While chatting with a non-horseperson several weeks ago, I mentioned that I do my own horse training.
Looking impressed, he said, “You must be a really good rider.”
I replied that while I’m certainly competent, there are plenty of better riders warming saddles in this county. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he thought I was a bronc buster…because isn’t bucking part of the process?
In a word, no. I may do many things, but running a private rodeo is not one of them. That style of training is so far from my own that it didn't occur to me someone would make such an assumption. If I had to put a name to my training technique, I suppose I would -- with great reluctance -- call it natural horsemanship.
Why the reluctance? Well, for what is described as a gentle, logical training philosophy, natural horsemanship inspires very little polite conversation among horsemen. Next time you want to raise a ruckus in the barnyard, try this:
1) Stand in the middle of group of horsepeople.
2) Shout “Natural horsemanship!”
3) Watch the horsefeathers fly.
Participants in the brawl tend to view each other as being in one of two camps: The Devotees or the Ridiculers.
The Devotees range from pre-teen girls daydreaming about unbridled stallions and Steve Rother’s backside to serious trainers engaged in various certification programs. Some study the spectrum of approaches, while others align themselves as disciples of a particular trainer. Some spend thousands on name-brand tack. Others make a concept work with the equipment they already own.
Meanwhile, the Ridiculers point to seductive marketing of pricy training videos and clinics. They point out the personal failings of well-known trainers. They make YouTube videos like this one and snicker in online forums about attempts at natural horsemanship resulting in loose horses gallivanting around the barn owner's tennis courts.
I can’t deny that the superstardom achieved by the likes of Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, and Clinton Anderson -- and the accompanying lingo and endorsed products -- is irksome. A big ego, including the falsely humble variety, is a big turnoff for me, and I’m happy to steer clear of it.
That said, there is a reason these trainers and many others (Frank Bell, Charles Wilhelm, Chris Irwin, Sylvia Scott, Julie Goodnight, Linda Tellington-Jones, and the list goes on) succeed. It is the same reason I use a compilation of their techniques, which are as ancient as horsemanship itself, with my Barbs. We aren’t doing it because our heads have floated free of our shoulders, or because it’s the “in thing,” or because we were suckered by glitzy advertising.
We’re doing it for one reason: Natural horsemanship works.
Before you bring up the loose horse on the tennis courts again, let me qualify that statement. Natural horsemanship works if you understand the psychology behind it.
You see, natural horsemanship isn’t about tarps or round corrals or whips-by-any-other-name. No more is it about Western, English, New Age, or magical "horse whispering."
Natural horsemanship is, at heart, nothing more than a way of being. It is expecting the horse to be a horse, not a human, and treating him thus. It is a choice to be the better creature, the wiser partner, the leader who listens. It is being what the horse needs you to be, so he can do what you ask him to do.
Attempted without understanding, the techniques promoted by many famous trainers are indeed silly or even dangerous. Skillfully applied, however, they can open cross-species communication with astonishing results.
Call it what you like, but it's worth taking the time to understand how equines think and communicate. That's how I see it.
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Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse
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