What is Natural Horsemanship?
Last revised April 24, 2017.
Pat Parelli shows his spurs, bit, and stick in a video.1
What is Natural Horsemanship?
Traditional horsemanship emphasizes efficiency over kindness and sets out to break a horse’s spirit and develop learned helplessness through domination and pain. Traditional horsemanship usually works well to develop a passive, compliant horse in a short period of time. History and the perceived efficiency of traditional horsemanship have maintained this approach where horses must work for a living, including much of the western U.S. and South America. Cowboys love their horses, but you won’t see them loading their saddle bags with sliced carrots, and they may need a lasso to catch them.
Natural horsemanship is a term used to describe a variety of horse training techniques that are believed to be less abusive than traditional techniques, while still achieving the desired level of control over the horse.
For pleasure horses kept as pets, natural horsemanship has become popular in recent years,2 riding a wave of a growing belief that animals have feelings. Our empathy for other species is extremely limited, but for some, such as dogs, cats and horses, it seems to be on the rise. I happen to be surfing this wave, and have no doubt that animals big and small have feelings, feel pleasure and pain, have hopes and dreams. Horses are among these species, as are humans.
Traditional horsemanship practices were developed before this wave of sentiment. They focus on making the horse useful rather than happy, on having control rather than companionship and on coercion rather than cooperation. Natural horsemanship proponents consider their approach to be more humane, more fun, better for horses and more inclusive for people.3
Natural horsemanship devotes much of its attention to trying to understand the horse, what its natural behaviors are, how it thinks and communicates. This emphasis is nearly always defeated by the pseudoscience of its most vocal practitioners, who understand horses no better than those practicing traditional horsemanship. Natural horsemanship seems to appeal more to women than men,4 but then so do horses.
Tricks with Language
Our language easily confuses us. Pat Parelli —a horse trainer who practices natural horsemanship and founded the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program — calls a whip a “carrot stick.” Monty Roberts — a horse trainer who promotes his techniques of natural horsemanship through his Join-Up International organization — sells halters that crush the horse’s delicate nasal bones if the horse refuses to keep a slack lead line. And he sells a bit, daring to suggest that it is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. Riders have become numb to the pain they inflict in their horse with spurs and bits, in part because “everyone does it,” in part because horses don’t use the same language or speak with the same clarity that a human does: try leading your child through the grocery store with a bit, and spur him if he slows. See how that works.
Others imagine that horses simply “move away from pressure”. So if you tap them on the back end, they move forward like robots, on instinct. In fact, horses move into pressure when they are pulling a cart or plow. What horses move away from is pain or the anticipation of pain. A tap on the back end is a threat of a harder tap. The horse has a good memory and a good imagination.
In fact, there is a lot of evidence for the notion that “that which we call a rose by any other name might not smell so sweet.” Studies have found that odors are more pleasant if presented to subjects with positive names5 (”carrot juice” vs. “moldy vegetables”), that students with popular names may receive higher grades on essays than those with unpopular names6 (”David” vs. “Boris”, “Jennifer” vs. “Olga”) and so on.7 A “carrot stick” makes a whip sound kinder, gentler, and more horse friendly. But if you are the horse, it changes nothing.
Pleasure, Pain, and Learning
Natural horsemanship has added a softer approach to interacting with horses, but it has not changed the world. Bits and spurs are still standard among riders, and the requirement that the horse do what they want remains paramount. Most advocates for natural horsemanship remain willing to use pain avoidance to motivate their horse, and remain willing to inflict pain when their horse fails to do what they want. For many, the language has changed, a few minor behaviors have changed, but the overall plan of action with a horse remains the same: control through coercion. For both traditional and natural horsemanship zealots, the horse may become desensitized, demoralized and depressed as he is dominated.8
Natural horsemanship seems to be about minimizing the harm we might cause to our horse, maximizing the opportunity of the horse to behave in a “natural” way without force or coercion. This sometimes means that only positive reinforcement should be used in training, but natural horsemen don’t stick to this. The world is full of “natural horsemen” who use bits, spurs, sticks and other “aids” on their horses. Pat Parelli himself caused a ruckus when, after lecturing his audience about “love, language, and leadership” he used a gum line to twitch a horse while he hauled a foreleg off the ground with a long rope. At this point, many in the crowd left, and some demanded their money back.9
Trainer with a gum line.10
Consider another trainer who says that he believes in and practices natural horsemanship.11 This trainer doesn’t limit himself to handing out carrots. Consider this statement about a horse who threatens: “any threats to kick, bite or strike, needs to be corrected with harsh discipline. That is a no no and she needs to know it hard and fast. A minor kick out and buck is not bad, but if she tries to kick or spins her butt and backs to you, hit her with a rope, stick or anything you can on the butt “as hard as you can”, do not be easy, do not be soft, it needs to scare the S*#*# out of her and she will not do it again.12” Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees with him or approves of his methods.13 He may call himself a natural horseman because there are no word police, and rarely are there consequences to the words we use.
Natural horsemanship has a double narrative about the horse, with the two stories sometimes contradictory.
On the one hand, the horse is a recently tamed wild animal, powered by instinct and its own secret language. In this narrative, we must understand the horse’s inner world if we are to control him. Powerful themes in this thinking include some irrelevant near-truths, such as “horses are prey animals” and some falsehoods, such as “horses need leadership.” Pseudo-science abounds in this aspect of natural horsemanship, and self-proclaimed hucksters feel free to make up a language to describe what they do, and why they do it. We crave the notion that our horse is wild, save for our gentling touch that has turned him to mush. We love to imagine that we have learned to read his emotions, and speak his language. We want to be horse whisperers.
Some who become involved with natural horsemanship become obsessed with what they see as “natural”. Some argue that horses should not be blanketed in winter, for instance, because horses don’t wear blankets in nature. But Arabs and their ancestors were not designed by nature to live in cold climates, and blanketing is often appropriate. (Thoroughbreds are widely believed to descend from Arabs, but a genetic analysis reveals that they come from stock in Europe that leaned heavily on Arab stallions and mares with a cosmopolitan European heritage, especially Connemara and Irish Draft horses.14 But regardless of the details of their origins, Thoroughbreds have long legs and a frame unlike a draft horse, and will usually deserve blanketing before cold bloods.) Some argue that shoeing is unnatural, but wild horses have evolved to have tough feet (along with a broad range of other qualities), while domesticated horses have been bred for narrower purposes. A Thoroughbred usually does not have sound feet because it was bred for speed and nothing else, and will be discarded and eaten after his days at the track.
On the other hand there is a narrative of “partnership”: horses are large, oddly shaped humans, and can be made willing to join us in some common goal. Once he becomes a partner, a horse will surely enjoy doing what we want to do, and a long trail ride will surely cause as much pleasure beneath the saddle as above it.
The promise of natural horsemanship seems to be that, by using certain techniques and equipment, a horse can be made to be obedient without coercion or discomfort. The real facts are otherwise: A sharp tug on a bitless bridle can cause discomfort, and with most bitless bridles, the tension at his nose persists long after you have released the rein. The touch of a heel can remind of an unpleasant kick. Leading a horse in a rope halter will surely generate discomfort whenever horse and human take different directions, or want to travel at different speeds.
The beauty of natural horsemanship comes from the horse (who hides his discomfort as well as he can) and from the human (who lets wishful thinking overpower reason).
1 ParelliTube. “How to Use Spurs on Your Horse with Pat Parelli” June 9, 2014. In this clip from the June 2014 Parelli Inside Access Savvy Club DVD (now available to view on our membership site, www.parelliconnect.com), Pat Parelli explains why spurs are important in reinforcing and refining the horse’s response to steady pressure or the Porcupine Game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq9WrXyOPXw
2 If you look at Google Books Ngram Viewer for “horse whisperer” or “natural horsemanship”, you’ll see that these ideas began their popular ascent in 1985-1990: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=horse+whisperer%2Cnatural+horsemanship&year_start=1945&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=10&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chorse%20whisperer%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cnatural%20horsemanship%3B%2Cc0
3 Birke, Lynda. “Learning to speak horse”: The culture of Natural Horsemanship.” Society & Animals 15, no. 3 (2007): 217-239.
4 Burr, S. “Dancing with horse whisperers: What horse (wo) men want.” Poster presented at Proceedings of the 2nd International Equitation Science Symposium, Milan, Italy. 2006.; Miller, Robert M., and Rick Lamb. The revolution in horsemanship and what it means to mankind. The Lyons Press, 2005.
5 Djordjevic, Jelena, Johan N. Lundstrom, Francis Clément, Julie A. Boyle, Sandra Pouliot, and Marilyn Jones-Gotman. “A rose by any other name: would it smell as sweet?.” Journal of neurophysiology 99, no. 1 (2008): 386-393.
6 Harari, Herbert, and John W. McDavid. “Name stereotypes and teachers’ expectations.” Journal of educational psychology 65.2 (1973): 222.
7 Rosofsky, Ira. “Was Shakespeare Wrong? — Would a Rose by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” Psychology Today. January 11, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/adventures-in-old-age/201001/was-shakespeare-wrong-would-rose-any-other-name-smell-sweet
8 Birke, Lynda. “Learning to speak horse”: The culture of Natural Horsemanship.” Society & Animals 15, no. 3 (2007): 217-239.
9 Mathieson, Amy. “Anger over Parelli display at Royal Festival of the Horse” July 22, 2010 http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/anger-over-parelli-display-at-royal-festival-of-the-horse-300317; see also http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?383006-Parelli-Demo-on-robert-Whittakers-stallion-Stonleigh-Friday-9th-Anybody-else-bside
10 Image source: The Chronicle of the Horse. “Trending Photo Victim” https://www.chronofhorse.com/forum/forum/discussion-forums/off-course/271600-trending-photo-victim
11 Gore, Rick. “Horses – Behavior Issues, Breaking and Training.” AllExperts. http://www.allexperts.com/ep/3329-87266/Horses-Behavior-Issues/Rick-Gore-Horsemanship.htm
12 “Think Like A Horse — Natural Horsemanship. Rick Gore Horsemanship”. http://thinklikeahorse.org/index-15.html
13 See for example: Complaint Review: Rick Gore. “Rick Gore biggoted horse trainer Sacramento California”.
http://www.ripoffreport.com/reports/rick-gore/sacramento-california-/rick-gore-biggoted-horse-trainer-sacramento-california-701489. Or see http://myhorseforumexperience.blogspot.com/
14 Bower, M. A., M. G. Campana, Mark Whitten, Ceiridwen J. Edwards, H. Jones, E. Barrett, R. Cassidy et al. “The cosmopolitan maternal heritage of the Thoroughbred racehorse breed shows a significant contribution from British and Irish native mares.” Biology letters 7, no. 2 (2011): 316-320.