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The equestrian community is one of strong opinions.

What is right, and what is not. What is cruel, and what is humane.

What we should do with horses and what we should not do with them.  

Disagreement exists everywhere, from barefoot vs. shoeing arguments in horse care to arguments over the role of dominance in training, to what pieces of equipment should be legal at horse shows.

To people on either side of a disagreement, the logic of the other may seem silly, irrational, lacking proof, and just plain wrong.

Especially for those of us who want better welfare for horses, whether defined by kinder training, better fitting equipment, more time outside, or more social interaction, it can be maddening to not see the changes we want happening more quickly from horse owners, trainers, and barn managers.  

There is often clear evidence of what works best. A google search of “should horses be kept in stalls?” will lead to many studies showing benefits of turnout for decreasing respiratory problems to promoting better behavior, yet still many horses are kept stalled.

Studies looking at whip use in racehorses or in gaming events such as barrel racing show that the use of the whip does not actually cause the horse to run any faster, but that has not decreased jockey’s and rider’s use of the whip.  

Why?

Part of the answer lies in a basic human drive that we are all affected by.

A drive that can cause us to be blind to facts and insensitive to the views of others.

Cognitive Dissonance: Understanding Mental Discomfort

Our world is shaped by our perceptions and beliefs.

As humans, we are meaning-makers, we have a need to understand the world around us and how we fit into it. From children on through adulthood we develop a system of beliefs that help us make sense of who we are and how the world works.

We are most content when this system of beliefs is stable.

When it is challenged, when we are faced with evidence that something we believe may not be true, or that something we do may not be right, we get uncomfortable. This discomfort is known as cognitive dissonance.

The term cognitive dissonance was coined in the 1950s by social psychologist Leon Festinger.

Festinger proposed that the clash of a formerly held belief with new information challenging that belief causes psychological discomfort that the person will try to get away from as quickly as possible.

Simply put, being right feels good. Experiencing that we may be wrong is uncomfortable.

How uncomfortable depends on a few factors.

The first is how personal the belief is. The more strongly tied the belief is to our own self-image, the stronger the dissonance, and the discomfort, when that belief is challenged.

Perhaps a rider had been praised as a child for how confident they were as they raced around the speed events at the local gymkhana, kicking and whipping their pony to the finish line. This young rider was told he was tenacious and “showed that pony who’s boss”.

For this person to be confronted with the realization that their behavior was not confidence, but aggression, would challenge their self-image of what they believe they are.

The second is how valued the belief is. This is how important the belief is in the person’s life, and how much meaning they give it.

For example, a person may have a belief that the only way to stay safe is to be in control of every situation. A training philosophy that suggests we should not seek to control the horse at all times would be challenging to that person’s core belief that control of others = safety.

The third factor is how much dissonance is happening for a person. If most of their belief system is stable and harmonious, and new evidence comes to challenge one belief it may be better accepted than if a person’s entire belief system is being threatened.

The fourth factor is the strength of the new evidence creating the dissonance. Logically, the stronger the evidence, the more difficult it becomes to ignore or explain away.

The universal human drive comes in at wanting to reduce the dissonance, to feel less discomfort, and essentially, to be right.

What we do to avoid the discomfort

Put simply, there are two options to reduce the mental discomfort of cognitive dissonance. The first is to accept the new information and adopt the new beliefs – to change. The second is to reject the new information and find ways to justify current beliefs and behavior.

The latter is most common.

Confirmation bias is seeking out information to prove what we want to believe, and it is what most of us do when faced with the mental discomfort of possibly being wrong.

We do it every day.

I go to pull out a piece of cake from the refrigerator at 9am and then hesitate, my thoughts reminding me that “cake isn’t good for you”, but I quickly dismiss those thoughts that clashed with my hankering for a morning dessert by justifying the cake with “I ran farther than usual yesterday, and I had a healthy breakfast today.”

Does running the day before and eating healthy prior make the cake any less full of sugar and white flour? No. But it makes me feel better about eating it.

The point is we go through this same process in more important areas of life than the occasional piece of cake.

For someone suddenly seeing evidence that their saddle does not fit and is likely the cause of their horse’s nappy behavior, they may look for evidence to the contrary, recalling that “my grandfather never worried about saddle fit”, or “I’ve been at top show stables where they use the same saddles on every horse”, or “I’ll get that gel pad that says it reduces pressure points.”

Speaking to the example of the gel pad, purchases are an easy way to quickly reduce cognitive dissonance, and a big reason that effective marketing creates awareness of problems.

If a product promises to solve a problem, simply making the purchase quiets the dissonance.

Another way confirmation bias occurs is by limiting ourselves to only listening to the arguments for our beliefs, opinions, and behaviors.

We may only read the books that support our views, only listen to the teachers aligned with what we believe, or only read the studies proving our beliefs.

This internal effort to prove ourselves right continues even after we have made a choice between two options.

Numerous studies have been conducted in a similar method of asking people to rate the desirability of several items. In one study, the items presented were random household items, such as a toaster or a cutting board. Participants were asked to rate the items, then were told they could choose one to take home.

After making their choice, they were asked to rate them again. The chosen item was now rated higher, and the other items lower, the brain’s way of further convincing itself that it had made the best possible choice, and was of course, still right.

Another place to get comfortable with being uncomfortable

So how do we become more open-minded, more able to recognize cognitive dissonance, look at both sides of an argument, and make the best decisions, for ourselves, and in this discussion, for our horses?

How do present another with evidence we believe to be true, knowing that it will cause them discomfort, but hoping they will change?

Growth and change require getting more accustomed to being uncomfortable.

When we strive to improve our physical skills in riding, we have to get used to the idea of being uncomfortable. Expanding our skills and abilities is a process that requires stretching limits and working on the edge of our comfort zone. The more we push ourselves to work on the areas that are challenging, the more we can improve.

The same is true for mental growth. Openness to new ideas, improvement in our way of thinking, and the acceptance of higher quality beliefs comes from acceptance that discomfort will be inevitable.

If we want to change the minds and behaviors of others, we also need to accept that to know an issue well, it is important to hear and seek to understand the arguments on both sides.

Of course, to take in the views of another when they are contrary to our own is also uncomfortable. However, how can we chastise others for being ignorant, closeminded, or refusing to change, if we have not first opened ourselves up to the potential discomfort and cognitive dissonance of hearing their views?

When we do present evidence that we know is likely to cause some dissonance for someone, we can do so with empathy for the discomfort they will feel.

Returning to our earlier example of attempting to change someone’s awareness of saddle fit, and their practice of using a poor fitting saddle for their horse, we can show the evidence that there is a problem, perhaps pointing out the horse’s expression when the badly fitting saddle is put on, or explaining how patches of white hair are caused by pressure points.

Telling the person they are a bad horse owner, or that they obviously don’t care about their horse would be an attack on them as a person and would be more likely to trigger a defensive response rather than change.

When we are open to new ideas and new beliefs, we are also open to discomfort. No one likes to find out they may be wrong, and the closer and more personal the belief, the tougher it is to be wrong.

Our minds will automatically hold on to being right, justifying the belief or behavior (“it’s been done this way for years”), explaining away the new evidence (“they didn’t have good controls on that study”), and looking for information that supports the current belief (“this person did it like this and was fine”).

But growth and change do not come from being right, they come from being open, from not only accepting discomfort, but seeking it out by asking questions, exploring opposite ideas, and being ok with staying uncomfortable, not always knowing what is right.

When was a time that you experienced cognitive dissonance? What did you learn? What did you change?

Leave a comment below!

Callie

Resources:

Choice and Desirability Study: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/06/science/06tier.html

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45 Responses

  1. I have a good friend who, like me, has been around horses most of her life. She’s 51 and I’m 72. More than once I’ve seen her do things that, in the past, might have been acceptable but in today’s world they aren’t. Once she cinched up a horse so tight it started kicking at the girth. I told her I thought it was too tight and her answer was “This is how I’ve always done it”. What could I say. Luckily the owner of the horse came by and fixed the cinch. With her own leased horse she is very controlling and likes to say that “she’s the boss”. Some of her training methods just make me turn my head and try not to look. She isn’t hurting the horse but she isn’t going to get anywhere with the training except make her horse angry. I’d love to send her your article but I’m not sure she’d understand that it was talking about her. Anyway–I definitely loved this article and definitely understand what you are saying.

    1. Hi Bonnie, it can be a touchy subject if someone isn’t ready to have the conversation yet – especially with an ‘this is how I’ve always done it’ mentality. Perhaps just being there, leading by example she will begin to understand that there is a better way.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  2. Gréât article Callie.
    I am one who loves the challenge of change. My students know that when I comeback from a clinic, at least one technique will be changed or at least tweaked. I remain in the parameters of what serves the nature of the horse, and how to best meet their individual needs.

  3. Last time I experienced serious cognitive dissonance was when I started straightness training a few weeks ago. I don’t have a problem with struggling doing the groundwork. I find it hard to get my own body sorted with all the new stuff it has to do. I’m ok with that as I expected that. I’ve been doing ‘Ride with your mind’ for many years now and I feel that I have cracked a lot of issues. The straightness training teachers and acolytes ride totally differently, with much less body tone than what is advocated by Mary Wanless. I showed my straightness trainer a video of my horse’s and my latest achievements and in the video my instructor praised me. The moment the straightness trainer heard that she said “I wouldn’t call that good “. According to my belief system it certainly was not bad. My dilemma now is that I want to do what is right for the horse but there is no way I want to ride like the straightness training acolytes.

  4. I have stopped teaching riding because I got sick of defending why forcing the horse wasn’t the best choice and I wouldn’t advance students if they still didn’t have a competent seat or hands..I literally cried when I went to another trainer’s barn and watched the tug of war on the horses mouth and the excessive kicking..in one of my previous students horses (who would listen to a whisper)..she really liked this trainer and wanted my opinion..I had to tell myself at the expense of the horse that it was none of my business..because I had told her I was not teaching anymore ..I did tell hin( the trainer)he was a bit rough and gave him a mini lesson on the rein back with gentleness ,,
    Which he did very well when he stopped pulling..I told my former student what I saw about the methods and told her it really wasn’t my business..this student wanted thngs done in a day and had no relationship with her horses aside from what she wanted them to do,but I really liked her personally ,just not with horses., so I chose to just leave the community I didn’t want to be a negative person to other people and it was getting hard to keep my mouth shut..so that sums up my emotional responses to the horse community who differs from me ..I still have a lot to learn as does anyone who does anything with horses .,”the more you know ,the more you know you need to know more about horses and training.

    1. Tamme, I can completely understand that frustration. Sometimes I think riders disconnect so much from the horse that they stop seeing them for the living, thinking, breathing, individual that they are.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  5. Cognitive dissonance was not a moment but life long lessons in humility. Watching Rodney Jenkins on Idle Dice execute flawless jump courses in rhythmic comfort and meeting Dr Miller DVM and reading his studies including imprinting caused me to stretch and grow. Most recently, my aging wonderful horse was getting less responsive. I did not see the changes in his back making the saddle uncomfortable. A trainer pointed that out. She also pointed out my hands had become very in even making the problem worse. I am 69 yrs old now and I feel we never outgrow our need for good trainers. Thank you Callie for being one of those trainers that cause us to stretch and grow.

  6. Great article! The more I learn about horsemanship the more I hear the words “open mindedness” , and the more I hear great horseman say they are still learning and changing their methods and beliefs everyday. I regret the poor horsemanship of my past, and learning of it has not been comfortable, but I am so thankful to those who have shared their knowledge of better ways so I have been able to change and become a better horseman. My relationships with my horses today have benefitted because of the discomfort.

    1. Erin, I can relate to the feelings of poor horsemanship in my past, it is a difficult thing to move forward from but I like to try to think of it as being proud of how much I’ve grown and how I am better for my horse now.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  7. What an excellent post Callie! It is relevant to so many areas of life in addition to riding, dog training, child rearing, helmet usage, to name a few. I do think that your point is well taken that the drive to reduce cognitive dissonance can lead one to seek out information that tends to reinforce rather than challenge one’s long-held beliefs. In addition, regarding horse training and riding, there is a lot of information on the internet, and for the new rider or horse owner, it can be difficult to sort out what is based on solid scientific evidence, and what is based on certain beliefs about the nature of horses (which may not be evidence-based). I think that it is often more difficult to locate information supported by science (for example learning theory or rider biomechanics) than it is to locate information by certain well-known trainers. I can’t think of an instance where I had to deal with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance regarding riding, because I think I came to recent horse ownership without a lot of pre-conceived notions about riding and training. I am always eager to learn new things, but always questioning the “why” of them.

  8. I was trained in traditional Hunter/Jumper methods and did “just fine” with that for a long time. I became a trainer and was known for having a knack with difficult horses, mostly I think from a deep sense of empathy combined with common sense. However, in my 30’s, I got a horse who was performing brilliantly, but I always felt that he was “not okay” with things in his mind. It was kind of like riding a barely contained explosion a lot of the time. The more anxious he was, the better he looked, and while I got a lot of praise for how he was doing, I just didn’t want him to have to go through life feeling that way. This started a search that eventually brought me to Canadian trainer Josh Nichol. At my first Josh clinic, I experienced BOATLOADS of cognitive dissonance! It was definitely uncomfortable, but I could not deny the proof right in front of my eyes. Josh’s approach was very much about the horse’s mind, about meeting their needs so that they can feel and therefore give their best. He explained that any degree of fear or worry in the mind will always manifest as some kind of tension or resistance in the body, so if you want the body to be soft, flowing, and athletic, the key is not to “make” the horse do various things, but to build real trust, connection, and communication with the horse, all necessary for true softness. Once you have that softness, you can build lightness (not the same thing), and when you have both, then you have that horse feeling and performing at his very best. WOW, that was NOT the way I was taught, but it resonated with me, so I determined to put aside the “embarrassment” of being a trainer now in the position of “beginner” in many ways. It changed my life. Thank you for this excellent article!

    1. Thank you for sharing Susan! I love that ‘once you have softness you can build lightness’ brings beautiful images of relaxed horses to mind 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  9. Callie,
    Now THIS is a very interesting entry in your ongoing blog. I have been riding for just over 4 1/2 years, am 73 years old, and now restrict my riding to only doing trail rides. Riding in circles in some kind of ring is simply too boring for words, compared to taking a horse onto woodsy trails with their almost infinite variety. Since I must visit “ranches” to use their horses, I find an almost infinite variety in what the “rules” are at each place. After all, they provide the horses and tack, and it’s either their way or the highway. I have ridden 19 trail rides, in seven diferent states in my brief riding time. I am astounded and amused at the differences between each “farm” to all the others. From how to hold the rein(s), sit in the saddle, which kind of saddle, use of one’s legs, do or don’t about the use of stirrips, even dismounting (!) etc., etc. The differences and variety are astounding. I try to chuckle each time, and usually my reaction is accepted. Once or twice I am admonished that ANYTHING other than one particular stable’s methods is sacrilege. Happily, I can accept all of this, just because I was able to get onto the back of another horse. Just my two cents.
    Ray Goudreau

  10. These are extremely important thougts, especially because they are so challenging and certainly quite unpleasant. Thank you a lot for sharing. I love your very thoughtful comments.

  11. Great topic! I find myself getting more and more comfortable with ‘being wrong’ aka ‘learning a better way’ everyday!

  12. What a great article Callie! It’s hard to fight human nature sometimes. I had to deal with cognitive dissonance when introduced to the less is best approach of riding. I had a very traditional start to horses via pony club; horse throws his head, slap on a martingale; horse is opening his mouth, put on a drop nose band; horse is getting away from you, get a stronger bit! Why? Because that’s the way it was always done. I was challenged by the idea that none of these things are necessary, that I’d been doing the wrong thing all those years by my horse. I now feel a level of guilt about it actually, and as an adult, no longer use any of those things (including the bit) , and guess what? They aren’t necessary! They were shortcuts, and the end result not nearly as satisfying as the longer journey taken with time and training.

    1. Toni, thank you for sharing the journey you’ve been on. So true that in using many of those gadgets we aren’t really solving a problem but instead putting a bandaid over it without getting to the real root of the issue.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  13. I agree Callie, we can become complacent and hang onto beliefs/habits and not try to do better if we do not keep an open mind. Different ideas can be enlightening, expanding our understanding, for improved and respectful ways to interact with our horses. I had an awesome lesson where my instructor felt I was too focused on my horse and which direction I was trying to ‘guide’ her in. She told me to look in the direction I wanted to head in and envision it and voila we were moving fluidly in whatever direction we were told to go. It clicked for both of us and we were having fun together, my horse and I. I was joking that my horse learned to read the letters because I would look and think on it and we were moving together nicely with barely a rein. Sometimes we just need a reminder that it isn’t about force but asking properly and we can achieve so much. I admire your approach and this article will remain relevant as we need to always be sure to keep learning on our journey to be better in tune with our equine partners. I don’t want to be right, I want a partnership , a special bond with the horses in my life and that will always include incorporating ideas/methods that challenge and improve to benefit myself and the horses I love.

    1. Penny, you bring up a great point here as well – that it is often less than what we are trying to do! By doing less we get ‘more’ 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  14. Callie, this is such a wonderful topic. It impacts every area of our life. If we are unable or unwilling to accept change as a constant then we will always be uncomfortable with growing, learning and having our own ideas challenged. Working with horses one is always learning; it is a life long quest for knowledge and understanding knowing that there will be no summit. That is one of the things I love most. The challenge can be sharing that knowledge with others in a way that allows the other person to embrace new ideas and methods in a comfortable and supportative environment.

  15. One of the best and, for me , uncomfortable posts yet. I need to reread often and ponder. These thoughts can be applied to so many areas of our lives. Well said, Callie.

    1. Carolyn, a difficult topic but we can’t be too hard on ourselves for our past selves… only look to the future for growth!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  16. You have beautifully illustrated a central truth about life–the fact of discomfort (aka suffering) and the importance of “being with” the discomfort so as to permit learning and transformation. Once we understand the value of turning toward what we dislike with curiosity and openness, we stand to gain and grow. Thank you for your generous sharing.

  17. When I started riding again after 40 years, I quickly realized that the only way I would progress was to let go of everything I thought I remembered or knew about riding. I embraced my coach’s instruction as though I had never before sat a horse. As a result, I’ve learned fasted and deeper than I would have believed possible. Even though she’s taking me by “baby steps,” I’m not frustrated because I trust her process. I don’t’t want to be “right well.” I want to “ride well!”

    1. Hi Chris, I love the distinction you made about trusting the progress. We can often get so stuck in the ‘humanness’ that we always want to be in a rush for the next milestone but often taking the time to develop the skills we need gets us to the end result much faster!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. Wow Callie! This article was the most timely! In just this week trying to deal with a horse owner at my my barn who literally pins her little Paso pony to the wall of her stall to shave his mane, runs him around in the stall trying to put fly spray on him. (And this should be his safe place…)
    I’ve backed off from wanting to do the same to her, so she can see what it feels like, to trying to find a key to what might work in this situation. Believe me, this is not easy for me, however, I want what’s best for the horse. Sometimes I could care less about the people. Sorry, but that’s the truth.
    I feel this article is a God send. It’s is so timely. It has truly given ME a better way of thinking, of being open to hearing how it looks from her side. I know jumping on her and telling her she’s wrong and a bad horse person just is not the right thing to do. (Although that’s exactly what my humaness wants to do) I feel you’ve given me the KEY idea. I know it is totally stretching me also!
    Thanks so much for your wonderful articles and training
    Christi

    1. I’m glad to read that you enjoyed this article Christi! It can be really difficult watching others put horse’s in situations that we don’t agree with – all we can hope is that maybe their frustrations will hopefully drive them towards educating themselves on a better way to handle things!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  19. I had a tough day today as a horse owner a mum and an educator as well as a small yard owner. Thank you for the reminder ré Cognitive Dissonance. While I have studied psychology over 30 years ago undergrad and postgrad., to actually stop think. And apply it to one’s own life is a different thing altogether. Thank you. I needed this today. X

  20. Excellent article! Thank you! We all need the mindfulness, awareness and acceptance to be open to learn something new and not feel challenged by the suggestions or recommendations.
    It is about not always being right and holding on to an outdated opinion.

  21. A wonderful article, very insightful, very well written and it could be so helpful for everyone! Would you mind if I copied it to my FB page (with proper credentials to you, of course)? I believe there are so many more people (not only horse-people!) who could benefit from it !

    1. Hi Sabine, you are welcome to share on Facebook with proper credit given 🙂

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  22. When I see a tight nose band, a tail tied to the saddle ( not sure why- its a person that shows western) or something else that seems inappropriate or uncomfortable for a horse I say to myself that I should not give any unsolicited advice. I usually don’t say anything. I feel somewhat guilty putting my discomfort expecting a negative response from the human over the comfort or well being of the horse. I’d like to learn how to express myself in the most positive way- in a way that might have the best result. I know there are some people that would just be a brick wall. I suppose I could try to figure out who would be receptive.

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