Natural Horsemanship: A Brief (and probably biased) Overview

Natural horsemanship is a catchall phrase that actually covers a huge swath of territory when it comes to approaches to horse training, so it is probably useful here to talk about what I mean when I use it.

For many of us who grew up watching Westerns, our image of training a horse was a cowboythrowing a saddle on a wild or green horse and riding the bucking beast until it’s will was broken. Especially troublesome horses were often trained (punished) in often severe ways until they were pliable.

We still see remnants of this tradition in the competitive rodeo tradition today, but we seldom see it used as a respectable method of training a horse for riding. To be fair to the old school, for the military and for the cattle business, there were financial and time constraints that required methods of breaking a horse to saddle and rider that were quick and generally effective. There were also a fair number of very gifted horsemen and women who “broke” horses this way, but genuinely loved and respected their horses and minimized anything that seemed cruel in the process.

Natural Horsemanship probably evolved out of a group of horsemen and women who brought to horse training some sense of a horse’s natural state and natural behavior patterns. By careful observation, intuition, and trial and error, they discovered ways of training a horse to be ridden that were far gentler and less coercive.

The Horse Whisperer starring Robert Redford

The Horse Whisperer starring Robert Redford

This approach has been dramatized and popularized in films like “The Horse Whisperer,” with Robert Redford, and documentaries like “Buck,” about the work of Buck Brannaman. So Natural Horsemanship evolved in contrast to that harder and harsher (and, some might say, crueler) method, but it is really part of a spectrum of how one might relate to a horse. At one end of that spectrum is absolute dominance of a horse by force, coercion, punishment, and fear. At the other end of the spectrum is absolute deference to a horse (“Never make a horse do anything it doesn’t want to do”). The one end of the spectrum seems overly cruel and the other end of the spectrum is largely ineffective. It’s probably important to note that no one actually trains horses from either extreme of this spectrum. Breaking a horse gives you a broken horse (in all the wrong ways) and letting a horse do what it wants gives you an unridable and unreliable horse. For me, Natural Horsemanship just falls along the spectrum at a point that is far less cruel and far more respectful of the horse, while still being effective for getting a horse to a point where it can be ridden.

Criticism of Natural Horsemanship has come from both ends of the spectrum. More traditional trainers complain that “Natural Horsemanship is nothing new. It’s just what good horsemen and horsewomen have always done. It’s now just more slickly packaged. Criticism from the other end of the spectrum argues that Natural Horsemanship is still coercive and fear-based and misunderstands the real nature of horse behavior in the wild (especially around the idea of herd dominance). If this criticism actually generates useful training methods that are less coercive and more aligned with a horse’s natural behavior, then I’m all for them. So far, however, the jury is still out.

The bottom line is that even though we may call it Natural Horsemanship, riding a horse is always going to be unnatural to the horse. Getting to the point where a horse and a human have enough trust and relationship to move as one is a process that requires hopefully less than punishment, pain, and fear but usually something more than hanging out with a lot of horse treats and just rewarding any positive behavior a horse demonstrates.

Training a horse to accept a rider, jump, or perform complicated tasks is never a natural thing to do to that horse. The word “Natural” in Natural Horsemanship should be more rightly thought of as simply being more natural on a spectrum of training possibilities than violently breaking a horse’s will. It would do any trainer good to always question the dogma of any system of thought and look for better ways of doing things. But even then we need to be careful. “Better” can all too often just mean faster, more efficient for us and more satisfying to our ego need to be seen as an effective horse trainer. It may not necessarily be better for the horse.

I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen and experienced of Natural Horsemanship, impressed enough to continue to use its guiding principles and many of its techniques in my work, while, at the same remaining open and willing to experiment with less coercive training methods or new understandings of horse behavioral psychology.

Kelly working with Buzz Lightyear, a gelding belonging to Pam and Dan Yohn at Timberline Ranch, LLC.