How to Evaluate the Ends and Means in Horsemanship With Two Simple Rules

By Sadie Lombardi, MS, LPCC, CCTP, Horsemanship Coach

Do the ends justify the means in horse training?  Does it matter what road you took if you got to Rome in the end?  The saying that all roads lead to Rome is very applicable when it comes to horse training.  Lots of people use different methods to obtain desirable or winning results.  However, sometimes they use techniques that are considered unethical.  How do we know what is ethical and what isn’t in horse training?  When we are deciding which road to take with our horses, it helps to have some idea of what is ethical.  Let’s look at what is acceptable practice in horse training in terms of two simple rules we can use to evaluate any training method.

What practices are unacceptable in Horse Training?

Hopefully, you are already thinking of a list of unacceptable horse training practices that raise your ire.  Here we could go into details and list the many ways people are cruel to horses.  Next thing you know, the debate is on as to whether rope halters and bits are cruel.  Although we can all agree that abuse and neglect are unacceptable, there are many other practices that land in the gray area where horse lovers find themselves in red-faced arguments with each other.  We could try to identify each and every one and explain our stance on them one at a time.

However, what this article is aimed at is helping you find a way to make sound and safe decisions for your horse by identifying useful decision-making criteria for determining whether something belongs on the list of unacceptable practices.  These criteria are often referred to as ethical rules.  They’re guidelines for logical thinking that we use when selecting applications for professional practice and are aimed at preventing harm and promoting welfare for the client or subject of a professional treatment or intervention.  The process of identifying ethical rules is a complex one that many professional associations wrestle with and continue to discuss and update over time because ethics are philosophical in nature.  As our learning and thinking change over time, so do our ethics.

The First Rule to Guide Our Thinking – Is It Safe?

The simplest rule is the Hippocratic one.  If the ends we are seeking to achieve are harmful, then it is not ethical.  If arriving in Rome is the equivalent of arriving at the coliseum as a contestant, then it is not safe and therefore it is unethical.  Some examples are obvious.  Asking a horse to dive off a high platform into a pool for people’s entertainment is not ethical.  Asking a horse to race at the age of two is not ethical.  Asking a horse to compete when it is lame is unethical.

Some examples are less obvious.  Frequent lunging for long periods of time in a small circle can be detrimental to horses’ joints over time.  We didn’t know this until someone decided to observe and record the data.  Many people are still uninformed and so the practice remains common.  Unfortunately, this practice can now be understood to be unethical, however, people need to be made aware of this fact in order for the practice to be widely abandoned.


The Second Rule to Guide Our Thinking – Is it the Least Restrictive or Intrusive Way Possible?

Let’s say we’re going to Rome for a vacation full of olive tapenade and red wine, but on the way there we’re going to tie you up and put you in the trunk for a 12-hour drive.  Would you go?  This could be the most restrictive or intrusive way of going to Rome.  Restrictiveness is not always so literal as this example, but it does directly impede someone from going about the normal activities of living their life.  Intrusiveness can be defined in much the same way – the more something restricts one’s independence, the more intrusive it is.  Restrictive and intrusive methods tend to have numerous problems and side effects associated with them.  Obviously, you might need to recover from your trunk ride to Rome, and you might even need therapy if you had not been told what to expect before you signed up.  You’d likely never forget it and you might not want to go traveling with me again.  Ev-errr.

In truth, there is no training intervention that is not intrusive to some degree, because the mere fact that it is a training intervention requires that the horse be changed or affected by it in some way (Cooper, et al, 2020).  The activities we normally engage in with horses are rather restrictive of their independence for periods of time.  We take them out of their housing where they can eat, sleep, and otherwise go about the business of being horses, and into arenas, trails, and other environments, where we ask them to perform behaviors they might not otherwise perform if we weren’t involved in their lives.  In some cases, we are asking horses to do things for our own personal gain.  It’s no wonder, then, that this is where ethics in horse training becomes riddled with pitfalls and even common practices can become questionable.

Although an activity we train our horse to do may not in itself be harmful, the way we train them to do it could be.  Training methods vary tremendously in the types and degrees of stimuli used to motivate and consequence the horse.  Because this is not about a dichotomous pair of options, but rather a large set of them with varying degrees of impact on the horse, it becomes necessary to grade them relative to one another on a spectrum (IAABC, 2022).  In this way, we can safely say that a squeeze of the leg is less intrusive than the slap of a crop, or the carrot is less restrictive than the halter.

The guidance this provides us, then, is that we can check if we’re starting at the least intrusive/restrictive end of the list.  This is the most ethical way to begin training and allows us to move down the spectrum as needed to reach an effective outcome.  At the same time, it also helps us avoid the less ethical options, and totally avoid the extreme applications – which one would term abuse or neglect – that lie off the end of the chart, well beyond many options that are certain to be effective with an able horse.


The Compassion Focused HorsemanshipTM Ethical Stance

In the practice of Compassion Focused HorsemanshipTM, these guidelines are used as a way of maintaining ethical and compassionate practices with horses.  They are paramount to our training goals and are prerequisite considerations to forming training plans.  Effectiveness is only considered possible within ethical guidelines, ensuring that horses can remain safe and their independence can be maintained as much as possible in the training process.  Although no single practice is ruled out (except those that meet the criteria for being abusive or neglectful), there are many that will not be employed unless they are absolutely necessary for health and safety reasons.

This means that when approaching new learning exercises, the horse will be provided with a safe learning environment, situations or circumstances that make the desired behavior more likely, and techniques that encourage and reinforce the learned behavior.  In dealing with problem behaviors, horses will be given differential reinforcement, or a desired behavior alternative, which will be trained in the way a new learning exercise would be, and which replaces the undesired behavior.  Finally, only when safety risks, dire health needs, limited resources, or exigent circumstances exist AND all other less intrusive measures have failed to be effective or are impossible, will most restrictive and intrusive measures be justified.

It is our hope that the time you spend with your horse will prevent the latter from ever being necessary and allow you to travel safe roads to a happy destination.  However, in the real world we recognize that the ideal approach is not always an option and does not always provide the desired result.  There can be many options along the grayscale that are acceptable.  To be capable horse people, we need to know how to use all the tools available to us, what tool is best for the job, and when to use one over another.  This is why we don’t rule out any based on preferred learning principles and recognize that we need to be informed of all the factors that influence our choices and how our choice of intervention impacts our horses.

For more information about the practices and ethical guidelines used in Compassion Focused HorsemanshipTM, visit our other blog articles or ask us using our Contact Us page.



Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2020).  Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition, pp.346-347). Pearson.

IAABC (2022).  The Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practice.  Retrieved from:

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