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There’s no such thing as “Natural Horsemanship”

This may seem like a strange statement coming from a horse trainer who has spent the last ten years studying natural horsemanship. In reality, the concept of “Natural Horsemanship” is at best a definition that sets particular types of trainers apart from others in a simplistic way that people can easily understand. In many ways “Natural Horsemanship” is a superbly successful marketing strategy, it has been packaged up as a kind and “better” way to train horses.

I, myself, use the term “Natural Horsemanship” to broadly define my current methods. This is for two reasons; people understand natural horsemanship as something different to mainstream horsemanship, and my training includes a heavy dose of concepts from one of the biggest names within the brand.

In the process of taming, starting or foundation training – or whatever you want to call it – you must first ask the horse to stop using his natural instincts. That is primary to creating a safe, calm, responsive horse who is able to conform to your needs. Horses are fundamentally “prey animals”, this, above all other aspects of the horse’s nature is broadcast like a tag line. Every single book, trainer and method will have this idea rooted in the system of presented information.

As equestrians, we all know this, yet the reality of this often escapes us. We tend to use a very human filter to define behaviour – naughty, spooky, crazy, unpredictable. We deal with this behaviour, not by understanding the root cause but by “getting by” and forcing the horse to submit to our will. Our own individual definition of what a horse is for us.

Every single variation of horse training must fundamentally change a horse from a prey animal – a state that is completely natural to him – to become a tame, trainable, rideable horse. This includes “Natural Horsemanship”, hence my assertion that there is no such thing as “Natural Horsemanship”. As soon as you touch a horse, domestic or wild, you have started the process of eroding his instincts to run from you – you the predator who does not understand his true nature and therefore will knowingly and willfully submit him to become an unnatural horse.

Uncomfortable isn’t it? That idea that we, for want of a better term, enslave our horses however nicely we do it.

The challenge, therefore, is how do we define another way of thinking, an awakening of consciousness in many horse trainers? Much of the knowledge is not new, for thousands of years we have explored the relationship we have with the equine species. Our own development from societal to industrial has been influenced by this strange blending of species with very opposite instincts. Yet now, in this modern age the horse is no longer in general use, he does not have a vital place in society, he in no longer needed to further humanity – he is a leisure device.

“Leisure” as a concept is about our freedoms within our current society, to have the time to do more than work towards our basic needs for survival – food, shelter, reproduction. Within reason I am discussing the more developed countries and westernised societies. I am aware there are plenty of places in the world where horses and humans work for mutual survival. In our relatively soft, easy world though, we have the ability to use horses for our leisure.

For the conscientious trainer (a damned poet maybe?) we have a dilemma; how do we define ourselves in this myriad of leisure pursuits and training techniques? The English language seems to lack the term – it’s possible that it hasn’t been invented yet. We can’t define it, we can barely explain it.

This type of horsemanship is not defined by tools and costume, but by attitudes and conscious effort to do better, be better not just as horse trainers but as human beings. This pursuit is not new, there have been many examples in history of “Equestrian Philosophers” who have tried to redefine the human relationship to horses – Xenophon, Pluvinel, Newcastle, de Carpentry, Oliveria – to name a few.

In order to be considered excellent as a horse; the horse must commit to become more human – thinking, assessing, understanding, communicating. In order to be excellent as a horseman (more than just a rider); the human must commit to becoming more horse – feeling, connecting, sensing, empathising.

Perhaps, the term “Alternative Horsemanship” is the answer – but is that ‘alternative’ in the sense of choosing a different path; does that accurately describe the what and why of this new realm? Maybe not. Maybe “Volitional Equitation” is a better way to explain these ideas as it relates more strongly the “how”. Horses, when given the choice – and that, in essence, is the point – can become volitional learners.

Definition: “Volition is the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action.

I believe that it is within every horse to become a volitional learner, for some it takes longer than others, and it must be first offered by their trainer. Volition instead of the more instinctive, prey animal response of being a “reactive learner”. A reactive learner will go through a process of learning something via stimulus and response. This is the basis of all horse training, whether the stimulus is pleasant or not (more often not). A horse in a reactive state – ie responding to stimulus – will be stressed, therefore, learning for the horse is stressful. The relative amount of stress relates as much to the horse’s understanding as it does to the amount of stimulus.

My primary objective is to ask the horse to think instead of react. Thinking, although perfectly possible for the horse, requires a shift from the reactive state. My secondary objective is to ask the horse to engage with me on a level that transcends stimulus and response. To feel for each other and really communicate – not through gestures and obedience but through energy, intention, and muscular tone. This is not “Natural Horsemanship” even if it might look and possibly sound like something very similar, or maybe in the heart of all natural horsemen this was the intent, the subconscious desire. This is not what I was taught when I “did natural horsemanship”. This is my discovery, I suspect it is not unique. I suspect many good horse trainers have this, consciously or not.

This awakening of consciousness towards the horse is perhaps what sets the sportsmen and the showmen apart from the true horsemen. They aren’t the ones with the big budget branding and a queue of sponsors. No, they are the ones who wake in the watches of the night and ask themselves “why did I do that?”.

A higher pursuit of knowledge is the best I can offer my horses. They are willing to continue to help me explore what we can be as a joined entity. The fact that we, as one, can be something more than we can be separately. This goes beyond ‘partnership’ and becomes something much more esoteric. This isn’t “Natural Horsemanship”; to be labelled as such would be an insult to my horses. That’s too simplistic a concept, readily understood and accepted. No, this unlabeled and unknowable thing is something else entirely. I’ll let you know what when the world catches up and gives it a name.

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