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.
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.