About Natural Horsemanship

Natural horsemanship means using communication and leadership instead of intimidation and fear. Natural horsemanship puts a focus on learning to understand horses – understand their psychology and understand their communication signals. If you do natural horsemanship you learn how to change your exercises, patterns, and rewards to suit the personality of the horse you are working with.

The goal is to get the horse to understand you, and to make sure you understand the horse. You become the leader of your horse by protecting your space and by being able to both move and touch your horse – this is the same way that horses in the herd know who the leader is. The leader can touch and move whoever they want in the herd, but no other horse can make the leader move or touch the leader without permission.

Natural horsemanship is not a strict process, a discipline, or a set of formal exercises. Natural horsemanship is learning about horses, and using that knowledge to work with any horse from any discipline. You can do natural horsemanship with dressage, jumping, barrel racing, or any other disciplines. You can use natural horsemanship with any horse.

Other training methods often ignore communication signals from horses. Many horse professionals don’t understand the wide variety of signals a horse can give like what it looks like when a horse is asking a question.

Many other types of trainers also don’t understand horse psychology so they don’t know how to fix common misunderstandings, vices, and bad habits without using force and intimidation. For example, when a horse is being girthy, a horse rushing jumps, a horse not wanting to get on a trailer, or a horse not wanting to go forward and work are common issues people have with horses. Many other horse trainers simply would use force and fear in these situations to make a horse do what they want even though the horse might actually be confused, scared, or tired.

A natural horseman uses their knowledge about the horse to understand why the horse is not responding the way we want, and then use horse psychology to fix it. For example the horse being girthy might have a sore back and actually need a new girth or saddle, the horse rushing jumps could be nervous and to fix the issue needs to do confidence building exercises instead of jumping, etc.

Some people force horses to perform by using excessive whipping, spurring, or using contraptions like draw reins, twitches, or side reins. Only using force and intimidation causes a horse to become scared of the handler and can sometimes make the horse even more dangerous. Using force with horses really damages the partnership with the human and causes the horse to not want to work for the human. A horse will perform much better if they are a willing partner.

When you practice natural horsemanship you understand how to look for signs of pain, how to relax a horse, how to build confidence and trust with a horse, how to be a leader over a dominant horse, and how to solve many other issues.

Being really forceful with horses isn’t good, but having no leadership and letting the horse do whatever they want is also damaging for the partnership. Letting horses decide what to do and how to do it all the time can make horses feel nervous or become dominant.

Horses can become nervous if the human lets them do whatever they want because they think they don’t have a leader to follow (because the human isn’t providing any direction, focus, or leadership) – which is scary for horses because most horses want to find a leader to follow. Horses can become dominant because someone has to be a leader, and if it isn’t the human then the horse needs to be the leader.

Lindsey Partridge, founder of the NHA

Natural horsemanship is a balance between showing firm boundaries and leadership, but also developing a bond and partnership. Using natural horsemanship does not mean that you will never be firm with a horse. It is very important to protect your personal space and not allow a horse to push or move you. You may have to be firm with a horse to keep them out of your space; however, a natural horseman will never strike a horse in punishment.

Using natural horsemanship helps the horse know you are the leader they should follow. Remember – some people use natural horsemanship without knowing it and some people say they use natural horsemanship, but they don’t.

  • Teach the horse to be a partner: a natural horseman will teach the horse to have responsibilities like to maintain direction, speed, and to watch where they are going. Letting horses have responsibilities helps build a better partnership. This means the handler won’t micromanage the horse – the handler will allow the horse to learn, make mistakes, and have trust – but the handler will correct the horse as needed.
  • Understand horses: the natural horsemen will really try to learn and understand horses including the types of exercises and tasks that work well for each type of horse personality.The natural horsemen will understand:
    • when a horse is asking a question,
    • when a horse is showing they are nervous
    • when a horse is frustrated
    • how and what to communicate back to the horse
  • Put foundation before specialization: a natural horseman will make sure a horse has solid basics before moving on to more specialized tasks. For example, if a horse does not accept a halter willingly then they would not try a bridle and bit.
  • Use ground training: a natural horseman knows that horses build understanding and trust more easily when we work with horses from the ground. The natural horsemen will teach what they can from the ground to help the horse’s understanding and trust before getting in the saddle.
  • Always start with the ideal cue: natural horsemen understand that you cannot expect a horse to respond to a lighter cue unless you offer a soft and light cue. For example, if you want the horse to stop by simply tensing your hips then you must always start with that cue (i.e. tense your hips, and then lift your reins to add pressure to ask for halt as needed).
  • Practice Life Long Learning: any good horsemen will know that you are never done learning when it comes to horses. Horses always teach us new things and a natural horseman knows to always be ready for more learning.
  • Punish a horse: horses do not understand punishment so a natural horseman will not do it. For example smacking a horse for refusing a jump usually just causes the horse to be more dangerous because the horse becomes scared of both the jump and the handler – this can cause bucking, bolting, and/or rearing. The natural horseman would try to understand why the horse isn’t jumping, and then respond appropriately. Any pressure put on a horse is always a signal to do something. When the horse tries to give the right answer the horse is rewarded by the handler removing the pressure. For example, when a horse refuses a jump and is smacked for disobedience, there is nothing the horse can do in the moment to make things ‘right’ (unless you expect the horse to jump from the stand still position), so the horse should not be smacked.
  • Use tools that do not allow the horse a choice: natural horsemen believe that horses are partners and that horses have responsibilities and choice. A natural horseman will only use tools that help a horse in the right direction, but never force. For example when trailer loading, a natural horseman would never put a rope around the horse to pull the horse into the trailer. A natural horsemanship might use a stick to gently tap and annoy the horse to help the horse understand they should try going into the trailer, but the natural horsemanship never causes fear or pain, and never uses physical force to make a horse do something they aren’t ready for.

This excerpt is taken from www.PartridgeHorseHill.com and is by Lindsey Partridge, founder of the Natural Horsemanship Assocociation (NHA)