The term “Natural Horsemanship” has become very popular in horse training lately as people seek new and more humane ways of working with their horses. Within this category there is a broad spectrum of training methods ranging from classical schooling to clicker training to domination techniques. Some of these methods are quite humane but others are down right abusive. And yet they all fall under the label of “natural horsemanship”.
Labels can be deceiving and are often used to mislead people. So today we are going to pick apart the label of ” natural horsemanship”.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there is nothing natural about working with or riding a horse. To understand this we need to take a look at basic horse psychology.
Horses are prey animals. As such they have strong instincts and highly tuned senses to alert them to potential danger. Humans are predators. Humans look like predators, move like predators, and smell like predators. Everything about us tells the horse that we are a predator. Horses can learn that humans will not harm them, but this is something that they have to LEARN not something that comes naturally. Most horses learn this at birth or shortly after but some must learn this later on in life.
Horses doing what is most natural to them- eating!
It doesn’t matter how we change our movements or how we interact with the horse or if we make eye contact or turn our backs to them a certain way. We are still predators and the horse knows that we are still a predator. And there’s nothing natural about a horse interacting with a predator.
But we don’t just want to interact with the horse. We want to sit on his back. Note that when a large predator such as a mountain lion wants to attack a horse, what does it do? It jumps on the horse’s back and wraps it’s claws around the horse’s body. Every instinct of the horse tells it not to let a predator on its back. Now, yes, a horse can learn to allow a human on it’s back but this is something that it must LEARN to accept. Through consistent, repetitive training a horse can learn to trust a human enough to allow them on it’s back. However, the human is still a predator and there’s nothing natural about a horse allowing a predator on it’s back.
Let’s take this a step father. Once we begin riding the horse we need to teach him how to balance and carry himself with a rider on his back. Horses naturally carry about 60% of their weight on their front legs. This is just fine and dandy when they are on their own spending most of the day grazing. But put a rider on their back and having too much weight on the forehand puts a tremendous amount of strain on the horse’s back, neck, and legs. The horse must learn to carry more of his weight with his hind legs and to round his back which allows him to support the weight of the rider without the strain on his joints but it is something that he must LEARN how to do. It does not come naturally, and though some breeds have been developed to have an easier time of it, it is still something they must learn.
Now there’s also the fact that we have completely taken the horse out of his natural environment so we must adapt the way we care for him. We keep him in a stall so we must provide exercise for him, we’ve changed his diet so we must ensure his teeth are cared for, we’ve changed the terrain he lives in so we must ensure that his feet are cared for. None of these things are bad, and they are all necessary, but they are not natural.
Now, I’d like to pause here and note that I am not saying that we should never ride our horses because it is not natural. When treated with kindness and respect, most horses will develop deep bonds with their humans and will enjoy the work that they do. Just because it’s not natural doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’m also not criticizing all “natural horsemanship” methods. Many are very good but there are also many more that use fear and aggression to “persuade” the horse to behave. And many people get hoodwinked by supposed miracle methods simply because they fall for the label.
A horse that has learned to trust his rider and allows himself to be guided through gymnastic exercises to strengthen his muscles so he is better able to support the weight of the rider.
So what does this all mean? It means that we need to understand that there is nothing natural about riding or working with horses. Horses are horses and humans are humans. Horses can learn how to trust and follow a human’s leadership but it not something that comes naturally to them. When we change our thinking it changes the way we interact with our horses. Instead of assuming that a horse is misbehaving because he’s being stubborn or lazy we can try to understand that learning to work with humans is a process that the horse must go through and it takes time for him to learn how to respond to us so we need to be patient with him.
It means when we are looking for a training methods or a trainer we need to do our research and look at more than just the label. We need to look at the actual method and ensure that it is based on systematically teaching the horse new skills without force or fear to gradually increase his skills both physically and mentally with the health and well being of the horse as the first priority. This is not something that can be accomplished in a few days or even a few months. It takes years of consistent work to develop a horse that is willing and able to do anything you ask of it. There are no quick fixes or miracle methods. There is only time and patience and a true love for the animal.
To learn more about how to develop a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!