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Horse Trainers Galloping
to JSU Someday?

Dr. Bill Palya with his Shire and Belgian. Palya hopes to attract new students to JSU who are interested in psychology and horses.

By Al Harris
News Bureau

November 22, 2004 -- Jacksonville State University behavioral psychologist Dr. Bill Palya is the go-to guy for horse sense.

“People want to understand how to break horses, make them ride better, and create good carriage or work horses,” Palya said. “They also want their horses to behave well and be respectful around humans. It’s actually very easy to train horses to do all those things and anything else that they’re physically capable of doing. I also enjoy teaching people to train horses so they can experience the joy of well-behaved, responsive horses.”

Palya, a nationally-known expert in the area of behavior analysis, teaches graduate courses and performs research. “Anyone who wants to become a horse whisperer will find everything they need to know in the field of behavior analysis,” he said.

“I encourage horse owners to take a course JSU offers, Introduction to Behavior Analysis and its lab which teaches a basic understanding of the behavior of all living organisms. Horse whispering is nothing more than being a good psychologist. You reward a horse for good behavior, and that’s all you need to do. It’s important to never inadvertently reward a horse for bad behavior, although a lot of horse owners do that without realizing it."

For example, he said, “when you feed your horses and they shoulder you or bite you, you can never immediately give them the food. If you do, that’s telling the horse that if they want food, they should barge you and bite you. It is important to wait until a horse is being respectful, before giving it the food.”

Rewarding a horse for good behavior “works a hundred times better than punishment for bad behavior,” he said.

As Palya has traveled and spoken with horse fanciers, he’s discovered a large demand for university-level courses in equine behavior.

“One day at an equine vet clinic, someone from a sheriff’s department equine unit asked what I did. Then she wanted to know if JSU offers courses in animal behavior and animal learning. What she was interested in was how she could better train her horses to behave the way she wanted them to — how could she become a horse whisperer. I’ve had hundreds of conversations like that — there is a huge group of people who love horses in this region who would like to take courses,” he said.

A large percentage of JSU’s nearly 9000 students are from rural areas and many are also interested in horse behavior. “I envision a day when JSU may be known as the very best place to go in this region if you’re a student interested in horse training or someone, not interested in a degree, but simply wanting to know more about horse training. If there’s sufficient demand, I would enjoy teaching equine behavior for students and experienced horse trainers because JSU could then serve more people. I like doing things that make a difference and that serve people with practical applications of theoretical psychology.

“I know of no other university within a hundred miles that could serve that need or serve it so well. Many of the JSU psychology faculty have world-class credentials. As a result a student would have difficulty finding behavior analysis courses backed by faculty with stronger credentials.”

Palya, began riding horses as a teenager. After buying and training horses of his own, he recognized that his life’s work as a behavior analyst was the perfect background for being a horse trainer. He and his wife plan to raise and train Shire horses which are very large draft (farm) horses more than 18 hands high and known for their gentle disposition. They have become very popular in disciplines as diverse as dressage, jumping and trailing riding.

“In retrospect, I very well may be a psychologist now because I became interested in horse behavior as a teenager. What started with a fascination with behavior evolved into an interest in helping people understand behavior and teaching behavior analysis as a psychology professor. It’s fun to make a big difference in people’s lives by empowering them with respect to their behavior as well as the behavior of the living things around them,” he said.

Palya is on the editorial board of the Journal for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and, as conference chair for the national conference in behavior analysis where almost 2000 papers are given each year, he has gotten to know some of the nation’s leading horse trainers such as Clinton Anderson, Julie Goodnight, and Karen Pryor.

As a researcher, Palya and his students use pigeons to study animal behavior. Pigeons are small and inexpensive, easy to use in a classroom setting, and the same techniques used to train pigeons apply to horses and people.

“It doesn’t matter which animal you use. If you can train a pigeon, then you understand how behavior works. And that means you can train any organism — you can fix people with behavior problems or you can train horses,” he said.

Palya welcomes contact with experienced trainers as well as people who are just horse enthusiasts.

“There are many ways we can help each other. I’m interested in talking with trainers from a technical perspective. I can then better understand the wide variety of diverse techniques which have been shown to work through hard won experience. I’m interested in using my research background to understand the fundamental mechanisms of behavior which underlies those successes. It’s rather like a biologist studying natural medicine to better understand how to help physicians. I enjoy sharing the psychological aspects of good training, that helps trainers improve and simplify their work,” he said.

Dr. Palya can be reached at or at 256-782-5641.

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