Reward-based horse trainers: Navigating the challenges of shame, learning and identity

Reward-based horse trainers: Navigating the challenges of shame, learning and identity

March 18, 2024


Reward-based training, shame, identity

Everyone is welcome!  If you don't use reward-based training, what's written here is also for you. I’m pretty sure you will still find part of your story and experience reflected here as well as useful tools and offerings.

I've been in the reward-based animal training community for many years. First, I was a client with my dogs and horse, and now, I am very recently a novice professional trainer. I've noticed something about my reward-based training community over the years. Although we are deeply passionate about creating safe and empowering spaces for our animal learners, we (as a community) can struggle to apply that same knowledge and compassion to people. 

Now, this behavior is not limited to reward-based horse trainers. Far from it! Everyone in the horse world has demonstrated this propensity. But I am focusing on this community because it's my community, and I am committed to supporting our collective healing.  Maybe you've noticed that we can be particularly rigid in our thinking and punitive in our interactions with others who don't see things the same way we do. So why does this happen when we know better as experts in how others learn best?

 There are many different reasons for our behavior:

-Social media deepens polarization:

-The horse community, in particular, tends to resist change and that can feel so painful and hopeless at times.

-We are fed up with the standardization of abuse in the horse industry, and rightly so.

I'd like to add an additional perspective to this list that doesn't get talked about.

In this blog post, I will explore the idea of identity development for reward-based trainers and the resulting cognitive dissonance, shame (different from guilt), and difficult interpersonal experiences that often result in early stages of identity formation. I will draw comparisons between the emotional experiences during the first stages of white racial identity development (A framework that identifies a continuum that leads to developing an anti-racist identity). I will also offer ideas for moving through these predictable stages of learning and advice for what you can do if you find yourself taking action because of shame. I will also highlight activist Loretta Ross's impactful work on “calling in” and Deepa Iyer's Social Change Ecosystem Map.  

Big Paradigm Shifts Changes Self-Concept

Any time we learn new information that creates significant shifts in the way we see ourselves and the world, it has the potential to alter our self-concept. Our self-concept is who we believe we are at our core. Most people want to believe they are good. When we get new information that might contradict the values and behaviors connected to our self-concept - like learning new information about horse welfare and training - it may challenge our self-concept, leading to cognitive dissonance. Maybe we used practices or training that went against what we've newly learned, and it's really painful to sit with, for example. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when our behavior does not align with our values or beliefs. When confronted with cognitive dissonance, people can: 

  • Backtrack and double down, resisting any new information. 
  • They stay in cognitive dissonance for a long time, unconsciously knowing that so much will have to change if they accept this new information. Brené Brown calls this phenomenon "high-centered," using the image of a car stuck over a median: Going forward is going to be really intense, but you also can't go back and unsee what you've seen. 
  • Take the new information and work to adapt it into a new version of their identity over time going through multiple stages of identity development. 
  • All of the above 

The emotional parallels: White racial identity development 

I've worked with many white people over the years in the context of anti-racism. Understanding racial identity development has been invaluable for me in that work. Learners in different stages of their racial identity journey will require different things from a facilitator/curriculum and have different emotional capacities around the topic of race and racism. The emotional experiences of the first few stages of white racial identity development- A frame work that identifies a continuum that leads to developing an anti-racist identity- are actually really similar to what I've observed in my reward-based training community. Fighting for something you believe in is part of it. But shame is also a defining experience as we move from unawareness to awareness of how we might collude with a system of oppression. Fighting for something you believe in is part of it reward based training too. Shame is also a defining experience as we move from a traditional to a reward-based perspective of working with our horses. 

There is no charted identity development path for reward-based trainers. However, I think reward-based training does become a unique identity in and of itself for many people.  It may be informed in part by our social identities- specifically our marginalized identities- which may be a catalyst for seeing the world and our animals differently.  It may also come with a set of deeply held values and beliefs, experiences, and ways of seeing the world and ourselves. As such, having an idea of where we might be in our identity development could not only be a powerful practice in self reflection but also give us insight into what support we need as learners at different times.

So, when I see people in my reward-based training community routinely getting into arguments online with people who disagree with them, engaging with those whose aim is to intentionally provoke, being all-or-nothing in their thinking about positive reinforcement, or being punitive towards other reward-based trainers for making mistakes or doing things differently, I go back to the stages of racial identity development for some perspective. Specifically, white racial identity develops because it includes power + privilege, which we all have when working with domesticated animals. White people who are new to their anti-racism journey often struggle with the exact same things.The emotional parallels in these early stages are impossible to ignore. 

Armoring up: The role and impact of shame

Acting from our shame rather than our guilt, love, or even our anger creates much of our public image problem as reward-based trainers. We might not even be aware that we're experiencing shame. But it is expected in early stages of identity development. We will undoubtedly feel at some point or another that we need to prove our goodness because of shame.

Shame tells us that not knowing the information we know now means we're bad somehow, unworthy of love and belonging. Shame tells us that how we behaved in the past means we're bad now. Shame tells us that to be perceived as good we need to shame or bully others into thinking the same way we do. Shame convinces us that we need to be perfect. Shame undermines our ability to learn and connect with other people- essential things if we want to improve the lives of horses and the people who love them. In these early stages of identity development, we need compassion. Compassion for the parts of us that didn't know. Compassion for the parts of ourselves that may feel resistance. Compassion for the parts of ourselves that are deeply committed to individual and systemic change but may not know where to begin.

Taking care of our hearts: What if we can't hold the space?

People in the early stages of white identity development, for example, feel the most shame during this time, and as such, they have a hard time holding space for other people who are also still learning. This is normal and to be expected. This is also true of my reward-based training community. In the early stages of developing our identity  we make A LOT of mistakes. Shame can make it challenging to see mistakes and take accountability for them. We will think we know more than we do and as such we may cause harm. That is why during the early processes of learning, addressing shame, being mindful of how we are taking up space, and finding a learning community that can hold the emotional fallout that comes with being confronted over and over again with challenging and/or painful information is far more important than focusing on other people's belief systems. I think those of us who care about being a part of systemic change, whether it's for human or more than human welfare issues, often feel like we have to do everything, all the time, all at once. Shame tells us that if we don't, we're bad or that everything will fall apart.  But the reality is that shame driven urgency often has us doing more harm than good. It might feel counterintuitive, but during this part of learning, it is the time to slow down, settle in, and confront our shame as we learn.

Growing in our identity: Nuance and shared humanity 

As we progress in our learning, our identity begins to include more parts of ourselves- the parts that fill us with shame and the parts that fill us with pride. Later stages of identity development are marked by a growing capacity to see nuance and to find common ground. When shame isn't driving, our all-or-nothing thinking softens. Our urge to prove ourselves good by pointing out the flaws in others decreases. Our shame-driven urgency shifts to a focused strategy; we start getting curious about the most effective ways to help others learn as a means of change-making. We begin to have an increased emotional capacity to hold space, accepting that other people's learning journeys may or may not look like ours. Our complexity, imperfectness, compassion, and dedication to changing systems become central to our new identity.  

Calling in, Calling out, cancelation, calling on, calling it off

"The first thing that I have people revisit in their life is how mistakes were handled when they were children." -Loretta J Ross.

I love the work of Loretta J. Ross who teaches about “call in culture.” I incorporate her teachings in my affinity group curriculum for white people. I encourage anyone interested in anti-oppression work with humans and more than human animals to invest in her courses or watch, read, or listen to her free online content. Regardless of training style, every horse lover wanting to contribute to lasting change in the horse industry and even the animal training industry at large, could learn something from her work. When we begin to heal from shame, we become motivated by what others need to change rather than by what will prove we're good or worthy. And that is a game changer. Professor Ross teaches the 5 C's continuum. The list below is taken directly from her interview on the Therapist Uncensored Podcast.

Calling in

"Where you actually are choosing to pursue accountability, but instead of using anger, shaming, and blaming, you're going to use love and respect and grace as your method of choice. Oh, and I should mention that calling in, by the way, wasn't even a really original concept by me. A trans man named Lone Tran invented that in 2013, I just happened to run across it after I started writing my book. So, I teach people the range of options that they have. And then I teach startups sentences that you can memorize that are easy to learn for you to use each of those options. You can use a calling in sentences if somebody says something you think is a little problematic, you can say, "That's a very interesting perspective. Tell me more." You've not agreed with it, but you've invited them into a conversation instead of a fight."


Calling out

"Publicly shaming people for something they've done or said that you thought needed to be challenged and that they needed to be held accountable for."


"The ultimate call-out is cancellation, where you're trying to get someone fired, de-platformed, or punished severely for something you think they've done wrong."

Calling on

"Which is created by Sonya Renee Taylor. I love this concept she gifted us and that is calling on people to do better and to be better. So you're neither calling them in nor calling them out, both of which require an investment of time, but you can call on people to do better. Like my favorite calling on sentences to say, look them straight in the eye and just say, ‘I beg your pardon,’  and then just wait for them to figure out what they said, that evokes that reaction. And quite often, they'll walk their words back because it didn't give the reaction that they wanted."

Calling it off

"You get a chance to decide whether you want to go down that rabbit hole. You don't have to engage either online or in person. You could call it off temporarily, like saying, ‘I don't have the bandwidth to deal with this right now. Can I get back to you?’ Or you can call it off permanently and say, ‘I will never want to have this conversation with you.’"

So much of calling out and cancel culture stems from our shame. Shaming others is one of the least effective tools we have when it comes to change and is often more about us then other person. Sometimes, it might be necessary in order for accountability.  However, if we are dedicated to profound, lasting, authentic change, there are much more effective strategies. Lastly and maybe most importantly, we can also choose not to engage and save our energy and time for people who are ready to learn. 

Social change ecosystem

I have also found exploring where I fall on Deepa Iyer's social change ecosystem map so powerful. We all have an essential role in changing the horse industry. Not everyone's change work will look the same, and that's okay. We need everyone in all the different categories! How you fit into this social change map might change over time as you grow and change. 

Moving forward 

I love our reward-based training community. I am so proud and grateful to be a part of it. I hope this information will make our community stronger, more compassionate, and more strategic about the ways we go about making change for our human learners. I hope you've gotten enough information here to reflect on what stage you might be in your identity development, how you might want to use Loretta Ross's 5 C continuum, and where you fall on Deepa Iyer's social change map. Remember, identity development, just like learning, is not linear. We can find ourselves moving forward and then taking a few steps back before we move forward again. 

If you are in the space where shame is in the driver's seat, or you are ready to learn more about it, I see you. If you’re a horse coach, trainer, professional or caregiver, I hope you'll consider joining the three-day Daring Way™ May 31-June 2nd. The Daring Way™ is an empirically based curriculum based on the research of Dr. Brené Brown that focuses on courage-building, shame resilience, and uncovering the power of vulnerability. This group will aim to provide a safe place for horse people (reward based trainers or not) who want to address their shame and make transformative changes in their lives and the horse industry. White-bodied affinity groups on race and racism will be going live mid-summer or early fall if that also calls to you!

With tenderness and care,


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