The term natural horsemanship is probably one of the most controversial terms in all of horse-dom. Even the term itself is up for debate – what’s so “natural” about anything humans do with horses, after all?
Some view natural horsemanship as the “new way.” Others insist it’s the old way, just with better marketing. More likely, the truth is that kind and empathetic trainers and methods have always existed alongside the harsh and ignorant ones.
Regardless of the particular ‘brand’ of natural horsemanship, most techniques share a common ground based on understanding and respect for the horse’s psychology and physiological needs.
But you don’t need to trade in your breeches for blue jeans just yet! Most horsepeople will agree that working in communicative cooperation with the horse is just good horsemanship, regardless of your background or discipline.
With that in mind, here are 9 takeaways from the world of natural horsemanship that may help you in your pursuit of equitation excellence:
1) Equine Psychology
While we worry a lot about the outside of the horse, it’s on the inside that the real magic happens. Any good training tactic should have at its heart an emphasis on understanding how the horse thinks and perceives the world, and working from there. Regardless of what we do with horses, a solid understanding of their psychology is a necessary foundation for success.
2) Body Language
Knowing the mental state of the animal you’re working with is key to a successful partnership. Knowing that the horse is communicating, and responding appropriately, will make you more effective in the saddle, and can keep you safer on the ground, too.
And it’s not just the horse’s body language, either. The horse is reading your body language, too. Always be aware of what you are communicating and make sure your cues are consistent.
3) Herd Hierarchy
Lack of leadership is stressful to horses, who need an established herd pecking order, and their place within it, to feel safe.
As the “smarter” animal, it is our responsibility to provide this chain of command, to be the “lead” or “alpha” herd mate. Failure to do so may result in the horse, seeking a herd leader, trying to assume that role.
4) Do Your Groundwork
Groundwork lets you observe your horse’s body language, movement and reactions much more effectively than when you’re in the saddle. Teaching “manners” on the ground makes a safer, more respectful horse for all who handle him.
It’s also great for bonding with your horse: your horse learns just as much about your body language as you learn about his.
“The relationship people seek isn’t likely to be found on the horse’s back, but on the ground.”–Andy Booth, horse trainer
Ever seen a horse spook at the ribbon he’s just won? Or even a shadow that wasn’t there a minute ago… it doesn’t take much to spook a horse.
Exposing a horse to fearful stimuli in an enclosed, controlled environment (and without a rider on his back to worry about), helps the horse overcome his initial fear/ flight reaction, and also helps establish the human as a trustworthy guide through scary situations.
6) “New” Tack & No Tack
The concept of a rope halter or bitless bridle is hardly new, but they’re uncommon sights in the Equestrian world. Bitless bridles can help some ‘hard to bit’ horses, and many folks find rope halters more effective for groundwork.
While liberty riding demos show impressive feats of tack-less horsemanship, riding without tack isn’t the exclusive domain of naturalists. Learning to ride without tack is one of the best ways to improve your balance and ability. And lessen your stress when you lose a stirrup halfway through your next jumper round!
7) Pressure & Release
Pressure and release is a hallmark of most training methodologies, but not always very well understood. Horses flee pressure, which makes it an effective way to move a horse’s feet. However, they also seek the release of pressure. While the horse wants to move away from pressure, we want it to move into the release.
8) Timing is Everything
Failure to release the pressure you’ve put on your horse is counterproductive, but releasing at the wrong time may not accomplish much, either. Horsemanship, not unlike clicker training, which focuses on rewarding the animal at just the right time. After all, if the release is the reward, it needs to come at the moment of the desired behavior if it’s to be effective.
9) Goals, Not Schedules
Maybe it’s because there are no show seasons to worry about, but most (good) natural horsemanship practitioners seem more concerned with reaching a goal, not producing a result in a timeframe. Rushing doesn’t result in well-trained horses. Breakthroughs happen when the horse is ready, not when you are.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to say you’re probably already practicing some elements of ‘natural horsemanship’. Empathy, understanding, working with the horse’s instincts, and focusing on bonds and trust over submission and obedience isn’t just ‘natural’ horsemanship – it’s good horsemanship.
Have you ever done any “natural horsemanship”? If so, what was your experience like? Would you recommend it to other riders? I’d love to hear about your experience! Leave a comment below.