Saturday, June 27, 2009

Natural horsemanship

John Lyons

Clinton Anderson

Pat Parelli

Aaah natural horsemanship. The receipt of so much criticism as of late. So let's address some of the "issues" people have with natural horsemanship.

"It takes so much time."
Well, consider how much time you put into your horse already. I can assure you (as someone who used to work with horses the "traditional" way) that natural horsemanship, because it uses psychology of the horse, actually takes less time to get what you want. Sometimes it requires you to go back a few steps, so that you can fill in the gaps in your horse and your's partnership, but ultimately it allows for faster progression. The groundwork that we do prior to working under-saddle can be done in the 15 minutes it takes to lead your horse in from the pasture. Anything takes time, and the ideal partnership is certainly worth it.

"But you have to do so much groundwork!"
The foundation of any horse is groundwork. What you have on the ground is always halved in the saddle, from trust to respect, to partnership, so if you achieve a great partnership on the ground, you can have a great partnership under-saddle. Just to give you an idea, when I start your average laid-back 3yo QH, I usually do a week of groundwork. After that initial week, we spend maybe 15 minutes each session before doing our under-saddle work (this is assuming the horse has no previous issues that stall average progression). Is that really all that much groundwork? Groundwork allows you to first introduce concepts and lessons to a horse without a rider on their back (which can have a number of benefits, depending on the horse) and where you are safest.

"You have to use so much equipment!"
Don't you buy martingales, nosebands, saddles, bridles, bits, halters, boots...?? Of course you need tools to do a job, and natural horsemanship is no different. During your typical session, I'll use a saddle and pad, a bridle/rope hackamore, a carrot stick, and a rope and halter. Well I don't know about the next person, but that doesn't really seem like all that much equipment to me. The tools I use help me communicate efficiently with my horses. On that note, you don't have to buy the equipment NH trainers endorse, but do consider, and question, why they use such equipment. Ask them questions about their equipment. For example, Pat Parelli uses the rope halter he does because it encourages the horse to move forward and to release to pressure, rather than push against it (such as with a web halter - read my quip on halters here). He uses the yachting ropes he does because they're heavy and respond faster than your average rope. The weight also enables the horse to feel you picking up the end of the rope and such, easier. Similar concept as weighted reins on a bridle horse. The carrot stick is a rigid, fiberglass rod - it extends your arm and responds accurately according to how you move. It lacks the flexibility of the dressage or longe whip that your horse can ignore, and it has a 6' string at the end to respond just exactly how you flick it. It's not that you need Parelli's equipment to do Parelli, but I can certainly attest to its quality (I have yet to find a replica of similar quality - and I've looked), and it really helps you communicate clearly to your horse, especially to the horse who's new to people and interpreting our body language. Of course some trainers out there are simply making a shitload of money pumping out equipment that really does you no good, but that's where research comes in - for any piece of equipment, "natural" or not. Ask them why they use the equipment they do and how it can help you. On another note, I have yet to buy a figure-8 noseband, a martingale, or any other like piece of equipment, despite preparing horses for competitive purposes, so really I'm not putting out any more money than the next person.

"Horses don't run around with carrot sticks, why should I?"
Your horse also has ears that move better than yours and a long body that communicates horse language better than your human body does. I do not always use a carrot stick, but I have to admit it often makes a huge difference in my communication efficiency with a horse when I do.

"It's so unnatural!"
What's unnatural about looking at things from the horse's perspective, using horse psychology, and playing the same types of games horses play out in the pasture with their buddies? No, the tools aren't natural (neither are any tools out there on the market) - but the partnership is. What's not natural about being able to work with your horse at full liberty and have him want to work with you? Yea, I dunno either.

"I don't have the time!"
If you are riding your horse regularly (or not, even), you have the time. You just don't want to make the time - that's okay, but don't say you don't have the time! It just has not become important enough yet for you to make the time.

"It's so commercialized"
Unfortunately this certainly has become the case - money has a way about things. However that doesn't make the right NH method itself any less great, or helpful, to your horse.

"It's only for newbies who know nothing about horses" or "it's only for people with problem horses"
When I got into NH, I had been involved in the horse industry for 14+ years. I wasn't a newbie by any stretch of the imagination. I'd worked cattle, jumped, done Pony Club, a little dressage, gaming, gone through 4H...etc etc. I'd trained my Quarab from green 30-day'er to accomplished jumper and cow horse. I was currently working out how to train my young Warmblood colt. My WB was a "problem horse", but my Quarab - though we had problems at times - was just your average horse. My WB attacked me. He's what pushed me into NH, and as a result, I picked up knowledge I could then pass on to any horse, problem horse or not. You don't have to be new to horses or have a "problem horse" (there are no problem horses, only problem riders) to do NH; any person can improve the relationship they have with any horse. You can never know everything. What kind of relationship do you have with your horse - can you ride that jump course or do that dressage pattern at liberty? If you can, can you imagine what you can do, what type of control you have, in a bridle?

"It only works for certain horses, not all horses"
Horse psychology is universal - every horse has it. Parelli states that he's never met a horse yet that didn't appreciate natural horsemanship. Neither have I thus far. In my experience, it works for all horses, but not all people.

"NH people are unsafe"
"They ride around bareback in halters or bridleless, they stand on their horses' backs..." Well, what someone does is their prerogative. On the other hand, it's not so unsafe when you're in ultimate partnership with your horse. Your horse isn't going to spook if he's following your direction, and he's going to do what you ask because he wants to - you're working in partnership. Just like a trick rider or vaulter wouldn't do what they do without knowing they were safe on their horse.

"What I do works already"
Great. Just keep an open mind that your way might not be the only way - that there might be something out there that allows you to have an even better partnership with your horse. "Good, better, best, never let it rest." We should be constantly striving for improvement and to better ourselves and our horses. And for crying out loud, don't criticize others because they choose to do something else!

"Well it didn't work on so and so"
Was the individual working with the horse a professional in that particular method? Besides, Parelli (or other NH methods) are designed more for the human than the horse. You can balance out a horse, develop a horse, but after that it's up to the person. Just because a horse is "NH trained" doesn't mean he's going to do all the things with you that he did with the individual who was doing NH with him originally. It certainly makes him a well-rounded horse and sets him up for success with the next person, but the horse is not a pre-programmed computer. If you want a horse to do those things, you have to "talk" to him the same way! I can promise you my Warmblood x will still walk all over you if you don't assert yourself around him. He doesn't do so around me, because I'm assertive! My Thoroughbred won't necessarily work calmly and relaxedly under-saddle for someone else, just because he does so for me! These are animals, not robots. They don't respond robotically when you press a particular button (or at least they shouldn't), they respond according to how you work with them.

"My horse is too old"
I'm working with an 8-9yo APHA gelding at the moment. He's picked it up fabulously. When I started working with my Quarab using NH, he was about that age as well. Horse psychology is horse psychology, regardless of age. Habits may be difficult to change when a horse has done them for a number of years, however it is possible with patience and persistence.

"I don't need to ride my horse bridleless"
Neither do I. It's not about being able to do tricks with your horse, it's about the type of partnership that allows for those types of exercises (such as riding bridleless). If you can ride your horse bridleless, you can negotiate a course with a bridle.

NH is more than a method, it's a way of thinking. It's not about being able to do all these "tricks" with your horse, and it's not about "fixing" a problem horse. It's about creating the ultimate partnership with the horse in hand. It's about teaching your horse a common language the two of you can share (ie. teaching your horse his language in your own words) and being able to "talk" back and forth efficiently and effectively. It's about learning as much as possible and about creating a partnership where ropes are no longer required to "keep" your horse at your side, where the two of you are in harmony - a partnership based on love, language, leadership, with balanced doses of trust and respect. Sure it's become pretty commercialized, but you just have to find the right method that works for you - read trainers' philosophies, watch their demos, see what their students can do. Furthermore, don't let a few bad examples of a method turn you off completely - bad apples are everywhere. Evaluate each method on its own merits, based on the professionals within the system. Above all, have an open mind and be willing to always learn.

ETA: I wanted to add a little more after watching the Nexen Cup Derby at Spruce Meadows on tv today (after seeing the real thing a few weeks ago). At the time of seeing the Nexen Cup - to me, Ian Miller and Redefin had seemed like the best combination (I even blogged about it here). They were fluid, they were relaxed throughout, and they were in perfect harmony within their partnership. There was no sawing on Redefin's mouth, big bits, pumping up in the gym so as to have the arm strength to ride him (*ahem* Beezie on Judgement *cough cough*), or fighting with Redefin. Redefin was calm and relaxed - not rushing fences, bucking, or wringing his tail without relief (*cough* Jeanne Hobbs on Night and Day 8). Miller and Redefin's partnership outranked anyone's by a long stretch. I did not realise though (am I the last to do so?) that Miller does natural horsemanship. The commentator of the competition put it nicely: with that type of partnership, it becomes more about the horse and rider and less about the jumps. Pessoa was eliminated when his horse, Champ 163, refused the Devil's Dyke - twice. Despite practising it at home numerous times. See, it really is not about the jump. You can practise a specific jump until you are blue in the face and your horse is dropping over dead. However if you've got a strong partnership with your horse, your horse is following your leadership - over any jump. Take note this is nothing against Pessoa of course, just an observation of where he was possibly at with that horse that day.


OldMorgans said...

Thank you for your commentary on NH. I have been with horses all my life. When I discovered the Internet back in 1995, I also discovered the NH discussion lists of the time. I read those and found the entire concept to be what I had been searching for. I learned from many different folks. At that time, Pat Parelli left me less then impressed.
Move ahead many years to just a few years ago. A friend got me to take another look at the Parelli system and I saw that much of what I had disliked previously, had been changed. I now had a little horse whom I could not "fix" with what I knew; like you, it took a special horse to push my journey further along. I was fortunate to have a Parelli professional in the area to take private lessons from. While I do not agree with all that comes from the Parelli organization (and have told them so in many letters), I find it very helpful and useful.
Having been within the NH world for so long now, I was amazed by the down right hatred found in some places from some people about it. I am saddened that these folks really do not understand what it is. They have seen some bad examples of it being done by people who are trying (or not) but who have not really understood the concept. All the common concerns about NH, by whatever clinician, is actually answered and well once one is truly within the understanding and really doing it. I asked my instructor once why there are so many people out there who are letting their horses become pushy, spoiled and bored when doing PNH. She said that it does attract people who don't want to firm up with their horse so they take the wrong message away or they just don't really get past a superficial look at it and so get only part of it and then go make a mess.
I find it hard sometimes to find the words to express myself, so usually don't say much on this subject. You did a nice job of saying what I would want to say.
And that little horse--she was making progress but she and I were not a good fit.The PNH instructor helped to clarify this for me. I found a home for her with a person who was a better match for her. This freed me up to go work with my other horses and we are coming along just fine.
Well, that was rambling and not the most clear thing I have ever written but hopefully, it makes sense

Equus said...

My pleasure! Prior to NH I KNEW there had to be a better way of doing things but didn't know what it was! My WB colt was that extra "push" and everything just lined up! Luckily the barn I was boarding at at the time I was working with my WB colt advertised the Parelli tour in town and started putting on clinics and such. After watching Pat and Linda work with their horses at the demo (about 6 years ago), I was hooked, and it worked wonders on my WB! Since then, it's worked wonders on ANY horse I have worked with.

If you don't mind, what are some of the problems you have with the PNH system? I'm just curious :) There's the odd thing I disagree with, but probably a good 95 percent I do agree with. One thing I disagree with is Linda's theory to consciously tense up when the horse tenses up, to create greater relaxation in the horse. I've found that we naturally tense up to a certain degree anyways if our horse is tense, and that it is best to relax - mimic what we want our horses to do and to set an example as their leader. I guess there's the odd other thing here and there I disagree with (cannot recall any additional examples though), but for the most part, I find a lot of their info to be correct. I don't just blindly follow though, so I am always questioning things and am always interested in other viewpoints to consider with an open mind.

I am unsure as to why people can have so much hatred for a method that offers so much, even if they misunderstand it - whatever happened to an open mind? Or, how about, just being friendly towards fellow horsepeople? It's pretty frustrating to be criticised for something that others do not understand and that is proving successful for you (and others).

I think people allowing their horses to be pushy and disrespectful is within any method/etc, but it certainly does seem to be more common in the NH world...? I think your instructor might have the right theory. On the other hand, I would rather people get into NH improperly than stick with some of the cowboy/traditional methods. At least they've got the open mind!

Definitely makes sense, no worries, and thanks!

OldMorgans said...

I have a large argument with the way the Levels Program is being done now. I think that replacing the Levels packs with the two new DVD sets is not enough information for people. I know that a lot of questions came up for me while watching a borrowed Patterns set. I like the idea of the Patterns and was already using the concept. I am glad that I have my Level 1 & 2 boxes. I also was not impressed with the Savvy DVD set as I felt the information was mostly in the level packs but in better detail in the packs. Thankfully, I am not doing the Levels. I also get annoyed by the Savvy club magazine. It is a whole lot of paper with little of actual use. I really do not worship at the altar of The Pat so don't need all those full color full page photos of him. However, the recent Savvy Club DVDs have been very useful.

My arguments are not so much with what they are teaching, but how they teach it.

Equus said...

Ah, I hear ya there. I get along well enough with the patterns but definitely was a bit confused and intimidated at first, and that's after 6 years spent doing PNH. I honestly feel the Levels packs make for a solid, necessary foundation for people first getting into the PNH, and that the patterns aren't really all that thorough. On the other hand, I absolutely LOVE the new patterns and have experienced a lot of succes with them.

I wonder sometimes too if Pat and Linda are not becoming more about the money lately? I'm not sure, and it certainly doesn't make their info any less valid, but it's still a thought that crosses my mind, particularly when the Canadian branch of PNH was dropped and a lot of instructors have left PNH and branched out on their own. Like I said, it still doesn't affect the actual material, but it's sort of disappointing.