Walking The Talk of Natural Horsemanship

Hello and greetings to everyone from Riversong Ranch in Alberta. I’m sitting here in my office reading over a recent chat I found on Barnmice about the merits – pros or cons – of Natural Horsemanship. And I must say that I am truly encouraged by most of the comments I read that seemingly indicate that now that the natural horsemanship “revolution” is over that perhaps now the evolution of natural horsemanship into “supernatural horsemanship” will begin.

Despite all the marketing hype and smoke and mirrors around natural horsemanship, and the fact that so many thousands of people like to talk about more enlightened and user friendly methods of horsemanship, it has been my experience that once people actually get out of the chat rooms and into the real world of working with horses - that our equine friends remind us that “talk is cheap” and that “actions speak louder then words”.

What I find most fascinating and somewhat frustrating at times is how people just naively and automatically associate all so called “natural horsemanship trainers” or so called “horse whisperers” into the same category. Yet we all know that when someone says that they are a dressage rider, jumper, or reiner, that NOT all dressage, jumping or reining trainers will offer the same advice or methodology on “how to get there” with a horse.

I can not emphasize enough that NOT ALL NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP methods or techniques are the same. And frankly, it makes me cringe in disbelief when I read in a chat room about how a person is “mixing” the methodologies or systems of two natural horsemanship trainers whose methods absolutely and unequivocally contradict each other. That will just create chaos and stress for any horse!

Having said all of the above – if there is a real merit to natural horsemanship I believe it is not to be found in the marketing of redesigned ropes, halters and whips, but rather in the message found in the philosophy and psychology of NH horsemanship that (supposedly) stays focused on the old self help cliché of “in life it's not the destination, it's the journey that counts".

And what has this got to do with horses? Well, with our equine friends this philosophy about life is not just “talk” – with horses we must learn to “walk the talk” and clearly and consistently communicate with body language and the integrity of our behaviour to our horses that “it’s the quality of the journey that counts”.

Whether we are working with our horses on the ground or in the saddle, if we "let a horse go" when we needed to "make a horse go" then the horse will not respect us. On the other hand, if we "make a horse go" when we needed to "allow a horse to go" then it will not trust us.

For instance: Imagine you are with your horse either on the ground or in the saddle and you're asking your horse to stand still and quiet. But your horse moves. Suddenly pulling or jerking on the head of the horse to "whoa" may or may not get your horse to stand still but it does nothing to develop a willing partnership. Yet I constantly see everyone from dressage riders to jumpers, reiners, endurance riders AND so called advocates of natural horsemanship pull on their horses face to stop the horse from moving.)

FACT: Any pulling pressure at all to cause a horse to halt is bullying and forcing a control freak agenda on an innocent creature. A horse is a prey animal and they are willing and able to stand still and quiet when they have no stress. If a horse needs to move when a rider does not want it to then rather then forcing the horse to stand still perhaps we should ask the important question of accountability; "why doesn't my horse feel comfortable enough with me in this environment to be willing to stand still?"

Hard fact to swallow but true - When a horse both respects and trusts his or her rider implicitly then it feels, not just decides but FEELS, that being with his or her leader is definitely in the best interest in the horse and there is no need to “get away” from the rider or the environment.

Another hard fact to swallow: A “nervous” or hot to trot horse, or a horse who calmly and defiantly simply refuses to stand still does NOT respect and trust the rider enough for the rider to realistically expect that horse to stand still without getting into a tug-of-war pulling match!

So the psychological art involved here is not to use bullying tactics to force a horse to be with a rider. We can't really force anyone to want to be with us. Our horses, our family, our friends should want to be us because they respect, trust, admire and, yes, love us, not because we threaten them with negative reinforcement when and if they leave. So how do we put into equitation practice – NOT JUST THE TALK – but the ability to WALK THE TALK with methodology and communications skills that express to our horse: “If I love something I set it free – and if it comes back to me it is mine – if it does not come back to me then it never was mine to begin with.”

But too often the realilty is: “Ah screw the philosophy – just rope’ em, corner’ em or put a chain on them and show them who is boss!”

My point here is that the horses will only give themselves over to us willingly if we care enough to read "why" they need to leave us and to respond appropriately according to both the herd psychology and body language of equus.

It is the art of horsemanship that involves empathy and psychology with a determined focus to always find the perfect balance between respect and trust so that a horse sees his or her rider as a force to be reckoned with but nothing to be afraid of.

When a rider knows how to not only push the buttons correctly on a horse but also knows how to read and feel the energy and emotions of a horse well enough to do so with just the perfect amount of pressure in just the right place at just the right time, so as to be neither too hard or too soft on a horse, then a horse begins to dance instead of merely obey. The real magic begins when a horse knows that you not only know how where the buttons are but that you also know where the horse is at emotionally and that you adjust yourself to their psychological needs. Having said that, perhaps the most dramatic example of this concept is when it comes to the difference between "making a horse go" or "letting a horse go".

If the body language of a horse indicates that it is frightened and or leaves respectfully then we should simply allow the horse to move otherwise it will not trust us. Soon the horse will trust us and be relaxed enough to be willing to stand with us. On the other hand, if the body language of a horse demonstrates aggressive or rude body language when it needs to move then we should definitely "push" the horse to go or it will never respect us.

For example, if while you're standing with a horse it walks forward through your space on the ground with a high head pulling on the bit while you are in the saddle then you have been "walked through" and pushed. This is “aggressive resistance” so when we "push back" by telling the horse to do a turn on the forehand then we have met "push with push" and by pushing the hindquarters of the horse away from you during the turn on the forehand your push not only disengages the movement of the horse but it also brings the horse right back to you. You essentially said with your response "since you pushed through me I'll push you right back to me". You might be surprised just how quickly doing two or three turns on the forehand with a pushy horse will get it to make it his or her idea to stand still willingly.

On the other hand, a horse backing up away from you is offering "passive resistance" and yes, it is moving and it is leaving you but it is not being rude to you when it is leaving. Backing away from you is (more often then not) the way a horse says "nothing personal, but with all due respect I've got to go." If you try to stop or push this horse it will only become stressed and worried and it will not be able to trust you. However, if when the horse backs up you actually back away from it yourself while on the ground, or simply turn the horse laterally without any aggressive push forward, if you meet passive with passive, more often then not the horse will then engage back to forward movement and come right back to you. A horse will trust you if you let it go when it needs to go and before long it is willing to stand still.

We have an expression in our culture called "bowing out" and it comes from the horses. Naturally, within the herd, when a horse wants to move but it can't go forward (because if it did it would be intruding upon the space of a dominant horse), then that horse will lower its head and back up, bowing out to say "with all due respect I'm in over my head here" and you never see a dominant horse get aggressive with a horse who is bowing out. When a horse bows out, "let it go" and it will trust you, start to relax, and soon not feel the need to bow out and will be ready to stand still. We also have other expressions such as "uppity" or "cold shoulder". When a horse moves towards you flipping or twirling its head at you or has its head turned away from you but is bumping into you with its shoulder then it is time to "make it go" or it will not respect you. How assertively we "make a horse go" should be determined by the "tell tale signs".

A horse pushing you with a curled calm tail needs a mild push back as it is merely testing your self esteem and boundaries. A horse with a swishing tail is more intrusive and will need a slightly firmer push away while a horse who is "high tailing it" with his or her tail held high like a flag in the wind is feeling aggressively “playful” and needs yet a firmer and more determined push away from you. A horse with a wringing tail is aggressively challenging "who pushes whom" and needs a serious "get away from me with that attitude". Adjust your push accordingly and you'll balance a newfound respect with trust.

But never push away a low headed horse with a closed or tight tail. This horse is sullen and overwhelmed and if and when it needs to move it needs you to "release it" and allow it to move or it will never be able to trust you.

When horses find that we care about them enough to stay in the moment and not only know where to push the buttons but also how often and how much or when not to push the buttons then they see us as shepherds looking out for their best interest and they want to be with us. Yes, we all love our horses, but it is the fine art of empathy and awareness for the true needs of a prey animal that helps them decide to love us in return.

In closing, as always, please remember, ask not what your horse can do for you - ask what you can do for your horse!

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Comment by Linda White on December 15, 2009 at 11:00am
Chris, it's time I came back to following your lead. When I read your pieces, my mind always clears, and problems seem more solvable. Over the years I have looked at other clinicians and each offers some wisdom, but your insights about communication between horses and riders are solid and logical. Thanks for continuing to share those insights with the rest of us through your writing.
Comment by Penny Siml on July 20, 2009 at 11:25pm
Chris, I have to take a moment to thank you.

I had a monumental evening with my horse and the herd. Recently, my biggest problem has been getting past the herd to take Asia out of the pasture. Typically, when entering the pasture, we have two friesians and two BLM mustangs who are "in your face" and won't let Asia close to me. The mustangs can be very respectful and are very light in their response. However, the friesians are a totally different story! I tried a little bit of everything to get a response out of both groups which proved to be too much for Asia. In any case, to make a long story short, by the end of the day, using the communication I learned through your teaching, I asked all five to line up...friesians, Asia, mustangs... after our "lesson", Asia broke away from the herd...walked to me with her head really low...and yawned like crazy! I was so happy that a little tear came to my eye! Thanks Chris!
Comment by M-D Kerns on July 18, 2009 at 9:15pm
Thank you for such a thoughtful & incisive genealogy of so-called "natural horsemanship," Mr. Irwin.

I will take wisdom where I can find it. However, when such wisdom issues from someone who is thoughtful, well-read, informed by well-founded experience or empirical observation (preferably over multiple occasions & by multiple observers/agents), founded upon a respectful & compassionate valuation of all sentient life, then I am much more able to "hear" & to respond (someone once defined "responsibility" as the "ability to respond") to what is being shared or taught.

I do so look forward to the day when I can study & work with you directly.
Comment by Marti Langley on July 15, 2009 at 12:28pm
PS That is not my mare in the pic, it is my friends Arab mare and foal, lol.
Comment by Marti Langley on July 15, 2009 at 12:26pm
Chris, I am so enjoying learning more about your techniques. You get high praise from some of my friends. The main problem I have with my Quarter mare is she hates the hoof trimmers, I have tried 2 natural hoof practitioners. Her hooves are as hard as flint rock and it always takes longer than she would like. By the time her last hoof comes up she is very grumpy and won't cooperate! By the way, she is good about giving me her feet and I can pick them out. I have nerve palsy in my right arm, so there is no way I would have the strength and mobility to learn to do the trimming myself. (I had shoulder replacement surgery when I fell in my hay barn, nerves never healed right.) Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. My lady trimmer has now handed me over to her male assistant, so I want him to do right by her, when he does her feet next month.
Comment by Kevan on July 14, 2009 at 6:23pm
Very well put, as always Chris!

You've said it considerably more tactfully than I would have ... my version might have gone something like, "If you're pullin' on that lead rope, you ain't learnin' much; & neither is the horse!"
Comment by Jennifer Lamm on July 13, 2009 at 4:24pm
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.... As you say Chris, sometimes we have to find one trainer.... thank you so much for making yourself available. This is exactly what I needed for my mustang.
Comment by laura day on July 13, 2009 at 3:12pm
Thankyou Chris. I feel that the term natural horsemanship is in essence a wonderful one. i do however see on a regular basis here in England, horses displaying conflict behaviour due to the confusion being caused by the misuse of 'techniques'. This really saddens me, as well meaning owners are causing the one thing that 'natural horsemanship' should be helping to prevent. Maybe you could share your opinions on how owners are best to gain clarity before embarking on a 'training schedule' or behaviour shaping proccess as i would call it, with so many 'ideas' and products being thrown at them all in the name of 'natural horsemanship'? its not my intention to 'down' nh, so please consider me as an open minded welfare enthusiast! many thanks in anticipation.
Comment by Penny Siml on July 13, 2009 at 1:50pm
Wonderful post...thanks Chris!
Comment by Chris Irwin on July 13, 2009 at 12:39pm
Hey Terry, welcome to the road less travelled! Well done!!

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