The Kentucky Derby was run this past Saturday. Years and years ago I used to pay attention to the Triple Crown races. How could anyone who loves horses not be captivated by Secretariat? But the glamour wore off as I came to know many ex-race horses, including some of Secretariat’s offspring. Now, if it didn’t pop up on the national news coverage, I could easily forget that the first Saturday in May is Derby Day. What brought it to mind today is a photo I use in my conference presentations. I was skimming through the talks I gave this past winter. That’s when I spotted the photo. It was in a talk connecting George Lakoff’s work with horse training.
It’s a photo that appeared in my local newspaper, as well as on the internet. It shows our most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, being cooled down after a workout. It could have been a photo of any race horse, or really of any hard-working performance horse. There was nothing particularly distinctive about this picture. You can see the sweat and the steam rising off his coat. And you also see the chain that runs through the halter ring and into his mouth. You can’t really tell from the picture, but the chain is probably over his top gums, an area that is even more sensitive to pain than his tongue. That’s how young, very fit thoroughbreds are controlled on the track.
Why was this photo of a thoroughbred race horse in a talk about George Lakoff’s work? What’s the connection? Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who has studied the power of metaphors in shaping how we think. He is particularly interested these days in American politics. One of his central ideas is that the current divide in our politics can best be viewed through the metaphor of family. Long before any of us were aware of national governments or political parties, we were aware of the authority of our parents. They set the rules and modeled the behavior that became the template for how each of us thinks society as a whole should be structured.
Lakoff has proposed that there are two primary family models: the strict father family and the nurturant parent family.
In the strict father model, the father is the head of the family. As the moral authority of the family, it is the father’s job to teach his children right from wrong. He communicates this to the children in a hierarchical way.
Lakoff’s description of a Strict Father patriarch sounds eerily like force-based training. You have only to substitute a few words – trainer for father, horse for child – and you have this:
“The trainer is the legitimate authority, and his authority is not to be challenged. . . Obedience to the trainer is required. It is upheld through punishment. Bad behavior from the horse is always punished.
The trainer teaches the horse right from wrong, and he communicates this to the horse in a hierarchical way.
Punishment is seen as absolutely crucial. It is the trainer’s moral duty to punish bad behavior in the horse.”
The nurturant parent model provides the contrast. In this family structure it is moral to show empathy, to nurture, and to take on individual as well as social responsibility. Cooperation with others is seen as more important than competition.
Instead of hierarchical communication, the Nurturant Parent model focuses on open communication. There is mutual respect between children and parents. This is different from other parenting models where children are expected to show respect for their parents, but not vice versa.
People often say words matter, but words are defined by our core values.
The chain in American Pharaoh’s mouth becomes a symbol of command-based training. In this very conventional view of training, horses are considered to be stupid animals. If we look at that through the lens of Lakoff’s metaphors, we see more clearly what these words mean. It implies a hierarchy – people above horses. It means people can do whatever they want with horses.
Here’s the rest. Because horses are stupid animals, you have to use force to control them. You have to show them “who’s boss”. Here’s the corollary to that: “But don’t worry. They don’t feel pain the way we do.” The frame these metaphors create very much influences what we are able to see.
In this view of the world, when a horse shows resistance, he’s being disobedient. He’s challenging the trainer’s authority and must be punished. This training frame makes it hard to see other reasons a horse might fail to obey. Only secondarily will the trainer break the lesson down into smaller steps, or look for physical causes.
Here’s the contrast:
This photo represents my core belief system. It says something very different. It is much more in line with Lakoff’s description of the nurturing parent model. I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and that they should be treated with great kindness and fairness. There is no hierarchy. There is no separation between their needs and mine. We are partners together.
What matters more than the words we use are the core values we hold. Words only have the meaning that those values give them. Respect is a perfect example.
Suppose you are new to the horse world. You’re looking around for an instructor who can help you train your first horse. You’ve been told that you should go watch a few lessons before taking your horse to anyone, so that’s what you’ve done. You’re watching this trainer interact with his horses. They are behaving exactly how you would like your youngster to be. They move out of his space – no questions asked. They stand politely to be groomed and saddled. They seem safe to ride. You like how he talks about his horses. He talks about partnership. He says it’s important that your horse respects you.
Respect is an important word for you, as well. You like what this trainer is saying. You like how calm and safe his horses are. You leave feeling very confident that you have found what you’re looking for.
But have you? What kind of respect do each of you mean? In the strict father model respect is maintained through the use of punishment. So, yes, horses can appear to be very respectful, meaning they are afraid of the trainer. They have learned what to do to escape punishment.
In the “nurturing parent model” respect means something very different. It is something that is earned. It is not something that is demanded.
Both parenting models can produce horses that show what you would call polite, safe manners, but the teaching process the horses experienced will have been very different. If you send your horse to this trainer, you may find it’s a perfect match. You were both talking about the same kind of respect. Or you could find yourself second guessing your decision. You like him. You can see that he’s skilled. He certainly gets results, but the lessons make you squirm.
When you find that for you there’s a disconnect between someone’s words and their actions, it’s time to look at core values.
What do the words really mean? When we train thoughtfully, we learn to look beyond the outer shell of the familiar words we use. Are we letting someone else’s meaning take over? Do our words reflect the kind of relationship we want to have? Do the training methods match our core values?
Do you want an example? Kay Laurence has just produced a promo video for our October Training Thoughtfully conference. It’s a beautiful video. Words and images are aligned. They tell you so much. When I watch this video, I know it was produced by someone whose core values match my own. If they match yours, as well, I hope you’ll join us for some Thoughtful Training this October.
Training Thoughtfully Milwaukee, Oct 20-22, 2017: Visit: https://www.trainingthoughtfullymilwaukee.com/
Watch the video: https://vimeo.com/216184198
If you want to learn more about George Lakoff’s work, read my January 8, 2017 post. (https://theclickercenterblog.com/2017/01/08/)
Beautiful. Succinct and powerful. I’m going to send this one to Lakoff, as I haven’t seen a response to my first message. “And yet she persisted.” –Mitch McConnell re Elizabeth Warren
Yes, the politicians may not have understood Lakoff’s work, but it certainly translate for horse training.