“…anything forced is not beautiful.” ~Xenephon, The Art of Horsemanship
“I try to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is.” ~Tom Dorrance
For the last five years I have been struggling with the term “natural horsemanship”. When I was writing about my training style on this website, I paused before finally settling on “natural horsemanship influences.” And even that I don’t like.
On the one hand, I don’t want readers to think I am downplaying the importance of a connection with your horse based on trust and understanding. I equally don’t want readers to think that I am either trying to appeal to a bigger audience by lying or that I don’t understand what natural horsemanship is about. I want readers to know what I believe, whether they like it or not. And I truly believe in building that connection because once you have that, I believe your horse will do anything for you.
Just the other day one of my horses got her foot through the fence and started panicking. As I tried to help her I slipped in the mud and fell under her. She stood still while I got out safely and untangled her from the fence. She could have easily trampled me, but she didn’t because she cared. When I got this mare, three months ago, she would pin her ears at me in the pasture. When I would approach her she would bite and kick, trying to keep me away. However, when I slipped a few days ago, she protected me because I had a connection with her. I can’t count the number of times my horses have looked out for me despite being scared or getting hurt in the process. I can’t quantitate its value when one of my horses spooks at something, but walks through it because I asked him to. Words cannot express the feeling when my horse is coming up to a big cross-country fence and says, “Mom, I can’t make it.” Yet when I give him some encouragement and tell him he can he sits on his butt and gives it every fiber of his being, all because we have that connection. All because my horses trust me and care for me and want to do it for me. So yes, I believe in that connection. I believe in everything natural horsemanship claims to value most.
Yet, I had to use the word “claims” there. I couldn’t just say, “I believe in everything natural horsemanship values most.” I have two distinct issues with the term “natural horsemanship” that in the last five years I still haven’t been able to dispel.
Fist of all, there is nothing natural about the way we train horses. Training horses is in itself unnatural. We can use terms like “natural horse care” to indicate that we are mimicking how horses live in the wild in our care for them, but this does not work for training. Training is fundamentally unnatural just like supplements and veterinary care. However, that doesn’t mean it is bad. I train horses as my business and certainly don’t skimp on joint supplements, wound care, and colic treatments. The idea that something has to be natural to be good is one that bothers me immensely. If we want horses to live 100% naturally, we should turn them out on a large acreage and never interact with them. I don’t believe that that is any better than an aware form of horse stewardship, but I do believe that we should be aware of the distinction.
I own four Throughbreds and I can confidently say that if I left them to fend for themselves at least three of them would be dead and all of them would still have muscular pain and tension from their time on the track. In the time I’ve had them I have worked daily to release that tension, those blocks, that fear that always seems to overtake them on the track. I’ve watched them go from broken-down, hurt souls to horses that run and play all day, come to the gate for scratches, and take naps in the sunny afternoons. And I know that they would not be those horses without my work, without me teaching them how to relax, take a deep breath, and let go of the the past. So yes, I believe that training, although unnatural, can be a good thing.
However, that doesn’t mean I think that we should pretend that it is natural. I think it is the very fact that training horses is unnatural that makes it such an interesting challenge. There are no innate rule books on how to train a horse because we as humans are the ones who made up all the rules. Hence it is a discipline we can only learn and improve on by our own and others’ experiences and there is always more to learn. Therefore, I object to calling any form of horse training “natural” horsemanship as opposed to just horsemanship.
My other problem with the term “natural horsemanship” is a bit more troubling. There is something about they way we use the term that sits uneasily with me. Looking at the trainers claiming to be natural horsemanship trainers, I don’t know if I really want to claim that association. I don’t agree that all of these trainers really implement the ideals they claim to nor do I think that all of these trainers are very nice to their horses. Just because you label yourself a natural horsemanship trainer doesn’t make you better than the rest, you still have to prove it in your work.
I feel too many natural horsemanship trainers focus on responsiveness and submission with not enough emphasis on relaxation. I would rather my horse take an extra tap or two to move yet be completely relaxed and content than for my horse to leap forward with the softest cue in a panicked, tense way. I fundamentally disagree with the concept that anything not classical is natural. There are loads of well-proven, trust-building classical training techniques that I incorporate in my training. And there are even more “natural horsemanship” techniques I look at and cringe.
For instance, I don’t think there is any value in running a horse around a round pen until he is too tired to resist you and then riding him. This isn’t building trust and understanding, it is building submission, which I feel is the true cornerstone in most natural horsemanship techniques. I work with a lot of Throughbreds and I can tell you they don’t get too tired to run. They just get angry and beaten down and become smarter. They don’t submit, they get more scared and learn to only explode when you aren’t ready to counter their attack; they get dangerous. Plus, who wants to ride a tired horse? If your horse is exhausted, they aren’t going to be able to perform, think, or learn as well. Instead, your horse will have an angry, bitter attitude which will lead to unnecessary arguments, thus being counter-productive.
However, I have run a horse around a round pen until he was tired, numerous times. I used to work with one horse who carried so much tension that as soon as you asked for anything, no matter how softly you asked, he would run until he couldn’t breathe. Once he caught his breathe I would again ask him to walk off and he would bolt. Eventually, he learned that he really didn’t have to get so scared and bolt and could just walk instead. Although on the surface I was doing the same thing, my intention was never to run my horse around the round pen until he was tired. I ended up running my horse until he was tired because that was when he started to put less effort forward and realized that I had never asked for everything he was trying to give me.
It is not so much the technique that is being used when training a horse or the discipline you are riding in. It is the intention behind it. The same technique can be applied well or badly and produce two completely different results whether it is categorized as a “natural horsemanship” technique or a “classical” technique or just a “crazy” technique.
When I object to the methods of other natural horsemanship trainers it is not their techniques I am calling into question. It is not that they lunge in rope halters or round pen their horses with flags or ride without nosebands. It is that they are using the term “natural horsemanship” to refer to the techniques they use, not the intent they go into their training with. And it is not just trainers, it is the trainer’s students and the media that populate the use of this term with no clear definition or accuracy. People claim the term “natural horsemanship” as their own in order to feel better about what they do without actually changing anything because the fact is real natural horsemanship is work. When you are doing it right there is no shortcut, it takes time. And when we are done our horses have solid foundations because we weren’t able to skip anything, making them more reliable, content, and easier to work with with than other people’s horses.
So, do I practice natural horsemanship? Yes, I believe I do. I believe I hold those values in all the work I do and I strive to provide my horses with an environment where they can trust me, they understand what I am asking, and they are eager to listen. I use natural horsemanship techniques all the time to achieve these goals. However, I also use a lot of classical techniques because they are good, they work, and they teach a horse to carry itself and use itself correctly. And when applied to a natural horsemanship mindset, these classical techniques build athletic, trusting, relaxed equine partners.
Natural horsemanship isn’t, and shouldn’t be, labeled based on equipment and techniques, it should be labeled based on mindset. I wish that I could proudly proclaim I practice natural horsemanship without that voice in the back of my head asking, “do I want to associate with that?”