The Problem: Natural Horsemanship Isn’t “Natural.” No Horsemanship Is.
The problem with Natural Horsemanship is really very simple… horsemanship just isn’t natural, in any sense of the word.
Horses don’t naturally socialize with predator type creatures.
This category certainly includes humans, yet horsemanship takes the unnatural aspect even further. We ask the horse to calmly and willingly carry a predator on it’s back and perform without fear! The basic fact of predator and prey animal working in partnership flies in the face of all that is “natural.”
Humans don’t naturally understand equine psychology and communication.
If we did, can you imagine how much simpler of an endeavor horsemanship would be? It is unnatural for a human to set aside linear thinking patterns, and to not register the horse’s behavior and responses to us on an emotional level. It is our human instinct to anthropomorphize, to fit our understanding of the horse into human terms. This problem can be overcome, and there are clearly many, many people who excel at understanding the horse on his own terms, but it is far from a natural ability for most humans. The study of horsemanship itself is the attempt to overcome this barrier.
Horses aren’t built to carry weight where the rider sits.
They aren’t naturally suited for a domesticated lifestyle of confinement, punctuated by bouts of structured exercise. Humans impose these unnatural conditions on the horse, and then make other unnatural modifications to compensate — metal shoes to protect the hooves, blankets to help keep warm and dry, support boots and gel saddle pads for protecting the legs and back.
An entire industry has sprung up to compensate for the unnaturalness of the horse’s modern domestic lifestyle and the unnatural endeavor of horsemanship. From the gear to the books to the lessons and training and clinics and DVDs… none of it would exist if horsemanship were natural.
The Miracle of Horsemanship
The miracle of horsemanship is that, despite its unnatural nature, somehow, it can all work. Humans can and do form partnerships with their horses. Horses are, astonishingly, willing to do some very unnatural things if asked in the correct way.
The trick of the miracle, and the tough-love lesson for the would-be horseman, is that it is all up to the human to recognize how unnatural it is. It is up to the human to learn to “speak horse,” and to train their own body and mind to work in harmony with the body and the mind of the horse. The horse is not able to learn to “speak human.”
Strategies to Make Horsemanship Less Unnatural
Communication is everything in horsemanship, and it is the onus of the horseman to be in the constant practice of improving communication. We do this by observing equine behavior and applying those lessons to our behavior with the horses. All of our movements, cues, and aids should be clear, consistent, and meaningful, reducing “static” in our body language. We can be more mindful in the barn and the arena, more focused and less distracted.
We can strive to keep and manage our horses in a way that mimics the horse’s natural lifestyle as closely as possible. Turnout and freedom to move and graze in fresh air are ideal. Uninterrupted stable life can be harmful to body and mind. There can be an increased risk of colic, ulcers, and heaves among other maladies with stall-kept horses. Stables of any size typically house at least one cribber, weaver, or pacer. Stalls may be convenient for us, but tend to be less desirable as a default housing strategy.
We should always be striving to become better educated as horsemen. I’ve written before about how the learning curve never ends in horsemanship. We can learn more about the horse’s physiology to make better stable management decisions. Studying biomechanics helps us ride with more understanding and finesse. Brushing up on equine psychology helps us communicate better. Good riding lessons never did a soul a bit of harm. Even lifetime riders and seasoned horsemen fall into bad habits or don’t recognize an opportunity to grow and improve in their art.
As much as I advocate for self sufficiency and self reliance, it is important to remember that you and your horse are not an island. Even Olympians have coaches. While you should be able to recognize illnesses and perform basic first aid, you should also have a good relationship with your vet. Be able to ask questions and get advice beyond your (hopefully rare) emergencies. While you should be able to recognize lameness or pull a shoe, the same goes for your relationship with a good farrier. Even if you don’t take regular lessons, get to know a better horseman than you personally. Keep an eye and ear open, and soak up what they have to teach, even through conversation. Horses are herd animals. Humans can learn a little something from that mentality. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources and equestrian community around you.
I may be opening a can of worms, but I am interested in opinions. Where do you stand on the idea of “natural horsemanship?” Am I off base? Can horsemanship be a truly natural endeavor? Perhaps I put too much meaning and thought into a ubiquitous buzz phrase is, at root, a marketing tool. I believe that it is well worth bringing more naturalness to horsemanship; the horseman ought to on the burden of the unnaturalness as much as possible. This would make the horse’s life easier physically, mentally, and emotionally. Are there parts of horsemanship that cannot be optimized for naturalness? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section.
You really should be riding!