Natural Horsemanship is a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication, with the understanding that horses do not learn through fear or pain, but rather from pressure and the release of pressure.
It is a common misconception that Natural Horsemanship equals “wimpy” horsemanship, where the ‘relationship’ is prized above all else. This is not the case. Natural horsemanship trainers must use firm but fair force when necessary to ensure the safety of the rider or handler, as well as the horse. We simply do not use fear or pain to motivate the animal, nor do we attempt to force the animal into submission.
There are countless “schools” or theories of natural horsemanship but the following ideas are common to most of them:
- Horses are social herd animals, evolved for social interaction and the ability to escape predators. The horse has a highly developed communication system practiced primarily through body language. It is possible for humans to learn to use body language to communicate with the horse. Horses use ear position, head position, speed of movement, threatening gestures, showing of teeth and swinging of hips, and many other gestures to communicate. They are quick to escalate a behavior if early warnings are not heeded. Similarly, in natural horsemanship, the handler or trainer uses body language along with other forms of gentle pressure with increasing escalation to get the horse to respond. Horses are quick to form a relationship of respect with humans who treat them in this fashion; “firm but fair” is a motto.
- Most natural horsemanship practitioners agree that teaching through pain and fear do not result in the type of relationship that benefits both horse and handler. The object is for the horse to be calm and feel safe throughout the training process. A horse that feels calm and safe with his handler is quick to bond with that person, and the results can be remarkable.
- The human must be knowledgeable of the horse’s natural instincts and communication system, and use this knowledge in his work with the horse.
- Like many other forms of horse training, operant conditioning through pressure and release are core concepts. The basic technique is to apply a pressure of some kind to the horse as a “cue” for an action and then release the pressure as soon as the horse responds, either by doing what was asked for, or by doing something that could be understood as a step towards the requested action, a “try”. Timing is everything, as the horse learns not from the pressure itself, but rather from the release of that pressure. These techniques are based on the principle of reinforcement, rather than physical force, which most Natural Horsemanship practitioners avoid using whenever possible.
- Most Natural Horsemanship approaches emphasize the use of groundwork to establish boundaries and set up communication with the horse. This can include leading exercises, long reining and liberty work.
- As with all successful animal training methods, there is an emphasis on timing, feel and consistency from the handler.
Natural horsemanship has become very popular in the past two decades and there are many books, videos, tapes, and websites available to interested equestrians. This philosophy has capitalized on the use of behavioral reinforcement to replace inhumane practices used in some methods of training, the ultimate goal of which is a calmer, happier and more willing partner in the horse.
Natural Horsemanship avoids fear- and pain-based training methods. While natural and gentle methods of training have been around for millennia, dating to the advocacy of gentle methods by Xenophon in Ancient Greece, there have also been any number of techniques over the years that attempted to train a horse by breaking the horse’s spirit, often forcing it to fight back and then be dominated or defeated. Natural Horsemanship advocates point out that by removing fear an individual gains trust from the horse. By not scaring and hurting the horse, the horse learns to work with people in a partnership verses as an adversary.
Some well-known trainers considered to be practitioners of natural horsemanship in the late twentieth century include: Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, John Lyons, Buck Brannaman, Monty Roberts, and Pat Parelli.
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Many of the techniques used by Natural Horsemanship practitioners have ancient roots. The idea of working sympathetically with the horse’s nature goes back at least to Xenophon and his treatise On Horsemanship, which has influenced humane practitioners of horse training in many disciplines, including both natural horsemanship and dressage.
However, gentle training methods have always had to compete with harsher methods, which often appear to obtain faster, but less predictable results. In particular, the cowboy tradition of the American west, where the economics of needing to break large numbers of semi-feral horses to saddle in a short period of time led to the development of a number of harsh training methods that the Natural Horsemanship movement specifically has set out to replace. However, most of the original Natural Horsemanship practitioners acknowledge their own roots are in the gentler methods of some cowboy traditions, particularly those most closely associated with the “California” or vaquero horseman.
The modern Natural Horsemanship movement developed primarily in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountain states, where the “Buckaroo” or vaquero cowboy tradition was the strongest. Early modern practitioners were brothers, Tom and Bill Dorrance, who had background in the Great Basin “Buckaroo” tradition. They had a particularly strong influence on Ray Hunt and Hunt’s disciple, Buck Brannaman. Many later practitioners claim influence from the Dorrance brothers, including Pat Parelli and others.
Other trainers who developed from slightly different influences include John Lyons, who espouses a simple, easy to understand system for communicating effectively with horses; Monty Roberts, who claims to trace his work back to that of John Solomon Rarey, with additions from his own observations of horses. Several other practitioners claim inspiration from concepts used by Native American horse trainers.