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What is Natural Horsemanship?

The term 'Natural Horsemanship' has almost become over-used these days because 'going natural' is the thing to do! While there are some true practitioners around keeping it as close to natural as they can for the horse, there are just as many professing to practice natural horsemanship but not coming close to it.

So what does it really mean?
The dictionary defines 'Natural' as 'existing in or produced by nature', and 'Horsemanship' as 'the art or skill of caring for and riding horses'.
So accordingly, I define natural horsemanship as the care, training and riding of horses in harmony with their natural behaviour, diet, movement and physical being.

This means that someone truly practicing natural horsemanship will be doing the following things:

  • Understand or be learning about horse psychology and social systems.

  • Providing a herd situation for the horse to live in - other equine company they can touch (no isolation from others), with natural breeding and weaning practices.

  • Keeping the horse in as large an area as possible for most of the time with access to shelter from all types of weather - no constant stabling, small paddocks or confinement to yards for more than a couple of hours at a time unless absolutely necessary (eg. injury).

  • Feeding a varied diet of horse suitable (low sugar) grass, hay and grain (when required) with correct mineral supplementation to balance any deficiencies - includes providing salt at all times.

  • Caring for their hooves with barefoot trimming and/or enough movement to self trim, and using hoof boots when protection is needed - no metal horse shoes!

  • Providing appropriate veterinary treatment, including worming on a regular basis as required for the man-made environment they must live in.

  • Training/educating the horse in a compassionate, respectful way that gives them confidence and allows them to move freely as nature intended - no bits, spurs, other equipment or methods that compromise the horse's ability to perform at their best.

When natural horsemanship practitioners meet these needs for horses, they provide a good example for others to follow.

How Can I learn Better Horsemanship?

The first way is to become a student of the horse. Learn to look, read horse body language and then listen to what your horse is trying to tell you.

Always ask yourself are you doing this FOR the horse or TO the horse.

Read a lot (especially the books listed here), watch as many DVD's as you can afford (or borrow them from friends or the library) and check out lots of web sites.

Go to as many clinics, courses and workshops as either an observer/fence sitter/auditor to find an instructor or clinician that you are happy to learn from. Then take your horse to their clinics as often as possible.

Follow a program of study until you are accomplished and have something to offer a horse, but don't get stuck on one method - look at many - they all have something to offer (see list of study programs below).

Get private lessons when you get stuck, or to keep you on track.

Join like minded friends or a group who can support your learning and provide a different environment to play/study in.

Be goal oriented but listen to your horse - don't seek awards/levels at your horse's expense. Make sure your horse is physically and emotionally ready for any progress in their training.

So, you’ve made the decision to look into this ‘natural horsemanship’ way of training horses… but where do you start?
There is a huge amount of information available in this age and accessing it via the internet is so easy.
Do a search on Natural Horsemanship and you will find over a million pages and references to a vast array of information and horsemen, all offering similar types of methods based on horse psychology.

While there is a new awareness that to get along better with horses we must know how they think, about their social structure in nature and what language they use, there are still many different and varying ways to ‘communicate’ with horses.

The common theme is that you need to become the ‘leader’ or ‘alpha’ herd member, to develop the best relationship.

Some horsemen (that includes women too) put more emphasis on control and domination than on forming a partnership, so the style of learning you will be attracted to will depend on your attitude to the horse.

Do you see your horse as a willing partner, taking into account his/her moods and emotions, or do you see your horse as recreation for you, or even as a means to obtaining status by winning competitions?

Whatever is most important to you will influence the method of learning/teaching you will be attracted to along with the way information is available and presented. Whoever you choose as a mentor and/or instructor, will most likely have some sort of system to follow.

We have multiple ways of absorbing information so choose what works best for you. .

We all learn a little from either reading, seeing, hearing or participating in learning activities, but each individual will take in more information from one or two of those sources. If you know how you learn best then spend more time studying that way. For example some people learn a lot from reading so… read lots of books, articles and as much information you can get your hands on.

Others may learn more from watching, so videos, DVD’s and observing clinics are a good choice, and then there are those who learn best by doing – getting hands on help, so participating in clinics and lesson are ideal for them.

When you’ve identified your preferred learning source, do some research to find out where you can access the information you want. The internet is an obvious starting place so search for clinicians/instructors in your area, home study programs, support groups (including discussion groups) videos & DVD’s or books written on natural horsemanship.

Then immerse yourself in learning by buying those books, ordering a DVD or that home study program and better still, attending a clinic.
Doing all three is better still as even if you do learn best by participating, you will still need some reference material to fall back on when you’re at home, alone with your horse again.

Try to get involved wherever you can to soak in ‘savvy’ as Pat Parelli says. If there’s a local study group, then join and go to as many events as possible. Buy or borrow as many DVD’s as you can lay your hands on, subscribe to newsletters and find clinic organizers who can help you get into a starting out clinic.
Even if there’s not one being held at a suitable level for you right away, attend higher level clinics to get an idea of where you are aiming.

If the clinician or instructor has a home study program or DVD’s then get those so you can continue to learn after they have gone.

Find out if there is a local instructor who follows their methods so you can get help if needed. By being involved in a program that has achievement levels, you can be motivated to stay on track and keep moving towards the goals you set.
If there is no achievement program or you don’t want to participate in that, then write a list of all the things you’d like to improve with your horse and yourself, and find out what you need to do.
Re-write that list as positive things you'd like to achieve and review it every now and then to remind yourself.

It helps to have friends or family who are supportive so share your dreams and find someone to join you on the journey. Even if it’s just a discussion group member who shares your passion, having someone to talk things over with and share the highs and lows of your journey will be essential.

Stick to sharing your journey only with those who support you and are positive about what you are trying to learn. If you fall into the trap of defending yourself or trying to justify what you are doing to non-believers, the negative energy will drag you down.
Some people will feel threatened by your new skills or interest in something different and will try to undermine your beliefs, so spend more time with positive people and just be polite without trying to push your new found skills or information onto them.

Often, our enthusiasm for wanting to ‘show others a better way’ is not understood or seen as a threat.

Rather than trying to tell people what you think is best, just become a great example and they will see, then ask when they get curious.
As a result they may be more open minded about what you tell them, and could actually become interested too.

Choose the partner (horse) you wish to share your learning journey with carefully.
Many people look for better ways to train their horse because they have problems that either they have caused or that the horse came with.
If those issues or problems are too dangerous for someone of your skill level to solve, then enlist help to determine if your horse should spend time with someone more experienced first.
Or, find out from a reputable instructor, what small steps you could do to work through the issues safely.

You may need to take more time and also learn some more skills with another easier horse, before you are ready to tackle a true ‘problem horse’.
In fact, if you can learn some skills with a horse who has been naturally educated, your progress will accelerate by many times.
You can also learn skills by simulation - something many clinicians use to help a student first leanr a particular feel or technique.
Find another person who is happy to have you use them as a horse - that way your horses won't have to suffer your mistakes and the person can give you accurate feedback.

Then you will be more prepared to work with a horse that knows nothing at all or has issues.
Try not to put yourself into a situation where it’s ‘the blind leading the blind’ or ‘green horse – green rider’.

One of my favorite Parelli-isms is ‘(Experienced) Riders teach horses and (Experienced) Horses teach riders’.
Above all, enjoy the journey and be prepared to ‘take the time it takes’.

Home Study Programs available worldwide:

Preparing a young horse for his first trailer loading experience by getting him confident over strange obstacles.

Notice the safe tie up board (so legs don't get caught between rails) behind the foal with an inner tube to attatch the rope to when first tying solid.

Have the foal's mother close by when first introducing to the trailer.

Good Horsemanship is ....

Commonsense often comes from experience so here's some you can learn from without having to make the mistake.
If you're not sure about something, check with your instructor first.

Always wrap your loose reins
around the top of the neck near the ears whenever you are off the horse to ensure he doesn't step in them, causing a panic when they pull on his head/mouth.

Always tie horses high and short
(dogs long and low) so they don't get a leg over the rope, no matter how rope broke they are.

When riding in a natural hackamore, its safer to tie the lead rope to a string on your saddle (or bareback pad as shown) rather than around your horse's neck, in case it gets caught on something - then it can break free.

Have something on your english/stock saddle (a piece of string or velcro on the D rings) to attatch the reins to when you are riding with a training stick/s so you don't lose them if the horse trips or throws his head.

If you have to leave your horse when in the company of others
and there's no where to tie him, get someone to hold him or take him with you to save a loose horse causing trouble with others around, no matter how quiet or alseep he is.

It's not a good habit to tie your savvy string to your belt
or around your waist if you ride in a western saddle as it could hook up on something (ie a saddle horn) as you dismount. Keep it in your back pocket.

If you're thinking of riding over a tarp
, think again if your horse has shoes on - they can easily hook the edge if the horse spooks and then you have a real wreck.

Always take your halter off
, especially a rope halter, when you're not connected to your horse.
It's too easy for your horse to catch the halter on a gate latch, a post, a tap or anything sticking out that he might rub on - and hurt himself badly trying to pull away.

Only tie your horse in a float AFTER the ramp is closed
and always untie them before lowering the ramp, even if they have a breeching chain or bar behind them. It doesn't take much to frighten a horse when it's already in a claustrophobic situation. Even the quietest horse can pull back when it is thinking 'I want out of here'.

Always stop to check on your horse when travelling
if you feel movement in the trailer - your horse could have caught its head on the wrong side of a divider, fallen or is being hassled by a travelling companion.

When leading a mare and foal through a gate
, lead the foal as well. Never assume they will follow the mare as invariably they are cautious about such a 'squeeze' through and will invariably hurt themselves trying to get over the fence instead.

When introducing something new to young horses
, be in an enclosed area so if the horse gets frightened under pressure and pulls away, it's less likely to get up a run and scare itself even more with a rope snapping around it's back legs.

When tying a young horse
or re-educating a horse that pulls back, don't tie them solid - just wrap the rope around a rail or smooth post so there's just enough 'drag' to allow some drift if they do pull.

Never tie up solid on concrete
- especially when teaching a horse to tie as they can slip too easily and really skin themselves, particularly if the concrete is wet.

Stay with young horses during their first few tying up sessions
- they may need to be released if they pull back and fall or get a leg over the rope.

Don't tie horses close together when saddled
with western saddles - if one rubs against the saddle horn, it may get caught up.

When moving horses to a new pasture
, keep them on line while you walk the boundaries to familiarise them with thier new surroundings.
They will be less likely to race around having seen all the sights.


More tips will be added....please email me if you have tips others would benefit from.

Principle to Purpose

THE SLED By Paul and Karen Lockwood.
I was talking with Ron Morgan from TMCA one day and he mentioned having to get a load of roofing iron up onto the February Plain to re-roof Basil's Hut. He could get the iron to within 1 km of the hut but it was then a fairly steep walk up onto the plain and across to the hut. He was hoping that the occasional bush walker would carry it in one sheet at a time, trouble was there was 26 sheets.
I suggested that we use horses to drag the tin, maybe on a sled or something like that, I volunteered Spike for the job as he had already pulled a sled with a human on it, had also dragged many other objects and pulled a cart.
I had to design and build the sled, we needed something that was light weight, long enough to carry 8' sheets of tin, and strong enough to endure the rocky terrain. I used 2" poly pipe as runners with timber inserts for strength, a small hardwood deck, and a roofing iron bash plate underneath.
Next came the fun part, introducing it to the horses at home. I introduced it to Spike on line, and then pulled the sled around next to him, the rest of the herd all "helped". I had made a harness from an old solid breastplate so I hooked him up to the swingle tree and sled and led him around until he could handle it, then I had him on long reins but decided that it was too difficult to control him from the ground in difficult terrain. I decided that riding was a better option so I attached the 22' line to the sled and dallied around the saddle horn which made for a quick release if we got into trouble. This worked very well and after seven sessions with the sled we were ready for the job.

Paul&SpikeSo on the morning of the 12th December Karen and I loaded up the horses and drove to meet Ron Morgan and Philip Griffin on the road to the February Plain. They had all the tin and the sled and went ahead to unload and clear a little of the path. We rode to the meeting place and on with the job. Loaded up seven sheets of 8' tin, secured it, checked it for the weight as both Ron and Philip were needed to manoeuvre it in some of the more difficult terrain. I took up the lead rope and off we went with Karen on Bluey bringing up the rear and taking video of the day. All went well apart from some minor snags on saplings and big rocks, we made another two runs with eight sheets of 8' on one load and then one 8' sheet and ten 5' sheets for the last load to the drop off point just near the hut.
Spike did the most amazing job, he was really with me and by the third load he was even anticipating the places where we had to manoeuvre around obstacles. He is a true partner. Bluey also did well with following the sled while Karen handled the video and also having Phil ride him part of the day, only the third person to have been on him.
Both Karen and I are very proud of what our horses achieved on this day.


Putting Practice to Purpose

Horse love nothing more than being given a job to do and so we should challenge our horses to test all that practice.
Paul and Karen Lockwood have been challengeing their horses to cope with a variety of events including parades, group trail rides and cattle musters.

Paul says of their latest adventure....

"We had a great time moving the cows 30 km in 2 days, from Emu plain to Mole Creek. Horses did 30 km on day 1 & 15 km day 2, gave them a break on day 2 & only rode the one way then got a lift to the floats so we could pick them up.
Bluey did great only having to do day 2, after 4 hours following cows he was starting to push them along & was so busy watching the cows he didn't notice the Llama as we passed it at Mole Creek. Spike did great rounding up strays & breakouts, only got scared once by a Miniature black Pony, that was charging at him & squealing as we rode passed, lucky there was a fence.
Ron & Dean were a pleasure to muster cattle with, really know their job, and we learned heaps from them."

If you have a 'purpose' story, please write to me and send a photo if possible.

Traditional Horsemanship Condones Cruelty

How many people have you seen take out their anger and frustration on their horse/dog/partner?
We’ve probably all been guilty of it at some time or other, I know I have in the past but like to think I have learned more patience and self control through the study of natural horsemanship which enables me to think more like the horse and not blame them for instinctive responses or reactions.
In doing so, I have become much more aware of the abusive nature of humans and how they take out their frustrations on their animals, perhaps thinking that these dumb creatures have no means of reprisal.

Of course some do – the dog bites or cowers and refuses to obey, cats scratch or become timid, the sheep and cattle simply run away (if they can) and so would horses if we allowed them.
But humans are smart, or so we say, and they simply come up with more ways than you can imagine to control a horse then subject them to whatever treatment we choose to dish out.
These controls include many things we see as normal thanks to traditions that have been passed down through many generations and which we give no thought to their relevance for today’s world.
Did you know that the reason it is traditionally correct to mount from the left side of the horse is because warriors carried their swords on their right hip enabling them to draw their weapon with their left hand so throwing the right leg over the horse was much easier.

Needing a bit in the mouth to ride a horse is a strong traditional belief which has been disproved by the advent of the bitless bridle and now thousands of natural horsemanship students who ride in natural halters and hackamores perfectly safely once they have understood basic one rein control.
In the eyes of the traditional rider, this is madness of course but how many riders with bits on their horses can be seen out of control because they are hauling on two reins, causing the horse such pain that its instincts take over and say flee or fight?

Putting a piece of metal in the most delicate part of the horse, his mouth, which is integral to his survival, and then giving the reins of control over to a volatile human is like asking your best friend or partner to wear a lip ring or tongue stud with a chain attached to your short fuse!
How long do you think the relationship would last?
I often shudder when I see riders not only using the bit severely, but just using it constantly to hold the horse’s head in vertical flexion for long periods of time. The longest we should be asking for a collected appearance is 3 or 4 minutes maximum which is the time it takes to do a showjumping round, show horse workout or half a dressage test (there’s usually a loose rein walk about half way through).

Why is it that people think the horse has to be collected to be controlled when collection was only ever designed to give the horse the power it needed to perform high level manoeuvres such as the haute ecole school movements which originated for warfare?
The constant pressure on the sensitive bars and lips of the mouth eventually damages the tissue in these areas giving the rider a heavy or dead feeling on the reins, and the horse a crutch to lean on instead of truly collecting in self carriage.

In addition to these amazingly varied torture devices (there are hundreds of different bit designs – almost all with the essential aim of control) we see the horse’s mouth strapped shut with a noseband or head tied down with a martingale so it can’t ‘evade the bit’. Poor things – imagine if we had to work with our mouths taped shut so we concentrated better while doing our job – how would you feel? Frustrated I’d say and that’s exactly what causes our horses to develop habits like teeth grinding, jaw crossing, sticking the tongue out, tossing the head or simply look dull and bored with ears back, suffering their torture.

When we stop them from expressing their feelings, the more sensitive and probably the more talented (these traits seem to go together) horses find other ways of expressing their frustration by rearing, bucking or bolting and are either subjected to more pressure until their spirit is broken or sold for meat. Other horses just don’t look forward to their time with people and become hard to catch, saddle and bridle.

And then there’s the whip – designed as an extension of our arm to reinforce our leg or seat cues/aids if we are a caring or conscientious rider/driver but it’s often used to reprimand the horse when it fails to understand our requests and ‘acts up’.
In the racing world, the whip is used to ‘encourage’ a horse who is probably already trying as hard as he can as he nears the finish post. It just doesn’t make sense.
Some showjumpers and eventers can be seen flogging their horse after a refusal – a sure fire way to reinforce that being near the jump is not a nice place.
And I’ve seen stallion owners advised to whip the front legs to control their stallion and even witnessed public performers use this method as a way of getting the horse to lie down (along with severe yanking on the bit) – maybe he was a cart horse driver in a past life when flogging horses and seeing them fall in their attempts to pull overloaded carts was commonplace?

What about spurs? Much the same as bits and whips, they are rarely used as intended (to refine the leg aids and ask for more elevation from the horse) and more often used in a effort to get the horse to listen to the leg for more forward movement. You don’t see jockey’s using spurs because they need a longer stride so why try to use them for speed when they were intended to instigate more elevation?
And a nagging set of legs is as bad or worse than a nagging set of hands – one saying go, the other saying slow. What is a horse supposed to do – put up with the equivalent of torture or try to rid themselves of a rider who really shouldn’t be there in the first place with the lack of knowledge you so often see these days.

Tradition would also have us believe that horses are safe and simple – in the old days everyone had some contact with horses and got to observe their ways, maybe be involved with them on a daily basis and be aware of the dangers just like we are with cars.
But now, television and the printed media show us pictures of the happy riders galloping off into the sunset so that most people have an unrealistic expectation of horses.
Couple that with a ‘motorbike’ mentality and you have a recipe for disaster, often for the rider but most likely for the horse.
Many children now wanting a horse have the disadvantage of parents who are not the least bit interested or experienced with them.
And so the poor child has to learn the hard way and many do with a horrible amount of injuries, or the parents seek out help and trust the first person they find – maybe a neighbour or friend who may only know a little more or at worst be a bad example.

So many children are packed off to pony club which is better than no instruction at all, however traditions are strongly followed in this institution which seems to promote competition over sound horsemanship and general horse knowledge.
While there’s nothing wrong with competition goals to inspire riders to achieve and progress, its unfortunate that many pony club instructors gloss over the things that make horses tick and are often biased in their views of alternatives such as natural horsemanship.
Younger children especially, need good examples and lots of fun to learn things safely. They need knowledgeable parents who can intervene when tantrums are thrown and the pony is treated harshly so that children come to respect these wonderfully forgiving animals and not take them for granted.

I guess it all comes down to attitude and sadly, too many people in this world believe humans have the right to dominate animals and do whatever they feel like with them.
Thankfully, traditions are being questioned and more people are looking for a better quality relationship with their recreational choice – the horse.
Awareness of natural techniques, horse psychology and natural alternatives to caring for a horse is becoming more common place.
Many people know horses are special creatures who bring out the best in us, they give us unconditional love, they are always there for us providing we care for them appropriately and they are changing the way we relate to each other, if we allow ourselves to be open to non-traditional practices.

One day, I’m sure the true horse lovers will be seen in such numbers that those practicing traditional techniques will be frowned upon, just as those natural horsemen are today for daring to be different.
If you are one of them, keep learning and when you know enough to be calm, confident and have good horse communication, then let the public see your skills so you become a good example.

To Bit or Not To Bit - by by Janene Clemence
This article details the damage bits can cause to horses.

Horsemanship Keys to Success for Hoof Trimmers By Cynthia Cooper

These key points apply to many situations other than hoof trimmming - for example when you are grooming. saddling, washing, providing vet treatment or just teaching them to tie up.

1. Keep the horse as close to its comfort zone (herd or friend) as possible – usually just the other side of the fence is about as far as most can cope, especially if they’re not frequently used to going away from their herd/friend. Ensure that the herd/friend can't get out of sight too.

2. Sometimes, making a hay bag available is a good way to relax the horse – avoid bucket feeds as some horses become ‘dominant’ around grain.
The hay should always be up off the ground so it's easy for the horse to reach while you hold a leg up.

3. Be careful not to position the horse up against a fence or building – always give them somewhere to move to if they get a fright so they don’t run over you.

3a. Unless your horse is very used to it and trained to tie, don't tie solid. Use a Blocker Tie Ring or wrap the rope around a smooth rail so if the horse pulls back, it gets some release without escaping altogether.
Remember being tied and having a leg held up can feel too calustrophobic for some horses so having them loose in an enclosed yard may be a better solution.

4. Place the horse in an area away from possible hazards such as another horse that may be more dominant, machinery, wire and junk, un-safe fences etc.

5. Before starting to trim, check and clean all four hooves to make the horse comfortable (they may have a stone or abscess) and to assess which hooves might be best to trim first.

6. If the horse seems uncomfortable on the surface you’ve chosen to work on, move to another place that offers softer footing eg. from gravel to grass. You may even need to pad a sore hoof to trim the other opposite hoof.

Photo: It's safer to trim a mare and foal with handlers for both, in a yard where they can't be bothered by other horses.

7. Ask your handler (if you have one) to please stay on the same side of the horse as you are for safety, to look at how the horse is balanced and make small adjustments to position the weight off the hoof you want to work on. They should also warn you of things that may worry the horse (machinery starting up etc.) so you can put the leg down.

8. If the horse remains fidgety with a handler or being held too loosely/firmly, then it may be better to control the horse yourself.

9. If the horse is fidgeting or un-happy, stop and step back from the situation to try and find the cause. Has the horse’s friend moved too far away, is there some other action causing them to move about (other horses being fed/ moved), is the horse in pain? Are you stressed or feeling rushed?

10. Try holding the leg in different positions to determine where is comfortable – some horses can’t cope with their leg between yours if you’re a big person as it pulls their shoulder out away from the body causing pressure on a nerve. Older horses often have trouble holding their hind legs up and out behind them. Keeping the hoof low and in line with the body can help them be more comfortable.

11. Remember if both you and the horse are comfortable physically and emotionally, your job will be easier today and in the future.

Click here to learn The Five Key Areas of Knowledge
to have happy horses ...... naturally.

All articles are authored by Cynthia Cooper (unless otherwise stated) and may be reprinted with permission, aknowledgement and a link to my web site please.



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Cynthia Cooper -
Natural Horse World

46 Wattle Lea Lane, Golden Valley. Tasmania, 7304. Australia.

Ph. 0419 372279

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