Natural Horsemanship in the Grand Prix Ring – is there a link?

Natural Horsemanship in the Grand Prix Ring – is there a link?

By Lindsey Forkun, www.LFEquestrian.com

 

Natural horsemanship is a training phenomenon that has been gaining popularity all over the world. Primarily it seems that mostly Western riders and pleasure riders are the ones to pick up this new technique, but what about the English and Jumper riders? What about in the Grand Prix Show Jumping ring?

 

I went behind the scenes at the 2010 Royal Winter Fair to talk with some of the biggest names in Equestrian Sport to find out what they thought about natural horsemanship—whether it has a place in the Grand Prix arena.

When speaking with a number of Grand Prix riders it became quite clear that they didn’t really know what natural horsemanship meant. The term natural horsemanship was surprisingly unfamiliar to many of the riders.

Mac Cone, a top Canadian Show Jumper, was asked what do you think of natural horsemanship, and he responded with his own question – “huh, cowboy stuff?” When Brianne Goutal, a top upcoming American Show Jumper and Equitation medalist, was asked the same thing she said, “It's what we call positive reinforcement.”

Many of the riders thought natural horsemanship was the same thing as positive reinforcement. Before having conversations about natural horsemanship with many of the Grand Prix riders, it was clear that first they needed to understand what natural horsemanship really meant.

Natural horsemanship is different than positive reinforcement. It means using communication and leadership instead of intimidation and fear. Natural horsemanship is learning how to understand your horse, getting your horse to understand you, and learning about your horse so that you know how to motivate him, communicate with him, and get the best results from him.

Natural horsemanship is a method where you learn horse psychology and exercises to help each different horse personality type. It’s not a single method, but instead a process of understanding and interacting with your horse that you adapt to fit your needs and circumstance. The principles stay the same with all horses, disciplines, and handlers when using natural horsemanship – but it doesn’t mean always positive reinforcement or always following one pathway of exercises.

Natural horsemanship principles include:

  • Always start with your ideal cue - example, if you want your horse to go into trot with a soft squeeze from your leg, then you must always start with the soft squeeze before you progress to a stronger cue.
  • Geared toward a goal – for example, never hit your horse as a punishment. Only apply pressure to the horse if you are cueing the horse to do something such as squeezing or tapping to get the horse to move forward. As soon as the horse is moving forward the squeezing or tapping should stop.

There are more principles of natural horsemanship (read the book Natural Horsemanship: Answering the What, Why, and How for ALL Disciplines for more information), but after a brief explanation of a couple principles, the Grand Prix riders seemed to understand the basics of natural horsemanship.

Amy Millar, an accomplished Grand Prix Show Jumper, seemed to have a pretty good understanding. She explained that a friend of the family’s had come to their farm, brought a round pen, and taught them about a different type of training. When asked ‘What do you think about natural horsemanship,’ Amy said, “I think about really good basic horsemanship techniques like the horse should put his head down and want to take the bit when you're putting the bridle on as opposed to the groom standing on a ladder and fighting to get the bridle over their ears.” She further explains that it’s about “using the way that you position your body to make the horse do what you want, using the instincts—their natural instincts that they learn in a herd. Learning about what comes naturally to them and using that to get them to do what you want them to do.”

When asked about natural horsemanship in the Grand Prix arena, Amy says, “That's a bit of an evolution in our program.” She goes on to say, “If you talk to Ian [her father, Olympic Show Jumping medalist, Ian Millar], he says like anything else, you have to constantly evolve and stay with the sport. Awhile ago, we'll say, it was the way that you never got on a horse without a stick because if they do something wrong, the common wisdom was that you have a very short amount of time to discipline them before they move on….now we evolve… you get to trust them and they get to trust you and you don't really need them [the stick/crop]”.

Amy sums up her thoughts on natural horsemanship by saying, “I am very interested in it and I think that it has a strong application in proper training of horses. I think that horses have their own personalities and a lot of them thrive on positive reinforcement and repetition, just being shown over and over and over again until they get it.”

Amy shares that natural horsemanship has given her a competitive edge in the show ring. “We have been successful with some horses that, without these techniques, we would not have been able to be successful.” Amy goes on to say the only time natural horsemanship doesn’t work is when it’s used incorrectly.

Even riders that didn’t have familiarity with natural horsemanship still agreed with natural horsemanship principles – like Canadian Show Jumper Mac Cone, who said, “usually the more time you take to teach them the aids, the better it is. If you don't have the patience to slowly teach them the aids…that's when maybe you get into the whips and the chains and the beating, which is not correct. It's not taking your time.”

Equitation medalist and winner of the FEI 2010 World Cup class at the Royal, Brianne Goutal, practices a lot of positive reinforcement. She believes “happy horses jump better.” Brianne shows emotional control in the ring, never losing her calm, never using a crop, and always using a lot of positive reinforcement. She explains, “I think that if they're comfortable they jump better; if they're happy they jump better; if they're relaxed they jump better; so I'm very aware of not making them rattled and honestly making them happy.” She continues, I think that if you look at the nature of a horse; it's a herd animal so they're by themselves in the ring and they're naturally very aware of their surroundings and very skittish animals. Especially when you come to a show like this where they're all together in a small ring, and you throw them to the wolves alone, into a big ring with people and screaming and lights and flowers and everything. Especially the mare I'm riding tonight that won last night, she's very very careful and very aware of everything [but] if she's not relaxed, she doesn't jump as well.”

Another equitation medalist and top show jumper, McLain Ward, agrees with positive reinforcement but still insists on using the classical tools (crop and spurs). When speaking about natural horsemanship, McLain says, “I think it's a great basis for all training. It's a balance; I think anything in the extreme is not good, but you have to always start with the positive reinforcement and…use the classical tools.”

Many other top riders also thought natural horsemanship was important and applicable to the Grand Prix arena, including British Show Jumper Michael Whitaker. Michael explains that trust is definitely important, along with patience. He explains, “It's different for different horses. They're all different so you have to treat them different. That's the thing.” This is why natural horsemanship works for all horses – it is not a single method of training, but more a process of understanding your horse and using that knowledge to better interact with him.

Beezie Madden, an American Olympic Gold medalist, has experience with positive reinforcement. She told me, “We used positive reinforcement with Judgement [her championship horse] to jump the water. I think it's important. I think the best riders all do it.”

Beezie explains “They [horses] can out muscle us, so they have to have trust in us to work with us.” Beezie shares what she thinks is important when working with horses: “I think probably, never any anger involved or temper. I think consistency. If they don't know what to expect, that's when they have no trust. You have to be consistent with what you ask and how.” Beezie explains why natural horsemanship works— “You have to put yourself in their position a little bit and figure out how they can learn.”

Margie Engle, a top American show jumper, says “I think with the horses, the more they trust and like the rider the more they're going to want to do for them and they're going to try to be better for them.” Margie also offered up some important advice: “I think the main thing is just trying to keep the horses happy with their job and enjoying what they're doing and building trust is important and taking each one as an individual. Not trying to all make them go a certain way that you want them to go. You have to fit what goes best with their individual needs. What may work well for one may not work well for another. It's important to treat them as individuals.”

Leslie Howard is another American Olympic champion and says she is very interested in natural horsemanship – she believes “Any sort of positive reinforcement versus negative is a good thing.” She says, “I'm never one to get mad at a horse anyway…I'm a very go-with-the-flow rider and I'm a big believer in not ever losing your temper, and being very positive.” She leaves us all with a very important message: “Take your time, do it right.”

To watch a video that shows footage of these riders competing with audio of their comments and thoughts on natural horsemanship – check this link: www.lfequestrian.com/LetsTalkNH.php

All in all, it seems that many top riders in the Grand Prix arena believe that natural horsemanship definitely has a place in the competitive ring. Not only is trust, patience, and positive reinforcement important, but many of these riders expressed how natural horsemanship and trust has given them a competitive edge in the arena.

By Lindsey Forkun

Lindsey is dedicated to promoting positive partnerships through humane natural horsemanship for all equine disciplines. Free online advice, videos, and articles at www.LFEquestrian.com

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