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What is Natural Horsemanship? Facts, History, and Whether it’s For You

If you’re an equestrian, you must’ve come across the term “Natural Horsemanship” regardless of where you live. Natural Horsemanship (NH) has become a global movement promoting the kind treatment of horses and training methods based on horse behavior.

Natural Horsemanship encompasses a variety of training methods that strive to achieve a deeper connection with the horse. Its techniques are based on horse psychology and use body language to communicate with the horse.

This style of horse training discourages the use of punishment and rejects any form of abuse towards the horse. NH methods are thought to derive from observations of feral horses and their behavior. The most prominent practitioners include Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli.

In this article, we discuss Natural Horsemanship in detail and whether it’s for you!

The history of Natural Horsemanship

The concept has been steadily gaining popularity among horse lovers since the 1980s. However, the origins of NH go back thousands of years, and working in harmony with your horse was already explored by Xenoph (c. 430 – 354 BCE) in his book “On Horsemanship”.

Similarly, prominent classical dressage figures of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Antoine de Pluvinel and François Robichon de La Guérinière also advocated humane training techniques. Sadly, harsher methods have outcompeted gentle handling due to people wanting to achieve faster results.

This was especially true in the Wild West, where cowboys had to break large numbers of free-roaming horses in a short period of time. Their cruel methods of tying up, starving, and beating horses sparked the modern NH movement.

Brothers Bill and Tom Dorrance were the pioneering practitioners whose mission was to spread kinder methods for training horses. The Dorrance brothers preferred to keep a low profile but had a significant influence on Ray Hunt, who was the first to hold NH clinics. Buck Brannaman who inspired the character of “Tom Booker” in The Horse Whisperer movie also learned from Ray Hunt.

Woman practicing natural horsemanship with her horse
Groomee / Shutterstock.com

The NH movement really took off in the 1990s, due to clinicians Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli showcasing almost magical results. The Horse Whisperer (1998) movie featuring Robert Redford also popularized the methods of early practitioners.

Read More: 9 Facts You Didn’t Know About The Horse Whisperer Movie

Natural Horsemanship Methods

Although there are many different NH techniques, their basic methodology is the same. NH trainers take into account the horse’s behavior and adjust their next step accordingly. It’s about giving horses a choice and working with and not in spite of the animals.

Those practicing NH believe that inflicting fear and pain will never bring any benefits to the horse and handler. They dismiss the use of punishment and using training aids to intimidate the horse.

A big part of NH is using pressure and release, also known as negative reinforcement, to communicate with horses. This is no different from traditional training, where horses learn via the release of pressure from the bit or the rider’s heels. However, NH trainers work towards reducing the pressure to the point where they can communicate with horses using visual cues.

NH also teaches riders not to be so quick to blame the horse when something goes wrong. It argues that horses only respond to the way we behave and train them, and urges everyone to look at themselves first before jumping to conclusions. As mentioned on the Naylors website, “Natural Horsemanship is as much about training the horse as it is about training the human.”

The five basic principles of Natural Horsemanship

On his blog, Don Jessop outlines five basic principles of NH. These principles encompass what NH training is all about and are a great way of explaining basic techniques to beginners.

1. Approach and Retreat

This principle applies to horses being introduced to novel objects or situations. It is a more gradual way of teaching the horse to accept the object, without triggering a fear response.

Let’s take the example of a young horse learning to wear a saddle. If this is the first time the horse sees the object, it would naturally be skeptical and fearful of it. A NH trainer would start the process by allowing the horse to nuzzle the saddle, then taking it away.

This not only gives the horse time to relax about what’s happening but also arouses curiosity. The next step would be lifting the saddle towards the horse’s back, then above it, and finally putting it on. Meanwhile, the saddle is taken away between each step.

The same principle can be used when retraining a horse that’s fearful of the trailer. By allowing the animal to retreat between each step, the horse won’t feel any pressure and can come to terms with loading in its own time.

Woman doing natural horsemanship
WOLF AVNI / Shutterstock.com

2. Pressure and Release

As mentioned above, pressure and release is a training technique based on negative reinforcement. The trainer will apply gentle pressure until the horse starts to move in the opposite direction, then release. The timing of the release is key and defines how quickly a horse will learn a new task.

3. Rewards and Consequences

This principle refers to the combined use of positive and negative reinforcement in NH training. Positive reinforcement occurs when the horse makes an attempt in the right direction and receives food, a scratch, or verbal praise in return. Clicker training also falls under positive reinforcement.

On the other hand, trainers must also be firm when the situation suggests. For example, horses with a tendency to invade your personal space must be pushed in the opposite direction until they reach a safe distance. This will teach them respect and show them the consequences of their actions.

4. Desensitization

NH also incorporates an extensive desensitization program. This makes the horses less likely to react explosively to scary objects such as cars, plastic bags, flapping doors, or nearby animals. Systemic desensitization is an integral part of making a horse safe to ride and be around.

There are many ways to desensitize a horse and some are less gentle than others. Generally, NH trainers allow plenty of space for the horse to retreat from the object, reinforcing every step they take towards it. An efficient technique is to move the object away and ask the horse to follow it, as it will instantly become less intimidating to them.

5. Foundation Training

Don Jessop‘s final principle is about building a solid foundation with the horse before progressing further in training. This means young, feral, or abused horses should begin their training with plenty of groundwork. Exercises include leading, lunging, long reining, and round pen work.

The same applies to any horse you start working with. Groundwork is where the horse learns to respect and trust you, and it’s also an opportunity to get to know each other. If a horse doesn’t accept you on the ground, it won’t accept you on its back either.

You can read more about these principles in Don Jessop’s Beginners Guide to Natural Horsemanship.

Natural Horsemanship Equipment

NH practitioners use specific equipment to achieve their training goals. This will always include a two- or four-knot rope halter and long whip or carrot stick to guide their horses.

Basically, rope halters allow handlers to communicate more subtle cues via the lead rope. While many equestrians call NH trainers hypocrites for using whips, they are only used to give visual cues and rarely touch the horse.

Woman training and teaching her horse in a ménage
Sonja Rasche / Shutterstock.com

Many also use a 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 m) weighted lead rope for groundwork and sometimes as reins. Riding is either done bitless or with minimal contact with the horse’s mouth, relying mostly on leg and weight aids. NH encourages the approach “If your reins smile, your horse will smile too.”

Neckrope riding and trick training

Many NH riders work towards being able to ride their horses tackless, with only a rope hanging loosely around their neck. For everyday riding, they will usually use a bitless bridle and will often have treeless saddles, as well as a regular saddle.

Some NH trainers also teach their horses tricks, which can be anywhere from a small to a significant part of their routine. Common horse tricks include the bow, the kiss, the lie-down, the Spanish walk and the rear. Most trick trainers will either train at liberty or using NH.

While some equestrians view liberty training as a branch of NH, others consider it a separate horsemanship style. Training horses at liberty means there are no ropes attached to control the animal and the horse is free to leave the session if it wishes. This training style is becoming more and more popular around the world.

Criticism

You might be aware that not everyone approves of NH, its training methods, and how it’s promoted. Critics of the style say that gentler techniques for training horses have existed for thousands of years. They condemn how high-profile NH trainers make a profit from repackaging an existing idea as “new”.

However, many NH trainers do credit the source of their techniques and acknowledge that NH is not a new concept. A prime example is accomplished horse trainer Pat Parelli, who famously said, “The Natural Horsemanship movement is so old it’s new again!”

Advocates of NH also faced criticism for labeling more traditional horsemanship as “inhumane”. Some equestrians claim that not all NH methods are kind to the horse, while others say NH cannot replace classical techniques. In addition, most equine scientists are skeptical of the idea that humans can be true “leaders” of horses and imitate their body language.

Traditional or Natural Horsemanship?

When it comes down to it, the horsemanship style you use is a matter of personal preference. Many advocates of NH were traditional riders first and switched over along the way. Others combine the two training styles and bring out the best of both.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to choose between traditional and natural horsemanship. Whatever style you’re committed to, it’s good to be open-minded about other forms of riding and training. Learning from other equestrians can only benefit you and your horse, and you might come across something you didn’t know you were looking for.

Woman training her horse to canter collectively
SunnyMoon / Shutterstock.com

Prominent Natural Horsemanship Trainers

The best way to learn more about NH is to check out the work of the most influential people in the field. While there are many others who contributed to popularizing the style, these trainers were the pioneers of modern NH.

Ray Hunt

Ray Hunt was an enthusiastic student of Tom Dorrance, one of the brothers who started the NH movement. Hunt went on to give clinics all over the United States and had a significant influence on modern NH.

He became known for starting his clinics with the statement “I’m here for the horse, to help him get a better deal.” His approach involved never blaming the horse and making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.

Buck Brannaman

Another pioneer of the NH movement was American horseman Buck Brannaman. He often described his work as “helping horses with people problems”. 

Buck Brannaman gives 4-day clinics across the United States, teaching western and natural horsemanship.

Monty Roberts

Monty Roberts is one of the most recognized figures of NH. He learned the language of horses by observing the behavior of Mustangs in the wild as a boy. In his works, he calls this language “equus”.

Monty Roberts even had the honor to meet Queen Elizabeth II who was interested in his unique “Join-Up” method. The Queen encouraged him to write his first book that became a bestseller in 1996, titled “The Man Who Listens to Horses”.

Here is a video in which he explains his “Join-Up” method:

Also read, 10 interesting facts you didn’t know about Monty Roberts.

Pat Parelli

Another famous horse trainer in the NH community is Pat Parelli. He has learnt directly from legendary natural horsemen such as Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Ronny Willis.

Parelli has been teaching and marketing his method since 1981. His signature training equipment is the Parelli rope halter, lead rope, and carrot stick. He developed 7 games for beginners and training young horses, which are the Friendly, Porcupine, Driving, Yo-Yo, Circling, Sideways, and Squeeze games.

Also, read our articles on the 7 Games of Parelli Natural Horsemanship Training and 8 Facts About Pat and Linda Parelli.

Clinton Anderson

Clinton Anderson is an Australian horseman who founded Downunder Horsemanship. He now lives in the United States and teaches his method on his Walkabout Tour. He also offers courses and certification programs to NH trainers.

Other Accomplished Natural Horsemanship Trainers

  • Chris Cox
  • Double Dan Horsemanship
  • Karen Rohlf – Dressage Naturally
  • Stacy Westfall
  • Klaus Ferdinant Hempfling
  • Alexander Nevzorov
  • Franklin Levinson
  • Linda Kohanov
  • Stormy May

Also, read our article about the 8 Most Famous Horse Trainers.

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