – they have both just focused to specialize their knowledge in very different areas.

Horse behavior consultants and behaviorists help horse owners stop or change existing unwanted behaviors

The profession of horse behavior consultant is relatively new in North America. While other species – such as dogs– have had behavior consultants practicing worldwide for much longer, the horse world is just starting to catch up. Horse behavior consultants help owners understand and resolve unwanted behavior problems, while enhancing the overall well-being of the horse and strengthening the bond between horse and human.

Horse behavior consultants help horse owners address unwanted behaviors, such as fears (trailer loading, clipping, head shy etc.), phobias (needle phobias, farrier or vet phobias etc.), aggression (towards humans or horses), separation anxiety (herd bound), stereotypic behaviors (cribbing, weaving etc.), issues under saddle (bucking, bolting etc.), and so on. They do so by determining the root cause of the behavior, addressing any factors that contribute to the behavior occurring, and changing or stopping the behavior through the use of humane and effective behavior modification techniques – such as counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization.

Horse behavior consultants must have a thorough knowledge of horse behavior and ethology, neurophysiology, learning theory (the science of how animals learn), and behavior modification protocols. They must be proficient at assessments – being able to discover what triggers the behavior, and what keeps the behavior occurring - before recommending management changes or retraining protocols. In addition to helping owners change unwanted behaviors, many horse behavior consultants can also help owners teach new and wanted behaviors, such as trailer loading.

As with the above professions, there is no mandatory licencing body governing horse behavior consultants. Anyone can call themselves a horse behavior consultant or horse behaviorist, without having to pass any exams or prove their hands-on skills. Many people who state that they work with problem behaviors have not studied the science of horse behavior, learning theory, behavior modification etc. They may base their work on disproven models of dominance theory - working with horses from the perspective that there is a 'lead horse'. This outdated and debunked training model utilizes punishment to train or address behavior problems, which may result in behavior suppression – making the problem behavior seemingly ‘disappear’, without actually resolving the reason it occurred in the first place. Because many behavior problems are a result of fear, confusion, or pain, training in this way frequently creates additional problems, doing the horse more harm than good. Such approaches are not recommended by animal behavior organizations such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and should be avoided.

Your Horse – Your Right To Know

If you are interviewing people to help you with your horse behavior problems, ask the person what they have studied in regards to horse behavior and behavior modification, if they are certified, and what specifically they will do to resolve your horse’s behavior problems. If someone does choose to become certified as a horse behavior consultant or behaviorist, there are a few paths to follow, such as:

  • certification with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). This is the path I chose, resulting in the designation Certified Horse Behavior Consultant (CHBC)

  • obtaining an MSc or PhD in clinical or applied animal behaviour

  • certification through the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), obtained after completing a PhD or MSc with a focus on animal behavior (CAAB, ACAAB – Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist)

  • or, after graduating as a veterinarian, and then obtaining a board-certification specialty degree as a Veterinary Behaviorist

In summary

You are your horse's champion. Whether searching for a horse trainer, riding instructor, or horse behavior consultant, you have a right to know what approach they will take with your horse, and how they will achieve their results. Interviewing and finding an appropriate equine professional for your needs is no different than selecting the right school teacher, sports coach, or health care professional for your child. The right trainer, riding coach, or behavior consultant can help you and your horse achieve your goals, without creating any additional issues for either of you in the process.

While there may be job overlap between professions (i.e horse trainers can also be riding instructors), the skill sets and competencies required are generally very unique to each profession. All equine professionals have spent great time and effort to tailor their study and training to be competent at what they do; each can play a very important role in helping you and your horse perform at your best – whether you want to have your horse professionally trained, compete in a specific discipline, or have a horse behavior problem resolved.

I hope this information helps you make the best decision when choosing the appropriate equine professional, for you, your horse, and your needs.

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