On “Natural Forcemanship”

Once upon a time, there was this horse-crazy little girl who had read The Man Who Listens to Horses and since that day practised talking with horses.

To this present day, she works hard on studying them and improving her communication skills with these beautiful minds.

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Wesley loves to hear what a good boy he is!

The little girl in me is heartbroken today when she thinks of how pink and innocent this concept, put down by a cowboy named Monty Roberts, seemed to her back then.

Today, also with the use of the internet, my view of this man’s work has altered, his practices leave a bitter aftertaste, the glory of his brave new concepts is tarnished… by something critics call “Natural Forcemanship”.
The little girl would have preferred to continue idolising the horse whisperer, in blissful ignorance…

See, horses are wondrously gentle half-ton animals.
Force works on most of them in a matter of one lesson, but only with repeated abuse does it work long-term… thus the success of “Natural Forcemanship” trainers who practice abuse on varying levels of intensity to delight their two-legged clientele with “horse whispering” miracle results.
And when the mount becomes “pushy”, “disrespectful”, “aggressive” or “dominant” (my absolute favourite) once again, they call on the miracle worker again to fix it.

I want to make clear, that it is not my intention to put the following individuals on the same negative level here. These are just different examples of problematic topics among natural horsemanship (NH) training methods:

  • e.g. Clin*ton Ande*rson’s (yes, I don’t even want to add to his search hits) steel-handed Rollkur reining style and violent attitude. (This individual deserves a special place far, far away from any horses – or, in fact, any living creatures.)
  • e.g. Pat Hook’s (discipline: cutting) instructions on how to teach your horse to lay down and do other tricks – a lot of ropes around legs and straightforward forcing the horses to do tricks…
  • e.g. Monty Roberts (discipline: original horse whispering) chasing young wild-eyed horses around a round-pen, using fear to make them cooperate.
  • e.g. Pat Parelli’s (discipline: remastered horse whispering) pathetic and forceful displays of “liberty work” – rather the opposite of what working at liberty is about. Or what he did to the horse “Catwalk” in a 2010 demo in England: tying down his leg and pulling a rope over his gums in order to bridle him… gentle method? I don’t think so!

 

Even though it’s nothing new, the whole concept of natural horsemanship is wonderful.
In his book On Horsemanship, Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BCE) emphasises, amongst other topics such as how to train a horse, reassurance over punishment. One might argue, he was the first Natural Horsemanship trainer.
Those same principles of gentle techniques come up over and over again through the centuries by anyone who is anyone in Classical Dressage, such as the Old Masters  Antoine de Pluvinel (1555–1620 CE) and François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751), and in more recent times with Nuno Oliveira (1925–1989) and Alois Podhajsky (1898–1973) of the Vienna Riding School.

Here’s how the term “Natural Horsemanship” is described on Wikipedia, and it does sound lovely indeed, especially that last bit:

Natural horsemanship, colloquially known as horse whispering, is a collective term for a variety of horse training techniques which have seen rapid growth in popularity since the 1980s. The techniques vary in their precise tenets but generally share principles of developing a rapport with horses, using methods said to be derived from observation of the natural behavior of free-roaming horses and rejecting abusive training methods.

However, there’s several major problems with:

“Methods”

Many NH trainers are salesmen, with big, effective marketing machineries selling equipment and, what’s really problematic: methods – a one size fits all approach each of them has come up with that promises leisure riders and many, many inexperienced horse owners to overcome any obstacle, if only they use their equipment and method.
Well, horses come as different in interior, habits, former traumas, exterior and training level as humans do – what works on one horse might very well not work on another, it might even make your problem worse. There’s no way around a decent, gentle and experienced trainer who comes to see you and your horse in person at least once a week. No online-course, book or 2day clinic can replace the years of training that bring you and your horse together, and most of us need assistance that can adapt to our individual needs.

Showing = Money

Of course, the problem with public showing/competing and money are very much a problem of more tradition equine sports. Rollkur seems to get a 9year old to win big Grand Prix’ in Dressage (Anky van Grunsven on Blue Hors Matine), cutting corners efficiently – while taking off years of horse health at the end of their careers… but money matters, now! The same can be seen with show jumping and reining. The abuse of race horses or saddlebreds (see “Big Lick” and “soring” – warning: ugly!), the danger riders put eventing horses into… the list goes on and on… all in the name of money and fame.

Even if once a gentle method, also Natural Horsemanship showing requires these clinicians to produce miracles with horses they have never seen before in a very short period of time, the pressure of which leading to force.
The problem is with endorsements, sponsorships, phone cameras and audiences – all expecting the “method” to work on any horse these trainers get to handle – often in 30 minute periods. Everyone expects them to tame a wild horse, forgetting that it takes weeks, months and sometimes years to win a horse’s trust and motivate it to answer to your requests.

Fear

A lot of trainers seem to make their money by creating fear.
Growing up being trained several times a week by different trainers, I never once had a trainer mention over and over again how dangerous the animals we are handling are and therefore we must apply this and that method – to “keep them in check”…
Don’t get me wrong: an ill-handled horse can be dangerous, they are big and heavy, their hooves are hard and they happen to be flight animals. All I’m saying is, it is conspicuous how the whole community seems scared of the horses they work with.

“Dominance”

The idiocy of “dominance” training/issues/practices – yes, dominance-thinking in general. Horses are not tigers where this might come in handy, they are PREY animals – and guess what we are? Right: PREDATORS
So please, next time you think in terms of “dominance” regarding your horse, remind yourself of the prey/predator situation and then forget about this word once and for all.

The big excuse

Veiling psychological force (e.g. pressuring a horse in a round pen), sometimes physical force (e.g. spores, sharp bits or just the stupid rope-whipping into their faces) or even downright abuse (e.g. as with Rollkur – no matter if it’s in Dressage or Reining) behind the mantle of “natural ways”.
Pat Parelli and others speak of “love and respect” while tying down a horse’s leg or simply forcing it into cooperation with intimidating body language, all while being cheered on.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard one of these NH trainers justify their means by citing the example of horses in a herd biting and kicking each other and that this is the “natural” way of correcting your horse. C’mon! Your horse knows very well that you are NOT another horse, how dim do you think they are? Secondly, be glad it doesn’t – because then all your gloomy talk might come true and your horse will, in fact, become dangerous, should they choose to reply in kind.

The “guru” status

Fans blindly following along like lemmings, accepting each word as ultimate truth, ceasing to question and an inability to adapt to a horse’s individual personality and training needs as a result.
An extreme example: the aforementioned Australian reining and horse-abuse media star who is hugely popular and successful, especially among women leisure Western riders/trail riders, can afford to publicly insult just this exact target group, repeatedly. Without losing “followers” or sponsorship contracts…

Trust your gut

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Take a stance and be firm with bullying cowboy “trainers”. Think of your horse.

Just LOOK at the methods! Go on youtube and watch videos of the gurus I’ve mentioned performing “miracles”. Or if you chose to work with a natural horsemanship trainer, watch them work with your horse very critically. Do you like what you see? Does it look harmonious? Is the horse happy and content?

If yes, congratulations! You seemed to have found a trainer that deserves to call themselves a “natural horseman/woman”. Of course, there is plenty of good ones too: kind, intelligent and gentle people that choose not to work with force and fear and are able to help you overcome difficulties with some creative training techniques.

If not, if you see the whites in your horse’s eye, if it is tense and constantly on its toes, if you watch them “wiggle” the rope around its head, with the metal hook slapping against its jaw, head held high in fear and confusion… if it gets chased around small confined spaces for no apparent reason, if your trainer talks a lot about dominance, punishment and danger, then your “natural horsemanship” trainer is nothing more than a common bully.
Then go with your guts and fire them. If it’s not a harmonious picture, it’s probably not what you wanted for your horse in the first place.

 

 

Release your poll first, human!

You probably all know this situation: You are riding in the arena, practising something or other and it’s just not working quite right today. Then someone steps in and you stop for a brief conversation. A few minutes later, you pick up the reins and, all of a sudden, everything works smoothly. You experience one of these glorious moments when you and your horse become one, almost like a centaur (a picture I like to use when trying to convey this feeling to my students).
I borrowed this analogy from Klaus Balkenhohl, a German veteran dressage rider and star instructor. He uses this situation to explain how the horse regenerates its muscles in this break and how important it is to drop the reins every now and then and grant it a break.

I’d like to look at this situation from the viewpoint of the rider: What happens to your body when you are interrupted by a friendly conversation?
That’s right, you relax! And when we are relaxed, our horses are happy.

Look at this happy horse stretching forward-downward, marching relaxed and motivated round the arena with my friend Clarissa (who, not expecting too much from her first ride in a dressage saddle, is nice and relaxed herself):

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Five minutes later, I sat on the same horse in the same arena and then something happened to me that many riders struggle with: I fell into performance mode!
Even though I try and not do it, it still happens sometimes, this silly idea of having to show a perfect performance. The result: nothing worked!
My perfectly relaxed, happy and warmed-up horse tensed up and wasn’t cooperating with anything, not even his favourites: extended trot and half-passes.
Why? Because I mounted and immediately started giving aids, probably way to intense and I didn’t give him or myself time to loosen up and find a connection.

This is why it’s always better to warm-up your horses yourself!

Quite recently one of my riding students made me aware of something called “The Alexander Technique”. She told me about this course she had attended and the instructor helped her understand some fundamental issues in her posture, particularly when sitting or riding and how these issues interfered with her seat and aids. I was intrigued.

So I started reading and watching youtube videos, the way I usually research anything that might help me in my own riding and especially with my teaching others.

What I learned is that many postural problems come from the fact that we unknowingly refuse to let go of our own tensions, which leads to sore muscles and all sorts of pains.

The Alexander Technique follows three major principles: Observe, Inhibit, Direct.
So I tried to apply it to my sitting at a desk, lugging moving boxes (oh yes, we moved to the country side last week!) and, of course, to riding. Here’s the results of my self-experiment:

  1. Observing habits I displayed when mounting, sitting, driving and giving aids. And boy, there’s a lot of unwanted stuff there! A forward rolling right shoulder, a tensed up left shoulder, a shortened and backward-drawn neck, a crooked right waist – as a result a stretched-out left hip, …
  2. Inhibiting these unwanted tensions was harder. So I tried to stretch out my neck, up up and forward to loosen the muscles at the base of my scull – my “poll” if you will. I squared out my shoulders and balanced my hips and waist. And generally made sure every step of the ride not to curl or tense up in any way. Easy said…
  3. Directing I interpreted as a prolonged idea of what I was trying to fix in step two – basically a general sense of up, building an image in my mind that I was much taller than I though, but also much more relaxed than I am.

It’ll be a long way to really creating a new posture and body image altogether, but I will continue to work on myself, having added a mirror to my office and maybe asking some folks I go trail-riding with to tell me when I forget to be tall and relaxed.

For any of you interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique (that isn’t my personal interpretation), here’s a link to plenty of resources: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/

“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.”

Even though I know – and teach – that you need a clear mind and a fit body for riding, I still struggle with it sometimes.
I tell students to meditate in the car after a stressful day in the office before even walking to the stable and to do breathing exercises in the saddle before starting warm-up. All this to quieten the mind and be in the “now”, that’s where you horse is all the time: in the present!

But then, there’s also the physical aspect of tension.
Horses have this immediate calming effect on me, they work like Valium to me. I arrive, put my boots on, walk over, get breathed on by one of the horses and I have forgotten about the aggravating call earlier, the overdue project deadline and time itself. I can make the switch to “now” in an instant when with horses… but my body can’t let go of it all that fast. The aforementioned call still sits in tight shoulders, the project deadline in a tense back – and since my mind has forgotten about it all, I need reminding to ease up my body.

And this is important, to actually look at yourself and notice what’s hurting. It’s important for your well-being, as much as your horse’s. You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon that a horse you ride regularly will start mirroring your physical problems: a sore right shoulder won’t take long to transfer to your horse – and then your training needs adjustment because the horse is crooked! I wonder how often this happens…

A much better way would be to try and avoid this altogether, by taking better care of yourself – get that shoulder checked out! You might require a visit to an Osteopath or some physical therapy – if you are overall tense and sore (like after moving house), maybe treat yourself to a massage, a hot bath or a sauna to loosen up before thinking about riding again.

There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the saddle. Here’s Wesley inspecting a scary loop, having a hard think if the goodie is worth walking through it or not…

It’s time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and I am looking forward to watching the Dressage Gran Prix tonight.
But when I am watching tonight, I will not only watch for the perfect seats of the riders, the amazing moves of the horses (and my ever-present criticism of noses behind the vertical – this needs changing in this beautiful sport!), but I will also watch out for tall and relaxed postures, for how the riders carry their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – and hopefully take something away for my own arena work.

So, dear riders – whatever way you ride and whatever goal you might pursue with your riding – remember to relax your own poll first! Your horses will thank you.