The “Natural” Way

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.

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Sadie, learning at a young age that people are unfailingly annoying.

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.

Max
when I bought this one you couldn’t even get near his hind end, much less get on him. This took weeks.

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.

SadieDanCanter
3yo Sadie with her favorite (okay, only) cowboy

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.

Prestoshow
Pro level napper

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!

33 thoughts on “The “Natural” Way

  1. So May had pretty horrific ground manners when I got her. I mean, if she decided she was over whatever was going on, she would just leave… and often run you over to do it. She broke cross ties and stepped on feet. Every time I interact with her, it’s a training session. After 3 years, she ground ties, she yields to my space, she doesn’t get pushy (even when foods around), and at our first show in 2 years, I was able to unload her from the trailer by myself.

    Horses without manners on the ground are unsafe, so I agree with the basic concept of Natural Horsemanship. But I find that simply applying and releasing pressure at appropriate moments, along with rewarding good behavior is enough. Endless round-penning and question asking with no release is seen too often in NH, and in my opinion, goes against what is really trying to be accomplished.

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  2. The basic concepts are very intriguing to me and I wish I had known it existed back when I first got Gem as I think it would have staved off many of our early on issues. However like you, I don’t buy into the special halter and lead rope and multiple carrot sticks. The extreme end bothers me as a lot of the horses I’ve seen look like they’ve lost that light in their eyes as they are shoved forward and back and side to side for the crowd

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  3. I’ve done a lot of this with the babies I’d start, and I agree with you – a lot of it I like, and I pick and choose what works best for what that horse will be, but I don’t buy into it either. Especially the mass commercialism and cult-following just as you mentioned. I really enjoy Buck’s way of teaching, too. He’s made the most sense to me in many things horse-instinct related than any other NH person. Amber got a lot of the NH when she was younger (I wish not as much because I just didn’t know any better at the time) but I hardly ever do any of it anymore. She’s 8, solid, knows her boundaries, and if we run into things that bother her a bit, a little moving away from pressure and she’s fine. I dislike the people who are always like “well you HAVE to have a roundpen because the horses always have to go back school and you need to run them around” which I disagree with. I think groundwork is important, but so is building a partnership with your horse, and once you have the basics of groundwork and manners, the partnership takes care of the rest in my opinion.

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  4. (Apologies if this comes through twice, WordPress is being glitchy for me today.)

    My approach is nearly identical to yours – I take and leave pieces from trainers, absolutely HATE the gimmicky commercialism some push, and tend to sway more toward Buck Brannaman than others as a whole. As a wildlife biologist, I can really appreciate the idea of working with the animal on a level that plays to their natural instincts and behavioral ecology. It just makes sense that training, partnership, and trust would be improved by doing what you can to find a common “language” that isn’t all about brute force to bend mind/body.

    Over the years, I’ve tended to hone in on the similarities between all NH trainer methods. When you break down each methodology to find the similarities, it’s easy to pinpoint what really works for the horse and what is just showmanship for making money. And I certainly keep in mind that some specific methodologies will work better for certain horses than others.

    Diving in and learning/applying NH stuff as I raised Griffin has convinced me that I’ll bring all future horses up the same way. The foundation I lay with him through NH has allowed us to find success in every other realm we’ve entered and that’s all I could ever hope for.

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  5. I grew up using Roy Yates’ methods and to this day I use his methods with all baby horses and on the ground with older ones. He was before the major commercialization of natural horsemanship so I think his methods are more honest to just making a nice, useful, workmanlike horse. I’ve backed 15-20 horses and have yet to have one have a true bucking bronco fit. I backed coco entirely in an English saddle which I had never done before.
    I agree with you, I’m not going to buy the halter, the stick, or really anything else but I’m happy to utilize the methods of natural horsemanship to make a safe and happy animal.
    You should check out Vicki Wilson from NZ or Australia. She won the past two Road to the Horse competitions, which is natural horsemanship’s mecca, and is a show jumper. I think her wins kind of blew their minds!

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  6. Love NH, but like you, use the parts I like and don’t bother with the parts that don’t work for me. I think one of the best descriptions of NH I ever read was that all the best riders and trainers use NH even if the don’t know it, because they use pressure and release, think about things from the horse’s point of view, and use communication more than control. Some proponents of NH do none of the above but run the constant drills, use the carrot stick and etc., and give NH a bad name. Good post!

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  7. I’m a bit opinionated about this topic. I really wish I had thought to come up with “natural horsemanship” as a marketing technique. It’s brilliant. In my experience, they took old-school quiet horsemanship, dressed it up with the feel-good “natural” moniker, and then built the cult of personality around it that sells overpriced rope halters and fiberglass poles by the squillions. I’d have made a mint. I remember as a kid, way before the TV clinicians, hanging on the side of the round pen watching an ex-calf roper work with a colt in a quiet, calm, easy manner. Pressure and release, easily identifiable boundaries for the horse, no force, no violence. Watching him really stuck with me. I love starting colts for just that reason.

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        1. I couldn’t agree more.

          Good horsemanship is good horsemanship.

          The whole “natural” idea is a selling point.

          You will see large similarities between the natural horseman and people like Dr. Andrew McLean and his learning theory method of training, it is just dressed in different words and marketed differently.

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    1. So much agreement with onlythreecricles here! NH is just horsemanship when you dig into it. My grandfather used the “Squeeze Game” except he called it “go through the gate ahead of me and wait on the other side while I shut it”. The Porcupine Game was just “move over when I’m grooming you and you’re too close to the tie up rail” .I think you HAD to use NH when you worked with harness horses as he did – no muscling them into submission! And I HATE the expression you see on so many high level Parelli horses – they can’t see the point, any more than I can, of NH just for NH’s sake.
      I’m like you though Amanda – I like NH, take what works for me, and use it when I need it (babies, starting horses, and for all the others because I often have to bring four horses in from the paddock through two gates and it’s just easier if they respect my space and know about the box of politeness. I wish I’d paid more attention to grandad as a kid though!

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  8. Great post. It is interesting how many are on either one side of the fence or the other. And have very strong opinions on the matter, although that part is not all that surprising, you find that everywhere in the horse world. I am inclined to believe that there is an at least equally sized camp smack in the middle that have the same beliefs as you and me.

    I am about in the same camp you are, except maybe a slightly bigger ‘believer.’ Although I think that is not the right word. Having grown up with horses and doing different things and having different training. I was first exposed when I first started taking dressage lessons actually. My trainer at the time incorporated some of Monty Roberts’ work (join up) and in turn taught me. I was relatively young at the time, but I went home and did it with all of our horses and felt like I saw positive results. I discovered RFDTV, much like you did and dove in. Watching and reading and learning from all of them. I had enough experience with horses to discern what I was OK with and what I was not. I tried some things that I thought worked and I tried some things that did not. All of this combined with more dressage training in the following years and equal amounts of self learning on classical methods. Over the years I have developed my own system that continues to morph and change with every horse, just like you. What works for the horse and what works for me. I have tried to keep an open mind and keep learning. There is still a strong base of ‘NH’ there. I am a less is more person and everything in moderation is a good policy. This applies to NH as well. What I love about it in general and no one in particular, as you stated, is that it teaches you to see things from the horse’s perspective which the key to making a great horseman.

    I think NH has its place for some people just starting out. It is a method and is typically broken down well for people to learn and follow and there are quite a few resources. The issue for me is the culty nature, closed mindedness, and lack of further learning that I often see with NH followers and some practitioners alike. The this is the only way and the over drilling of the ‘exercises.’ You find this in all disciplines as well. The marketing BS really bugs me. You do not need their special ‘tool’ to get the job done and their way is not the only way.

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  9. I am a middle of the road gal as well. I use what works and that depends on the horse and situation. I am not a fan of the ‘checklist’ method but I can see where it works for some people and their horses. My very good friend is a CA fanatic. I love her to death but sometimes I want to strangle her as she sits there and flexes her mare back and forth every time we stop. Then I have another that can’t even lunge her horse (really, really funny to watch!) but her mare is a saint and will do literally anything from endurance, mounted archery, beginner lessons, jumping, eventing, dressage, etc., so she really doesn’t need any ‘training’ because you just ask her to do something and the horse is game to try it because they have already established a relationship. I think that is the secret ingredient. Most people don’t spend that much time with their horses. They show up at the barn and tack up to ride. I think the NH movement probably appeals to those people the most because it lays out a plan to developing a relationship with their horse through training rather than through time. I get it. Not a lot of people have the time or desire to spend countless hours with their horses every single day. They need the abridged version. I think sometimes it works (looking at you quarter horse), and sometimes it doesn’t (avoiding direct eye contact with you Arabian) JK. I love my Arabian! But for me, I develop a relationship with my horses by the time I spend with them. I’ve trained 3 horses and on each one when the time came to sit on them it was a non-event because we had a well-established relationship of trust. I think NH is great for babies in establishing boundaries, yielding, sending, tying, etc. For the older horse NH has its place as well if it helps people relate to their horses rather than just see them as a tool. Also, less resistance means of training is not a bad thing in my book as long as you don’t become the crazy boarder who lets her horse walk all over them because Fluffy is just expressing herself … ugh.

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  10. I am just like you. Not into the “cult” following, but there are some definite benefits. I very much prefer Buck’s methods and have had a lot of success with them. I feel like you should have a solid foundation with one “method” but never be so arrogant to believe that there aren’t other options out there. The marketing aspect of “natural horsemanship” has kind of put the concept into a bad light in some ways.

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  11. I’m with you. I think a decent amount of it is cultish, but the basic premise is very sound. I don’t do it much with my older horses either, but when I had the OTTB and even the previously abused Hony, I did a lot of this type of ground work with them. It absolutely got their focus on me and I thought it carried over to under saddle work too. I also don’t have a special halter or any sticks. Just a regular halter (or a rope one if needed) and a nice long lead.

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  12. “… take whatever works from whatever trainer and apply it, and leave the rest of it at the door.”

    This in a nutshell. Some of the NH techniques are very helpful. Some are absolute hocum. You don’t need an overpriced halter and bagillion foot lead, or carrot sticks to be able to utilize NH principles in horse training 🙂 great post!

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  13. Kind of middle of the road, but have enjoyed attending and participating in a few clinics.

    Back 12 years ago, my ex bought me, a person who’d never owned a horse, an almost 7 year old Arab stallion (which we gelded) and a Paso Fino colt (also eventually gelded).

    I started with Clinton Anderson’s methods because…Parrelli didn’t sit right with me. Studied Cameron, Branaman, Westfall and then found myself a new clinician (Michael Gascon) that I like because he’s so used to working with hot horses (Pasos are his speciality) and his methods work quite well for my 2 hot heads.

    Back then, I bought the halters and carrot sticks. I have a carrot stick in my trailer, but now it’s for when I’m out and about and someone needs help getting their horse loaded.

    I do have 2 new halters from the new clinician; but that’s because I use them to ride in. There’s no magic in a halter or carrot stick. I know that. 🙂

    Personally; for someone like me, with zero horse experience (except riding lessons as a kid), I found it valuable. I tried so hard to make my weanling “LOVE ME DAMMIT!!!” that I got kicked in the thigh once, and once in the hand. Attended a Clinton clinic and realized “Oh hell, he doesn’t respect me”. And I built on it from there. When I finally sent that baby (at 5.5 years old) to a trainer for 30 days, I had him AND my barn owner asking “Why is he here? You can ride this horse now.”

    I don’t do the cult following, and I don’t think there’s any “One True Way”, but, for us old farts who didn’t have a lot of exposure, I think it can be beneficial.

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    1. Yes, I tend to see “the methods” as being more for the owners, getting them a place to start, to think about how the horse thinks and reacts. Those of us who are already horse people already have a clue. But NH can also fill in some gaps with a new horse who might present questions we might have never run into. So yes, like most of us, I use its principles, the ones that work for me, and snark at the promotional side of things.

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  14. I completely agree with you! I think taking what works, and thinking critically about concepts and how they can apply, is a smart approach to good horsemanship. I like good groundwork, and I think it definitely translates to riding.

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  15. Nothing about horsemanship that’s “natural” lol, at least from the horse’s point of view. Carrying humans around on your back, riding in a claustrophobic rolling box etc.

    NH is a lot like religion – there are useful ideas in most versions, but the whole thing goes down the tubes once the leaders / followers think their point of view is the only one that’s valid. And then there’s justifying your theories to serve commercialism…

    Looking at training from my horse’s point of view has only helped our relationship, and I see the fruits of groundwork every time I handle him. I just don’t want to be preached to about it. 😀

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  16. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of NH from Buck but not really any others. The movement in general appeals to the hippy, spiritual people and they get too absorbed in the “connection” part of things. I like the basic ideas that apply to horsemanship in general. I like parts of it. I haven’t really applied much of it. My trainer early on just helped me figure out how to keep Scarlet out of my space with moving away from cues or an elbow out when he tried to crowd me. I think most basic NH stuff is just good horsemanship and isn’t a “style” of training.

    Lately, I’ve been wondering if groundwork would help him be less fretful and help me get his attention back to me faster, even when on him. I mostly work on his back and not the ground, as I’ve always felt safer/more in control there. I’m hopelessly unimaginative with exercises though and I’m not sure which ones would get to my goal. Scarlet is safe to walk for anyone 95% of the time and is pretty easy to tell when he is getting scared. The other things I’d like to work on (loading, going past scary things) are limited by access to trailer/obstacles etc. I do test occasionally to ensure he is focusing on me when we are walking by halting and backing him etc. That’s usually pretty spot on so I don’t worry too much about him.

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  17. For me – it’s more groundwork than it is “natural horsemanship”. I think it’s important for a horse to know personal space and be able to be “sent” in any direction and move away from pressure. I really like Stacey Westfall and applied a lot of her teachings to my own horses. Of course, not everything works, so I take what I can use and leave the rest.

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  18. “Take what you want and leave the rest” applies to a LOT of would-be helpful things in life, and I embrace the philosophy. I have long-despised the commercialism and devoted fanatic following of the big-name NH practitioners. BUT… I have never raised a baby horse or trained one. If I had the opportunity I would do some research and apply the NH techniques that made sense to me and were helpful – just as you do. I definitely see where the basics would be very helpful! For example, whatever you’re doing with Presto, it’s certainly working. I’m still so impressed with how he handled the show.

    I had never even heard of NH until a friend of mine went all in, totally, hook, line and sinker, to the PP world. Bought every book/tool/CD in sight, attended clinics, went to CO to get trained herself, etc. Unfortunately, her humongous Warmblood, who came to her with horrible ground manners (would just walk right over you) got even WORSE after being pampered and P—–‘d for a couple years. It took my friend landing in the hospital twice (he stepped on her FACE!) for her to realize that maybe there is such a thing as being too nice and boundaries needed to be established. Fortunately, once she started working with him in that direction he got a lot better. That’s when I started coming back around to ride the horse, too! 😉

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  19. One day Blake and I came home from school/work and saw Clinton Anderson on RFDTV, and though I had heard of him I had never seen any of his stuff. So we watched him, and the guy after him, and Craig Cameron after him, and that became our new Tuesday night ritual for a while. It was a different approach, so we took some of the concepts and tried them with Vegas. Most of them worked quite well, and that was what initially made Blake want his own horse.

    So now we have Pandora. Thanks Clinton.

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  20. I use bits and pieces, gleaned from watching and reading. Some stuff I really like when brought difficult horses to bring around. I went last weekend to a clinic to haul a friends horse to attend for the weekend. The clinician presented his info VERY well, no gimmicks. I enjoyed watching. BUT, I took the one exercise to try out with my 3y filly (she’s started and very tuned in to work). She picked up on it rather quickly, but kind of put her head down and wouldn’t make eye contact, was almost overly submissive. Hmm, for what it’s worth.

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  21. I use it occasionally. As a kid I was quite intrigued by it and I got my Welsh pony trained to drive by a NH trainer so I had the opportunity to have several formal lessons in NH. Now I use it along the same lines that you do, I don’t have a carrot stick or a special rope halter, but I will use it whenever I feel that it will help a horse. I don’t train it on a regular basis any more just because all of my horses are pretty solid in their ground work now. I think NH is a very valuable tool when used with common sense, I certainly will continue to use it.

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  22. I’ve never “formally” trained in NH stuff, but I’ve picked up a little here and there and use it pretty regularly. As you say, there isn’t much use in running around a round pen and one rein stops definitely backfired with ZB (haha), but I really like the method of addressing problems by thinking through them and I’m definitely big on teaching the horse to tune in and yield from the ground. It’s not a 1:1 ratio–Courage had the best ground manners I’ve ever put on a horse and it did NOT translate much to the saddle. Zoe I do some with, but she’s equally easy on the ground and under saddle, so might as well ride once we figured out the basics.

    Cool post tho! Kinda makes me want to ride your coat tails and do my own.

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  23. I was really resistant to the NH ida for a long time…then I bought a horse that was broke by soemoe who spent a lot of time with Tom Dorrance. I didn’t know exactly what the difference was in him, but it was evident. That started my journey.

    I use Buck’s methods (Ray Hunt, really…and the Dorrance brothers) …well, what I can manage of them. I don’t have near, the level of patience he has or the timing and feel. I can get a few things done and my horses are pretty darn good..but his horses are amazing. Seeing the results of the groundwork and progression when Buck rides a three year old stud colt with 10-ish rides on him in your clinic and the horse is more broke than many ever are? I’ll watch him any day of the week.

    You can get a lot done with basic knowledge of horses. NH is just common sense when you put yourself into the horses shoes. and While I have my preferred equipment, for doing groundwaork, not of it is some magic bullet that you have to have.

    I have no patience for the mass marketers and hate what they’ve done to the term NH. I don’t begrudge anyone making a video and making money but what they’ve done is a perversion. CA is a tool. PP isn’t too far behind him…or perhaps he’s ahead. There are other people teaching what I like besides Buck, but you have to go search them out. They aren’t the names you see on RFDTV.

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  24. I never got into natural horsemanship. My ground work skills aren’t amazing. What I do know is pressure and release, that spending a lot of time walking a horse all over creation, introducing him to some mildly concerning situations and things, and having him come out the other side in one piece works really well to build trust and relationship. So that’s what I do.

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  25. The main reason I studied NH was to set up safety and control with my horse and ended up discovering a great way to improve the whole relationship with my horse. It really felt like I was creating a language and my horse was paying more attention, looking for the questions and happy to answer them. That step past obedience towards active participation is such a cool place.

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