Some Notes on “Natural Horsemanship,” Part 1

The advent and popularity of natural horsemanship is, for all intents and purposes, proof that “what’s old is new again.”

Let’s face it: thinking horsemen have become fairly jaded after witnessing the meteoric rise of mediocre horsemen in our equestrian disciplines. So-called experts, these individuals are motivated largely by the commercial emphasis on competition-for-its-own-sake, and it reflects in their philosophies and attitudes towards horses and horsemanship. They have been hawking methods, philosophies and practices which have left many of us with a bad taste in our mouths. As concerned equine enthusiasts, we were hungry for something with more substance and less show, more compassion and less ego; something more in tune with our enlightened sensibilities and our love and respect for our animals. Out of this vacuum, a handful of horsemen emerged claiming to “discover” alternative methods of training and riding horses which would “revolutionize” the world of riding and training. And Natural Horsemanship was born.

Or, rather, it was “born again.” You see, what these alternative methods amount to is little more than a simple, but clever, re-branding of our timeless classical principles. And, in some cases, I mean literally “re-branding:” giving the method a new name followed by a registered trademark symbol. This is age-old wisdom given a makeover more in line with modern sensibilities – a new-agey feel, a cool new jargon for those “in the know,” and a glossary of terms straight out of a self-help book. Dr. Phil horsemanship, if you will. Because, let’s face it: “classical” sounds kind of stuffy and snobbish; in terms of marketing it lacks the cozy, relaxed feel that makes “natural” sell so well.

And there is also the “miraculous” element to consider. Often we see ordinary tools of equitation – bits, halters and other forms of tack – given a slick overhaul and a hefty price tag, which becomes “indispensable” equipment that we are promised will produce magical results unattainable with ordinary tack. Sometimes, horses are made to respond to human prompts in ways that seem supernatural to the inexperienced eye, but which any observant and experienced horseman will already understand as the ordinary behavior of ordinary horses that have been properly handled. And other times, horses are simply made to perform odd tricks that are more circus than serious horsemanship.

And, let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If it appeals to you and works for you, stick with it… so long as you are able to turn a critical eye on what you see, hear and do in relation to this philosophy. Many people have good results with this school, and it is certainly a better alternative than the usual kick-and-yank cram-school most horses are run through in the name of competition and sales. I am not here to bash natural horsemanship or those who practice it. In fact, it has a lot going for it that I think is very positive. As the tenets of natural horsemanship are usually a simple rehashing of classical teachings, there is much to like about these methods, even if the marketing of them can verge on the absurd. There is, for example, much to be commended in natural horsemanship’s exhortation to treat horses equitably and find ways to communicate with them that are better understood and better received than the simple use of force. Who can argue with that?

But where “natural” lets us down is in the misconceptions it creates in uneducated amateurs with its careless language and promotion. This is probably because many instructors in this method reach their students primarily through books, articles, newsletters and videos, rather than one-on-one consistent instruction in the real world. This leaves the material wide open for all kinds of wild and erroneous interpretations, which, without correction from a qualified instructor, can be a disaster. It is this irresponsibility and unaccountability on the part of the instructors that leads to trouble, and in turn gives this kind of horsemanship a bad name. When proponents of natural horsemanship are irresponsible in this way, they indirectly give license to many followers to ignore sound training practice in favor of misleading themselves that natural horsemanship means “just letting horses be natural.”

For too many, “natural horsemanship” means nothing more than allowing the horse to behave as it would in nature. This semi-knowledge among amateurs that call what they do horsemanship is anything but. Considering that horses are fundamentally wild animals with instinctual natures, and that they need to be domesticated and trained in order to serve as partners for human endeavors, isn’t the very concept of a training method that seems to propose non-training something of a paradox?

This is not what true natural horsemanship is about.

Using a horse’s natural instincts and behaviors as a means to facilitate its training without force is very different than allowing a horse to behave as his most base instincts dictate and pretend that is training.

Good horsemanship, natural or otherwise, is hard. It takes dedication, discipline and patience. There is no magic formula or enchanted piece of tack that makes all of this happen “naturally.” And yet for those who can’t be bothered to put in the effort, the allure of “natural horsemanship” becomes a mirage of salvation to them, just as draw reins, wire bits or drugs are to their counterparts at the other end of the spectrum. Their distorted vision of what it requires is a figment of their wishful thinking. And it seems that those who are out to make a living as purveyors of this method are happy to allow their consumers to delude themselves so long as it makes the buyer feel good, because that’s what keeps the money rolling in. But the damage to horses and the dangers to riders is no mirage. It is real, present and serious.

You cannot learn horsemanship through a correspondence course. In the absence of real hands-on education and experience in horsemanship, too many consumers of this product get nothing more than rudimentary, long distance education in horsemanship and think this is enough. They’re sold gimmicks, gadgets and tricks which are all show and no substance, and no one is there to tell them if they’re using it correctly. For the novice, nothing could be more wrong or more dangerous. Partial understanding of anything means ignorance of the rest, and this is always risky, particularly when working with horses.