The term “Natural Horsemanship” is popping up everywhere these days. Many modern horsemen and horse trainers have coined the term, each and everyone of them in a slightly different way. Clinton Anderson, who is very respected for his horsemanship skills, but even more for his natural ability to teach his concepts to us “normal” people, Monty Roberts, who has defined the concept of “Join up”, and Pat Parelli, who teaches a lot about feel and non violent horse training methods – just to name a few. In this article I will not so much get into the methods of training a horse using Natural Horsemanship methods, there is a wealth of information on this topic, and many excellent books have been written (please refer to our resources page) detailing the different ways and aspects of horse training. Here I will be explaining and talking about what Natural Horsemanship is, and what it means to us.
What is Natural Horsemanship?
When starting out on the journey with horses, the wealth of information can be overwhelming, and it is not easy to find your way through the jungle of terms, concepts, and opinions, yet alone finding out, what works best, or is the most “natural” way to train a horse. That being said, if we step back and use our common sense, we can start seeing the whole picture, instead of only the pieces of a puzzle.
Natural horsemanship comes all down to simply keeping and handling a horse as close to his nature as possible. However, this is not as simple as it seems to a human being, and by no means is it easy. It is not just a certain horse training plan, it is a philosophy, a way of life and partnership between us and our horses. It does not just refer to how we teach our horses, but it is an all inclusive concept, starting at how we keep them.
Horses are herd animals, they feel most secure if kept in a herd environment, even if it is a mini herd of only two horses. They need room to run, play, graze, to just be horses. It is not always possible to keep a horse the perfect way, but we should strive to create the best possible environment we can manage for them. This means for example daily turnout for as long as possible for stabled horses, or keeping a donkey (even a mini donkey or mini horse) as a companion.
When it comes to handling a horse, we most importantly have to be aware of the fact, that whenever we are with our horse, we teach him, whether we realize it or not. We either teach him the right thing or the wrong thing, but we are always teaching! For example, if our horse constantly runs into us or is too close when he is being led, or keeps stepping on us when groomed, he has obviously not leared how to keep out of our personal space, or put differently, he has learned, that he can step in our space whenever he wants to. However we want to put it, the horse in this case is lacking respect. However, from the horse’s point of view, this is completely natural behavior. Horses have a pecking order, and a horse is always allowed to enter the space of another horse that is on the same level or under him in the pecking order. In terms of Natural Horsemanship, this means that we have to establish our place as a leader, we have to be always the alpha horse, which in turn means, it should be natural for us to not allow our horse to push into us in any way, because if he does, to him it means, that he is the boss, and therefore can do whatever he likes. This can be extremely dangerous for us, if not even fatal. The horse doesn’t make a difference between us and another horse. He doesn’t know, that a bite can cost us a finger, or a kick can kill us. He will treat us exactly as he would another horse.
What does the horse think about all this?
From the horses’s point of view, disciplining him, and expecting him to do what we ask of him, is very natural for him. He shows this kind of behavior all the time. We only have to watch the alpha mare in our pasture to understand this. She will discipline any horse, that comes into her space uninvited, or dares easting her hay. She will first exhibit threatening behavior like pinning back her ears, but she will kick hard, if she has to to get her point across. This is what horses understand. As Clinton Anderson puts it, horses are very “black and white” .
Treating a horse like a pet or a friend therefore, is not fair to the horse, because it confuses him, he doesn’t know where he belongs, or what is the right thing to do. If a horse is left in this confusion, he will either become dull, or worse, he will start establishing his rank as the alpha horse over time. This leads to an aggressive and dangerous horse, that is all but a pleasure to be around. But it is not his fault, it is us humans, who have left him with no choice, but to take matters into his own hands, and establish the pecking order he so desperately craves himself.
Am I not allowed to love my horse?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Natural Horsemanship. It is often said, that it is unnatural to discipline our hoses, that we as humans do not have the right to treat an animal we respect and love as being inferior to us, or under us in the pecking order. However, people tend to forget, that we humans are predators, and horses are prey animals. Horses have a very different point of view, they actually do things the opposite way of how we would do it. It would not be natural, nor would it be fair to expect the horse to adapt to our level of thinking. We have to use our brains to get down to their level of communication. That doesn’t mean we are not allowed to love our horses, or have to always keep them at bay. Once we have established respect, we can trust the horse more and more, and can invite him in our space. Although we still have to work on maintaining our position, we will be able to develop a partnership based on mutual trust, respect, and love for each other.
Is Natural Horsemanship natural?
In my opinion, if we want to be completely natural, we have to leave the horses where they came from, out in the wild without human contact or fences. Once we take them on and out of their natural environment, we are responsible for them. That means, we have the duty to teach them respect and appropriate behavior around human beings, in order to enable us to care for them. For example, if the horse is not well trained, it can be very hard or even downright dangerous for us to try and treat him for an injury, or deworm, or vaccinate him.
Natural Horsemanship is, after all, although disciplining the horse is an essential part of it, the most natural way to keep and treat our horses, because it is what the horse understands, and where he can feel safe and comfortable. Let’s just go out, sit on a fence post for a while watching our horses, and leaning from the professionals – the alpha horses!