Unnatural Horsemanship

You’ve probably noticed that a few of my cartoons poke fun at natural horsemanship (NH). The only reason I do this is because, in my opinion, the philosophy of NH is very, very misleading. They say they’re using the language of the horse and it’s a gentler way to train. My question is, Compared to what?

What I’ve seen of NH is simply lots of whacking. Lots of stomping and shushing and prodding and poking. Eventually the whacking can be reduced to a tap. The tap can be reduced to a nudge, the nudge to wave, a wave to a nod, then eventually a whisper. But behind that whisper is the threat of force, or pressure, or something plain irritating to the horse. How is that the language of the horse, and how is that gentle?

My favorite saying is when NH folks talk about gentle pressure, or gentle tapping. How would this reasoning fly in, say, the principal’s office? I gently tapped your son’s bottom with my paddle because he disrupted the class.

Here’s a definition of NH from Wikipedia:

Natural horsemanship is the philosophy of working with horses by appealing to their instincts and herd mentality. It involves communication techniques derived from wild horse observation in order to build a partnership that closely resembles the relationships that exist between horses.

In my opinion the big flaw in this reasoning is that it assumes a horse is always in communication or relationship with another horse. What about the times when the horse is alone? What about the horse’s individual thought processes?

From what I’ve seen in my herd, the horses spend more time alone quietly going about their day, motivated internally by what they want. It seems like their motivation is usually the next clump of grass, a cool drink of water or a low branch to scratch their back.

The herd mentality comes into play usually when I appear with hay or buckets of feed. In these instances, I’ve created an unnatural setting. I’m importing large quantities of food, which the horses don’t have to work for, as they would at liberty. I’ve become a smorgasbord and they get really excited.

This excitement can bring on teeth and hooves on occasion, but it only seems to occur when there is resource at stake, something they view as valuable and then bring out the double barrel big guns to protect what they want. This happens rarely.

This, in my mind, should not be the sole basis of communication with a horse. Especially because these are the times their emotions and instincts are adrenalin based. Their reactions are super charged and I believe are not an accurate reflection of their basic reasoning ability.

The distinction I’d like to draw attention to is the phrase, appealing to their instincts and herd mentality. Personally, I like when people talk to me based on my individuality, my particular interests and motivations, not my mentality as a middle-aged woman. To communicate with me based on what’s been observed by watching middle-aged women shopping or drinking coffee at Starbucks would be unfair.

I think the term natural horsemanship is also unfair for the same reason. It leaves out a giant dynamic of the horse as an individual with unique motivations and thoughts and experiences. It would be more appropriate to call natural horsemanship, Pressure and Release Horsemanship. Or perhaps, Make the Wrong Thing Feel Bad and the Right Thing a Release From Feeling Bad Horsemanship.

I’m not arguing that it doesn’t work. It does. I even like and use many of the techniques, but only after they’ve been taught through attraction, not pressure. I think the methods of pressure are unnecessary and are less than desirable for the horses themselves. What person wants to be told what to do through force or pressure?

I think we’ve grossly underestimated a horse’s thought processing ability, simply because we can. Horses can be pressured, they can be forced. So can dogs. But there is a huge movement for positive reinforcement training for dogs. People are finding that the dogs are much happier and responsive without all the alpha rolling and dominance.

Take birds of prey for example. Try to communicate with them the same way we do with horses. They can simply fly away or give you a nice trail of talon scars. I don’t need to say what happens when you use pressure with a killer whale.

Before I started training with attraction, I trained with pressure. Training with pressure required so much more from me, as I continually had to read my horse, or be on guard as many of the techniques put the horse on the defensive. Of course it did. I was appealing to the herd mentality of the horse as if there was a resource to protect. The horse simply responded with the same heightened emotions and tension.

The more I train using attraction, the more I realize I don’t want to use the herd mentality. I don’t want the horse to think of me as a herd member, because I’m not. If I act like a horse, chances are my horse will treat me as horse. I think the continual vying for dominance is a mistake.

It seems with attraction based work, the need to continually establish dominance disappears, because there is no contest, no need to bring out the big guns. Once my horses realize I’m the source of all good things, they begin to think, rather than react. Just like they would do in trying to figure out how to get moss from a branch.

I believe they are natural problems solvers, and actually enjoy solving problems. Usually a solved problem means something good is coming down the pipe. I think it feels good to them to use their brain to solve problems.

Attraction based training (or positive reinforcement based clicker training) appeals to the horse as an individual, not as a herd member competing for a resource.

To me, this is why horses are so beautiful. They adapt and conform to whatever mold we determine. They’ve done this for centuries, molded by force, to accomplish our goals. I can’t stress enough how excited I am to see what happens when we can mold them by what feels truly wonderful to them. I think in doing this, we, as humans will find it feels truly wonderful for us as well and will open up a new world of possibilities in the horse-human relationship.



4 thoughts on “Unnatural Horsemanship

  1. Hi Cheryl,
    I look forwarde to reading each new article you publish. The more I read the more progress I feel like I am making with my OTTB. I agree natural horsemanship has a place, but for my girl who is extremely sensitive and has been through alot, I think this is wonderful. My trainer feels that the approach you outline here is going to invite my horse to walk all over me and not have any respect. I look forward to proving that this really does work. This is awesome!

    • Hi Andi,
      Your trainer is correct in that with any kind of training for any species, horse or human, if there is no clarity there will be undesirable effects. I believe that any disrespectful behavior from a horse, is simply the horse’s way of asking “What do you want me to do? I’m very unclear right now, and I need you to give me direction.”

      A human can use their voice and say “Help. What do you want me to do?” A horse has to use its body. Since that body is really big and can cause a bit of damage when it collides with our body, it naturally will be perceived as disrespectful behavior. My theory is that we don’t need to use force or pressure to teach the correct behavior.

      (I’m not a big fan of the word respect. I don’t want respect, I simply want the correct behavior. I want my horse to want to be with me and happy to do what I ask. I want it to respond to me because the correct choice is logical and feels great. Every time I hear the word respect it reminds of the “Because I said so!” reasoning. I think the horse human relationship becomes so much stronger if we allow the horse to think and choose.)

      My goal is to always provide my horses with clear instructions moment by moment, so they never have to question me as to what I want them to do. My very dominant in charge gelding Romeo, is an expert at taking control. If I don’t give him exact instructions, he decides to do what works best for him. In stark contrast, for instance, if I ask him with verbal cues and hand signals to stand and stay on his pedestal, he’ll literally stand and stay until I tell him otherwise. I’ve gone inside my house to make a sandwich and come back out and he’s still standing on his pedestal.

      The bottom line, in my mind, is that clarity brings the desired behavior. With positive reinforcement training, and its use of food as a motivator, it’s critical as well, to establish clarity on how the food is delivered.

      My number one rule and number two rule with any horse I work with is:
      -Something you do earns you something you want, only after you hear a click.
      -If you don’t hear a click, you do not expect a food reward.
      Number three rule:
      -Food is only delivered from my outstretched hand, far away from my body, to you while your head is nicely tucked.

      My horses very quickly begin to listen intently for what I’m going to ask next. They become super willing and attentive and soft because the right answer brings them something they really want. There is no payoff for the wrong answer. I always try to create scenarios so the horses never have any reason to give me the wrong answers. I like the win/win effect.

      Here is a great page of links for all kinds of sites pertaining to equine clicker training. Many of the sites give great suggestions for establishing clarity when training this way.


      You’ll find there is a lot of emphasis on teaching a horse to target. To me, targeting is an invaluable tool of clarity. I teach all of my horses early on that touching the target is always the right answer. If I need the horse to move forward, over, or back up, it simply follows the target stick. If I need it to walk quietly at the proper distance from my side, it simply targets the stick in the desired position.

      In my experience the use of the target has been much more effective than any aversive means to get the desired behavior. I think because it emulates the mare foal relationship, rather than the herd hierarchy relationship with the continual vying for dominance.

      I too am looking forward to creating new ways to communicate with my horses with attraction based methods. Marine mammal and avian trainers are able to create relationships that are safe and satisfying for both parties (with some potentially dangerous creatures) through positive reinforcement, why should our relationship with our horses be any different? Hmmmm, how exactly does one teach a killer whale respect?

      PS Give your mare a giant hug from us. I think OTTBs deserve so much admiration for their service and the hard work they endured in their early years.


    • Hi Jessii,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Excellent point about the ego. I think once humans evolve out of the punishment based paradigm, thinking we must control everything through fear and threat of pain, then I have a feeling the popularity of the dominance based communication will die out easily. This is because we will find that a reward-based paradigm is so much more effective and healthy that it won’t make any sense to control behavior through force. I cant’ wait! But for now, we can create this dreamy paradigm in our own backyards and bask in the love of happy relaxed horses that are thrilled to be with us.

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