Written by Sylvana Smith
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.14
If you’ve been around “natural horsemanship” circles for any length of time, no doubt you’ve come across The Critics. They’ve never been to a clinic, never read an issue of Eclectic Horseman, but nonetheless they’re sure this horsemanship is a bunch of nonsense hawked on a gullible public by greedy gurus with their traveling magic shows.
I’ve encountered my share of The Critics, mostly on Internet newsgroups, which tend to be populated with people for whom bedevilment is a greater pleasure than enlightenment. In the process, I’ve had a lot of experience assuaging The Critics. My evil twin has lots to say on the subject, but within the bounds of civility and propriety, the conversation might actually go something like this…
“So what is this stuff that you go to all these clinics for?”
The approach is often called “natural horsemanship” (“NH” for short), for want of a better term. It’s a modern implementation of the principles brought to this country by the Conquistadors, who needed light, willing horses for battle. We don’t ride into battle anymore, of course, but those qualities also make a great partnership for dressage, eventing, ranch work, and other riding sports.
“That’s what we all want. What makes ‘natural horsemanship’ supposedly different?”
The differences can be subtle and philosophical, but they seem to be clearly recognized by the horse. These methods encourage the horse to be mentally engaged in the training process, enabling him to search toward release rather than bump into fixed limits. For example, it would be typical for a trainer to set up multiple options, where the right option is easy and the wrong answer is difficult—allowing the horse to explore his options and choose the “right” one, rather than compelling him to it. In subtle ways, a full gamut of behaviors can be shaped with the horse’s active and willing involvement.
“But what’s the difference if you just end up at the same result?”
Folks who favor NH would say it’s not necessarily the same result. The horse that complies because he has been told to comply, or because he is afraid not to comply, is different from the horse that complies because he thinks his rider’s ideas are pretty much his ideas too. For sensitive horses, especially, training and performance really do seem easier, more voluntary, with this kind of partnership.
“This so-called ‘natural horsemanship’ is all marketing hype, just repackaging the same old thing.”
Granted, there are self-proclaimed “horse whisperers” around, those who would shrink-wrap and package their trademarked methods for profit, in which the horse is more a pawn than a beneficiary. These marketers have gained mass-market audiences, and on the power of their self-promotion alone, they have made their names almost synonymous with “natural horsemanship”—whether or not they fairly represent its ideals.
Folks who are honestly pursuing purity in their horsemanship shun the celebrity hype too. They follow the teachings of horsemen you might never have heard of—such as Bill and Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and the horsemen they have inspired—folks who were never motivated by fame or profit, only the good of the horse.
“A horse is a horse, period. Apply common sense, Horse 101, and you won’t need any clinicians and their round-pen mysticism.”
Why settle for Horse 101 when we can have the graduate-level Horse 1001 course instead? Common sense is the foundation for all good horsemanship, but how many people have really explored the full potential of where common sense and “horse sense” can lead us?
Too often, our communications with the horse are stuck in the belief that the horse is a simplistic, dull animal. Most folks tug on horses to lead them around, hold them under the chin to stand still, chuck or squeeze their legs to go, squeeze their fingers on the reins to slow or turn, use cross-ties for grooming and saddling, use side reins or draw reins to set head position, use leverage bits whenever precision and high-speed control is required, and so on.
Those are just a few examples of Horse 101, common-sense horse practices that you’ll see at any barn, no matter what discipline. But we’re talking about sensitive, aware animals that can feel a fly landing on them. They’re capable of a much finer Horse 1001 level of communication with us if we would only offer it.
“It’s just a matter of being Alpha Horse. That’s all you need, and the horse respects you.”
Dominance, force, punishment, and “alpha” status are popular themes in horsemanship. Yet profound results are achieved when the human stops perceiving himself as superior to the horse, and explores partnership instead of dominance, willing cooperation instead of force, guidance instead of punishment, and mutual respect instead of “alpha” status.
Now, some folks might bristle at the implication that the horse deserves our humility. Or that he’s a sensitive, thinking, feeling, decision-making animal. But anyone willing to hear that message will surely admit that the horse is a fine teacher and partner indeed, when he is allowed to participate in the conversation.
“What a bunch of psycho-babble. You just have to show them who’s boss.”
It’s certainly human nature to want to be The Boss, and to create and win contests with the horse. This is what happens when the horse is in trouble and needs help, and the human doesn’t really know how to help him. The human lets pride get in the way and imputes all sorts of evil intentions on the action. They say, “This horse is defying me; he’s trying to make me look bad. He doesn’t want to do it.”
The next thing you know, it’s a contest. The human makes it a win or lose situation, and if you’re not careful, the horse comes out the winner. Or the horse gets the job done, but not in the right frame of mind.
“I don’t care how the *&#$ horse feels about it; I just want to get the job done.”
Within your own experience, say at work, do you do a task better if you want to do it— if the request to do it is polite and followed by gratitude? Sure you do! Good management starts with a dialog, not a diatribe. You inspire more cooperation with promises than with threats.
Now transfer that thought to the horse. Humans are so eager to command and demand horses to do things for us, knowing we can back it up with force if the horse doesn’t do it. On the surface, that usually works, but the horse is so much more than surface. The horse might be doing some amazing things, but if he’s pinning his ears and switching his tail, doesn’t that diminish the beauty and joy of it?
Imagine how much more the horse will volunteer to give if the relationship is a dialog of “please” and “thank you.” The horse just might start his part of the conversation with “What would you like me to do,” instead of “Oh yea, make me.” Then your job gets done easier and with more quality.
“Once you start giving, you won’t believe how much you get back,” says Ray Hunt, a key mentor in this type of horsemanship. “We have to have something to give the horse, before we can take.”
“I give him three meals a day. Who has time for a touchy-feely search for Dobbin’s inner child?”
If you value and preserve the horse’s state of mind, you end up saving time in the end. A willing horse learns and complies faster than a defensive or coerced horse, no?
The key is to allow the horse to contribute to the conversation, rather than forcing our ideas on him. “You don’t make him learn, you set it up to allow him to learn,” says Ray. “Set it up, and give him a chance to figure it out. You have to give him that dignity.”
“Dignity, geez, gimme a break. Somebody’s got to be in charge. It’s either you or the horse.”
Dominance isn’t a theme I think about too much. I like to think more about fair leadership, which is a little different. It’s like being the one to lead the dance, with a willing dance partner. I get to lead, but he’s coming along because it seems like a fine idea to him too. Mark Rashid calls it passive leadership. It seems to me that horses are happier in their work, and quicker to learn new skills. Since I don’t have a whole lot of time to ride, I’m happy to do anything that gets me good results in less time.
“Are you claiming that y’all never hit or pressure your precious horsies?”
Nobody should enjoy doing either, but to create choices for the horse to search toward release, there often is some pressure. But ideally, it isn’t physical, and if it is physical, it isn’t hitting/punishment. Punishment is an after-the-fact action, often delivered randomly and in anger, intended to inflict pain for some recent past behavior. No, we don’t do that, or we sure try not to.
We will use “negative reinforcement,” perhaps just pressure of some kind, but in a very specific way: (1) It is frequently not physical contact at all, (2) it is designed to shape up the correct response rather than punish a past response, (3) it is applied in a way that actually guides the horse toward the desired response, (4) it’s never done in anger, and (5) it is released the instant the horse is formulating the “right” response.
“Face it, sometimes horses make mistakes and need to be punished for it.”
If you acknowledge the horse as an animal that basically wants to get along and protect himself, then what humans perceive as “mistakes” are actually very logical choices, as far as the horse sees it. Based on his experience and how you set things up, he is doing what he thinks is “right.”
When you consider it from the horse’s perspective, it’s clear that punishing a “mistake” just builds mistrust. Instead, after a horse makes a move that you didn’t want, just start over. This time you’ll know what he’ll do wrong and can catch it before it happens. Encourage what you’re asking to become his idea.
“My horses have to be disciplined. I can’t have them disobeying me.”
When things don’t work out as we’d like them to, humans tend to label it, “He doesn’t WANT to.” But the horse just doesn’t know. We strive to help him to success instead of setting him up to fail and get corrected for it.
“Learn to forgive mistakes,” Ray tells us. “Don’t worry if he doesn’t get it right at first. He just doesn’t know. If you get too critical about mistakes, then they stop trying to work at figuring it out. Eventually, wrong things will fade into the background and good, new things will come forward. It’s like playing music by ear. There are some good notes and some sorry ones. You try to get by the sorry notes to the good ones and build on them.”
“That’s the problem with you touchy-feely people. There’s this girl at my barn who’s into this stuff, and her horse is the worst behaved one of all.”
I can’t speak for this rider or her horse, because I haven’t seen them. But consider three possible takes on it.
(A) You might not know where this horse started and how far he might have come. People who are drawn to this type of horsemanship are also frequently drawn by the challenge of troubled horses and very green ones.
(B) This type of horsemanship favors allowing the horse to explore “right” and “wrong” behaviors, to discover for himself that the right thing is easy and the wrong thing is difficult. That means in any session, you’ll see moments when the horse appears to be misbehaving. But if the principle is applied faithfully, the horse improves as he goes along. Perfection comes not from demanding perfection of the horse, but from getting a little bit better every day.
(C) Not everybody who has good intentions has good technique. Just as with any way of working with horses, poor technique yields poor results—no matter how sound the underlying philosophy.
“This client of mine had a ditzy mare, and she spent an hour wheeling it around in those circles you call one-rein stops, and the horse just got worse.”
Back to “C” above. Good intentions are no guarantee of good technique. A correctly executed one-rein stop is not “wheeling around in circles.” The calming influence of this exercise comes from the horse making a clear, deep lateral step with the hindquarters, with the inside hind leg reaching well under his body, in front of the outside hind. The most common mistake riders make with this exercise is just what you describe, riding a small circle, which isn’t the same thing at all—and therefore doesn’t produce the same results.
Even when the one-rein stop is done correctly, it must be used with good judgment. It’s easy to overdo this exercise and end up badgering or overconfining the horse when he might just need to stride out on a loose rein for a while.
“I watched a clinic with a local ‘natural horsemanship’ trainer who didn’t fix any of the problems riders wanted help with.”
Discernment is needed, because there are charlatans in every field. As the horsemanship popularized by “The Horse Whisperer” became trendy enough to look profitable, a lot of folks hung out a shingle as clinicians, even though their credentials might be nothing more than an afternoon watching a Ray Hunt or Buck Brannaman clinic. As in most areas of horsemanship, the pretenders outnumber the praiseworthy.
Let’s suppose I give this local clinician the benefit of the doubt, and he/she is good. Chances are, riders came into the clinic asking for help on higher-level skills, and the clinician saw foundation skills lacking—and concentrated on building that base. It’s no different from the typical dressage clinic where FEI riders are “reduced” to walking a square or trotting on the longe, or A-circuit jumpers are trotting cavaletti. Good horsemen emphasize good basics.
“These ‘horse whisperers’ are going to get people hurt, because people will come home from a demo thinking they can reform an untamed rogue.”
I’d sure hate to see what those same folks do when they come home from the circus! Here tiger, tiger, let me stick my head in your mouth. Aiiieeeee!!! Do those people come home from the Grand Prix and think they can fling their horses over 5-foot jumps? Do they come home from the rodeo thinking they can yahoo up on a bareback bronc? Did no one notice even in “The Horse Whisperer” that the ability to “reform an untamed rogue” was so rare that Annie had to schlep Pilgrim all the way across the country to find someone who could do it?
Seriously though, while these demos open up our eyes to the possibilities, the clinicians I’ve admired do not say, “Go home and do it just like this, in an hour or less, kiddies.” Quite the contrary.
“So you’ve been to how many clinics with the same guy? When do you think you’re gonna ‘get it’?”
The American culture prizes immediate gratification. We tend to imagine that what a master has taken a lifetime to develop, the student can master in a few hours with a few “sound bites.”
The dressage tradition prizes lifelong learning, but many other equestrian disciplines seem to perceive continuing education as a sign of weakness. The NH tradition also emphasizes lifelong learning. In my experience at least, travels down this path of horsemanship have been cumulative, with each clinic experience building on the other. I’ve heard it compared to peeling an onion, with each new layer revealing new layers beneath. I appreciate the clinic experiences on a different level each time.
“Working horses in the round pen… starting them in the snaffle. Big deal. This is nothing new. I’ve been doing this stuff all my life.”
You have every right to be suspicious of anyone who claims to have invented horsemanship concepts. The best representatives of this method do not claim to have invented it. Rather, they give due credit to Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, and others who have brought vaquero traditions into the new age, with their personal interpretations.
But be careful that you’re not fixating on the superficial. Lots of folks incorporate a round pen or a snaffle bit in their programs. It’s what they do with those tools that makes the difference, not the tools themselves.
“Those round-pen gurus have their place, fine for starting colts. But we don’t use our horses in the round pen, we use them in the real world.”
This type of horsemanship evolved out of the California working ranch horse tradition. In that setting, practicality dictated that horses be made useful for outside ranch work as quickly and effectively as possible. These methods were devised to achieve that result—to get horses “on the payroll” within a few rides. Although colts are started in the round pen, they quickly graduate to an arena and then on to their working lives, often within a few days. Contrast that with traditional English methods, where the horse spends weeks or months on driving lines and in confined spaces before graduating to his “real” job.
“Quick-starting colts in a few hours is too stressful. Properly done, it should take weeks.”
Some horse-training philosophies are largely based on negative consequences—not aggression or beating, mind you, but more about pressures and restraints than about reward and release. In that model, teaching 10 new skills might mean having to suppress 100 equine objections. It’s no wonder we thought that it must be such a bad deal for the horse; better spread it out over a tolerable period of time.
But the model we’ve gained through Tom, Ray, Buck, and their kind is a positive experience in which the horse is offered options and allowed to make decisions, to explore and discover, and find his way to release and comfort.
The horses seem to get more pleasant and cheerful with each new skill they master, so who’s to say it’s too much to do these steps in one day? The horses answer with their demeanors.
“I heard some colts at that clinic bucked when they were saddled. If it bucks, it wasn’t properly prepared.”
You can prepare them for the saddling with good groundwork, rubbing them all over, rubbing them where the cinch goes, getting them used to the feel of the rope around them, and such—but nothing feels like a cinched-up saddle except a cinched-up saddle.
Some horses will be nonchalant about it, some won’t. No hard feelings, no recriminations to horse or handler. Horses are just different, and some need to see if they can find relief from the new burden by bucking it off. If the horse is inclined to test his theory, wouldn’t you rather he did it now, rather than later, when you’re riding him?
The horse that’s in trouble is the one that stands stock-still, feet glued to the ground when first getting the feel of his new saddle. That might be the horse ready to come unglued.
“Working colts with a halter is nonsense, a waste of time. We start our horses on driving lines, so their mouths are educated before we get on.”
I, too, was taught that driving on long lines educates the horse’s mouth before we ride him. That argument falls apart upon closer inspection. If you want your horses to become so light that they respond to a whisper of a feel on the reins, what happens when we “educate” their untouched mouths with the weight of 25 feet of driving lines? Even when moderated through the rings of a surcingle, the weight of those lines is too much hanging on their mouths for their first exposures to the bit.
Furthermore, in some styles of ground driving, the outside line passes around the horse’s hindquarter above the hocks. Every time the horse extends a hind leg, he delivers himself a bump on the lines. This is not the path to lightness, and you’d have to fix later the braces introduced at this stage.
“That NH stuff is fine and well for beginners and green colts, but has nothing to offer for advancing in your horsemanship.”
Remember that what you see in the typical Horsemanship I clinic is usually only the foundation level. The California bridle-horse tradition is roughly equivalent to a Third- or Fourth-level dressage horse, with self-carriage, collection, and precision maneuvers on invisible aids. So don’t be surprised if the students at a typical NH clinic are working at a level far below what their mentors are able to demonstrate, and far below where this path of horsemanship is leading them.
“Those round-pen gurus all ride Western. I ride English, so it’s not relevant to me.”
The philosophies are not discipline-specific. They engender fine horse-rider relationships—for whatever purpose you want to apply that relationship.
For example, dressage riders appreciate recalibrating the lightness of their aids from the very beginning, so there’s an effortless communication channel available when it’s time for higher levels of collection, impulsion, and lateral flexibility. Hunt/event riders enjoy the safety of having their horses mentally “with” them, instead of pulling their arms out on cross-country. Jumper riders appreciate the added maneuverability at speed, instead of wasting precious seconds struggling to manage a charging horse.
Whatever the English discipline, “natural horsemanship” can reduce the resistance that makes the training program sometimes a frustrating mix of good days and bad… or the tension and antics that can make the showday experience a little scary.
“What’s all this hooey about clinicians being in it ‘for the good of the horse.’ I’ve done the math; they’re making a killing.”
Imagine you’re at a job interview, and the hiring manager offers this proposition: “We have an opening for someone in outside sales. You’ll be traveling about 80 percent of the time, most of the year— using your personal vehicle. You’ll have to pay for your own travel expenses and those of your support team. You probably won’t see your family for weeks or months at a time.
“You’ll be paid on straight commission only, no base salary. We offer no training, no health insurance, no 401K, no annual raises, no Christmas party, no paid vacation, and no sick days. Don’t even ask about personal days. You’ll be scheduled for a four-day meeting most every week, and you GO. We don’t care how lousy you might feel.
“You’ll be working mostly outdoors, in pouring rain, sleet, mud, whatever. Your every move will be scrutinized by large numbers of people, some of whom will be unappreciative, and others eager to see you fail. It’s a high-risk job, so you’ll be under constant threat of being lambasted, slandered, and sued. Oh, and every day, you’ll be risking your life.”
Sound like a good deal? How many dollars would it take for you to sign on?
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.14