A Primer on Old Indian Tricks & Natural Horsemanship

Written by Tom Hebert

This is taken from the volume, “Hooked on Horses,” of the Final Report to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation for a proposed Tribal Horse Program which is still under discussion (February 2003). Tom can be reached at tlhmavrick@uci.net

Natural Horsemanship – which focuses on the well-being of the horse-is a style of handling horses where you “work with the nature of the horse rather than against it.” It will be a hallmark of the proposed Umatilla Tribal Horse Program. Actually, this technique is much based on “old Indian Tricks” for gentling horses. Cayuse horsemen of old were said to breed and raise horses that were almost human.

“Cayuse horses are small, from twelve to fifteen hands high; are of every shade of color, and many of them white or spotted, bald-faced, white-legged and glass-eyed. They are spirited, though easily broken to the saddle or harness. As saddle-horses they are far superior to the common American horse, and for speed and power of endurance they have no equals. Major Barnhart, of Umatilla, owned a small Cayuse, about thirteen hands high, that would gallop to the Columbia river, thirty-one miles, in two hours, with a man on his back, and come back again at the same gait. . . . The Indians teach their horses, by kindness, to be very gentle. “
– Wigwam and War-Path, by A. B. Meacham, Boston, 1875.Background

The following paper actually contains few traditional Indian Horsemanship practices, which whites often referred to as Old Indian Tricks, an admiring phrase you still hear at natural horsemanship clinics. Pulling a bunch of these together would require months of library work and is not the subject, strictly, of the current study. But the following essay captures-in a useful form-much of the basis of Indian horsemanship at its best. To help get that essential philosophy established in the Umatilla Horse Program one should call upon the horse elders, like Mr. Ham Patrick, Chief Raymond Burke, Inez Reves and many others. It’s still here. I know it when Mrs. Inez Reves smiles and asks, “How’s that pretty little black pony of yours?” She knows horses.

It recently dawned on me (!) why horse trainers are trying to leave that profession while riding instructors are equally unhappy. In the first instance, the trainers know that most of the problems they solve with horses will re-occur because the trouble is with the riders and not the horses. And the riding instructors are frustrated dealing with owners’ horses who are only half-finished and with clients who have little knowledge of horses and what works with them. They simply don’t “know” horses.
In the last fifteen years or so, horse training and riding instruction have come together in something called Natural Horsemanship. One hears the names Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, John Lyons, Pat Parelli, Monte Roberts, et al, a whole new clan of horsemen called “clinicians,” because they hold horsemanship clinics where you and your horse come to get better. But, as noted above, the truths of Natural Horsemanship are not new. Some Indians have known it forever.

First words

First, it’s clear there’s an old and new language being spoken in horse yards across the country. Some would say it’s being whispered, but others say that’s too mystical a term to explain the common-sense approach. “Breaking horses” has been replaced with “gentling” them. Whips have been tossed aside in favor of “flags” and communicating through body language. For many professional wranglers, riding instructors and horse trainers, “it’s about damn time!”

Second, if the Umatilla Confederated Tribes want to sell horses. . .
Safe, willing, and beautiful horses, horses with life, sell. People want such horses. Just as organic, chemical-free foods bring a higher price, so do horses today find their natural market when they are bred, raised, and trained in a equestrian tradition that promotes proper temperament, behavior, attitude, aptitude, and reliability. People will buy Spanish Cayuse Indian horses when they sustain that kind of reputation. Add to the brand mix an “ability to inspire confidence” in their riders, well, you will have a horse easy to market, a winner.

Third, Americans’ never-ending fascination with Native American spiritual culture will hearken to a horse who understands that you can see “his soul in his eyes.”

“Two days later the Cayuses arrived, three hundred in all, their constant warfare with the Snakes keeping their numbers reduced. The Cayuses were considered the fiercest fighters of all the tribes and they made their entry with the wild dash characteristic of their mode of war. With whoops and yells, they circled the camp of the governor and his party, displaying feats of horsemanship seldom equaled; then retired some little distance and went into camp.”
-The Treaty Council of Walla Walla, 1855.To the web

Because American Indians here on the Columbia Plateau were considered to be master horsemen as well as riders, on January 12, 2001 I went to the Internet’s Spanish Colonial Message Board asking for help from Spanish Colonial horse enthusiasts like me to help define today’s popular Natural Horsemanship which can be connected to several Indian traditions and is much practiced by horsemen today, particularly amongst fanciers of Spanish horses who understand that these horses “will not abide mistreatment.” And who appreciate that the same mind-set of “domination, fear, mechanics, and intimidation” that characterized the emigrant and cowboy equestrian practices also helped drive the buffalo, the Indians, and their Spanish horses to the brink of extinction. As they used to say in these parts, “The wild horse is nothing but a little, no-good, runted, inbred Cayuse.”

Given that level of hostility (one that still exists in both Indians and whites), it is essential that these gallant Cayuse horse comes home to an environment that respects them and is open to a fair demonstration of their abilities. For that, they require a partnership.

Anyway, after several good exchanges on the Spanish Colonial message board, someone suggested The Trail Less Traveled (TTLT) Internet message board. This is a website devoted to Natural Horsemanship Training. On January 24, 2001, I posted the following:
Say folks, I need some help. I am a consultant to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Pendleton, Oregon. The Tribes are planning a program to bring back the original Indian horses, now registered with the Spanish Mustang Registry. I am writing the plan. Recently an elder horseman and chief here on the Umatilla Reservation, Mr. Raymond “Popcorn” Burke, remarked that there were always Indians around here who were “gifted with horses,” who gentled them. Then there were those who liked to cowboy and break them. Another Tribal elder, Mr. Ham Patrick, says he likes a horse who has “a willingness to know you, to work with you.”Thus, it seems to me that so-called “old Indian tricks” and today’s Natural Horsemanship share much. I want to make this connection. Anyone got a handy/short definition of Natural Horsemanship in general, something kinda generic? We have been discussing it on the Spanish Colonial Mustang website but aren’t there yet. Got any ideas?”>From my two WWW requests for help I received much guidance, including the following which I have edited some with attributions when I could.

The Primer on Natural Horsemanship

1. “Natural Horsemanship combines respect for the horses’ intrinsic nature as a prey animal, with respect for his spirit and heart. It requires methods of handling and communication based on an understanding of how horses’ react and why, as well as how they learn. In its best form, it creates a partnership between the horse and the human based on a mutual understanding of feel, timing and balance; never on equipment, coercion or force.” -Sue Terrell

2. “Good horsemanship can be obtained naturally through communication, respect, psychology, and understanding, rather than domination, fear, mechanics, and intimidation. It’s a two-way street.” – “Anonymous” and “Virgo”

3. “Horsemanship based on the nature of the horse? I think people like Tom and Bill Dorrance probably live and die by this. They both study the horses they work with, to learn what to do and what not to do.”

4. Bill Dorrance: “It isn’t natural for a horse to be around people, and it’s not natural for a person to be sitting on him either. When we use these words (natural horsemanship) we speak about what’ s natural for the horse to do within his own boundaries.”

5. Tom Dorrance had cues that were “something magical, almost imperceptible and the horse came to attention the moment the old man touched the lead rope.”

6. Thus, in Natural Horsemanship, “one needs to be apply increasing lightness. Your thought is the lightest aid you can use. . . . I am working on this lightness and dreaming of spade bits. . . . The true trainer or natural horseman is not a warrior, but a shaman in every sense of the word. To me training horses is a shamanic path that impinges on every part of my life.” -Robert Gear

7. Natural Horsemanship is “communication through thought combined with intent, patience, and understanding, which are key to quality relationships with horses.”
-Susan Catt

8. “Natural Horsemanship concerns what the horse can understand as a horse, instead of being asked to think or react like a human.” – Robert Painter

9. “Natural Horsemanship is any approach that works with the nature of the horse rather than against it.” – Emily Kitching, editor, The Trail Less Traveled

10. Dr. Robert Miller talks about “gentle training techniques.” and all “competent horsemen.” Such people are “able to communicate with and make docile the most difficult of horses.” He says natural horsemanship requires perception and sensitivity. He also says it utilizes control of a horse’s natural flight response, which creates submissiveness if done correctly. That’s why trainers use round pens.

11. GaWaNi Pony Boy, one of the most sought after and respected equine speakers/clinicians, credits elders of different tribal backgrounds for teaching him some of the “old ways” concerning horse training. “Relationship Training is what I do. It’s the name I’ve given to how I train, and it’s a couple of things: 1) using horse relationships not human relationships, and 2) placing more importance on the relationship of horse and rider instead of the immediate results. The relationship is the center piece, the focus.”

12. He continues: “When you ask something of your horse or pony, try stepping back and asking yourself, ‘Does this make sense to the horse?’ Do not ask, ‘Does this make sense to the trainer, rider or the book I just read,’ but instead, ‘Does this really make sense to the horse?’ Human common sense does not make sense to horses, and riders must remember that in order to effectively communicate and work with them.”

13. Barry Cox, Wallowa-based rancher, cowboy, horseman, trainer, clinician, and breeder of Spanish Mustangs: “Natural Horsemanship is a style of handling horses where you become more horse-like and communicate on the horse’s level. It’s a communication between horse and human. A feeling of being in tune with each other, a natural way of understanding each other. This versus normal horse breaking techniques where you depend on force and fear to make the horse submit to your wishes. I believe the Native Americans often practiced this form of horsemanship. In the old photos I’ve seen of Indians and their horses the horses look content to be there with the people. That’s what it’s all about. The horses don’t lie. You can tell where they’re at by looking at their expressions.”

14. Barry also says: “In the beginning, just say to your horse, ‘Hey, I ain’t in no hurry. I’m here for all afternoon. This is just for fun.’. . . . First I want some meaning and understanding, then I want life. . . . When your horse starts making plans to travel-get some life going-back off. They’re busy learning. . . . Keep smiling. Just find some happy medium between a wreck and asleep. . . . When he begins to understand the meaning of what you want, he is already looking smarter, his eyes are bright and shiny. . . . I’ve learned to not blame the horse, but look more deeply into myself. . . . Soon she’ll be saying, ‘Boy, I sure would like to get along with you!’ Build understanding, not speed. . . . Every horse has to find their own way in life. But they are looking to you for help, for leadership. . . . Build courage in your horse now by doing new things. Horses like adventures, just like we do.”

15. “A good horse will figure out things on his own. You can see what’s in his heart. He won’t do one thing while you’re watchin’ and another when you ain’t. He’s all of a piece. When you’ve got a horse to that place you can’t hardly get him to do somethin’ he knows is wrong. He’ll fight you over it. And if you mistreat him it just about kills him. A good horse has justice in his heart.”
– Cormac McCarthy, author of the Texas Trilogy including All the Pretty Horses.

16. Ray Hunt says, “The horse has a mind and is entitled to it’s thoughts,” and also “give the horse a job.”

17. Keyadani: Spanish Colonial Message board, January 27, 2001:
“Being Native (primarily Lakota), let’s dispel a few myths. Not all Natives were good horse trainers, seeing as how they were human with human behaviors. So, don-t over- romanticize the Native as a born Horse Whisperer. Rather see us as a people who before we were ‘conquered’ were merely more gentle and connected to all that was a part of our life. We lived with the earth and her rhythms, not on the earth. Most Natives used the trust method: ‘I respect you and what you bring to me and my people, therefore I want you to do my bidding as a gesture that we speak the same language and there is trust between us. I don’t ride you. We move together as one unit.’ When you treat a horse with trust, respect, love, and understanding you get a horse which treats you with the same. A horse who accepts you as lead member of the herd, naturally submits and wants to please.”18. “A goal of Natural Horsemanship is to get into the best possible partnership with a horse in the most graceful possible manner. There is also something about harmony in all this.” – Tom Hebert

19. Peggy Smith: “Natural horsemanship is about pushing your limits, accepting your weaknesses and striving to be part of something that is beyond our immediate comprehension. Natural horsemanship allows for the person to remember, with the help of the horse, about secrets to harmony with the universe and with ourselves that we humans have forgotten. It is a relationship between a horse and a human in which the roles of teacher and student, leader and follower, are constantly examined, learned from and discarded until perfection is achieved. It’s a way of life.”

20. “Two of the premises I work with are ‘reward the slightest try,’ and ‘make the right way easy, the wrong way alot of work.’ Of course these lessons also apply to people. . . ” – Linda Royer, equine facilities architect.

21. Putting it all together, Plenty-Coup, a chief of the Crows, told his biographers how he and his fellow warriors felt when they went out on a war party:
“To be alone with our war-horses at such a time teaches them to understand us, and us to understand them. My horse fights with me and fasts with me, because if he is to carry me in battle he must know my heart and I must know his or we shall never become brothers. I have been told that the white man, who is almost a god, and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit. This cannot be true. I have many time seen my horse’ s soul in his eyes. And this day on that knoll I knew my horse understood. I saw his soul in his eyes.”So, being good for both horses and people, it seems to me that Old Indian Tricks and “Old Ways” and Natural Horsemanship should find a natural home in the Umatilla Tribal Horse Program.

From Alan Bell, Greenville, TX, Spanish Colonial Message Board, January 29, 2001:
My view is that there are principles to “Natural” training and any thing you do with a horse, if it can be made to fit in with one of these principles, will satisfy them. They must interrelate. These aren’t things I made up, just things I’ve gleaned from others in my personal odyssey.

2. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.
3. The horse should be calmer when the session ends.
4. The horse can’t decide to go and you can’t make the horse stop.
5. It should be the horses’ idea.
6. A learned response is one that happens every time.
7. Always end with something the horse has learned.
8. It takes movement to teach a horse.
9. A horse naturally moves away from pressure.
10. Pressure can presented to the horse verbally, physically, or emotionally.
11. It’s more about the human learning than the horse learning.
12. Learn from the horse.
13. Help the horse adjust to being in a human environment.
14. Learn to be consistent and exacting.
15. It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction it wants to go.
16. You are always teaching the horse something.
17. Soft but not yielding; firm but not hard.
18. Use 4 ounces to move 1000 lbs.
19. 4 ounces is an ending point not a starting point.
20. If it isn’t fun. . . . don’t do it.
21. Tomorrow, tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow….
22. Go back in the training rather than fighting through a problem.
23. A pull on the lead or reins should be like “catching an egg.”
24. Segment the horse.
Jerome added, “Never take your mind off your horse. Because when I take my mind off Andy, his mind strays.”
By Tom Hebert, May, 2001

Tom Hebert was with the Peace Corps in Nigeria from 1962-64, later with the USO in Vietnam and later in the Gulf War, USO Bahrain. Also a refugee relief officer in Africa, he is the co-author with John Coyne, of three books about innovative American training and education. He is currently living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Orgeon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla) on horse programs.

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