I have been in the process for some time of reading through Ben Hart’s exceptionally helpful website, http://www.hartshorsemanship.com. Ben is an equine trainer whose positive, supportive training practices can be used with donkeys to great effect. As his website begins, “Ben has a mission to provide safe, ethical, sustainable behaviour training for horses, donkeys and mules worldwide by using the practical application of the science of behaviour”.
The website itself has a wealth of information, clearly presented and best digested in thoughtful doses. There is much to be learned from his methods and philosophy, and as his points accumulate in the mind a total picture comes gradually into view.
Early on, Ben introduces his students to the practice of creating a ‘shaping plan’ for a particular animal, a plan that relies on small steps and much positive reinforcement while creating freedom for the trainer to be more in the moment with their animal.
The use of the word, ‘shaping’ is singular in itself and it reveals some of the nuances of the Hart philosophy. According to the Oxford dictionary to shape is “to create, form, construct, model, mould, fashion, bring into desired or definite figure or form”. Whatever the end goal, when shaping is involved rigidity, impatience and absolutes have little place.
In centuries gone by, and unfortunately still in too many communities today, people believed that equines had to be ‘broken’, an act that involved cutting or tearing, dividing or dispersing into two or more parts. The goal here was to break the animal’s spirit, to overwhelm to the point that there would always be submission. It was and is a cruel, unnecessary approach, one based on the assumption that the equine is lacking in rational intelligence and sentient feeling.
The practice of breaking an equine hung around for much too long and it was not until the twentieth century that the expression, “Teach Not Make, Train Not Break”, began to circulate among some members of the equine training community. This methodology was and is less antagonistic. Instead of approaching the donkey, mule or horse as an adversary, the metaphor of the classroom tempers the process. The teacher/student relationship is more compatible, with a suggestion of working together rather than beating down a perceived ignorant will power. With this approach the trainer is working in the realm of the positive, recognizing innate potential, deserving of respect.
It is from here, I think, that we move logically to the idea of ‘shaping’ equine behaviour. The small steps, the positive reinforcement contribute to a training process that does not harm the animal physically or psychologically. The aim is to work in the moment with consistency and clearly defined goals, with a rhythm that removes stress from the training experience for both parties involved.
Whether you are a trainer looking to improve your methods, a small landowner thinking to take in a donkey or other equine as a pet, or a city-dweller generally interested in the equine world, there is much to be learned from visits to Ben Hart’s website. His positive approach is ethical, safe and sustainable — qualities that should be inherent in all relationships, human/equine and otherwise.
Sandra Pady, Founder