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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.