Question Category: Horse Behavior
Question: Understanding Natural Horsemanship
Part I of a three part series on Natural Horsemanship
By Julie Goodnight
Will Natural Horsemanship Help My Horse and Me?
Take this quiz to find out. Indicate “Never” (N); “Occasionally” (O); or “Frequently” (F) in the columns to the right.
1. My horse is hard to catch. N O F
2. My horse turns his rump to me when I go to halter him. N O F
3. My horse pushes me around with his head. N O F
4. My horse tries to put his lips on me. N O F
5. My horse nips or bites. N O F
6. My horse won’t stand still when asked N O F
7. My horse fidgets while I am grooming. N O F
8. My horse is not cooperative about handling his feet. N O F
9. My horse drags me when I am leading him. N O F
10. My horse bumps me with his shoulder while I am leading him. N O F
11. My horse lags behind me when I am leading him. N O F
12. My horse will not do walk-trot transitions when leading. N O F
13. My horse will drag me to green grass or hay N O F
14. My horse fidgets while I am saddling. N O F
15. My horse is difficult to bridle N O F
16. My horse looks for trouble while I am riding him. N O F
17. My horse goes too fast or too slow while I am riding. N O F
18. My horse does not listen to my cues very well. N O F
19. My horse throws his head up. N O F
20. My horse stops at the gate N O F
21. My horse doesn’t always go where I point him. N O F
22. My horse jigs and prances nervously at times. N O F
23. My horse spooks N O F
24. My horse calls to other horses while I am working with him N O F
25. My horse throws a fit if I try to take him away from the barn/herd. N O F
If you answered NEVER to every question, then chances are, you are already using natural horsemanship techniques. If you answered anything other than NEVER, you may want to take a look at what natural horsemanship is, and what tools and techniques are available to help you. If you answered FREQUENTLY on every question, pay very close attention to the information below.
What is Natural Horsemanship?
Natural horsemanship (NH) simply means that we know and understand the horse’s instinctive and herd behaviors and that we use that information to develop a willing partnership and communicate with the horse and in a way that he understands.
Although the term ‘natural horsemanship’ is very new, the concepts have been around for centuries, if not millenniums. Brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance of California, spawned the current trend toward NH by influencing subsequent generations of NH trainers, many of whom have become celebrities and commercial successes because of what they learned from these two masters. There are also many lesser-known trainers practicing NH, who are not celebrities, but are fine trainers in their own right.
What unites all brands of NH is an understanding of the horse’s natural behavior and the purpose of helping the horse lead a comfortable, willing and cooperative existence with humans. NH begins with a fundamental understanding of what motivates horses and how horses communicate. It helps to have the right tools too; we’ll get to that later.
The Language of the Horse
Horses are very communicative animals, communicating largely with non-audible language. The horse uses sign language with every part of his body: head elevation, ear position, nostril and mouth gestures, nose movements, front feet, hind feet, tail position, plus a few distinctive audible calls. It is an intricate language and a very distinctive one; once you can learn to ‘read’ the horse, you can understand his emotions, motivations and behaviors.
Not all of the horse’s communicative gestures can be explained here, but it is important to understand the signs of relaxation, subordinance and comprehension. The signs of relaxation are often synonymous with the signs of subordinance, because when a horse accepts you as his leader, he knows that you are therefore obligated to watch out for him and protect him, therefore he can relax.
The signs we are looking for that indicates relaxation and subordinance in the horse are a lowering of the head (any lowering is important but the ultimate sign is the drop all the way to the ground), a deep sigh or exhale and relaxed east-west ears. One of the first signs that a horse is beginning to look at you as his leader is when he keeps one ear glued to you, the ear closest to you or the inside ear. Another very useful sign to understand is licking and chewing. Horses will only chew when they are relaxed, so it is always a good sign when they move their jaw. Watch your horse closely for licking and chewing while you are working him. It occurs when a horse is processing information and it is an indication that the horse understands and accepts what is happening. If you issue a directive, praise or a correct the horse and he licks/chews, it is an indication that he understood and accepted your authority.
The Herd Dynamic
Another important concept in NH is to understand the herd dynamic and what motivates horses. Horses are herd animals and depend upon the safety of the herd for their survival. No horse wants to be alone and he will always be drawn to the safety and comfort of the herd. Through the use of NH techniques, the horse will be drawn to us for his comfort and safety and he will accept us as the leader of his herd.
Within the herd setting, there is a very clear structure and the failure of a horse to fit into this structure could mean banishment from the safety of the herd and certain death. The structure of the horse herd is known as a “linear hierarchy,” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to, each and every other individual.
In NH, we must consider ourselves to be a part of the herd. Horses only know horse behavior. They can’t be expected to understand human behavior; we don’t always understand human behavior! So if my horse and I are a herd of two, I have two choices, I can be dominant or subordinate; we cannot be equal. Given the choices, I choose to be the leader in my herd of two and let my horse be the follower. I do not want a thousand pound scared rabbit in charge of me.
So how do horses establish dominance in the herd? Only two factors are involved: resources and space. The resources of the herd are anything that the herd values, such as food, water, shelter, and companionship. The dominant horse always has first access to the resources; therefore one of the easiest ways to determine the pecking order of a herd is to throw some feed out and look for the sharks.
The second factor in establishing dominance is spatial. Spatial issues are constantly at work within the herd setting and even the most novice horseman has observed horses push each other around in the corral. The dominant horse controls the space of the subordinate horse. A subordinate horse would never think of invading the space of its superior; if he did, he would probably lose some hair and possibly some skin over the deal.
I cannot pass up this opportunity to comment on the hand feeding of treats to horses and the corrosive effect it has on your relationship with your horse. When you hand feed treats to your horse, he can very easily come to think he is taking the food away from you (he has no idea that you don’t eat horse cookies). If he is begging for the treat, he is invading your space. Both factors, resources and space, have been settled; your horse is in control of you. Because of a lack of leadership from you the horse takes over, which often leads to spoiled and even aggressive behaviors from the horse; a dangerous and unpleasant animal.
In NH, we strive to be a kind and benevolent leader for our horse. This involves setting parameters and ground rules and giving fair and consistent leadership to the horse. Spoiling, pampering and coddling the horse will only lead the horse to disrespect you and search elsewhere for leadership. The Tools of Natural Horsemanship
One major principle of NH is to move the horse out of your space and learn to control his space until the horse accepts you as his revered leader, will happily follow you anywhere and is obedient to your every request. This kind of relationship is often known as a horse that is ‘hooked-on’, ‘joined-up’ or ‘in your back pocket’. In my mind, there is no other kind of relationship to have with the horse than one based on trust and leadership.
Groundwork is done for the purpose of controlling the horse’s space, developing a line of communication between the horse and you and creating a respectful and willing attitude from the horse. There are many useful tools for accomplishing these goals and I’ll elaborate on some of the most common tools of the NH trade.
The round pen is a 50-60 foot enclosure with high rails and good footing. The round pen is one of the first tools used to help establish the leader/follower relationship and encourage the horse to team-up with you. Basically you will drive the horse in a circle, controlling his direction and speed, until he begins to understand that you are in charge of his space. The round enclosure simply levels the playing field between you and your horse so that he does not leave you in the dust. It really does not have to be round, but it takes a little more skill to work a horse in a square pen.
Round penning is one of many horse activities that looks a little easier than it actually is. There are many complicated steps to go through in the process, which I will elaborate on in the next issue, but done properly, round penning results in a horse that is relaxed, willing, focused and looking to you for guidance. He will stand quietly at your side waiting for orders and will leap into action with the slightest gesture of your hand.
For safety reasons, you must always have some sort of tool with you in the round pen, so that you can keep a safe distance from the horse. When you drive a horse off, it is expected that he will kick out in defense, just like what happens in the corral when you introduce a new horse into the herd. You must use some sort of tool to be able to stay well out of the way of the horse’s feet. One of the most commonly used tools in the round pen is a lariat; it is useful for waving and shaking at the horse and can also be thrown at the horse if needed.
Many people prefer to use a 4′ stick of some sort or a ‘flag’, which is simply a stick with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The flag is used initially as a negative stimulus to shake at the horse to move him out of your space and later used to ‘sack out’ the horse or desensitize him to touch all over his body. There are a few commercially available sticks on the market from the NH gurus, but you can buy a cattle-sorting stick for a lot less. The stick should be rigid so that you can use it to poke the horse out of your space if needed.
A tool that does not work well in the round pen is a longe whip, because it is too long and cumbersome. Your stick or rope should be considered an extension of your arm and should be used with communicative gestures; the temptation with the whip is to use it as a whip rather than as an extension of your arm in a gesturing manner.
Another very useful tool for NH is the rope halter and training lead. Until you have used a rope halter, it is hard to comprehend how useful it is for controlling your horse and sending subtle signals. The rope halter is a far superior tool than the flat nylon halter and chain around the horse’s face. The chain causes pain and fear in the horse because of the pinching and constant pressure. The rope halter gives you better control over the horse and since you can manipulate the pressure better, the horse is not frightened, tense and resistant in the rope halter.
Again, there are many popular styles and brands of rope halters out there, so know what you are buying. There is certainly no need to pay a lot of money for one just because it has someone’s name on it. I prefer a halter rope that is a little stiff and a wider diameter, so that the halter holds its shape and is wide enough not to put too much pressure on the horse’s tender face. The brand I like the most is available on my website and is a rare combination of high quality at a very affordable price.
Along with the halter, you’ll need a training lead, which is a 12-15′ lead with a lash on the end. It is useful for both lead line and round pen work. Different trainers prefer different lengths and configurations, but I like a 12′ lead (15′ for really big horses) with a knot or spliced-loop end. Some trainers prefer to have a heavy buckle on the end, but I find the buckle to be unnecessarily harsh on the horse’s sensitive chin when you snap the rope to get the horse’s attention. There are many different qualities of rope available for training leads and the serious horseman will want a high quality yacht rope, for its balance and feel.
Armed with a rope halter with a 12′ or longer training lead, there are many exercises you can put the horse through on the lead line. By controlling the horse’s space and showing him his boundaries, your horse will learn and accept many important ground manners and will learn to follow your every action and movement. You’ll learn to control the horse’s entire body: his feet, his nose, his shoulder, and his hip. In the third article in this series, I’ll explain exercises that teach the horse to stand quietly, to lead from both sides at the speed you designate, to back, turn on the haunches, turn on the forehand, side pass and work in circles. Once the horse is responsive, you can also accomplish all of these tasks with the horse at total liberty, using nothing but hand signals.
Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want a horse that was responsive, respectful and relaxed? Who wouldn’t want a horse that was mannerly and obedient and looked up to you as his fearless leader? Once you realize that this kind of relationship with your horse is possible, it is only a matter of getting educated in the techniques.
Suggested Reading List
There are many great books for educating yourself on the principles and techniques of natural horsemanship. Mark Rashid is the author of several of my favorite books, with an anecdotal look at the principles behind NH. Rashid’s books are easy to read and very touching; his titles include A Good Horse is Never a Bad Color, Horses Never Lie, and Considering the Horse.
True Horsemanship Through Feel, authored by Bill Dorrance with Leslie Desmond, is truly a gift to the horse world and an inspiration to anyone who is searching for a better understanding of the horse. It is a very weighty book, both literally and figuratively; one that will take many years to finish reading, as every paragraph contains a lifetime of wisdom and deserves to be pondered over time.
One of my favorite books on horse behavior is Equine Behaviour: Principles and Practice, by Daniel Mills and Kathryn Nankervis. Although it was written as a veterinary textbook, it is a fairly entertaining read and chock full of scientific information on the horse’s evolution and behavior.
Also on the must-read list is The Art of Horsemanship, by Xenophon, first written thousands of years ago but a translated version was compiled by Morris H. Morgan and is published by J.A. Allen & Co. Ltd. This is not a book on natural horsemanship, but is a significant work on the training of war-horses, which shows us that classical horsemanship, at its roots, has a great connection to what we now know of as natural horsemanship.
Natural Horsemanship is not just the tools and the techniques, but is a philosophy and an attitude. The first step in being a successful NH trainer is to make the decision that you want something better for both you and your horse. The next step is to study and understand the horse’s language and its natural behavior. Finally, we can employ specific techniques that the horse will understand and respond to in a natural way. Next month, I’ll show you some specific techniques that you can use to start on a better relationship between you and your horse.
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