The Inductive Study Method

 By Jan Young

Many of us on the good horsemanship journey struggle with the learning process. Who can I find to learn from? Do I have the money and time for lessons or clinics? What books or videos should I study? Accessing a teacher you like can challenging. Money, logistics and time constraints often get in our way. But they are not necessary for the pursuit of horsemanship.

I am probably not the only one who has noticed that Tom Dorrance’s classic axiom, “observe, remember, and compare,” is the ideal way to approach not only the study of horsemanship, but many other things in life as well. Training yourself to become more observant, more aware, more reflective, is beneficial, no matter what you are trying to learn.

As a piano teacher and life-long student of the piano, I used this method to continue my learning past the years of formal lessons. I learned to observe myself as I played and to critique myself. I don’t just play to stay at the same level I am at. As a writer, I learn to observe my own writing process and compare to what I had studied and what I learn from others, then make adjustments and corrections, instead of just assuming that my first draft is good enough.

The most important pursuit in my life—yes, even before horsemanship!—is that of Bible study. I really like my “New Inductive Study Bible.” Its study method reminds me a lot of Tom Dorrance’s approach. In inductive learning, the student makes specific observations, then reasons from observations to come up with broad conclusions. This differs from deductive learning, in which the student is given information, then shown how to apply it. Deductive learning is a teacher telling; inductive learning is the student discovering. Like Ray Hunt says: "Think!"

The paradox is, the inductive approach to learning horsemanship IS actually initiated by a teacher, but the teacher is the horse! Human instructors do play a role, but the good ones teach you how to learn from the horse. The horse knows more about horsemanship than we do.

In Tom’s book, “True Unity,” he says, “It isn’t the intention of this book to be a ‘how-to-do’ book. It is meant to show different experiences so people may figure out how they can get it done, instead of ‘you do this and you get that.’”  Tom said, “Listen to the horse. Try to find out what the horse is trying to tell you.” He talks a lot about awareness. Awareness = observation. “Observe, remember, and compare!” Inductive, not deductive.

I observed that, with a little change in wording, the instructions at the front of my inductive study Bible could apply just as well to inductive study of horsemanship. In fact, the rest of this article is going to be a loose paraphrase of parts of it, changing the topic from Bible to horses!  Here goes:


Do you yearn for a deep and abiding relationship with the horse? Today many people are convinced they cannot know truth for themselves—the true way, what really works best with horses. Voices surround us, claiming to know what horses need. Which voices are right? Which are wrong?

Learn from teachers but don’t be afraid to question what they do or say, if the horse tells us something different from what they said. Compare everything to what the horse is saying. Spending time with the horse will help us discern the true from the counterfeit. 

A serious rider should study the horse, yet many have never been shown how. We may feel inadequate to do so, perhaps because we have not had enough clinics or lessons, or for long enough, or with the right teachers or trainers. 

In fact, if we want to satisfy our hunger and thirst for true horsemanship, we must do more than merely study what someone else says and does. Just as no one can digest our food for us, so no one can truly give us good horsemanship. We don't just come to the horse as a rider, a teacher, a trainer--we must interact with the horse, absorbing his ways. 

That is the heart of inductive study: seeing truth for ourselves, discerning what it means, and applying that truth to our experiences. The horse is our teacher. Through inductive study, the horse can be understood by anyone who truly wants to know and work at it.

We begin by observing. How much can we see? How can we learn to see more? Ask questions like: what, when, where, why, and how. What just happened? What happened before what happened happened? What was I trying to do? Was I clear in my asking? What did I really do instead? What did the horse do? Was I in balance? Was the horse? Were we together?

How did he do it—what was his attitude? If it wasn't good, why not? How did it feel to me? To him? When had I asked him? When should I have asked him? How might my timing have been better? How did I respond when he did, or didn’t do, what I wanted? 

Did I offer him a good feel? Did I feel what he was offering me? Did I release enough, soon enough, or too soon? What might I do next time? Was this time better or worse than last time? What was different? How could I make it clearer or improve my presentation? 

Does he act this way in his pen or pasture, or only when the human comes into the picture? Does he act this way when someone else rides him or handles him? Is this a behavior issue or a physical issue? Have I inadvertently brought on this issue due to my own shortcomings? 

Many more questions can be asked. Ray Hunt said that every time you pick up the rein or lead rope, a thousand questions are asked and answered. We may not know the answer to all the questions, but we can reflect on the answers we find, and what they might mean to the horse.

Timing is important. In our observing, we need to pay attention to time words. What happened first? Then what did I do? And what did the horse do? What happened next? Afterward how did the horse feel? Was he like this when I got him, or when did this behavior start? Paying attention to the sequence of events will help interpret what the horse is saying.

As we hone our skills of observation, we can better interpret our observations in a way that fits the horse. As we begin to try to make sense of our observations, our initial interpretation may reflect preconceived notions--what we have heard from various other horse people or our favorite teacher, or what we have always done in the past. This is a place to start, until we become more experienced and confident in our ability to move on from there and draw good conclusions on our own. 

In interpreting our observations, we notice details but see them in the framework of the big picture. Details make more sense when examined in context. The big picture is the whole horse, not just his head set; the extended time frame, not just the moment; our whole approach to the horse, not just what we thought we did in that one move; our whole attitude toward rewarding the horse, not just how we gave that last release; what my whole body communicated to the horse, not just what I did there with my leg or rein. Am I focusing on my separate aids or body parts or one particular part of the horse’s body, or am I appealing to the whole horse with my whole body?

As we seek to understand the horse, to effectively interpret our observations, we approach the horse with humility, with empathy. We come to the horse with a teachable spirit—not that we are going to teach him something, but looking for what he is about to teach us. He is honest by nature and responds in the way he has learned, or in the way that we asked him, even though we may not have realized it. When the horse responds in a way we don’t want, we are not quick to anger or blame the horse—to project our feelings onto the horse. He may have been acting out of self-preservation. We are quick to recognize that WE are the ones that need to make changes. 

How can we break things down in a way that is clearer to both of us? How can we better help him to overcome his issues? Approaching a horse with pride or arrogance, being full of self, having self-centered motives, feeling superior to the horse, attributing human motives to the horse—all will cloud our judgment and our understanding of the horse. He is more than a training project—we treat him as our partner.

Our observations lead us to interpretation—to improving our thinking about our horse, about horsemanship, about principles that seem to hold true. But then we must test those ideas in real-life situations. We seek ways to apply our understanding on the go. 

Many people go to clinics, and some are even what we might call "clinic junkies." But what happens after the clinic? Once the clinician is not there watching, directing or reminding us, it's easy to fall back into our old ways, to give in to muscle memory. But no matter how much we learn at a clinic, if we don't go home and apply it, it will be of no benefit. To be a hearer and not a doer is to deceive ourselves. Observation and interpretation are hearing; applying what we learn is doing. Effectively applying what we learn--embracing the truth--will transform our horsemanship. 

As we reflect on the clinic experience later at home, we chew on whatever teaching we heard. We humbly accept any reproof we might have received--we learn to recognize and deal with any misguided thinking or actions. We put into practice whatever corrections we were shown. We recognize that it is not the horse but ourselves that we need to train, as we discipline ourselves to make changes.

What if we don't care for or agree with everything the clinician presented? Whatever the takeaway is, we run it by the horse and see what he tells us. The horse doesn't lie. Do we need to do more, or less, of something we were doing? Do we need to try something different? Do we need to try the same thing but in a different way--with better timing or feel? Often the problem is in our presentation.

Whether we see the process as teaching, training, reproof, or correction, every bit of progress in our horsemanship journey will equip us to handle whatever comes up on any horse, on any ride, in any situation. As we find ourselves transformed by our increasing knowledge, our horses are also transformed into the trusting and trusted partners we have been desiring!