I feel like Natural Horsemanship is one of those sometimes controversial things that tends to put people either on one side of the spectrum on the other. There are those who are hardcore devotees, with a bookshelf full of DVD’s, the “official” way overpriced halter and lead rope, a t-shirt, and maybe a carrot stick or two. Then there are the folks who think it’s all a bunch of voodoo horseshit, a big waste of time, and an even bigger waste of money. I fall somewhere in between.
I first got introduced to the concept of “Natural Horsemanship” way back in the early 2000’s when I was working at a breeding farm. I spent a lot of time working with foals, very opinionated broodmares, and horses fresh off the track. One evening I found myself flipping through the channels in my barn apartment, stumbled upon RFDTV (I can’t remember now if it was a Clinton Anderson or Craig Cameron show), and it instantly had my attention. First in a “ha, wtf are these idiot cowboys even doing?” kind of way. Then I slowly started going “hmm… I wonder if that would work…”. It was something I had never seen before.
Growing up in the h/j world, at a higher end A circuit barn, we did not do much ground work. They lunged, they crosstied, they (mostly) loaded in trailers, they stood for the farrier, and that was about all that was required. If they didn’t do those things, they were sedated or twitched or muscled around until they did. Most of the horses that came through there were been-there-done-that types, used to the routine. The story was pretty much the same at the eventing barn I was a working student at later… most of those horses had either been around for a while or came off the track, which meant they knew how the routine went already, or quickly got in line. I had never really seen a method of training that focused on seeing situations through a horse’s perspective, at the base instinct level.
Working with foals, or my various cheap (usually semi-feral) projects that I picked up a lot in those days, was different. They were a fairly blank slate, and they often didn’t react to things the way an older horse would. I also started thinking that surely there had to be ways, beyond bribing with grain or subduing with lip chains, to get reluctant horses on the trailer. Or ways to get the fresh OTT horses feeling a little more settled and confident and less spooky. This is when those fateful RFDTV shows stepped in and said “Hey look… what about this?”. I was intrigued. It was definitely a new way of thinking about how horses respond to things, and why, and how to reshape their behaviors into what you want.
I threw myself into the concepts right off the bat, watching every show I could and buying several books. I started learning it, and applying it, and watching how this approach changed the horses. I was definitely buying into it, but wasn’t 100% sold. A few of their methods just didn’t do much for me, so did a lot of trial and error to figure out what I liked and what worked for me, my horses, and our situation.
Eventually I didn’t work at the breeding farm anymore, stopped buying random unstarted or auction house projects, and went back to having horses with more of a solid foundation in place. By the time Sadie was a yearling I had half forgotten and half abandoned a lot of the work, and didn’t do quite as much of it with her as I should have. When she went off to get started by the cowboy, he did a real crash course with her and taught me some of the things that he had taught her. That was my first formal training in any of this NH methodology. The basic concepts worked very well with Sadie, who as a young horse had a lot of issues with confidence and claustrophobia. She came back a much happier and better horse, and I got a good idea of exactly which parts of the natural horsemanship methods apply very well to horses that are destined for horse show life.
I will say, I haven’t worked on it much with Henry. Really I don’t need to, he’s a pretty steady and reliable horse, very sure of himself and solid in his connection with people. There have been situations pop up where some basic concepts have been applied, and there is definitely a lot of my day-to-day horsemanship that has been shaped by it (ie make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard) but I don’t go out and do purposeful groundwork or NH type work with him pretty much ever.
With Presto, we do a lot of it. I don’t work him in the round pen, at least not yet. I don’t want him running around in circles much, being a baby warmblood, and nothing that I’m trying to accomplish at this point really requires it. We’ve worked on the basic concepts of “sending”, and moving his front end or hind end away, turning, and responding to my body language just by working at the walk at the end of the lead rope. He’s learned about pressure and release, the beginnings of some desensitization, the space “bubble”, etc. Even just doing little bits of it have already proved to work very well for him. His behavior at the show was very encouraging to me, showing me that he’s getting it, and learning to look to me for guidance and think things through rather than react.
There are still some parts of some Natural Horsemanship training programs that I just don’t like, so I don’t do them. I’m not into the constant one rein stops, or the snaking the lead rope around to get a horse to back up, or a few other things. I don’t buy a “special” rope halter, or stick, or whatever else, and you won’t find me at anyone’s clinics. I think the ideas behind the methodology are sound, but I don’t buy into the extreme commercialism, sometimes bordering on cult-like, that it has become. Over time I’ve gravitated more to Buck Brannaman’s methods than anyone else’s, but I’ve learned to take whatever works from whatever trainer and apply it, and leave the rest of it at the door. I truly have become a believer in the benefits of natural horsemanship, and appreciate how much it’s changed my perspective, and subsequently, how I train my horses.
How do you feel about natural horsemanship? Love it? Hate it? Never really played with it? I’m always interested to hear other people’s impressions!