Explaining Natural Horsemanship
Many people profess to practice natural horsemanship that it can sometimes be hard to understand what natural horsemanship really means. Some natural horsemen use sticks, others use clickers, and some talk about positive reinforcement. Natural horsemanship may come in many forms from many people but the principles remain the same.
Natural horsemanship puts an emphasis on learning to understand horses – understand their psychology and understand their communication signals. If you practice natural horsemanship you learn how to adjust your exercises, patterns, and rewards to suit the personality of the horse you are working with.
The priority is getting the horse to understand you, and making sure that you understand the horse.
You establish yourself as the leader by protecting your personal space and by moving the horse around – this is the same way that leaders in the natural horse herd establish themselves as the leader. The leader can touch and move whoever they want, but no other horse can make the leader move or touch the leader without permission.
Natural horsemanship is not a strict process, a discipline, or a set of formal exercises. Natural horsemanship is a method to working with and understanding horses. You can practice natural horsemanship and still do dressage, jumping, barrel racing, etc. You can also use natural horsemanship with any horse. This is because natural horsemanship simply refers to the way you train and play with your horse.
Other training methods often ignore the finer communication details from horses. Many horse professionals don’t understand the wide variety of signals a horse can give, and many do not understand the horse psychology of how to solve common misunderstandings, vices, and bad habits – like a horse being girthy, a horse rushing fences, a horse not wanting to get on a trailer, or a horse not wanting to go forward and work. This is because these horse professionals do not understand the horse psychology – you need to understand the root of the problem before you can come up with a solution. The root of the problem could be pain, anxiety, dominance, or a variety of other reasons.
Many training theories take the approach of “I am leader and you will do as I say, and as I say only; I will force you to do what I want if necessary”. Some people do this by using excessive whipping, spurring, or using contraptions like draw reins, twitches, or side reins. Taking the route of force kills the will of the horse to really want to please you and give you their full effort and ability.
Other training techniques involve letting the horse do as they please which lacks leadership. Letting horses decide what to do the entire time can make them feel nervous or dominant. Horses can become nervous because they don’t have a safe leader to follow. Horses can become dominant because they need to fill a leadership role (because you are not providing leadership).
Using natural horsemanship does not mean that you will never be firm with a horse. It is very important to protect your personal space and not allow a horse to push or move you. You may have to be firm with a horse to keep them out of your space, however, a natural horseman will never strike a horse in punishment – the natural horseman will simply protect their space, but as soon as the horse backs away from their personal space the horse will be left alone.
Using natural horsemanship helps the horse to recognize you as the leader they want to follow and helps develop a relationship where the horse is motivated to work with you.
Some people use natural horsemanship training principles without knowing that is what it is. Some people say they use natural horsemanship, but sometimes they don’t actually use natural horsemanship, or at least not all the time.
Natural horsemanship does not mean positive reinforcement. Many natural horsemen will use positive reinforcement and will try to reward good behaviour, however, sometimes horses may come into your space or not respond and natural horsemen may have to be firm with the horse. However, natural horsemen strive never to cause pain or fear.
Positive reinforcement – teaches the horse when you do my tasks correctly you will be rewarded. This means you reward good behaviour which could be with a treat, a friendly rub, or by doing something the horse enjoys.
Natural horsemen will never:
- Punish a horse: horses do not understand punishment and hitting a horse for something they have done will not cause the best result so a natural horseman will never punish a horse. For example smacking a horse for refusing a jump usually just provokes dangerous behaviour and/or a scared horse, so natural horsemen would instead use other methods to encourage the horse to jump but not cause fear or punishment. Most importantly, there needs to be a ‘right’ answer the horse can respond with if pressure is applied… this is the key difference between punishment and pressure. If you smack a horse for kicking you, there is nothing the horse can do that is ‘right’ so this is punishment. If your horse is about to kick you and you use pressure to make them move away then this is not punishment because the horse can choose to not kick you and you would release pressure – there is something the horse can do to get the ‘right’ answer and cause the pressure to stop.
- Use tools that do not allow the horse choice: natural horsemen believe that horses are partners and that horses have responsibilities and choice. A natural horseman will only use tools that influence a horse in the right direction, but never force. For example side reins force a horse into a particular head set so they would not be used by a natural horsemen. However using a lead rope to guide the horse and cuing with a stick still allows the horse to have choice. A natural horseman might use a rope and stick together, but not side reins or any other forceful tool that does not allow the horse to have choice – skilled natural horsemen are very good at causing a horse to make the decisions they want without forcing them.
- Teach the horse to be a partner: a natural horseman will teach the horse to have responsibilities like maintain direction, speed, and to watch where he is going. Letting the horse have some trust and responsibilities strengthens the partnership.
- Understand horses: the natural horsemen will put a huge emphasis on learning to understand horses and the types of exercises and tasks that work well for that horse personality type. The natural horsemen will understand when a horse is asking a question, showing lack of confidence, or showing frustration – and a natural horsemen will know how and what to communicate back to the horse.
- Put foundation before specialization: a natural horseman will make sure a horse has a solid foundation before moving on to more specialized tasks. If a horse does not accept a halter willingly then they would not progress to a bridle and bit. If the horse does not yet understand basic turns and stopping, the natural horsemen would not progress to canter and jumping.
- Use ground training: A natural horseman understands that horses build understanding and trust more easily when we work with horses from the ground. The natural horsemen will teach what they can from the ground to ensure the horse’s understanding and trust before getting in the saddle. The natural horseman strives to balance riding and ground training.
- Always start with the ideal cue: natural horsemen understand that you cannot expect a horse to respond to a lighter more subtle cue unless you offer the soft and light cue. For example, if you want the horse to stop by simply tensing your hips then you must always start with that cue (i.e tense your hips, and then lift your reins to add pressure to ask for halt as needed).
- Practice Life Long Learning: any good horsemen will know that you are never done learning when it comes to horses. Horses continually teach us new things and a natural horseman knows to always be ready for more learning.
There are many natural horsemanship principles that are the foundation to training horses. To learn all of the natural horsemanship principles you can read ‘Natural Horsemanship Answering the What, Why, and How for ALL Disciplines.’
Natural horsemanship starts with learning how to understand your horse, and how to move your horse. You start with basic cues and movements and then expand to have more complex conversations. You reward your horse with something that is suited to your horse – for some horses that could be a rest break and others it could be going for a trail. You learn to understand horses on a deeper level and how to use that understanding to bring out the best training and partnership you can have.
Natural horsemen influence horses using methods that are more easily understood by horses because they are based on an understanding of horse psychology. Horses understand the natural horseman, and the natural horseman understands the horse. Natural horsemanship puts the partnership first – preserving the dignity of the horse, the trust in the relationship, and the confidence in the leader – Now you know what it means to keep it natural!