Some Notes on “Natural Horsemanship,” Part 1

The advent and popularity of natural horsemanship is, for all intents and purposes, proof that “what’s old is new again.”

Let’s face it: thinking horsemen have become fairly jaded after witnessing the meteoric rise of mediocre horsemen in our equestrian disciplines. So-called experts, these individuals are motivated largely by the commercial emphasis on competition-for-its-own-sake, and it reflects in their philosophies and attitudes towards horses and horsemanship. They have been hawking methods, philosophies and practices which have left many of us with a bad taste in our mouths. As concerned equine enthusiasts, we were hungry for something with more substance and less show, more compassion and less ego; something more in tune with our enlightened sensibilities and our love and respect for our animals. Out of this vacuum, a handful of horsemen emerged claiming to “discover” alternative methods of training and riding horses which would “revolutionize” the world of riding and training. And Natural Horsemanship was born.

Or, rather, it was “born again.” You see, what these alternative methods amount to is little more than a simple, but clever, re-branding of our timeless classical principles. And, in some cases, I mean literally “re-branding:” giving the method a new name followed by a registered trademark symbol. This is age-old wisdom given a makeover more in line with modern sensibilities – a new-agey feel, a cool new jargon for those “in the know,” and a glossary of terms straight out of a self-help book. Dr. Phil horsemanship, if you will. Because, let’s face it: “classical” sounds kind of stuffy and snobbish; in terms of marketing it lacks the cozy, relaxed feel that makes “natural” sell so well.

And there is also the “miraculous” element to consider. Often we see ordinary tools of equitation – bits, halters and other forms of tack – given a slick overhaul and a hefty price tag, which becomes “indispensable” equipment that we are promised will produce magical results unattainable with ordinary tack. Sometimes, horses are made to respond to human prompts in ways that seem supernatural to the inexperienced eye, but which any observant and experienced horseman will already understand as the ordinary behavior of ordinary horses that have been properly handled. And other times, horses are simply made to perform odd tricks that are more circus than serious horsemanship.

And, let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If it appeals to you and works for you, stick with it… so long as you are able to turn a critical eye on what you see, hear and do in relation to this philosophy. Many people have good results with this school, and it is certainly a better alternative than the usual kick-and-yank cram-school most horses are run through in the name of competition and sales. I am not here to bash natural horsemanship or those who practice it. In fact, it has a lot going for it that I think is very positive. As the tenets of natural horsemanship are usually a simple rehashing of classical teachings, there is much to like about these methods, even if the marketing of them can verge on the absurd. There is, for example, much to be commended in natural horsemanship’s exhortation to treat horses equitably and find ways to communicate with them that are better understood and better received than the simple use of force. Who can argue with that?

But where “natural” lets us down is in the misconceptions it creates in uneducated amateurs with its careless language and promotion. This is probably because many instructors in this method reach their students primarily through books, articles, newsletters and videos, rather than one-on-one consistent instruction in the real world. This leaves the material wide open for all kinds of wild and erroneous interpretations, which, without correction from a qualified instructor, can be a disaster. It is this irresponsibility and unaccountability on the part of the instructors that leads to trouble, and in turn gives this kind of horsemanship a bad name. When proponents of natural horsemanship are irresponsible in this way, they indirectly give license to many followers to ignore sound training practice in favor of misleading themselves that natural horsemanship means “just letting horses be natural.”

For too many, “natural horsemanship” means nothing more than allowing the horse to behave as it would in nature. This semi-knowledge among amateurs that call what they do horsemanship is anything but. Considering that horses are fundamentally wild animals with instinctual natures, and that they need to be domesticated and trained in order to serve as partners for human endeavors, isn’t the very concept of a training method that seems to propose non-training something of a paradox?

This is not what true natural horsemanship is about.

Using a horse’s natural instincts and behaviors as a means to facilitate its training without force is very different than allowing a horse to behave as his most base instincts dictate and pretend that is training.

Good horsemanship, natural or otherwise, is hard. It takes dedication, discipline and patience. There is no magic formula or enchanted piece of tack that makes all of this happen “naturally.” And yet for those who can’t be bothered to put in the effort, the allure of “natural horsemanship” becomes a mirage of salvation to them, just as draw reins, wire bits or drugs are to their counterparts at the other end of the spectrum. Their distorted vision of what it requires is a figment of their wishful thinking. And it seems that those who are out to make a living as purveyors of this method are happy to allow their consumers to delude themselves so long as it makes the buyer feel good, because that’s what keeps the money rolling in. But the damage to horses and the dangers to riders is no mirage. It is real, present and serious.

You cannot learn horsemanship through a correspondence course. In the absence of real hands-on education and experience in horsemanship, too many consumers of this product get nothing more than rudimentary, long distance education in horsemanship and think this is enough. They’re sold gimmicks, gadgets and tricks which are all show and no substance, and no one is there to tell them if they’re using it correctly. For the novice, nothing could be more wrong or more dangerous. Partial understanding of anything means ignorance of the rest, and this is always risky, particularly when working with horses.

7 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more about this entire post. Unfortunately the horses and riders suffer for the sake of egos and the 'experts' who are lining their bank accounts. While natural horsemanship is a good idea,it is nothing new and unless it is taught personally by a professional, riders may get the wrong idea about how to train and interact with their horses. This could and does lead to some very wrong ideas about the natural instincts of horses and how to deal with them safely and effectively. It is my hope that more people will come to question the ethics of self-promoters in the horse industry.

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  2. Extremely well said and well written!

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  3. Bravo!

    You have stated so well what we have been thinking for so long. The only question that is still teasing my brain is, what, exactly, is "natural" about the relationship between horse and human? If I read correctly in texts along the way, equines were prey, and humans are predators. In order for horsemanship of any sort to work, that initial relationship must be set aside by both parties, correct? The name "natural horsemanship" just, well, bothers me...

    I look forward to more posts when you have the chance.

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  4. mrs mom,
    you bring up a really good point, and one i had planned on addressing further in upcoming posts. thanks for bringing another dimension to the issue with your comment! looking forward to hearing more from you :-)
    -jme

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  5. Speaking of "what is natural horsemanship?", I found this eloquent it short post, which sheds some light on the subject: LeslieRohde.com
    I enjoy reading your blog.

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  6. Thank you, thank you for this article. Very well put, and hopefully it will open more eyes. Too often we see misbehaving horses at showgrounds and strangely enough, most of them are tacked up with the "magical-horsemanship equipment" which was convienently sold though catalog or clinic.

    I remember a clinic with Ray Hunt, where one rider just had no control what so ever in the Horsemanship clinic. This rider was the only one riding in a ropehalter-mecate combination. At a certain point, Ray asked him: "Does your horse ride in a snaffle aswell?" The rider replyied (kinda cocky) "Yeah, sure he does, but this is natural" To which Ray answered: "Why don't go you put that snaffle bit on?"

    The "natuarl-horseman-ship fad is almost like what we have in Europe with the "classical dressage". Although many phrase the discipline that they ride in a way thet its not MODERN (with a negative sound) , they ride Classical!

    Still, I have never heard anybody tell me that they ride "Modern Dressage"

    I do see a lot of difference here in the USA between horsemanship, sports and show horses. The latter, stictly for show, is a rarity in Europe. Often I am amazed of the extremely limited training these horses receive and the money that goes with that. These horses are nonethe less pretty safe, in spite of their riders and trainers. (Gotta love the Horse!)

    One day I may get used to it.

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  7. fryslan valley - thank you so much for your comment (and sorry i didn't post/respond sooner - my internet has been out all weekend!)

    you make a really good point and i agree completely with what you say about 'classical' dressage. i remember while training in the UK some of the students were complaining that the head instructor was so hard to please because she was 'so classical' in her dressage. that head instructor then proceeded to yell at a student whose horse was resisting collection, 'well, then, sock him in the chops!' i'm not familiar with exactly which classical master advocated yanking a horse in the face to make it collect... :-\ all of the training there was like that. i was given the opportunity to ride that instructor's 'top' horse, and he was stiff as a board, resistant, and all of his gaits were distorted. they called it 'classical' but it was all draw reins, spurs and rollkur...

    what people call classical these days is really just another way to lend some authority and credibility to modern riding practices which, as you say, are so often geared only toward the show ring - it's all short-cuts and veneers to cover a complete lack of horsemanship (and those horses are still amazing!) it's one of the reasons i really don't show much anymore, and when i do i do it almost as a form of protest - even if we don't get ribbons, we go out there and do it our way - hopefully the right way. we try, anyway.

    there was a time when horsemanship was an art, not a product or a pageant. i doubt we'll ever get back there, but i'm going to keep trying :-)

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