Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts On Natural Horsemanship: Part I

I've never really delved into and studied what "Natural Horsemanship" is, and I doubt I ever will, except to read smatterings here and there as it comes to my attention in one way or another. I long ago decided I wanted hands-on experience and somewhat abandoned books--even though I do have many books around my house for reference. I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not a cover-to-cover horse how-to person. The idea of ascribing to just one philosophy doesn't fit with my personality, but I love to have many different kinds of books around for specific purposes.

The reason I'm thinking about it at all, Natural Horsemanship, that is, is because of the upcoming movie, Buck. Buck Brannaman, from what I understand, falls under that school of thought, as do many of today's trainers. My farrier, who I have great respect for, worked with Ray Hunt, one of the father's of Natural Horsemanship, many years ago. He told me that once, but I didn't really understand what it meant.

Ray Hunt is quoted as saying, "If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that's just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong".

I agree with that statement. But I'd also say that some issues horses have, (because of early mishandling) or even some horse's personalities, don't fit with certain people. So, in some cases it's, Yeah, it's your fault you got bucked off, but it's because you probably shouldn't have been on that horse to begin with.

For example, I had a friend whose horse, whenever it separated from any riding group (its herd or not) would throw huge bucking fits, and it threw her several times. My other friend, Sarah, who trains horses, took this horse, Scooby, for a week to assess the issue. (She'd been hired to assess--not "train" him---though, the two overlap).

One day, in the process, we went on a trail ride together, and she rode off from us. Sure enough, Scooby went into a huge bucking fit. She worked with him and then rode back. We talked about it on the way home and what she said to me has always stuck, and I believe it to be true. She said that, Yes, he has a problem with herd-boundness and yes, it is "fixable", but probably not with the owner he has.

The owner's equestrian skills were limited, and she didn't want to get hurt or killed--so this issue wasn't a good one for her to be working through with him. Interestingly, this horse was amazing on the ground. He was quite a character and had the best ground manners I'd ever seen. The owner did sell him to a more experienced home.

I've been thinking Natural Horsemanship, as I know it, the little bits I've heard or read here and there--the people I've seen who use it--and I'm thinking I do fall into a camp of this school of thought. (I'm not sure which camp that actually is.) I'm trying to come up with a list of things I believe that I think are simpatico with Natural Horsemanship--again--as I know it. Here is my first:

1. I believe we can learn to communicate with our horses by studying their language. Human beings are equipped with excellent reasoning skills, and we can put them to good use in learning to communicate with those who are not like us. We can imitate, mimick, and learn new ways of speaking. We can babble with babies, share forms of sign language with animals and humans and, with horses, we can move and signal in ways where they can learn to understand our meaning based upon what they've learned growing up in a herd.

How far do I take this? Do I think you should kick, bite or thrash a horse, like they do in a herd? Do I think you should keep them away from water and stand over their trough like you're a horse and not a human? Do I think you should cower and act like a young foal making weird gestures with your mouth in order to appear non-threatening? Do I think you should run them around a roundpen like crazy until they give you their undivided attention? Uh, no. Definitely "no" on all the first ones, though the last one--roundpenning--is "no" for me--but not necessarily others who know what they're doing and know when to release the pressure. (I'll tell you my experience about roundpenning in another post--key word--Cia (my young Paint filly) and why my feelings have changed about it.

I have an issue with prescriptive ways of teaching, since every human and every horse are different. Even in a herd, each leader has a different method of leading. We have two leaders in our herd, Red and Shadow.

Shadow leads by force. They really don't want to follow him and often rebel, but, in the end, he is the herd leader.

Red, on the other hand, used to be the herd leader and he's the one they would love to follow--he's the one they naturally follow. However, he's 30 now and not up to a fight--so he's assumed the second role. Every horse we introduce into the herd gravitates toward and respects Red. He doesn't chase them around needlessly until they submit. He doesn't bite or kick at them--unless they try to move into a stall or dinner before their turn. He doesn't keep them off water--unless they are flagrantly rebellious and unwilling to take their place in the herd. In other words, he does the LEAST amount to get the desired result.

I want to be like Red, and I want to talk about this more in an upcoming post. I'm also interested in your thoughts on what "Natural Horsemanship" means in your mind--and if you use elements of it--all of it--disagree with it completely. You will not offend me by disagreeing with elements of N.H. because, as I've said, I don't go to one horse "church". I'm non-denominational, when it comes to equine schools of thought.

And, if you have time, here's a video of BG being reintroduced into the herd. This is Day #1 and only the two herd leaders were out with her. She's rather used to them. However, day #2 will be included in the next post--the release of our Alpha Mare, Cowgirl, with BG. A much different experience, I must say--the musical theme of which will be--The Good, The Bad, and the UGLY!!. (Talk about a mean leader--sheesh--but more on that later, too. Cowgirl is an excellent trail horse, so I don't want to knock her too much.)

BTW, my kids think I'm crazy because I watch (and tape) my horses for hours. I really do LOVE observing them with each other. I can't get enough of it.

**You'll see she isn't leading perfectly at the beginning, and this is because she had a lot on her mind. She wanted to pay attention to me only, but she also wanted to know where the other horses were (especially Cowgirl) and all these different concerns would make her, temporarily, forget her leading manners. She was not being wilfully disobedient or challenging me--she was rightfully nervous. My response toward her was measured, gentle and reassuring, as I gave her time to become comfortable. This is the choice I made--someone else may have made a different one, but that's okay.


  1. I never understood the fascination with natural horsemanship. I just stick to learning theory--simple positive and negative reinforcement. It works with all the other animal species in the world, so why would horses be any different?

    Understanding how their minds work and how they view the world certainly helps,but that is more in the line of psychology.

    Combine that with observation about particular horses--as they are all different, and good timing and clear signals on the trainer's part, and you are on your way to good horsemanship.

    I am interested in what people with different backgrounds have to say on the subject.

  2. Natural horsemanship as a term covers such a wide waterfront that the term seems pretty meaningless to me at this point - Mark Rashid refuses to use it and says it's just a marketing/selling term used by certain horse trainers. He says none of what we do with horses is "natural". I try to just judge trainers/horsemen and women by what they do.

    Many so-called natural horseman use what I consider to be coercive and even abusive training methods - running horses to exhaustion in a round pen, for example, and applying pressure in such a way that the horse has no option but to comply. And some are into dominating horses. They get results, but the horses pay the cost.

    I'm a big fan of Harry Whitney and Ray Hunt's way of going about things, and I guess I don't care what their way of working with horses is called.

    I'm with you on drawing the best from a number of sources.

    Liked your story about the horse with herd-boundness - getting an appropriate match between horse and rider is really important too.

    Thoughtful post - thanks!

  3. That's a good point, Judi--"combine that with observation about particular horses." I think there are similarities among all horses, but the finer details are unique to each and learning to communicate with them has to happen on a one-to-one. That's probably why I haven't joined a horse "church"--because different things work for different horses at different times. I do think, though, that even though I say I'm not of one particular persuasion, I do bring certain foundational assumptions to my life with horses every day, and those assumptions are what I'm wanting to kind of bring into question in my blog posts--even challenge them and see if they need to be tweaked or refined.

    I'm with you, I'd like to hear what others have to

    Kate--I like what you said, too--I've also come to believe that the term means almost nothing because it means so much.

    The thing that most caught my attention in the "Buck" trailer was his statement--"I can tell a lot about you from this horse." My strongest foundational belief about horses is that they are the most true, the most excellent mirror of the humans in their lives, past and present. Their actions read like the owner's personal diary. If we don't like what our horse's are saying, we need to look at ourselves. I don't know what school of thought that falls into--maybe all of them--but it's the most true thing I've learned about horses.

  4. I think it's easy for horse owners to fall into a rut of training one way instead of training the way that's best for both the horse and owner. I agree with what Mark Rashid says, even though he's billed as a "natural horseman". It's all a catch-phrase/marketing thingy.

    The key is knowing your horse and what works, just like with kids. Some kids don't respond to the simple words, "I'm disappointed in you", while others are devastated by them. Some horses will respond to a look and others have to forcefully be moved away.

    I've found that the most dangerous horsepeople are the ones who subscribe to one theory of horse training and one theory only. Horses aren't push-button animals and you can't treat them all the same, or force them into one training mold.

  5. Linda, I really like the direction your thinking is going. I am a huge fan of Mark Rashid; his view is simply 'considering the horse'; as soft as you can be, as strong as you need be. He's done some super work with the Mustangs and he's worked with both of mine. Lots of understanding that they are just a tad different: all that survival instinct just below the surface. I am so looking forward to seeing the movie "Buck".

    The video is a kick. You can't help but feel joy when you see horses expressing themselves, and BG is great at it.


  6. I agree with you GunDiva because the "only one" training method thingy is all about control and $$$. You have to do this and buy this and go to this to get to this level, etc. It takes all the personal creativity and unique horse/human dynamics away. Let's face it, sometimes we come back inside after working with our horses and for some reason that combination of "us" and "them" isn't going right...we scratch our books, talk to people--but we also have to use common sense and creativity--as you said, just like kids!

  7. Thanks, Juanita--I'm glad someone else enjoys her. I feel like the parent who whips out a bunch of pictures of their kid...and this one, and this one...and she's so cute in this one!! lol.

    That's interesting about Mark Rashid, and I do have two of his books--that is one and the other is, I believe, Horses Never Lie. I read them a while back--should pull them back out. I didn't know he'd worked with your Mustangs!! How cool is that? Have you written about it on your blog?

  8. Hi i think good horsemanship is good horsemanship no matter what its called.

    Their are some absolute fruit looops out there who practise what they think is natural horsemanship, but there are also horribly abusive "clasical dressgae" or reiners or jump riders out there, it dosnt mean one particualr theory is bad or good, like the bible horse training can be interpreted a million differant ways, iut really depends who is preaching....

    I do use natural hormanship techniques ie getting control of the horse on thr ground, enforcing real solid manners, it not about 'carrot sticks' or spining the horse in circles or anything like that, just about understanding how your horse reacts and learning to control those reactions...

    I have also worked for a grand prix dressge rider, he did no ground work, but once he got on a horse he used similar 'good hormanship principles' and it wasnt about riding in halter or on the rein buckle.

    good training no matter what you follow is about having coreect timeing knowing what you want and being consistant in what u ask for!

  9. That's a good point, and one I thought about after I used the "church" metaphor--like you say, there are all different kinds of interpretations of a given philosophy and, in the wrong hands (or minds) it can be CRAZY time.

    A very good point, too, that it's not about the gimmicky tool of the day--however, some of those "tools" have been used for a long, long time by different horse people and they are awesome, if used right.

    And, YES, good horse people are good horse people--no matter what discipline.

  10. Keep taping your horses, I love seeing BG documented this way. I was so busy watching her, I missed some of the subtitles and had to watch again. I feel like I'm really learning about horses just by knowing her and how you work with her.

  11. I will certainly try. The hard part is getting someone to tape me with her. But I'll try to include video as much as possible--it's a great way to really see what horses are all about. I should tell you, though, much of the tape was just of her standing around grazing--but all of that got cut.

  12. I'm probably with everyone else on this. I think natural horsemanship is a catch phrase for a lot of things but basically I think it means training the horse in a manner that is kind AND that the horse will understand.

    I think the "natural" part infers using the language of the horse to teach the horse instead of our human expectations which can lead to using fear and force which would be the old style of horse training.

    Once you get past that part there are all kinds of ways to go about working with the horse in a kind manner that the horse will understand. Running the horse around in the round pen can work only if the horse understands you want something from it adn what it is you want. If the horse just thinks it's being chased for no reason and doesn't get the question, it can't answer appropriately. Running it until it drops will not change that but changing how the question is asked might.

    Those trainers who do round pen work don't take hours to get it done. Some of them take a matter of mintues. That woul be because the horse gets the questions. If it's not accomplished in that short amount of time, then it's probably time to change the question and do something else. I think lots of people who watch those demonstrations only see the running part. They don't see all the other communication that is going on between the horse and the handler. That leads to the impression you run a horse until it drops. Of course that's my opinion but it iw what I thought I learned many years ago from John Lyons. Only later when I tried to do what I had learned did I realize there were big holes in what I tried.

    Obviously part of the reason could be my horse responded in a different way than the horse I saw. I didn't know what to do with those different responses. Today, I pretty much know what to do in those situations but who knows I could met a horse that responds so differently from anything I've seen that I could be stumped.

    Guess I could go on but you get my point. I do want to say I think it's important for people to understand what food and water mean to a horse. I don't think you have to drive a horse off from water either, unless of course, that horse tries to drive me away from water. If that's the case, I think I need to deal with that horse. I might add that I don't consider my horse trying to drink for the bucket as I am filling it trying to drive me off. However, if a horse got aggressive trying to get me away from its water or its food I would figure I have a serious problem to address. I have seen horses like that and they have been dangerous in other ways as well. I think it's important to know that food and water can play a role in building up to dangerous behavior in the horse.

  13. Mikael--Part II of this is going to be what I learned about "roundpenning" and I think you're right on the money. The good trainers aren't just running them around in circles until they're exhausted--there is a point. If it goes too long, you've probably not communicated the point.

    I do like to work with young ones in a roundpen since it's a small, safe area--but I like to get them out as soon as possible. I originally gentled BG in a 24x24 square pen because it was perfect size for a bamboo pole--basically, an extension of my arm. More on that later.

    "basically I think it means training the horse in a manner that is kind AND that the horse will understand. I think the "natural" part infers using the language of the horse to teach the horse instead of our human expectations which can lead to using fear and force which would be the old style of horse training."

    A quote from what you wrote above sums it up well, and I think everyone so far agrees. Firm, fair, and clear--works for people and animals.

  14. I educate myself by attending clinics, reading books and blogs, and just hanging with my horses. I've never adopted any particular method, because what works with one horse may not work with another. The other night I became aware that I've been disciplining my horses with eye contact. If one horse gets unruly, I give her a look. The behavior instantly stops, the ears come forward, and the innocent expression appears on the horse's face. That's how my alpha mare rules the herd. She looks at a horse, pins her ears back, and the troublemaker stops whatever he or she is doing. Interesting how all the horses gravitate toward Red.

  15. Funny--I can picture that--the evil eye. :>)

    I read a lot of blogs, too. In fact, I think blogs are my number one way to educate myself about horses--or certainly get inspiration and ideas and even encouragement.

  16. Very insightful post, Linda. I agree with the others about Mark Rashid, and the way you describe how Red is the leader in the herd without being the "bully" is almost exactly how Mark describes his notion of "passive leadership." Mark has some disdain for the term "natural horsemanship," as someone pointed out.

    Actually Buck Brannaman, the Dorrance brothers, and Ray Hunt may be coined now as the "fathers of the natural horsemanship movement," but really they were followers of the old vaquero-style of horsemanship of the west, which was a more considerate way of handling cattle and horses than what you see in the rodeo-type cowboys. Pat Parelli coined the term "Natural Horse*Man*ship." He likes to play with words like that, and it drives me nuts - sort of like the "horsenality" he talks about or the goofy names for his games.

    I wish you could come to the Mark Rashid clinic in Othello, Linda, and just watch him for a day. There is a lot of wisdom and such a presence, yet a humbleness to the man. He is an excellent communicator, both with horses and people. I have his book, Whole Heart, Whole Horse, if you'd like to borrow it. It's not a training manual or anything - in fact none of Mark's books have really any "how to's" in them at all - mostly just stories of how he came to learn things about horses - and some conceptual stuff, sometimes tying in a lesson he learned in Aikido to the overall balance of energy and so forth that can apply to horses or people.

  17. Laura--When is he coming to Othello? Are you taking a horse to it? I have a couple of his books I just pulled off the shelf and wiped off the dust. I'll read these and then I'll borrow your Whole Heart, Whole Horse-I like the title. And what does Natural Horse--MAN--ship mean?

  18. Linda - Mark will be doing a clinic at Kyya's in Othello April 26-28. This is right in between all of Alexa's Equestrian team meets in Wenatchee and Moses Lake, so I might be too pooped to go and need to be at home for a weekend - but I am going to try my best to at least drive down for a day to audit. He's really worth seeing. I would love to do a whole 3-day clinic with him someday. I was fortunate to be able to ride for one day with him a couple of years ago.

    As for Natural Horse-MAN-ship - beats the heck out of me! I like real words too much to mess with them the way Pat does -- same with "horsenality." Stupid.

  19. Maybe I could audit for a day, too--and take Shiloh. I'll put those dates on my calendar. Can they fit a lot of auditors? Do you know what they're charging?

    I looked up Buck Brannaman's clinic in Dayton and it appears they're only charging $25.00 a day to audit, and it's a 4 day clinic--Horsemanship I and Horsemanship II. I'm going to give the organizers a call in a few minutes here and see how much space is available. I'll probably audit 2 days--but not sure which 2 to choose.

  20. I'm really thankful to find your blog on horsemanship. Techniques in horse training varies. Yet one of the methodology of horse training that can't be overlooked is the technique of natural horsemanship or horse whispering. This requires rapport on both horseman and the horse. In this way both are learning and growing.


Please feel welcome to join our discussion by telling us about your own thoughts and experiences.