Mythbusters: Natural Horsemanship vs. Conventional Training
By guest blogger, Laurene Hummer
In the horsemanship world, it often seems as though riders and trainers have an all-or-nothing, can’t turn back choice to make: you’re either doing natural horsemanship, or you’re a conventional rider. But is this divide really warranted? Are “conventional” riders, such as dressage riders, jumpers, hunters and the like really all that different from those that practice “natural” training, aka “Natural Horsemanship”?
My answer is, absolutely not. To me, those “conventional riders” are integrating Natural Horsemanship into their training methods, no matter the discipline. They don’t need a cowboy hat or an orange stick, although I do like the look!
“Natural Horsemanship” can be boiled down to a way of training horses that makes sense to them naturally. Instead of trying to teach a horse to comprehend human language and cues, Natural Horsemanship uses the language horses employ to communicate amongst themselves as its main training tool. It is the basis for groundwork as well as mounted natural horsemanship training. Many English riders utilize the same concepts at all levels of conventional training, from starting a horse under saddle and teaching it the basics to Olympic level performance. They just may not realize that they are doing it.
To give a quick example of what I mean, let’s take the most basic and elementary principles one can teach a horse: squeeze means go, and pull means stop. When an English rider wants their horse to move forward, they will squeeze their legs, putting pressure on the horse’s sides. If the horse doesn’t react, the rider may click his tongue, squeeze harder, and finally use spurs or a crop. In doing so, the rider gradually increases the pressure until a reaction is obtained from the horse. Once the horse moves forward, the rider releases the pressure, teaching the horse that moving forward was the right response. Similarly, once a rider is ready to stop his horse, he will still his seat, and apply more and more pressure on the reins until he obtains the desired response. Once the horse has halted, the rider will (or should!) release the pressure on the reins to reward the horse for stopping.
Applying pressure and releasing as a reward for good behavior is also a fundamental tool of natural horsemanship and is the foundation for pretty much any training exercise. A simple example is asking the horse to back up. In natural horsemanship, backing up a horse accomplishes several things: it establishes dominance over the horse (if you’re not the boss, good luck getting your horse to respect you out of the goodness of his heart), pushes the horse outside of your personal space (which he should not have invaded in the first place), and establishes control over the horse’s feet. The natural horsemanship trainer will stand facing the horse and ask him to back up, increasing the pressure just like the English rider did in the example above. First, he will wiggle the lead line, putting a slight pressure on the horse. Then, he will move forward towards the horse’s chest. If that doesn’t work, the trainer will then start swinging his orange stick methodically side to side in front of him in the space between him and the horse, or tap the horse’s chest to kindly suggest that the horse move. As soon as the horse backs up, the trainer releases all pressure.
Now you see how both “Conventional,” English practitioners and natural horsemanship aficionados utilize pressure and release to obtain desired results – they work with the same concept in different ways. So how is this a natural horsemanship technique? Or, more precisely, how is that “horse language”?
In a herd, horses always establish a hierarchy of dominance. It is a fluid hierarchy as horses are always testing each other, but it is established thanks to putting pressure on others and releasing. A lead horse will dominate a rookie if he succeeds to make him yield under pressure. He will face the other horse squarely, pin his ears, bare his teeth, and even turn around and kick. He will release the pressure once the other horse has moved – thus accepted dominance. Horses understand this basic concept of pressure and release and use it to communicate amongst themselves. It makes sense to them and is a simple but very powerful tool to obtain results.
I believe Natural Horsemanship principles can be used in any discipline to offer horses less stressful and quicker training. What do you think?