I recently saw a discussion on facebook poking fun at the "natural horsemanship" movement. Loads of folks joined in on the discussion stating how there is nothing natural about riding anyway and what exactly is this natural horsemanship besides just letting the horse do whatever he wants. Unfortunately because there are lots and lots of green horse people that get drawn to the hoopla surrounding many of the natural horsemanship instructors that are popular on RFDTV, some of the more traditional horse folk have a hard time taking them seriously and thereby reject the natural horsemanship movement out of hand.
It's sad really that it even has that unfortunate moniker. Many of the folks that are practicing the "original" natural horsemanship don't even like to use the term. You don't even want to get started on the debate about who made up the term and can claim rights to it.
Basically what "natural horsemanship" means to me is Ray Hunt type of horsemanship. It has it's foundation in traditions that are much much earlier even than Ray Hunt, but for the sake of discussion, Ray and the Dorrance brothers are generally credited with making this style of horse communication more widely known at least on this continent. Of course, like most great advances in the human race there were others exploring similar paths at similar times in other places and folks in Australia and Europe can claim "founders" in this style as well.
It's true that there is nothing natural about the way we keep horses. That's why in general I am somewhat skeptical about any ideology about horse husbandry that has it's foundation in the mustang or other wild horse model. You really can't compare our domestic horses to wild horses in how we manage them, house them or ride them. But, if you really understand the way a horse thinks and learns and interacts in a herd setting you can better your communication with them. That is the crux of what has become natural horsemanship. It's getting a horse to understand what we want them to do and even more amazing, getting them to want to do what we want to do. It's making us all experts in equine behavior patterns.
In the wide range of different approaches to this style of horsemanship you will find everything from the completely unrestricted don't force anything on your horse style to the over the top domineering the horse must absolutely see you as the alpha style. Like ice cream flavors, it's up to the individual. I can't tell you which is best for you. If you are like me and experimenting with finding a better way with your horses you will have to sample a few to find your favorite.
Here are a few hallmarks of a "natural horsemanship" program.
1. Groundwork and/or roundpenning. A good natural horsemanship program starts with teaching basic communication on the ground. This is where we establish our leadership with the horse and begin to build trust that we can help the horse find the right answer. This is also where some form of desensitizing will come in. The equivalent in a non-natural horsemanship program would be starting them in a 12x12 stall or snubbing them to a post and sacking them out. Both common practices that are still used today.
2. Riding and training cues. Here is where there is a ton of variation depending on who you listen to, so I'm just going to tell you what is different about the way I ride as I follow the traditions that I have chosen to follow. We go slow. You don't prepare a horse for a futurity this way. It can take until a horse is 5 or 6 before he is even ready to carry a bit. We teach the horse to carry himself. That means that we help a horse to develop collection through the entire body with the head being the last thing that we worry about. Our goal in training our horses if for them to guide by the lightest touch and body positioning. When I look over my shoulder for a turn and it moves down through my pelvis to my feet my horse should already be mimicking that movement and turning to look that direction. This isn't rocket science or a completely new way of riding. There are folks out there that have been riding this way for a long time. So, you may be riding and training using more "natural horsemanship" techniques than you think you are. What is not "natural horsemanship" in my way of thinking is anything that forces the horse into a false frame of collection or offers them no out. Draw reins, martingales, cavasons and other devices that take the feel and timing out of the training are short cuts and have no place in a natural horsemanship program. But, again, that's a rainbow in the fruit flavors and there are certainly those out there that are using those devices.
Natural horsemanship isn't a fad. It's not a touchy-feely "method" of training that requires a 10 DVD training kit. It doesn't require any special tack or a funny fiberglass rod. It's definitely NOT just letting the horse do whatever he wants to do. It's a way of being with your horse and teaching them and trying to get in their heads to make them okay with what you are asking so that you and your horse are one. The horse doesn't do something because he's going to get jabbed with a spur if he doesn't. The horse does something because he's pretty sure it was his idea to begin with. That's your goal. I don't care if you call it "Natural Horsemanship" or not. Call it Equine Buddism or Holistic Horseyness or Pony Pilattes or Cowboy Commonsense. It doesn't matter. Just do your best to be the best for your horse so that your horse can be the best he can.
Are you interested in learning more? Here are a couple of places you can go to check out more information but don't be surprised if none of these folks use the term "natural horsemanship"!