What is Natural Horsemanship?

If you have anything to do with horses, or know someone who does, chances are you’ve heard the term “natural horsemanship”. To some it’s the latest and greatest method of horse training. Others see it as meaningless hype built up by the marketing efforts of well known ‘natural horseman’. Still others view natural horsemanship as the way back to the roots of ‘original’ horse training. Whether your particular view of natural horsemanship is one of the three mentioned above, some combination thereof, or not even close to what I’ve described, there’s no denying it – natural horsemanship is here to stay… at least until the next ‘new’ thing comes along.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

There is never going to be a single best way to train a horse. Why? Because each trainer and each horse has its own unique personality and its own unique life experiences. To put horse training into a black and white book of exact instructions will never work. Ask any training question, from how to pick up a hoof to how to perform a complicated dressage maneuver the answer will be the same: it depends. Since the logic behind natural horsemanship is using the horse’s natural instincts and tendencies to train them to do what you ask, the answer will change for each different horse. So, let’s give natural horsemanship a chance and see if even the biggest critics can find some good in it. No hype, no hoopla, no cheesy lingo; just a broad discussion on the premise behind this ‘new’ phenomenon.

Learn to “Speak” Horse

As humans, we have the distinct advantage over horses in that we have the ability to learn different languages. And it isn’t all verbal – think of sign language for the hearing impaired and Braille for the sight impaired. If we think about our ability to communicate beyond the spoken word we can begin to imagine the possibilities of learning to communicate with another species in their language. Since horses don’t have the ability to learn to speak our language, our only choice is to learn theirs in order to achieve the highest level of communication possible.

While you’ll often hear them whiney or nicker to each other, horses generally use non-verbal methods of communicating with each other. In other words, they use body language. Being prey animals, horses are ultra-sensitive to the world around them. They have to be or they would be extinct by now. They feel things as small as a fly landing on their hip; they see the slightest flicker of movement in the distance; they sense pressure coming from a change in body language by another horse or human around them. The good news is horses are very sensitive and we can use this in natural horse training. The bad new is also that horses are that sensitive and the inexperienced trainer can get in trouble in a hurry without having any idea what went wrong.

How to Learn the Language

There are countless books, DVD’s, videos, clinics, expos and demonstrations that can tell you the presenter’s method of learning how to communicate with horses naturally. As with learning any new skill, you’ll serve yourself best to get your information from multiple sources, sort out what to take with you and what to leave behind, and then put it all together in a manner that makes sense for you. But, one of the best ways to learn the horse language, which also happens to be the most economical and convenient, is to watch them in a herd environment. Grab a bucket or your favorite lawn chair; take it out to the pasture and just watch. Here are some things to look for:

• Tail Swishing: When is it to shoo off a fly and when does it mean something to another horse?
• Ears: Are they back, alert or floppy? When they change position what happens in the herd?
• Moving Among the Herd: Which horse moves and which horse moves out of the way? How little does it take for one horse to move another horse out its space?
• Nipping & Biting: Is it play or fighting?
• Individual Horses: Which horse is lying down? Which horse leads the herd to the next grazing spot? Which horse brings up the rear?

All these seemingly insignificant movements and gestures make up the language of the horse and allow them to live and play and communicate with one another. Discover and learn the movements and signals horses use and you can start “moving” in a language they will understand.

Natural Horsemanship Makes Sense

If we can agree that the premise behind natural horsemanship is to enhance our ability to communicate more effectively with the horse, in the horse’s language, then doesn’t it make sense that natural horsemanship is the correct approach to use? That depends. I’ve already discussed the sensitive nature of horses. That sensitivity means they can be easily intimidated and threatened into doing what you ask. There are also countless devices and gadgets that can force a horse into a position you want without having to spend the time to learn to ask for what you want in horse language. And there’s a learning curve involved. If what you are doing right now is working for you, why spend the time learning another way? Three reasons:

1. Humans have the ability to feel empathy. Put yourself in your horse’s shoes. Or better yet, get a job in a country where you don’t speak the language and see how it feels to be asked to perform when you don’t understand the question. How does it feel to be shoved around, yelled at from a frustrated boss, and unable to do what is being asked of you? This could be how your horse is feeling every time you take him out of the pasture.

2. In the long term, it’s easier and faster to accomplish your goals. Think of when you first learned to ride a bicycle. For a while, I’m sure it would have been a lot faster and easier to get from point A to point B by just walking. But, you kept at it and pretty soon you were flying where ever you wanted to go in quick time. The same thing is true with natural horse training. The first horse you attempt this new methodology with will probably be pretty slow going. But, once you develop the skills to communicate with the horse in a language he understands, what once took you weeks to accomplish will soon be achieved in days.

3. Lastly, and most importantly, is safety. If you learn to communicate on your horse’s level, if you truly become a partner with him, you will learn to anticipate his reactions and you will know when, and what to do, if things go wrong. Horses are living, breathing creatures with minds and ideas all of their own. There is no ‘broke’ horse. At any time, your faithful trail partner could decide to react in a completely unexpected manner. Gaining just the smallest insight into your horses psyche can only improve your chances of surviving the incident, keeping you – and your horse – safer.

It’s Your Call

I admit it – I’m a natural horsemanship student and I’m proud of it. I’m even more proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish with my horses because of it. Yes, I do get weary of the ‘hype’ surrounding natural horsemanship, but never the premise behind it, or the results from it. So, if you can’t see yourself ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ that’s ok. You can learn and live natural horsemanship just sitting in your lawn chair in the pasture. I only hope you’ll take the time to give it some thought before you discount the principles as merely marketing ploys to sell products. And no, you don’t have to tell anyone you ‘converted’.