Monday, March 28, 2016

The Danger of the Cult Mentality

During the past few months, I've "joined" a couple of private Facebook groups as part of a purchased package of materials for two different horse training programs. I'm not going to name the programs in this post because it isn't my intention to create a negative association with them.  Both programs are focused on gymnastic-type exercises for creating better equine athletes for any discipline and they both have many positive aspects.  Rest assured that I will write about them later as sort of a review of the programs once I've either completed them or learned enough that I think I can make a logical evaluation.

Today's post, though, is about the cult mentality that I've seen demonstrated in these programs.  By cult mentality, I mean an almost rabid commitment to and proselytization of the techniques and values espoused by a given program (or religion or diet or political party) to the point that anyone who questions the program or any of its components is criticized in a non-constructive way (e.g. called ignorant or stupid or otherwise insulted).  I've certainly been guilty of this behavior too, so I'm not really judging.  But the behavior is so damaging to the learning process that I think it is worthy of discussing.

I'll give some examples of what I'm talking about.  In one program, shortly after I joined the Facebook group, one of the members posted a short video she had made that she thought demonstrated the difference between two different exercises.  It was an animation of a horse, and she pointed out that either her software or her skill level didn't allow her to show the horse bending through its back for one of the exercises, but that otherwise, she was pretty happy with it.  Now, she wasn't an instructor, she was new to the program, and trying to create a visual aid for herself and she wanted to share it in case it was helpful to others.  She initially got some positive feedback on it, but by the next day, she posted that she'd been asked to remove the video because it did not reflect the horse bending through its back and was therefore a misrepresentation of the exercise (and by implication, of course, the program, because God forbid a student get in the way of branding).  I'm not sure if it was the founder of the program or one of the certified instructors who asked her to remove it, but either way, it created a bad taste in my mouth right off the bat.

And here's why.  People who are learning make mistakes.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that if a person never made a mistake, he or she wouldn't learn much at all.  In the above case, though, it wasn't even a mistake.  It was an honest effort by an engaged student to learn and share with others.  Which is the whole damn point of these FB groups.  Even if the member hadn't initially acknowledged the inadequacy of the video to show the bending through the back (which, by the way, isn't even that much in the first place - it's more of an optical illusion than true bend), it shouldn't have mattered.  She should have gotten absolutely nothing but positive encouragement and a gentle, kind note about the missing bend.  I have absolutely no idea how this woman felt about the whole process, but my guess is it made her feel pretty bad and probably deflated her sense of enthusiasm for the program.  It certainly deflated mine, and I wasn't even the poster.

But the cult mentality couldn't let the imperfection go.  The cult mentality was stronger than the instructor/founder's desire to help people learn and go on to help their horses.  And that cult mentality may very well have ruined the poster's desire to learn anymore and probably negatively affected the desire of more than one other member.  Now no one wants to play around with a learning tool or aid and post it to the FB page, because it might be wrong somehow.  In fact, probably more than one person is going to think twice about even asking a question, because they might be criticized unfairly or even have their question removed if it isn't good enough.

In another case, I posted a picture of myself and Nimo as an introduction to the group.  I used the picture Becky Pearman took of Nimo and I at our first endurance ride at Fort Valley.  We were trotting down the mountain, probably a mile or two from the end of the first loop (I swear that I never saw the photographer!), and I was having the time of my life.  Nimo was trotting so perfectly and we were synced and it was awesome.

Gail & Nimo

Nimo is wearing a hackamore in the picture, but I'm not sure how easy it is to tell.  I guess if you know endurance and you know hackamores, you might pick it up.  Or if you really looked at the picture, maybe it is clear.  And maybe you as my readers are better able to tell me how obvious it is.  No one made any comment about the hackamore under the picture.  In fact, everyone was very welcoming and I was hopeful that this group (different from the one above) would remain that way.  Until the next day.  Someone (perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not) posted a question about how to respond to people who ask if they can continue to use a hackamore with the training program.  There was a flurry of sometimes a bit nasty comments that made me feel pretty demoralized.  I want to point out that none of the comments mentioned my picture, so it was certainly possible that it had nothing to do with it and was simply coincidence.  But that didn't matter to me.  All that I saw was that there were a bunch of hackamore haters who thought that I was ignorant, didn't understand how a bit was supposed to work, and didn't understand equine facial anatomy to the point that I would put something on my horse's face that would deliberately hurt him (because one commenter pointed out with a know-it-all attitude that any idiot should know that hackamores in general cause pain to the horse). 

The funny thing is that I've seen pretty much the same comments directed by hackamore users at bit users.  I hope that I have refrained from that type of activity on this blog, and if I haven't, you have my sincerest apology.  I have made a conscious choice to use a hackamore on my horse.  I do have concerns that some or maybe all bits can cause pain to a horse, but my initial choice was made before I felt that way.  I made it solely because I wanted Nimo to have the best opportunity to eat and drink on the trail, and I believe that the hackamore made a huge difference for him.  It was only later that I came to realize the real potential (not reality for everyone, OK?) that bits have to cause pain to a horse's mouth IF MISUSED.  However, I still put a bit back into Nimo's mouth to see what would happen about a year after I'd been using the hackamore, and after 9 years of accepting the bit without a complaint (I never even trained him to put the bit in his mouth, he just always accepted it from the very first day), Nimo refused to put a bit in his mouth.  I did insist and rode him in it anyway, but all connection was gone, and it was miserable for both of us.  So I have put the bits away for now because it is Nimo's choice, not mine.  And I'll be honest, I will not tolerate belittling my horse's choice.  He works really hard for me day after day and mile after mile, and he gets a say in what he wears and how we communicate.  Any method or program that claims to respect the horse must give the horse the opportunity to say no and communicate preferences.

So back to the FB situation with the hackamore.  In this case, the founder of the method did respond.  He simply said that using a bit would provide more refinement in the communication with the horse.  Thankfully, he was not derogative or nasty, and that is the only reason I didn't immediately ask for my money back and drop the course.  (And I will say that I don't think he is wrong - I have definitely wished once or twice for the independent side action of a my old Myler bit, but if I can't figure out how to do the exercises with a hackamore, that is my failing, not Nimo's, not the hackamore's, and not the program's, although it sure would be nice to get some feedback and tips from someone else who has used a hackamore in the program.)  Anyway, I point out this situation because it really created a negative space for me and shut down my learning.  The only reason I continued was because the founder did not express the same zealous hatred of the hackamore that some of his students did.  And because I think what he has to teach is quite compelling.  But now, instead of being enthusiastic like I was at the beginning, I have to actively work to continue learning, and I admit to not just a little anxiety over what will happen when I post my first month's video of our progress.  There won't be any way to hide my use of the hackamore and I will have to mentally prepare for the expected focus on the hackamore instead of all the other aspects of our work.

I'm sure that the cult mentality isn't limited to these two groups.  I'm sure it is present in pretty much all training programs out there.  But it is something that we all should be actively working to shut down.  I think it's great if you find a method that really works for you and your horse.  That's pretty much the Holy Grail for any committed horse person, so if you find it, that is certainly cause for celebration.  I also think it's great if you want to tell other people about it, particularly if you can logically describe why it worked for you.  The rest of us can only benefit from hearing about someone else's positive experience.

What isn't so helpful is when enthusiasm for a method or technique or program turns into supreme criticism of other methods or perhaps a technique that doesn't quite fit the program.  For example, one of the two programs above insists that you use a cavesson (which is funny to me because the other program insists that you use a bit and both programs are really trying to accomplish exactly the same thing).  I've actually done the cavesson exercises in a regular halter with Nimo and I did find that using a cavesson gave slightly better results, but if I had to, I think I could do everything with a cavesson or a hackamore OR A BIT!!!  As for the other program that insists a bit must be used, I've been able to make pretty good progress with the hackamore.  I figured out how to communicate with Nimo for one of the two things that I wasn't sure how to do at first, and I have confidence we'll figure the second one out with a little more practice.

But I'm not sure everyone would have been so diligent about continuing to work through the negative feelings as I was.  And that isn't meant to be a criticism of anyone who would have chosen to walk away from either of the situations I described.  In fact, it is quite common in learning situations (think back to when you were in school or learning a new job) to become less effective or even completely shut down when you are not respected.  And being hyper-critical of someone's deviant technique or tack or clothing or body or whatever is flat out disrespectful.  And for people like me, giving the criticism in a passive-agressive way (which is what I suspect in the second example I gave) is even worse.  In that case, the person is so disrespectful that he or she can't say what they want to say to my face, they have to go behind my back.  But even if it isn't intended as a back-door criticism, it still has the same effect, which is to make someone feel bad and discourage learning.

We should never stop questioning when it comes to our own learning and it is my hope that someday educators (and their students) will realize the harm that comes from the cult mentality, even if it is the students and not the teacher who express it.  Whether it is what we eat or how we raise our kids or how we train our horses, we should always feel comfortable asking the hard questions and be able to make our own mistakes and follow our own path.  Any program that does not have that learning environment still needs work.

12 comments:

  1. PREACH! Yes. I agree. That kind of criticism discourages learning in the worst way. We've all been victims to it, too. It definitely gives me a bad taste to see and read things like that and ultimately has resulted in me staying away from facebook groups for the most part. I'll use them to gather knowledge once in awhile, but beyond that? I stay away because it makes my stomach churn to read how mean people are to one another!

    Great, thoughtful post, Gail!

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  2. This whole post made me sad and angry. This type of mentality is precisely why I don't follow any one particular "method". In fact, I hate the term "method" in reference to horse training in general. The second you show support or opposition to a particular cult (the big P in particular) you get hate from the other side. Blind hate, rarely supported by reason. It makes me sick. Nobody is the perfect horse trainer. NOBODY. The only one who 100% knows horses is a horse. I have had to leave pretty much all Facebook horse groups because the threads make my stomach turn and my blood boil. I'm sorry you went through all this :(

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    1. Thanks for your support, Dom:) I agree that no method is perfect for everyone and that's why I love learning about different methods, so I can take what seems like it will work for us and leave the rest. FB does unfortunately seem to bring out the worst in people (although sometimes the best too!) and I think part of it is just being unaware of how what you write is perceived by others who don't know you.

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  3. I think we've all experienced this in some way--and I've come to the conclusion that the peculiar detachment of FB allows this type of bullying to spiral fast into the realm of bad. I still read some FB groups, but I don't participate much these days. The exception is when I see bullying start to move forward, and then (where possible) I try to turn it away. Not always successfully, but SOMEBODY has got to step up and be the grownup. It is the height of irony that the grownup is me.

    I'm very proud that you continue to apply your brain to things, Gail. You've got a great attitude, and I wish you and Nimo well.

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    1. Well if anyone could shut down bullying, I think it would be you AereneX:) Your humor, intelligence, and common sense would be no match for those who wished I'll on others in the virtual world!

      And thanks for the well wishes - they mean quite a bit:)

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  4. Boy. Nobody likes hackamores do they? The pro-bit people hate them, the bitless people hate them. I don't get it.

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    1. I haven't really experienced any negativity about the hackamores that we use (flower hackamore for endurance and star wheel for dressage), but I think sometimes there can be some type loyalty among bitless folks, where they tend to think that a certain type of hackamore is better than others. And I admit that I use the hacks that I do because they feel more like a bit would feel (as distinct from a western bosal or a long-shanked mechanical hack). But it is great that there are different types of hacks because horses and riders still have preferences and the more choices, the better, in my mind. I just get frustrated by the automatic assumptions that are made by some people in terms of why particular gear is used. Even though a bit is not my choice, I don't assume that everyone who rides with a bit is an idiot intent on hurting their horse and I guess I expect the same courtesy from people who choose to use bits when they look at Nimo's hackamore.

      I don't even mind if people are opinionated about their preferences. It's more the way that they can go after someone who thinks differently and try to belittle their choices or their knowledge instead of entering into a logical discussion. It is true that there are idiots riding horses, but I don't think the best way to identify them is by the method or tack they use. A better way is to have a conversation about why a person does what they do and talk about the pros and cons of the choices. Everything has trade-offs and I like to learn about the good and the bad because I never know when what seems to be working all of a sudden isn't and if I know someone who does things differently, I have a better chance of finding a solution.

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  5. I have totally been in some those types of groups on fb! So disappointing the horse community can't be more supportive and positive (online and irl). I think hackamores are awesome! :)

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    1. Agreed, KateRose:) Learning environments should always be safe places.

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  6. I agree on allowing your horse to have a say in the gear you use. I recently lent my flower hack to a friend who insists on riding her horse in a halter because he is claustrophobic in a bit due to a former heavy handed rider, but he bolts in the halter. While they experiment I have another bitless option to use that I can't find, or his simple snaffle. After ten minutes in the snaffle he told me plain and simple he did not like it anymore and would much prefer his hack back please. Love the options with the flower too, especially with my young, opinionated horse. Why would I push for his to go in a bit when the hack doesn't cause either of us any trouble? Too many egos in the horse world

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    1. I think it's wonderful that we have so many options (both bitted and bitless) so we really can accommodate the horse's preferences as long as we take the time to listen and experiment a little. I'm glad you were able to help your friend out and find something out about your horse at the same time!:)

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