What Is Natural Horsemanship?
How Do Horses Learn?
What IS natural horsemanship?? It is simply the language of the horse. It is how a human communicates with and handles a horse, on the ground and in the saddle. I actually dislike the term “natural horsemanship” because it is not natural at all! A prey animal (horse) trusting a predator (human) and doing things like allowing the human to move it’s body parts and ride on its back is not natural! I consider what many call “natural horsemanship” to just be HORSEMANSHIP! It is how we as humans, should all communicate with, interact with and train our horses. It’s just horsemanship, REAL horsemanship. COMMON SENSE horsemanship.
So what are the principals of real horsemanship? Horsemanship is the way we should always be around horses- it should not be considered a separate discipline. Jumping, dressage, roping and reining are disciplines. You can use real, common sense horsemanship to train a horse to do all 4 of those disciplines. If you know how a horse learns best, what is important to him, what he desires, how he thinks and what he responds to, it becomes pretty easy to train him, whether its jumping a course of jumps, moving forward in a lovely dressage frame or chasing a cow. Horses are PREY animals. People are PREDATORS. Horse are hardwired to be afraid and flee from scary situations because in nature, their life may depend on it. To them, a loud noise or plastic bag flying in the wind may be deemed a scary situation in which their life is in danger. This is good for a horse in the wild, but not so safe for the human on their back! If we stop acting like predators and start using the horses’ natural (there’s that word again!) language to communicate with them, we can teach them to trust us and as a result do amazing things, such as that jump course, pretty dressage frame or chasing that cow! It is pretty amazing to think that a thousand pound fearful prey animal would let a predator sit on his back and teach him to do things such as perform a task unnatural to him. So why does he allow this? Horses seek the least stressful place to be 100% of the time. They just want to relax and not fear for their lives, and occasionally have some fun! They seek leadership, someone to trust who will keep them safe. If we can provide safety and leadership to our horse, the same as he would find in his herd in the wild, it’s amazing what we can achieve together.
In order to be a leader to the horse and teach him to trust and follow us to that stress-free situation, we must speak his language and understand how he learns. Horses learn from the RELEASE of pressure. Let me repeat, the RELEASE of pressure. Horses do not learn by pressure and force. They learn when pressure is applied then released when they make the right choice. Pressure motivates them to do something, but the release is where they learn. Pressure motivates, release teaches. A lot of people have a hard time with this concept. The number of severe bits, crazy martingales, tie downs, crank and flash nosebands and other insane gadgets on the market today just proves this. If your horses face is clamped shut with a tight noseband, and another strap clamping his mouth shut, a too-tight bridle plus a harsh bit attached to heavy hands, there is no release. A horse ridden this way will be too concerned with bracing against pressure to actually learn something. He will never be light and responsive. Aids become meaningless when they are harsh and there is no release. Light hands can provide a proper release, a clamped down flash noseband can not. Have you ever noticed that the horses with the tight flash nosebands are usually the ones bracing against that strap trying to open their mouth? If you forgo the nosebands and let them play with the bit and open their mouth for awhile, over time, they will make the choice to stop fussing as training progresses. When you take that choice away from the horse by forcing their mouth shut, all they want to do is open their mouth and have a little bit of freedom. They look tense and stressed, which creates a poor expression, but imagine how he must be feeling to have it written all over his face.
Have you ever watched your horse interact with other horses? It is pretty easy to identify the herd leader. He can use body language to communicate to the others how he is feeling or what he wants them to do. If a horse is warning another horse to stay away, he will warn maybe by swaying his body or pinning his ears. In other words, he asks the other horse nicely to please move. If the other horse does, he releases that pressure and goes back to what he was doing. If the other horse does not listen, he TELLS the horse by increasing the pressure- maybe a more fierce stance or even a little threat of a bite or a kick. If then the 2nd horse abides, he immediately releases and all is happy in horse land. If he STILL does not move, the 1st horse will likely nail that horse with a good bite or kick! Notice, horses generally don’t attack, they give one stern signal then stop. Typically after this, the 2nd horse would know not to dismiss that other horses early signals and he would likely not get bit or kicked again. We need to remember this when we train our horses. Always first ask nicely before you tell. If they ignore you, then tell. If they still ignore you, then REALLY tell. But if he obeys the first time (or even makes an effort) when you asked nicely, quit. Release that pressure immediately. We need to be assertive, not abusive.
Many people are too passive while others are too aggressive. I have seen both sides, and many who are both at the same time, and have to admit that as a flawed human and have been on both sides myself. Good horsemanship is learned when a person can know when to apply the pressure, how much to apply, and when to take it away. Sometimes it may look like this person is being too soft, other times it may look like they’re pushing the horse too hard. But sometimes a lighter touch is beneficial, while others a more firm direction may be necessary. There is no one right way, it will depend on the horse and the situation- this is where FEEL and true horsemanship come into play, knowing what is appropriate when. True horsemanship is all about feel. That being said, you really can learn a lot about horses and how they learn by sitting and watching a group of horses interact.
The key to effective cues and release is how immediate they must be. The release must be quick and as soon as the horse does what you are asking... or at least tries. Great horsemanship legends like Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman always use the phrase “reward the smallest try, the slightest give” and I cannot stress how true this is! It is tempting to want it all at once, to have the horse do what you want on the first try, but it is so important to reward the first step of the process: the smallest try, the slightest give. I understand how sometimes this is frustrating as we tend to want it all on the first try! I can be impatient and have been guilty of this too, but we all learn over time. Just remember, “if you take the time it takes, it will take less time!” If you want to teach your horse to back up 4 steps and he shifts his weight back and actively thinks about it, release and stop. Praise him, then ask again. Next time he may take a tiny step. Release again. Then he may take a bigger step. Then 2 steps, then the next thing you know, your horse is backing with life on a light contact or soft feel. Lightness, softness and suppleness is what we all desire but few truly achieve. It starts by slowly, methodically, and punctually rewarding the slightest try.
So why do “natural horsemanship” people do so much on the ground before riding? Are they afraid to ride their horse? Horsemanship is more than just riding. Every time you handle your horse, you are training him. In order to gain your horses respect and control of his feet under saddle, you must first get it on the ground. Most of what we do under saddle can be taught on the ground first. I personally like to make sure my horse can move freely forward in each direction, stop by disengaging his hindquarters, back up, cross some obstacles and stand quietly while a “scary” stimulus is occurring (desensitizing), before I ever get on. I also like to be able to move the front and hind end independently, and start working on softening and breaking the poll. All of this preparation is not only for safety, but will also ensure that my first rides will be easier and more pleasant. I love riding and want to enjoy it, not have it become stressful and unenjoyable or even dangerous. Riding a strong, spooky horse with no breaks is really not my idea of a good time! I want my horse to go as fast as I like, but stop precisely when I ask, and not do much more then a look or slight flinch when we see a “scary” object. Having all of your controls in order before you get on is how you stay safe. On the contrary, I have seen groundwork overdone to the point where people don’t really accomplish much with their horses under saddle. If you do good, effective groundwork, it should all translate into the saddle meaning that you should be able to ride your horse and mirror all the things you did on the ground! That being said, that doesn’t mean you should stop your groundwork once you are confident in the saddle. It is always good to go back to it not only to teach new things but also to refine and improve what you already have. I am on a never-ending journey to refine each and every thing I teach my horse as there is always room to refine what you have even further, and that will make your horse a dream to ride!
Hope this all made sense! Onward to a journey of real, common sense horsemanship!
Turning Wild Horses Into Dream Horses
What you tolerate, you will never change Reward the smallest try, the slightest give Get to the feet
Pressure motivates, release teaches What you release is what you teach! Offer the good deal first
Make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy Do as little as you can but as much as it takes
Never have pressure without purpose unless you want to ruin your horse
Pick up on your reins like you're offering your best friend to the dance floor
Copyright © Bridget T. Sullivan