By Laurie J. Blake
Like any other training system, natural horsemanship doesn’t provide a magic bullet but requires education and commitment to get results.
A few years ago, a group of us travelled to watch a show Pat and Linda Parelli were presenting in Guelph, Ontario. My friends were keen about “natural horsemanship” and the Parelli system; I went to see what all the fuss was about. I intended to be unimpressed, but I wasn’t able to stay that way.
While there was certainly a good sales job for the Parelli system going on, the horsemanship of the husband and wife duo was clearly evident. The main part of the show involved each of them working with an unfamiliar horse chosen by the audience, applying groundwork techniques and their seven games.
I left impressed with the skills of the husband and wife duo, and more than impressed with natural horsemanship than I had intended. And yet, even before attending that show, and many times since, I have worked around, instructed or cared for some “natural horsemanship trained” horses and have been just as unimpressed.
I’m not alone in this. If you gather together a group of horse people and talk about natural horsemanship, for every success story told, you’ll likely hear just as many, if not more stories of huge failures.
Nature vs. Nurture
Maybe, then, the question we need to ask is: Is being a natural horseman (or woman) something that certain people just have, something they’re born with? Or, can anyone learn how to become a natural horseman?
According to the three different natural horsemen/women I’ve talked with over the last couple of months, it is absolutely possible to learn the skills and acquire the ability to “speak horse,” as “Canada’s horse whisperer” Chris Irwin calls it. In fact, these trainers maintain that until one learns to understand the way a horse thinks and responds, it’s really not possible to be truly successful in working with horses at all.
Equus in: I completely agree, regardless of whether you’re an Olympic rider, or what. I’ve seen high level riders competing at the international level still not getting along with their horses – they could be so much more successful with that horse, even.
Surprisingly, despite their disparate approaches and methodologies, most “natural” horsemen and women agree: learning how to understand how a horse thinks, how it “speaks,” and using that knowledge in how you approach a horse, ride it, and train it is what “natural horsemanship,” or horse whispering – choose your term – is all about.
“Whether you call yourself a horse trainer or not, as soon as your horse sees you heading towards him, you’re teaching him to respect you or not,” says Ron Pyne, an Elgin, Ontario-based Parelli 3-Star Trainer.
In this age of self-awareness and self-help, it’s probably not surprising that most of us who spend much, if not most, of our time around horses realize that what we do directly impacts our equine companions. Maybe that’s why the idea of training horses, particularly training our own horses, has moved to the forefront of many riders’ minds over the last few decades – and, perhaps, why we’re seeing so much attention focused on “natural” training techniques.
Lyons certified trainer Wendy Downer says she used to train horses and was almost always disappointed by how owners subsequently worked with the horses. Now, under the banner of Kinder Horsemanship, the Elmvale, Ontario-based natural horsewoman trains owners and riders to train their own horses.
“Training the riders and horses together takes longer, and the progress may be slower,” Downer says, “but the two, rider and horse, learn how to complement each other.”
Creating our own problems
So why then, when applied with the best of intentions, does natural training (like any other type of training) so often prove ineffective? In some cases, misguided training has created horses that are so poorly trained that they spend their lives as someone’s lawn ornament, or are sent off to auction to become someone else’s problem, or become residents of the meat-man’s feed lot.
One person who was part of the group with whom I first saw the Parellis was impressed enough that he followed the system with his horse Dax, to some effect. “Dax and I were working on level 2/3 of the Parelli system – say “system” because that’s what I think it is. I don’t believe it’s a new paradigm on horse training, however, I do believe that what the Parellis have done is to systemize a set of procedures that were not available to the general public before. In this way the Parelli system has brought a new level of understanding to horsemanship for the average person.”
Equus: man, I couldn’t agree more!!!!
He did warn, however, that “if it’s not done correctly (ie. with proper supervision or instruction) most often what happens is that incorrect behaviour is encouraged instead of discouraged.”
As I talked with and listened to the three natural trainers, I realized the answer lies, as it does so often, not with the concept itself, or with any particular system, but solely in the way in which natural training is applied and understood, or misunderstood. As I discovered from my original contact with the Parellis, the proponents of the systems are compelling, knowledgeable, and passionate horse people who are well aware of the risks of natural training and more than willing to suggest ways to succeed with horses.
What you really need to know about horses
“A horse is ‘naturally’ a paranoid, attention-deficit, passive-aggressive victim waiting to happen,” says trainer, communicator and coach Chris Irwin. But, he says, what you see with a horse is what you get. Horses don’t lie, as the title of Irwin’s first book states: they tell you exactly what they’re feeling and even what they want from you, if you know how to listen.
Yet, Irwin has not been shy about uncovering problems with some of the application of natural horsemanship principles. “I believe we can “aid” our horses to evolve their nature into being calm, focused and willing partners.
Equus in: this is what I mean when I talk about “developing” a horse.
(cont.) But there are a lot of people playing games with horses in the name of natural horsemanship and the horse’s body language is upset: swishing tails, inverted backs, bending/pushing their body laterally into the person during the groundwork, flattened ears – but people don’t see it. They just live in their romantic illusion of ‘natural’.”
Equus in: this happens so much. On the other hand, some of the above body language can happen as part of the progress, or evolution, of the partnership between you and your horse. However it should eventually disappear as the partnership progresses.
Wendy Downer agrees that there are many people attempting to apply natural training principles without understanding what natural training really means. “Humans tend to carry too much emotion into training,” she says, “but horses live in the moment and don’t carry the emotional baggage we do.”
Natural training, she believes, does not equal aggressiveness, but it is about safety – for both the horse and the rider. People need to know where to draw the line with horses and how to establish the pecking order, as horses themselves do very clearly in a herd.
It’s not the round pens, fancy sticks, rope halters or other equipment that either make the training work, or cause the problem, it’s how people use or misuse them, Downer believes.
Equus in: like Jonathan Field says, “the bit doesn’t train the horse”. That follows for any piece of equipment. The person is what trains the horse. The tools you use make a difference, but they are not what actually "train" the horse.
“We still have to ‘know horse’, have that horse sense,” she says. “This can’t be learned in a weekend or through occasional instruction, but through experience.”
“How often is it not the system that is the problem, but the misunderstanding or misapplication of the system that is causing stress in a horse?” asks Chris Irwin. “Depending on the system, this is happening a LOT! It happens to us all and I will be the first to admit that there are people are there trying to do what I teach – thinking that they are doing it correctly – but not doing it correctly and, therefore, the results are often limited."
“And it’s not just the riding. In the round pen or in ground work games in natural horsemanship there are too many horses being stressed out because of the body language of the person,” he says. “HOW you are shaping your body is far more important – it suggests whether or not you are in fact herding the horse or sending the message to capture it, which always stresses a horse out.”
Through the Parelli system, Ron Pyne believes there are seven keys to succeed in natural horsemanship: attitude, knowledge, tools, techniques, time, imagination, and support. If all of them are not present, success will be limited.
For Wendy Downer, becoming a natural trainer means changing the way you think. We need to be constantly and actively aware of what our horses are doing and learning, not simply reacting to what they’ve already learned, often unintentionally. Riders and trainers need to be in control of training, the horse, and the situation – at home and away.
“In fact, we need to expect 110% from our horses at home, so that when concentration is down, say at a show, everything still remains safe,” she says. Sometimes, this control is achieved simply by relaxing. She suggests three simple rules to apply when training horses:
1. YOU can’t get hurt
2. The horse can’t get hurt
3. The horse (and trainer) has to be calmer after the session is done than when it started.
What is the goal in natural horsemanship? Chris Irwin says, “While people talk about partnership and harmony and respect and trust, too often they are taught to be “alpha” in their approach. But, very few horses need us to come on as alpha. That’s too much and it sabotages trust. It’s not balanced. I teach that we need to read our horses well enough to be just who they need us to be to find the balance of respect with trust.”