Mind Over Miller: A little bit of horse sense

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Mar 01, 2008


Robert M. Miller, DVM
Several years after the publication of my book Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, Monty Roberts, a renowned California horse trainer, called to tell me that he had been using my foal training method for three years with great success. I had long wanted to meet Monty, and he invited me to visit his ranch in Solvang. This led to a lasting friendship and mutual respect.

Monty's philosophy of communicating with animals and people by using a gentle psychological approach and avoiding violence led to the publication of his book The Man Who Listens to Horses, which, to Monty's surprise, became a worldwide bestseller. The book attracted the attention of the corporate world, the teaching profession, psychologists, and parenting counselors.

I have long been an advocate of noncoercive animal training. In fact, writing about and teaching such techniques have become a second career for me. My passion for training animals humanely has caused me to reconsider corporal punishment.

As an octogenarian, I grew up in a world in which spare the rod, and spoil the child was universally observed. A trip to the woodshed was an accepted form of discipline, and spankings were administered with commercially purchased paddles, the backs of hairbrushes, or fathers' belts. In my family, Dad's razor strop—the leather strap used to hone straight razors—was used. The occasional spanking did not diminish my love or respect for my parents.

Although spankings by teachers had been eliminated in most schools by the time my formal education began in 1932, the principal's office retained a paddle for punishing serious offenders. A smack across the knuckles with a ruler was still acceptable, and I received a blow from it once from a teacher. It hurt!

Physical punishment, such as flogging, was still acceptable for adult miscreants well into the 20th century. In fact, when I started working on ranches, chapping—a spanking with a pair of leather chaps—was the penalty for a breach of etiquette, although it was administered in good nature.

Just as my wife and I were spanked as children, we spanked our children. However, it was infrequent and reserved for serious offenses, and the children were always forewarned.

Thus, despite my respect for Monty's philosophy, I have always disagreed with his concept of never resorting to physical violence. That was until I read his book Horse Sense for People. With this book, he has convinced me that physical punishment is never the best way to correct misbehavior in an animal or a child.

Unfortunately, all too often, spanking is not replaced with the firm behavior-shaping techniques advocated by Monty, which worked well on his animals, employees, biological children, and foster children. In a society as free as ours is, discipline and rules of behavior are more essential than they are in a less democratic society. Nevertheless, we persist in confusing freedom with permissiveness.

I have learned that the best way to train dogs and horses is without violence. I regret that I didn't apply that experience to my parenting. However, no harm was done; my son and daughter are moral people. But I'm sure the same thing could have been accomplished if my wife and I had used Monty Robert's concepts instead of traditional discipline.

So I heartily recommend Horse Sense for People, which extensively discusses the corporate world, the school system, and parenting. It is an invaluable book that everyone should read.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at http://www.robertmmiller.com/.