Magic Mustang Tamer

Code of Ethics for Wild Equine Trainers

In February of 2019, I presented a paper at the Progressive Equine Behavior and Training Forum to promote a professional certification process for progressive horse trainers. The response was that I was 10 years ahead of my time. Well, in 2029, who knows what I will be doing? Might as well repackage and put my ideas out where they might influence the world now. See if you find this helpful: it’s a code of ethics for wild horse and burro trainers.

The goal of a code of ethics is to help people make decisions that are in line with values. At the Magic Mustang Tamer, we value empathy with, and justice for all sentient beings. We want to create a world that we can be proud of, where the needs of animals and humans are respected. We wish to affirm our reverence for life while acknowledging the complexity of the modern environment we all inhabit. To that end, I propose the following code of ethics.

Ethical Guidelines for Wild Horse and Burro Training

Position Statement: Application of the Humane Hierarchy


The goal of this policy is to ensure that wild horse and burro trainers do not engage in certain practices that cannot ever be considered humane or sound by scientific standards. We recognize that this policy does not address every practice under debate in the horse or burro training industry.  This draft also acknowledges that certain additional practices remain under debate, such as round-penning. This policy is intended as a first step in ensuring that wild horse and burro trainers are not using practices that are potentially egregiously harmful to horses or burros, either physically or emotionally.

The Humane Hierarchy is an established ethical model in the professional animal training world. This model can serve to guide trainers in their decision-making process during horse or burro training and behavior modification. Additionally, it can define the standard of care to be applied by horse or burro training.


The Humane Hierarchy will be used as a guide in the decision-making process when implementing training and behavior protocols. This standard of care should be followed when the trainer is working directly with a horse or burro, creating a training plan for the adopters to follow, or assisting a colleague.

The following practices are never acceptable for use by a wild horse and burro trainer, for any reason:

  1. Applying an electric cattle prod to any part of the horse or burro’s body.
  2. Striking a tethered animal with any object.
  3. Chasing an animal in a round-pen to the point of its exhaustion.
  4. Depriving the food and water that an animal needs to live.


This graphic depicts the Humane Hierarchy as adapted from Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy.

The principle is that training is done using the least intrusive, least coercive, and least aversive, yet still effective methods. Minimizing coercion will always result in minimizing resistance from the animal.

Interventions for Undesirable Behaviors

Undesirable behaviors are most likely to lead to damage to the animal-trainer relationship.The following steps can be utilized to modify or manage undesirable behavior ethically. A trainer will choose the least coercive, but still effective option.

1. Non-training Options
  • Health, nutritional, and physical factors: The trainer ensures that any indicators for possible medical, nutritional, or health factors are addressed. The trainer also ensures that factors in the physical environment that have the potential to impact the horse or burro’s health, nutrition, and physical condition are addressed.
  • Antecedents: The trainer implements environmental management strategies to prevent unwanted behavior from occurring.
  • Live With or Manage the Behavior: Trainer elects to cease modification techniques and implement a management plan.
  • Consult Another Professional: At times, it may be beneficial for the trainer to consult another professional such as a horse or burro trainer, veterinarian, or behaviorist for additional advice. Consulting with other professionals can be beneficial, particularly when a problem behavior does not resolve with the previously mentioned interventions.
2.   Least Coercive Options
  • Positive Reinforcement: The trainer ensures that reinforcement is delivered for alternate desirable behavior and that such reinforcement is of higher value to the horse or burro than the reinforcement the horse or burro has received in the past for the unwanted behavior.
  • Classical Conditioning: The trainer changes the horse or burro’s association to a previously aversive stimulus while presenting this stimulus at sub-threshold intensity.
  • Negative Punishment: The trainer withdraws a positive reinforcer when undesirable behavior occurs to reduce the probability that the behavior will occur in the future.
3.    Moderately Coercive Options
  • Negative Reinforcement: The trainer withdraws an aversive stimulus when the desired behavior occurs in order to increase the probability that the behavior will occur in the future.
  • Extinction: The trainer withholds reinforcement of a previously reinforced behavior with the goal of extinguishing the behavior.
4. Coercive Options
  • Positive Punishment: The trainer applies an aversive stimulus as a consequence of the behavior in order to decrease the probability that the animal will perform the behavior again.

Position Statement: Bits, Whips, and the Humane Hierarchy

Riding aids such as bits and whips are routinely used in the saddle training of animals in order to obtain obedience from the animal. The safety of the human rider is dependent on the obedience of the animal. With that understanding, this directive does not forbid the use of bits or whips that are used within the constraints of the Humane Hierarchy.

Those constraints specify that the administration of an aversive stimulus that causes pain during training should only be used after all other training options have been considered and rejected. An ethical trainer should never authorize or employ the use of painful aversive stimulation as an initial training option. The use of compliance and compulsion devices should be the last form of training considered. Ethical trainers will exhaust all other training strategies before considering the use of a compliance device.

The trainer must attempt or carefully rule out the following training strategies prior to the use of compliance device stimulation:

  • Changes in antecedent stimuli
  • Positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors
  • A comprehensive program of counter conditioning and desensitization
  • Negative punishment
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Consultations with other behavior professionals for alternative training suggestions

In the event that a trainer determines that a compliance device is the appropriate course of action for a particular horse or burro, that trainer should never apply more than one aversive stimulation to a horse or burro at the same time. Furthermore, the aversive stimulation should never be administered to the face or belly of the horse or burro. No compliance device should ever be used in such a manner that the animal suffers tissue damage.

A trainer who violates the directives in this position statement is causing needless suffering to the animal.

Code of Ethics


Wild horse and burro trainers are provided with this set of guidelines and goals to assist trainers in the ethical challenges of their work and elevate the level of professionalism in horse or burro training and behavior consulting.


A trainer aspires to abide by the following:

  1. To assist adopters in establishing humane, realistic training, and behavior goals per the Humane Hierarchy Position Statement.
  2. To always provide for the safety of clients and animals in training programs and behavior consultations.
  3. To respect the nature of the equine as a social animal.
  4. To act with honesty and integrity toward clients, respecting their legitimate training and behavior goals and the autonomy of their choice, provided they conform to societal and legal standards of humane treatment for their animal.
  5. To refrain from public defamation of colleagues, respecting their right to establish and follow their own principles of conduct, provided those principles are ethical and humane.
  6. To provide truthful advertising and representations concerning their qualifications, experience, the performance of services, pricing of services, and expected results; to provide full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest to clients and other professionals.
  7. To refrain from providing guarantees regarding the specific outcome of training.
  8. To obtain written informed consent from any client before photographing, video, or audio recording the client in a training session.
  9. To utilize best practices training and behavior modification methods based on accurate scientific research, emphasizing positive relationships between people and horses or burros and using positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible.
  10. To work within the professional boundaries of trainers and their expertise and refrain from providing diagnosis, advice, or recommendations in areas of veterinary medicine or family counseling unless certified to do so. This does not preclude referring the client to a veterinary or behavior consulting professional.
  11. To maintain and respect the confidentiality of all information obtained from clients in the course of business; to refrain from disclosure of information about clients or their animals to others without the client’s explicit consent, except as required by law.
  12. To be aware of and comply with applicable laws, regulations, and ethical standards governing professional practices, treatment of animals (including cases of neglect or abuse), and reporting of horse or burro bites in the state/province/country when interacting with the public and when providing horse or burro training or behavior consulting services.
  13. To keep accurate and complete records of clients, their animals, and the training and behavior services provided; to ensure secure storage and when appropriate, confidential disposal of such records.
  14. To refrain from accepting financial remuneration for referrals to other professionals except for nominal gifts (such as a pen or coffee mug) and to refrain from other business relationships that may affect the scope and quality of services offered to clients.
  15. To continue professional development as a trainer.
  16. To maintain and respect the confidentiality of the adoption or sale application and/or the care and maintenance agreement of any actual and prospective adopters.

I hope you take the time to consider and comment on this draft. What about it do you like and what parts would not work for you?

9 thoughts on “Code of Ethics for Wild Equine Trainers

  1. Veronica

    Hello Pat,
    I have a question re: number 10 on Policy.
    In the event of an animal deemed aggressive and/or dangerous, does this mean a trainer would be unable to receive this information or refrain from sharing it with another trainer?
    Forget about the adjectives, would we able to communicate observed behavior?

  2. Sara

    Defining the theoretical basis for acclimating equines to human behavior and expectations as punishment and reward assumes that their brains work like human brains. Scaffolding, making sure that the horse understands what the humans expect and how to get their own needs acknowledged by working within their zone of proximal development, is more appropriate for the extremely social and kinesthetically aware equine.
    But if your list is ten years ahead of your times, scaffolding theory might s well be on another planet.

  3. Post author

    Veronica: I see your point. I am thinking of taking Number 10 out all together considering that the client is the government or another agency that may have no interest in the matter what so ever. Or take the animal out of it. Too many times I have been given animals that were either in a prison program or returned from a failed adoption, with no disclosure what so ever.
    Here is 10 without the animal. Maybe just delete the whole thing?

    To maintain and respect the confidentiality of all information obtained from clients in the course of business; to refrain from disclosure of information about clients to others without the client’s explicit consent, except as required by law.

  4. Post author

    Sara, Can you reference what you feel is such a definition? I am having a hard time parsing it out that way. I really like this idea of scaffolding though. Thank you for your introduction to it. Looks like I have some new topics to explore!

  5. Post author

    I started reading on the ZPD. Hmmm. Hard to see how it applies to animals. It seems like it applies to education where the learner is consciously better off for having learned it. The education itself has intrinsic value. For the animal, for example, there is no intrinsic value to becoming a saddle trained animal other than it might keep you from being eaten, but you don’t know that, you only know that some fat-ass human wants to coerce you into riding off into the sunset. You were already a perfectly well developed feral equine in no need of further instruction.
    I found this quote: “The animal can only be trained. It can only acquire new habits. It can through exercises and combinations perfect its intellect, but is not capable of mental development through instruction in the real sense of the word.” (Vygotsky, 1934; Understanding Vygotsky). So you clearly have other thoughts about this. Explain how you are seeing it, please.

  6. Pauline Keil

    Hi Patricia, I really like it!! Kudos to you for forging ahead despite discouragement that you are ahead of your time!

    I like to consider myself a Humane Hierarchy trainer and I love the fact that you are basing your code of ethics around this. More horse trainers need to know and understand the HH and how it’s applied to their every day training decisions.
    I’m curious about the debate about round penning?

    I wonder that the list might be a bit longer of “never acceptable” practices, such as withholding food and water, isolation, “patience” poles, flooding, etc and maybe the part about striking a tethered animal, that we differentiate between P+ and just hitting an animal due to frustration or anger?

    I also wonder about the use of bits and whips and that those tools should only ever be used to elicit behaviour (when all else fails) via R- and that using these tools to punish behaviour, is not recommended. But then if you’ve worked your way to the end of the hierarchy P+ may be an option, so would we then use these tools or what would we use? We would need to ensure people understand how to use them to apply aversive stimulation effectively.

    I also noticed under Interventions, point #4 had Negative Reinforcement twice. 🙂

    I’d also like to see the paragraph under the HH diagram lead with “most positive” rather than least intrusive, least coercive as per Susan Friedman’s description and I like the speed humps and caution and stop signs in the original.

    Thank you and I wish all horse trainers could adopt this Code!

  7. Post author

    Thanks, I did use the CCPDT code as a model, but this Canadian one has some elements that did not. Not of course that they all apply to mustang trainers, but the value is that they have had a lot of consideration put into them. Thank you for caring about animals!!

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