Sunday, April 1, 2012

Natural Horsemanship, really?

Here lately I have been following a blog that I really like, The Mugwump Chronicles. If you haven’t read this gal, I highly recommend it. First thing I am going to say is I like what I have read of not only her writing skills but her considerable horsemanship skills as well. We part company on the “Natural Horsemanship” thing. Sort of.

Once upon a time, I loved hearing that someone was studying Clinton, Parelli, Mr Hunt, and a bunch’a others in search of  bettering their relationships and their abilities with their horses.  I have become a little more jaded as the years have gone by as I discover there are many different ways to interpret what those guys teach and some of those interpretations leave me scratching my head, while others make me completely understand why that phrase has such a bad reputation in so many good horsemen’s circles.

There have been two schools of horse training really probably since man first decided to try taming one instead of eating it. One is the try to get to the mind, and then the body, the other is get on, hang on and go. They both have their place. 

Done correctly, the “cowboy” thing turns out a quiet responsive horse who has a job to do and suits up to get it done. Incorrectly, you have a jumpy, goosey broncy beast that the average nowaday Joe Public absolutely cannot ride and get along with.

Done correctly, the “get to the body through the mind” or Natural Horsemanship as the phrase has been coined, turns out a quiet, responsive horse who has a job to do and suits up to get it done. Incorrectly, you have your 1000 lbs of spoiled pushy brat, probably 10 years old or better and never had a rider and at this rate, never will.

I was one of those kids that “grew up with my horses.” I had a young pony as a really little kid, and was given a very green broke two year old as a preteen. Both of those critters taught me I have no talent or taste for riding broncs. That kind of let out the cowboy way for me.


I have watched countless people working horses and have a pretty good idea of what I like and am constantly seeking to learn the very best ways to get it accomplished. The guys on the “thinking” side have me at hello.

Peter Campbell Clinic 2011

I am working Riata in our new round pen today. Everything I do with her is oriented to me getting on her back and riding her. I have no interest in “pony tricks” but some of the things I do might look like those to someone who didn’t know what my purpose is, behind the maneuver.

Pony tricks

I do have her put her nose on a couple of things. The intent is to improve her forward motion, getting her looking to me for direction and willing to take it. The by product is when I go to load her in a trailer, I point and send. That’s all there will be to it.

New Round Pen

Working her in circles, (I don’t like the term lunging, makes me think of horses running mindlessly in circles doing nothing more than building their wind) I want to see her arced correctly, reaching with the inside front to the line of the circle she in on, inside hind reaching to the outside fore. If I were up above her, her poll, neck and spine would be a gentle C shape. She can’t move like this unless she is balanced. To balance, she has to be relaxed and release tension.  This took us awhile, she is tight.

I pick up her feet before I saddle her. Not a pony trick, you might say, doesn’t everyone clean feet before they ride? Well, I don’t, and that’s not what this is for. She snaps her foot up and tucks it under her body, leaning heavily toward me. Not ON me, I would never tolerate that but this won’t do, either. I work the foot and leg until she will stand on it with her full weight. When I pick it up, I want her to shift softly over, and lift lightly into my hand. I am okay with her picking it up and handing it to me, just not snapping it up to her belly and hiding from me!

The back feet are tougher. We do the deal with the long rope. She's tough about this and the skin missing from the inside of my left pinky will tell you I don’t have Buck’s finesse of feel and timing, just yet! Too much pressure from my end makes it harder for her to come through on hers. Just the way it was.  We do get to where I can put the foot forward or back, and she leaves it resting on her toe when I ask her too. I pick the foot up and remove the rope. The leg is stiff and trembles with tension. I work it up and down, she will pop it into the ground. I pick it up again, keeping my body well forward in case she can’t handle the ask and fires at me. She never does but if you push a horse past what they can take, you will get what you get. I was close but needed to get through this. Finally, the leg relaxes.

I don’t know about you but I am not climbing up on a horse whose body is so stiff and full of tension you can’t pick up a foot. Just not gonna.

Now we saddle. She’s already hot and wet and so am I, but this is where we are. She still gooses as I approach her from the right side to let down the cinches. I am thinking, Riata, don’t you knock that new saddle into the dirt, you will still make a nice couch cover!

I do up her cinches, knowing she is still  pretty tight. I move her off into a small circle. Psst, I hiss at her, she jumps in the air. I turn her, and she wheels over her hindquarters and leaps forward, thinking maybe to get away. I turn her back, never giving her the opportunity to get that hind toward me and the head away. CanNOT hold on to that, and we are done with the escaping thing.

She jumps around, wild eyes staring at me, I just keep moving her.  She has to learn that this pressure is not killing her and that all her antics are just costing her energy.

That gets smooth but the tension is still there,bubbling under the surface. NO place to quit unless I want it confirmed for her that she is correct in her fears. More groundwork. Getting the feet right, working the goose out . . . the cinchiness that causes her to grunt and jump when I touch her elbow with the off stirrup . . .

I keep her moving around me, waiting for the walk to slow, the neck to level out, the eye to soften. We get there, maybe because we are both getting too tired and hot to care much.

When I ask her to come thru the gate, I send her. Again, practice for trailer loading, and help for the claustrophobia. We are at it, yielding the hip over as she comes through, bringing the shoulder back around, until she comes through, quiet and easy.

We sidepass up and down the corral panels. I couldn’t care less if she ever “looks cool” doing this. What I care about is that moving laterally causes a horse’s ribcage to expand and contract. She feels that cinch take hold and release, and it doesn’t kill her either, though a couple of times, she thinks it might. I do this on colts for that reason, it also works on the spoiled brats, teaching them to move their quarters respectfully out of my way, and helps every single one of them get their feet and balance right.

By no means, am I saying these are the only ways to get this done. I don’t do it all the time, even. When I have a particular issue, these are some of the methods I reach for to find a solution and help the horse get to a place where they can handle a rider. The by product, again to most of this stuff, it gets them soft on the halter rope, teaches them to follow a feel, move away and into pressure, depending on what they are being asked to do. That all translates to a horse that has an easier time being ridden, knowing those things than one that doesn’t.

fun collage

I will set up barrels, laying them on their sides. I am NOT big on jumping colts over barrels. I think it’s hard on them. I did that a few times and didn’t like how I felt about it so I stopped. I do get that when a horse jumps, again, it feels the cinch and saddle in a whole new way and if they are going to be prone to bucking, you might see it there. I usually know, without having to do this . . .

What I DO like is to put them a few inches apart and send a horse through there. Most of them have concern or a downright issue about that at first. They learn to think their way through rather than plunging through an obstacle.

Preparing to ride

Third ride

I cross them over tarps. I never stake down the tarp, I don’t care if it comes up and snags on a hoof (no shoes here, please, that’s a whole ‘nuther rodeo) or leg,  and my colts almost never booger when out in the world for the first time and maybe they run into some clingy vines or branches. Stuff grabbing their legs is old news and I like it like that.


So, anyway, there are more groundwork techniques that I like, and am running out of blog room (and reader interest, prolly) so won’t go into here. I play another type of barrel game, that really seems to help the anxious ones (I need my barrels now for Ri) and the by product again, softness on the halter rope, feet attached to the reins.

Working out the feel

Bottom line, every single piece I do from the ground has to do with some kind of aspect of riding. I get that the term “Natural Horsemanship” is really a misnomer. What is natural to the horse is what they are doing, right now, that I am miles away. They are eating, hanging out, swishing flies and pooping when they feel the need. What we do is far from natural to them, my reasoning for hanging on to the term is that I try my best to communicate with my horses in ways that make sense to THEM, make it as easy as possible for them to see what it is  I want from them. The great gift we humans get is that for some reason unknown to us, it is the nature of the horse to try to get along.  The only natural part about it, really. 

Thundering in


Shoofly said...

Oh I'm glad you tackled this, I just didn't feel up to it! lol But it's been eating at me ever since reading Mugs yesterday (and much worse, Mugs's posse's comments..) What I would have wanted to say was, "You guys must have a very skewed idea of what Natural Horsemanship means! No Tom Dorrance knowledge for you? No Clinton, no Lyons, no (name your guru, and I won't even mention the cursed "P" word)? Really?" Then I would ask them to describe in detail and with commentary, like you just did, what they consider reasonable and fair training/management of a horse and I'll point out to you every time I hear you describe something "natural". To me (and I thought to everyone) natural means TAKING THE HORSE'S NATURE INTO CONSIDERATION SO IT ALL MAKES SENSE TO HIM. And you can break that down into however many steps you want. Yeah, I get it, the people who are just educated enough in the process to be dangerous.......but why do they get to kidnap the term for themselves and turn it into something it was never meant to be?

Good Hands said...

It's pretty much how I felt about Parelli's 7 games before I saw him handle a horse. I thought it was all circus acts and pony tricks. Then I watched Pat do things like bring a very reactive horse into a state of calm reason MUCH faster and more efficiently than I could get done, watched him do a lot of things that looked really good to me. That caused me to open my mind and realize that while I was and had been doing some pretty good stuff with all types of horses for a lot of years, there was more out there to be attained.

I have learned to take what I like and leave the rest and have become pretty discerning, but it all started right there.

Anonymous said...

Because of the popularity of natural horsemanship, for its gentleness and effectiveness, many trainers have developed new and creative approaches based on this principle. Other trainers are still experimenting, and new ideas appear every day.

Good Hands said...

Daniela, thanks for stopping by! I don't know so much about "new" ideas :-), I think the best of this stuff has been around a very long time. The Greeks had a handle on it, back in the day, even. Love Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Peter Campbell and Buck Brannamen. Since Xenophon is gone, we are lucky to have these guys! Come by again, some time!