Whisperers re-visited!

Few things are more certain in the horse world than that each age will produce its share of charlatans. These come self-packaged in a variety of garbs; whisperer, master, new-age spirit sage and cowboy guru – complete with hats, boots, bells and whistles.  The difficulty with this is also just as it was in ages past too – how to tell the good from the bad and the ugly!

So before committing to anything, typically the laying down of hard cash, how do we know whether the esoteric wisdom plied by this wonderful person is actually quite as wonderful as they suggest? Not everyone has the time to spend on lengthy research – and life can get pretty confusing for the poor horse that’s expected to change with the whim of a caring owner hungry for knowledge, and carried away on the newest flight of fancy!

What we need is a rule of thumb we can run over these experts to check them out. So, take a little philosophy, add a touch of teaching methods, leaven with a sprinkle of critical reasoning – e voila – 5 simple rules.

Rule no 1. Empathy.

Empathy has to be the single most important quality for the horseperson – that precious sense of sympathy with the feelings of another creature – be it human or equine. Empathy with horses does not flower in isolation. Either a person shows empathy for all living creatures or, by suspending it for some, they discriminate.

  So what we should be expecting is that our ‘Master’ will show the same empathy towards people and other animals that they show towards horses. If there is going to be any suspension of empathy it is only a matter of time before it will be applied to some horses, in some situations.  

  Rule no 2. Teaching style.

  Styles of teaching can be broadly split into two groups; pedagogical and andragogical.

  In the pedagogical style all wisdom is held to reside in the ‘Master’.  He casts his pearls of wisdom before the learner, who is effectively treated as if they were a blank slate, without either prior knowledge of their own or experience.

The andragogical style acknowledges that the learner comes with a life history, from which arises a complex set of skills and knowledge.

The andragogical teacher is more interested in facilitating the learner’s access to knowledge and stimulating their intellectual curiosity than in the learner accepting the teacher’s own views as dogma.

In the pedagogical style knowledge is drip-fed – and the ‘Master’ always holds some back. The modern take on this style is to split the knowledge up into ‘levels’, and to charge for each. The learner becomes first a neophyte, then a level 1 student and so on. The style has as much, if not more, to say about the ego of the ‘Master’ (and his bank balance) as it does about the body of knowledge. And, as far as commerce is concerned, pedagogy makes good marketing sense.

In the andragogical style knowledge itself is the product. The teacher is merely the facilitator for its transfer. There is no ‘holding-back’ of information – and the access to knowledge itself is free in its entirety. In fact the ‘learner’ is given every encouragement to excel and, hopefully, to surpass the facilitator.

It is the andragogical style that we should see; pedagogy is an old and outmoded style – so expect those that use it to be the same.

If the teacher has no idea what any of this means perhaps we can also reasonably expect that they should go away and get some learning in themselves – after all, knowledge of a subject – even encyclopaedic knowledge – does not guarantee that the person can teach!

To teach well requires some knowledge of psychology, philosophy, ethics and ‘best-practice’ method – no-one should expect to get it right without training. But most of all, to be a good teacher requires continual self-reflection.

Rule no 3. Beware extravagant claims!

Be a cynic! If it sounds too good to be true, it very likely is. It is all too easy to talk up fast fixes, but when dealing with the complexities of a two species relationship within what are often unsupportive environments, fast cures are about as rare as hen’s teeth.

Often, reading through the biographies of some practitioners, one is struck by a list of credentials that would be the envy of any new-age Renaissance man or woman. It all just sounds so jolly good that, before you know it, you’re reaching into your wallet for the credit card!  But, given that nothing is likely to happen very quickly, there is little to lose by asking some questions first.

Statements such as “There is no sense mentioning all the old masters’ names here, and the names of today’s School secret keepers. You will find them in the book” just don’t wash. Why should there be a problem with mentioning these masters if the said book is in any way based around their teachings?

Above all the mention of ‘secret keepers’ should be treated with the disdain it so richly deserves. Perhaps this kind of superstitious nonsense worked for the Toadmen and secret societies that sprang up in the 18th century – but it has no place in a modern society. Another hangover from those bygone times is the ‘horseman’s word’ or variations on the theme, such as 'the equine password' or ‘the hidden key’.

Equally  ‘educational programmes’  that purport to ‘unravel the mysteries’ or that are promoted with phrases such as “this way leads to understanding of human and horse’s souls”, and  It's a Whole New Way of Learning How To Train Horses! Be Part of an Elite Group!” are very dubious indeed.

This ‘elite group’ business is not too trustworthy either – is the vendor offering to limit the number of people who will be allowed to participate? If not, should it prove popular, it will not remain ‘elite’ for very long. Quite apart from the dubious life-span of these claims, use of such words is almost always a sales gimmick intended to hook those for whom, consciously or unconsciously, the wish to think oneself ‘special’ is more important than the wish to do the thing well.

Rule no 4. Does it make sense?

No matter who the expert may be, their teachings should form a logical whole. The application of critical reasoning is of massive importance for, without it, the sense of logic - an essential foundation to any good method - is missing.

A good example of this would be the very common ‘Natural horse training’. The dictionary definition of natural in this type of usage is: existing in or derived from nature; not made, caused by, or processed by humankind. It is immediately clear that any training of a horse by a human can not properly or sensibly be termed natural!

‘Natural’ comes in for a lot of use – primarily because of the new-age, feel-good connotation. But isn’t it a little disingenuous if the process is not actually ‘natural’ at all? Of course, it could be argued that the use is figurative rather than literal but, if the name is potentially misleading, why should one have any great confidence that the rest will not be?

If what is on offer truly does form a logical whole then it must be able to stand challenge and criticism – so try a little before you buy. Such a challenge will be welcomed by any true seeker or purveyor of knowledge – if it is not, then something is wrong!

We should also be careful not to forget the esoteric practitioner – he (or she) who blinds us with layer upon layer of metaphysical concepts until we are unsure just what the foundation might really be. These folks are more like priests than behavioral scientists in that one has to accept the validity of their convoluted methodology with something approaching blind faith.

Rule no 5. Beware the egomaniac. 

The egomaniac is driven by a sense of their own importance first and foremost. Everything else is a prop; the horse, the work, the learner. Egomania often goes hand in hand with pedagogy.

Expect typical claims such as; ‘Only I can teach this’, often either preceded or followed by ‘Everyone else is wrong/wicked/evil’.

Such practitioners make claims to having done such things as; ‘fomented a revolution in the minds of millions of people’, or, of having ‘pointed out the only true way’, and ‘being a revolutionary and a brilliant thinker’.

They might go on to boast that ‘It took years of studying and self-perfection to acknowledge the truth.’ Finally the ‘Truth’ and the ‘Way’ can only be taught by them and by them alone – ‘No one else.’

Arguably, self awareness and control of one’s ego is an essential precursor to any form of enlightenment. The best thinkers are those that allow of the possibility that they may be wrong – not those who demand recognition of their ‘rightness’. Such humility is a logical end result of any depth of knowledge for, with each bit of knowledge gleaned, it becomes increasingly clear that there is still so much more to be learned.

Whatever you might think of its sound or style, the Punk wave of the 1970s had at least one redeeming quality – that it took the phrase ‘no more heroes’ as its mantra. Instead of only the mega-bands with their multinational record company backers having the unassailable right to produce music and to tell the buyer what it was that they should be listening to, Punk democratised the music industry so that anyone could self-produce a record and put it out on release to the buying public. Now, with the advent of the internet, music is achieving yet a further level of democratisation.

What has happened with the music industry can also happen with the horse industry – so that, instead of the mega-self-promoters with their ever-ready posses of litigators ruling the roost, the knowledge becomes widely available to everyone. 

So, in ten year’s time let’s hope we’ll be asking; whatever happened to the heroes?

(c) AD Beck 2006