"Natural Horsemanship" Part 2

Case in Point: Client from Hell

When I was still training professionally, I encountered a client who was every serious trainer’s worst nightmare. She was an utter novice with little to no experience with horses who decided one day to purchase a poorly bred grade horse from a picture on the internet. As if that wasn’t enough to make one cringe, this horse was still a foal; weaned and shipped cross-country at three months old. And this owner, who had no experience, apparently decided she’d become his surrogate mother. But, unlike an equine mother – who instills discipline and knowledge in her offspring – this owner simply coddled this foal as if he were a puppy for four years in her backyard until he was dropped abruptly on my doorstep.

You see, this owner was an armchair equestrian. With no experience and no education in riding or training horses – much less raising and producing youngstock – she undertook the huge responsibility of developing a young horse through his most formative years armed only with a handful of books and videos, an internet connection and an erroneous preconceived idea of what “natural horsemanship” meant. In her limited comprehension of the term and its philosophy, she proceeded to ruin what might have been a perfectly adequate horse.

Then, when she decided it was time to ride him (and when he had clearly become too much for her to manage,) she sent him to me for backing. From early on in my riding career, I have had a knack for starting young horses and successfully rehabilitating challenging, difficult and even dangerous horses that others have given up on, in hopes of giving them a second chance. I have never worked with a horse that did not improve with the right handling and training, including my best showjumper, who had been written-off as untrainable before I started working with him. So, I naturally agreed to work with her horse, on condition that she would also come to the farm and develop her own riding and handling skills as well.

I can honestly say, after years of managing and training for high-end breeders and show stables, working with everything from babies to stallions, ex-racehorses, and abuse cases, this was, hands down, the worst horse I have ever encountered – but through no fault of his own. Sure he was common and poorly bred, but that can usually be compensated for with good training. No, the problem was that he was simply the most spoiled animal I’ve ever set eyes on. He would stand on the crossties to be groomed and use his front feet to strike brushes from his owner’s hand or would bite savagely – not playful nips, mind you, but blood-drawing, ferocious bites, all with impunity. He mauled other horses in the herd. He destroyed fencing and other property, requiring us to electrify his paddock. He destroyed his stall and everything in it. It soon became clear that I could not expect my staff to handle the horse, as he tried every opportunity to savage anyone who came near to him. I had to become his sole handler, though this required more of my time than I had planned. But this I did with a view to maintaining a consistent, firm – but fair – working relationship with him.

And, of course, it worked. With consistent handling, proper in-hand work, roundpenning and longeing, we saw a remarkable change in him. He was far from perfect, but there was hope that patience, persistence and consistency would pay off. He was now respectful, quiet and willing to learn. We had made real progress.

After several weeks of careful work, we felt confident to back him. And it went off without a hitch. He stood quietly for mounting, moved forward from the leg, steered and stopped, without so much as a head-shake or a rounding of his back. Within a month, he would be walking and trotting confidently under tack.

And then: disaster.

It was time to get his owner in on the act. And no sooner did she reappear in the picture than all of his old demons reared their heads again.

It was clear that when he saw her he saw a someone he could walk all over. She didn’t want to stand up to him and demand his respect, however gently, because he might think she was being "mean" to him and might not like her if she did. In her mind, “natural horsemanship” was about communing with nature through some kind of mystical telepathic transmission to the horse. She seemed to honestly believe that if she just stood passively by, thought good thoughts and made nice, her horse would magically do what she wanted. And if he didn’t? That was fine too, since “natural horsemanship,” in her warped view, meant allowing the horse to act naturally; that is, letting the horse do whatever came naturally to him. Anything less would crush his spirit and, therefore, be abusive. So, not surprisingly, he reverted back to this semi-wild state whenever she handled him. Without any direction or leadership from her, he resumed his role as aggressor in order to dominate his owner. And she, failing to recognize this as insecurity at being left without a confirmed place in the “hierarchy,” saw nothing detrimental in this.

Again, he began to bite and to strike at people – including his owner – whenever she was around. But even worse, for several days after she left, he’d be trying on his rediscovered dominant role to see how much he could get away with. Each time she would visit, I would spend days repairing the damage she had done to his progress. After one of her visits when she allowed him to strike brushes from her hand, I was grooming him on the crossties; I bent over to get a brush out of my grooming box and he lunged at me, snapping a crosstie in the process, and struck out at my head, breaking my nose and fracturing my eye socket. When I informed her of this, her response was: “Oh well.” She was unconcerned. That was “just him.”

I tried to get through to her, and make her understand that she was not doing this horse any favors by allowing him to behave in this way, and that someone was going to get hurt (in fact, someone had been hurt!) I tried to teach her the appropriate way to handle and interact with him. Each time she shrugged off my suggestions. To rule out a medical condition or hormonal imbalance, we had a complete veterinary exam including testing his testosterone levels, all of which were normal. But still, the more she handled him, the worse he got. All of the careful and patient work I had done with him was unraveling – and she was the one pulling the thread.

Nothing I could do or say to this woman would convince her that what she thought was “natural horsemanship” was not only unproductive, but downright dangerous. I offered her free lessons in handling and longeing, all of which she ignored. When she longed him, he would charge at her in the center of the circle and rear over her head (something he never tried with me.) She would laugh it off, as if he were just playing a game with her. When I handed her a whip as a deterrent (explaining she didn’t need to hit him with it, but that he needed to respect her space) she informed me that carrying a whip under any circumstance was abusive and I was subject later to a two hour teary phone conversation in which she told me she felt I was abusing her horse and intimidating him, even though I had never struck the horse with the whip. (She seemed to completely miss the fact that her horse had just abused her.) I did make clear, however, that when a horse aggressively charges you and invades your space, you had better be prepared to do something other than just stand there like an ineffectual idiot and passively let it happen. She refused. I was then inundated with a barrage of well-meaning but completely inapplicable and irrelevant articles downloaded off the internet. I was handed a book on “ways to pamper your horse” and it was suggested I was not feeding him enough treats. Frankly, how could a person be this ridiculous, I wondered? And how on earth had she survived into adulthood being this idiotic? I was in disbelief. I was being challenged by the most amateur of armchair equestrians.

She honestly seemed to believe that holding a whip was evil, while allowing a horse to aggressively charge and threaten her was “natural” and therefore perfectly okay. I asked her to come out to the farm to watch me work with the horse more often, so that she could understand that good results could be obtained without abuse or force, but that one had to be firm and consistent. Against my better instincts, I wanted to continue with the horse and his owner in hopes that I could help them both and prevent either one from having a dangerous incident.

But, it was all to no avail. She had it on authority, she thought, from the “experts” of “natural horsemanship” that her bizarre notions were correct. She had the articles to back it up, she thought. I finally realized that there was no getting through to her. I couldn’t appeal to her concern for her own safety or that of her horse. She was a Darwin Award recipient in the making who was giving us all ulcers just being in her presence. She seemed determined to select herself out of the population with obstinacy, ignorance and arrogance.

Neither common sense nor empirical results mattered. She read a book once and watched a video, so now she was an expert, too. Why she even bothered to go to a trainer if she knew best is still beyond me. I finally concluded that I couldn’t have a horse or a client like this in my barn putting myself, my staff and other clients in danger, and I couldn’t take the chance of her getting hurt on the premises either. I politely suggested she find another trainer – one who might entertain her bizarre notions of horsemanship better than I. And we all breathed a sigh of relief when they departed. But, for the first time in my life, I had given up; not on the horse, who I knew could have been salvaged, but on the owner, who was beyond help. Ignorance on her part, and perhaps my inability to educate her out of her delusions, became too great an obstacle to overcome. However, the legions of self-taught "natural horsemanship" self-proclaimed experts are increasing their ranks daily, and I have no doubt she found someone who is happy to take her money and allow her to continue in her absurd fantasies of horsemanship unmolested. I just hope no one gets hurt....