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“Natural Horsemanship” What is its Message?


In the world of “Natural Horsemanship”, there is a widely used phrase “be as soft as possible and as firm as necessary.” It you ask 20 people what Natural Horsemanship means, you will get 20 different answers. There is also a growing concern about how firm is too firm and how gentle is too gentle.


If you have ever watched a herd of horses competing for leadership, you will see just exactly how much pressure it will take to get the point across. Why is this an important issue to get resolved? The word “natural” associates and aligns itself easily with increasingly popular environmental idealism. It grabs the attention of a growing group of people who are already recycling, driving hybrids and buying earth-friendly dish soap. It also reminds me of the term “organic.” Some years ago, this term was coined to mean the food they produced was free from pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other potentially hazardous ingredients. Today, largely due to the fact that organics became such a desirable marketing tool, it is used to develop consumer confidence.

Rick Lamb, a well-respected advocate of “Natural Horsemanship”, articulates this subject by describing it this way:

“Natural Horsemanship begins with clearing one's mind of preconceptions and making a serious study of the nature of the horse as a unique animal species. It then requires a commitment to working with the horse's nature rather than against it. The specifics of the training methods don't matter as much as the underlying principles. A carpenter must understand wood. A mechanic must understand cars. A doctor must understand biology. Viewed this way, a natural horseman is simply an effective horseman, for any person who attempts to work with horses without understanding and respecting their nature is doomed to failure.”

  Rick Lamb

So how could you be doomed to failure? To answer the questions of “firmness vs. gentleness” and “why is this an important issue to get resolved?” you need to understand what has taken place in the last decade. There has been an alarming groundswell by animal rights advocates and other well-meaning animal lovers to treat horses with an “unnatural kindness.” Having a balance between firmness and gentleness is a very difficult message to get across to the riding public because it is an emotional and subjective topic that requires timing, feel, and accurate knowledge. Some clinicians take a head-on approach to the issue of firmness. Others dance around the issue to ensure they don’t offend anyone, and hope the real message woven between the lines comes through to those who are savvy enough to recognize it. I believe it is important to educate the public as to the true nature of a horse and to help them to fully understand the term we call “Natural Horsemanship.” Many clinicians avoid this term by saying, “There is nothing natural about putting a bridle and a saddle on a horse.” This only sidesteps the education process and excuses them from explaining the true nature of a horse.

How do we train a horse to do what we want, and how do horses learn new behaviors? “Natural Horsemanship” uses operant conditioning (operant conditioning deals with the modification of "voluntary behavior"). The word discipline means teaching - a type of “mental regulation” - but, it also uses something else; “negative reinforcement.” When a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus (commonly seen as unpleasant) and repeated over and over, it becomes a conditioned response. Many “Natural Horsemanship” trainers refer to their relationship with the horse not as a partnership, but as a “benevolent dictatorship.” The fact that this is a type of dictatorship and it is a removal of a negative reinforcement implies a more or less unpleasant training process. When we look at the behavior of a horse in a herd dynamic, we also see leadership - persuasiveness through force in the form of kicking, biting, bolting, striking, pushing and refusing to move. So, if we are honest with ourselves and look closely at what real horsemanship requires, we will see it is not all fluff and that we cannot treat “Precious” with the attitude of “don’t scold my horse because you will hurt his feelings.” “Natural Horsemanship” requires us to stand our ground and be a leader.

So, to answer the question of “why is this an important issue to get resolved?”many people get hurt every year because they lack the understanding that their sweet little pet can act in a way that is natural in the horse world but not in the human world. Trainers who understand the way a horse thinks and try to correct problems that may have been created by someone less educated, run the risk of being criticized by the animal rights advocates for being cruel. Many times these unwanted behaviors were created in the first place by the owner or handler’s fear of getting hurt. When a horse displays a behavior that may threaten the well-being of the owner or handler, it often paralyzes them so as to not react in time to fix the unwanted behavior; hence the horse learns how to display an unwanted and perhaps dangerous behavior.

Ultimately, realistically, and biblically, a human life is more valuable than that of an equine. As stewards of this life force, we need to protect both our life and that of the equine. To do so, we need to behave in a way that will bring honor to both species. Being as gentle as possible and as firm as necessary is a requirement for true leadership, but did you notice that failure to get the response is not an option? Once you place your request on the table, you must be prepared to go the distance - for as long as it takes - and turn up the heat to get compliance. In the equine world, leadership is manifested through controlling the feet in six directions and at three major speeds through the release of negative stimulus. This answer is still subjective as to how much is too much pressure; however, that distinction lies in the education of realistic methods of training laid out in the observation of herd behavior know as

“Natural Horsemanship.” “A natural horseman is simply an effective horseman, for any person who attempts to work with horses without understanding and respecting their nature is doomed to failure.”



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