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The Hijacking of “Natural Horsemanship”

horse training tips horsemanship horses naturalhorsemanship reatahorsemanship Jan 05, 2020

The Hijacking of “Natural Horsemanship”

There is a large group of horse owners, trainers, and horse enthusiasts in the world today who follow Natural Horsemanship techniques (I teach and utilize many of these techniques, methods, and theories myself), which encourage the horse’s own natural instincts and behaviors, and focus on pain-free and fear-free methods of training horses.

However, I am a realist and a logical, safety and results-driven professional horse trainer who has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of horse behavior.  I have a unique and clear perspective - that horses, by nature, can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly, in the wrong human hands and without the right understanding and behavioral training.  Even the best trained horses have been known to spontaneously behave dangerously and put human lives at risk.  Poorly trained horses have seriously injured, and even killed, humans. Although I don’t typically dwell on the “negative” aspects of horses, I think it’s vital to any horse owner, enthusiast, or trainer to understand what is at stake when riding or simply being around a horse.

“Natural Horsemanship” is a term believed to be coined by Pat Parelli in 1993 when he wrote the book “Natural Horse-Man-Ship”.  Methods relating to Natural Horsemanship principles have been recorded as early as 350 BC, when Xenophon wrote “On Horsemanship”.  It is a fallacy to claim all “traditional” horse training methods have been based on dominating the horse and breaking it’s spirit.  Although there have been training methods in the past, and in modern times, that today’s “natural” horse person might deem as fear-based training, there are countless horse trainers and methods used over past millennia that were based on many of today’s “natural horsemanship” principles. 

Tom and Bill Dorrance were early practitioners of the natural horsemanship movement, followed by Ray Hunt, who taught Buck Brannaman.  I personally am a big fan of Buck Brannaman.  If you haven’t seen it, go watch “Buck”, a documentary about him, his life, and his horse training.  It’s well worth the time!  He is a no-nonsense horse trainer who has influenced thousands of modern-day horse owners and trainers.  His style incorporates true natural horsemanship, and he rode as a “double” and heavily influenced Robert Redford’s film, The Horse Whisperer. All these aforementioned horse trainers had/have one common goal — attempting to understand horse behavior and to train them using that understanding, which I believe is the basis of the truest form of Natural Horsemanship.

Natural Horsemanship advocates “encourage the horse’s own natural instincts and behaviors”.  I am in agreement that horses should be trained using their highly sensitive communication system, which has evolved and helped them to survive for potentially hundreds of thousands of years.  This is the surest, safest, and quickest way to get desired results with a horse. 

However, many horse owners and enthusiasts today seem to be missing a key component of horse handling and training, which is understanding that although a horse’s “natural instincts and behaviors” can be used effectively to help train them, they can also be dangerous and even deadly to humans as well. 

First, they seem to practice a type of anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.  By making the assumption that a horse feels, thinks, and acts as we humans do, those individuals are actually watering down at best, and completely changing at worst, the true intended meaning of Natural Horsemanship.  They are hijacking what Natural Horsemanship stands for, portrays, and teaches. 

Second, making the assumption that all horse behavior and instincts should be encouraged in training is completely missing the mark and creating dangerous precedent for those amateurs in search of ways to improve their horsemanship.  I would submit to you that, in order to build a safe relationship with a willing horse, we must teach the horse to do exactly the opposite of what it has evolved to do.  Let’s take a look at a number of “natural instincts and behaviors” and decide whether we should be encouraging them in our training.

As mentioned above, horses have evolved for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.  They have learned to survive in a world where they were the hunted —the prey.  Being the prey to lions, bears, and possibly other pre-historic predators, horses honed their survival instincts to continue to exist.  Below is a list of some of the methods of survival they evolved to have.

  • Spooking – Vigilance and fear of objects that do not match natural foliage and landscape.  Any large, dark objects were avoided.  A predator could be one of these objects, so horses learned to be very wary of them.  Many of today’s horses will spook, snort, bolt, shy, and show significant aversion to objects such as a large rock that seems out of place.
  • Spooking – Rustling leaves, cracking tree branches, and other objects that moved and made noise would frighten the horse.  A predator could be lurking in the shadows and making this noise as it moved to close in to kill the horse.  Most hot-blooded and some cold-blooded horses today are frightened to death of these noises.  Tarps, plastic bags, and flags are just some of the many objects that can create extreme fear and a flight response from a horse.  I recently trained a hot-blooded Arabian mare who attacked the plastic bag I placed near her front feet by striking aggressively at it.  She also would run from these objects.
  • Claustrophobia – Horses learned that when they are in a small space with little room to run from a predator, their lives were more vulnerable.  Horses would avoid small canyons, arroyos, and other enclosed spaces that made it difficult for them to see and to escape. They also avoided caves or dark areas where predators could be waiting, crouched and ready to kill.  Today’s horse will demonstrate difficulty being calm in any tight spaces.  This includes trailers.
  • Bolting/Running Away – The quickest responding and fastest horses were the ones who survived a predator attack.  The horses who sensed a predator and raced away before being attacked, or who outran the predator, were those who survived.  These surviving horses bred and brought forth new generations of quicker, faster, more responsive horses.  Fast stud horses were also able to avoid stronger horses while fighting for the herd of mares.  A horse’s natural instinct of running away can pose grave danger to the human.
  • Rearing – Whether rising up to strike a predator or to strike another horse, rearing comes natural to horses.  Humans must be vigilant of this behavior and understand how to correct it if a horse does this.  Rearing, especially under saddle, can be one of the most dangerous behavior, since a severe rear will cause the horse to fall over backwards and land on the rider.  Many serious injuries, disabilities, and death occur each year from this behavior.
  • Striking – Horses used their front hooves to “strike” a predator or another horse in a fight for hierarchal power.  This can be done in a rearing fashion or from 4-point standing.  Either way, a striking horse can prove dangerous and even fatal to humans.
  • Bucking – Lions typically attacked horses from above, landing on a horse’s back, and clawing at a horse’s neck for the kill.  Horses evolved with a strong bucking ability to “buck” a predator off.  It also can be a precursor to kicking violently with both hind feet.  Bucking is another way today’s horse uses to rid himself of his rider.
  • Kicking – Horses similarly used their hind hooves to “kick” a predator or another horse in a fight.  Horses will kick a human for a number of reasons, but generally either out of fear or anger/disrespect.  Kicking can hurt and kill a human being, and such behavior must be addressed.  Correct positioning of oneself around a horse is one key component of avoiding getting kicked.
  • Biting – Horses are heterodontous, which means they have different shapes of teeth for different purposes.  While horses at around 5 years old will have a fully developed mouth of 36 to 44 teeth, all horses have twelve incisors at the front of the mouth, which were used primarily for cutting food while grazing and also to attack or defend against predators, or as part of establishing social hierarchy within the herd.  Horses literally used their sharp incisors to bite and fend off predators and to fight with other herd horses to determine dominance.  A horse can bite down with a force of 300 pounds per square inch.   Biting is a dangerous behavior that can seriously injure a human being.
  • Social Hierarchy – Horses have developed a sophisticated hierarchal order, which is constantly being tested, challenged and changed in each herd.  Horses use all the above-mentioned behaviors to “fight” each other and establish this hierarchal order.  Studs typically dominate a herd, although a determined gelding or an aggressive mare can rival for the top spot.  In the wild, stud (male, non-castrated) horses will fight to injury or the death in some cases to establish dominance.  A good understanding of horse hierarchy can help keep humans safe when interacting with horses.

When considering Natural Horsemanship, what about any of the above-mentioned “natural instincts and behaviors” would we want to encourage?  All of the dangerous behaviors that are completely instinctual, natural, and have helped horses survive until human intervention are behaviors that we as humans must strive to correct, not encourage.  In order to accomplish correction of these behaviors to help the horse become a calm, willing, and safe partner, we must do 2 basic things:

1.  We must understand the social hierarchal order of horses and we must establish dominance of the herd.  This is what many call “gaining the horse’s respect”.  We must be the top of the hierarchal order, whether we are in a round pen or stall with one horse or in a corral or field with multiple horses, we must be the “alpha-being”, so to speak.   If we do not establish this order, we put ourselves in danger of all the “natural” behaviors and instincts of a horse.  We do not need to use harsh, dangerous, or painful techniques to achieve this dominance.  They key is to make the horse move his feet.  The general rule of thumb is this – He who moves first, loses.  As I teach the horse through pressure and release to move his feet and to become submissive to my cues, I will establish and maintain dominance and safety.  I must establish a “rule of space” where I dictate whether or not the horse can come into my “space”, typically a 3-4 foot radius completely around me.  I must teach the horse to read my body language and to basically ask for permission to come into my space.  We’ve all seen or experienced the dominant horse who is “pushy”.  These horses are dangerous, as they have no respect for a person’s personal space.  Horses weigh, on average, one thousand pounds.  Humans are 20% of that.  We humans are no physical match for a horse’s size, weight, and speed, and therefore, by establishing early the hierarchal order in which we are at the top, most human-horse interactions can be safe.

2. We must understand that horses also have the “flight” response that tells them to run as quickly and as fast as possible to get away from danger.  We, as horse owners and trainers, must help the horse experience what frightens them until it no longer frightens them.  Many call this desensitization.  I also call it “calming” or "relaxing" exercises.  This training helps a horse “trust” us.  We must prove to the horse that we are in control and that they have no need to be frightened of us and of any other frightening objects and circumstance.  A horse’s instinct is to kick, strike, bite, rear, buck, and/or run away from what frightens him.  In order to help a horse to do these things so we can improve our safety, we actually must encourage him to do the OPPOSITE of what is natural.  This is the Un-Natural part of horsemanship, which concept is commonly missed in today’s horse world and “Natural Horsemanship” frenzy.  A horse is not a human.  A horse does not carry the same cognitive or emotional level as humans.  When people start treating a horse, which is a wild and potentially dangerous animal, like a peer, and assume the Natural Horsemanship mantel when doing so, they are hijacking what the term was meant to represent, which is treating a horse “Firm, but Fair”.

A horse who is treated firm and fair, instead of like a peer, will learn very quickly to trust the human and to respect the human, leading to a safer, more fun-filled relationship, which ultimately is the goal of every true horse person.  May we all practice ‘firm, but fair’ horsemanship, true Natural Horsemanship, in order to achieve this goal.