I frequently hear from people how much they love what I do with my horses and how they are studying natural horsemanship so they can train like I do. Sometimes they tell me that they want to learn to be better for their horses and about how great natural horsemanship is. I even get asked if I have recommendations of books or videos about using natural horsemanship.
I have such mixed feelings about comments like these. On one hand, I'm thrilled that they are being open minded and seeking to learn more, but on the other hand I'm torn as to how to respond because the way I train does not classify as "natural horsemanship".
Natural Horsemanship is a name for a movement of horse training that is said to be based on watching the natural behavior of free roaming horses and replicating it during training. With fancy sales tactics and catchy names the advocates of natural horsemanship have sold the public on the idea that they are becoming 'one with the horse' or 'thinking like the horse'. However, people seem to not realize that Natural Horsemanship uses operant conditioning just like every other form of horse training. It's primarily based on the use of negative reinforcement, and in some cases the use of positive punishment.
If we watch a herd of feral horses we will see the use of negative reinforcement and positive punishment, it's true. Horses do communicate with very appropriately timed and incredibly brief corrections and pressure, but it's important to remember a couple of things. We are not horses, and horses do not think we are horses. Horses are programmed to fear us, not dominate us. We are predators, they are prey. You will never watch a horse try and dominate a wolf in the wild, they run from them. They don't test a cougar to find out who's the herd leader, they keep far far far away. They know who's horse and who's human; there are limitations to this idea of "thinking like a horse" or "becoming one with the horse".
The idea of horses wanting to be leaders over us or being dominate is a theory that is very outdated and scientifically unfounded, but there is something to be said for the handler assuming a confident, patient, benevolent leadership role in it's relationship with the horse. Without boundaries, clear communication, and consistency the horse is left to figure things out for itself in an artificial human made world. This can lead to behavioral issues that stem from confusion, fear, and inconsistency... not dominance.
I don't wish to dive too deeply into the idea of dominance during this article, but I want to share with you a couple quotes from an article I read awhile back and I think you may find answers any questions you have. Click here to read the whole article.
"Trainers frequently bridge dominance theory to their training methods in order to explain what they feel are proper leadership roles to decrease the chances of unwanted or potentially dangerous behavior. As the idea goes, if you establish dominance over your animal, aggressive or pushy behavior (often considered acts of dominance) will recede and disappear completely. The idea that if a human can portray himself as a leader over the animal, the human-animal relationship will reach a heightened state containing elements such as bond, trust, or respect. (Pryor) The idea behind a alpha-beta relationship even promotes the notion that horses will choose a human “leader” over their conspecifics. (McGreevy) Popular methods like “natural horsemanship” and “traditional dog training” promote the idea that the handler can communicate with the animal through natural instinct and body language. While some of this type of communication and the elements of a good relationship can be achieved, many people who utilize these methods have a fundamental misunderstanding of how the training works. Natural Horsemanship and other methods are not the problem, but rather the handler using the ideas behind the methods. If a handler trains a horse with domination or respect in mind, the training is more likely to be coercive and forceful in nature."
"The roots of the dominance theory began and ended with wolf studies, therefore, dominance theory can not be applied to horse-human relationships the way big name trainers often do. There is no scientific backing behind the ideas. It may be possible to have a deeper connection with your horse; deeper than science allows us to study and describe the way animals learn, but dominance is not a factor. The dog and horse training industries both contain a common thread that most people within the business overlook. With animal training, tradition and myth run rampant which cause confusion and misunderstanding between animal and human. If you strip down the codified language, only the bare bones of learning theory are left behind."
The other problem with Natural Horsemanship, and another area I do not agree with, is it's tendency to advertise as a quick fix to many horse problems. Quick fixes are incredibly dangerous as usually they involve some kind of suppression or force to "make" the problem go away, but often this is short lived and requires continued use of suppression, fear, and force to keep the problem at bay. Essentially, quick fixes focus on the symptoms rather than the actual problem and often use radical tactics to suppress the symptoms so it appears the problem no longer exists.
Natural Horsemanship also tends to view all training issues as mental issues, when the continuing advancement of science, modern medicine, and bio-mechanics are all showing us there can be many causes for behavioral/training issues. So often I watch horses being labeled as dominate or stubborn because they wont perform this or that behavior when the horse is so very clearly unbalanced or in pain. They are physically struggling to perform the desired behavior even though they want to comply.
Instead of the handler stopping and really assessing their horse's physical needs they just assume the horse refusing to cooperate because it's being willful or dominate, and they continue to force, press, push, drive until the horse has no choice but to give in. In short, suffering through physical limitations becomes the lesser of two evils for the horse; it complies in order to receive a release of pressure or punishment.
An example might be, let's say a horse is refusing to be caught in the pasture. Rather than taking a step back and really trying to solve the true problem the immediate action is to chase the horse until it gives in and allows itself to be caught. In many situations the root of this symptom could be pain from poor saddle fit or arthritis, causing riding to be painful, or the horse feels stressed due to poor and overbearing handling techniques by the handler, or the horse finds the pasture more natural and stress free than the hectic confined stable life. The chasing may have temporarily suppressed the symptom, but will not cure the problem.
One more example, and a common problem, is when a handler is round penning or lunging their horse and the horse only wants to go one direction or struggles to canter a certain direction. Or maybe even the horse makes very small circles to one direction and then pulls hard outwards going the other direction. Often these behaviors are considered rebellious, disrespectful, and dominate when really this is a physical issue, not a mental issue. The handler is taught to use continued pressure or even punishment to make the horse circle to the harder direction and so on, only suppressing an underlying problem; an unbalanced horse or a horse in pain.
I'm not saying all Natural Horsemanship is this way, but more often than not I find that training under this kind of label looks past the physical and mental needs of the horse in favor of creating an obedient and submissive horse.
Natural Horsemanship is also not the only kind of horse training that has these downfalls, there are faults in every kind of horse training that doesn't first consider the well being of the horse and only then consider the desires of the human.
So now that I've explained my qualms with mainstream Natural Horsemanship type training, I would like to say that I'm not a hater, and I'm certainly not a hater behind a computer screen that has never experienced natural horsemanship. Quite the opposite really. I come from a very strong background of natural horsemanship. Monty Roberts, Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt, Parelli.. the list keeps going. I studied them all, I worshiped them all, I wanted to be a "horse whisperer" too! But something changed a few years ago when my attention was brought to the lack of understanding I had on the way my horses learned. I was just following programs, methods, systems, never knowing the why or listening to my horse.
I applied this, I applied that, all like I was told to do. I spoke the language of leadership (or dominance) and herd dynamics, and I even bought the equipment to make it all official, but the day I realized how my horses were interpreting my actions was the day my heart sank and the day my mind opened.
It took time to re-learn everything I thought I knew, it took great patience from my horses as I re-discovered how I wanted to work with them, but I knew I was doing it for them. This lead me to a better understanding of the four quadrants of operant conditioning which lead me to the concept of using positive reinforcement in horse training as well as better understanding of how the horse learned from negative reinforcement.
I have nothing against well timed and patient use of negative reinforcement or very minimal use of positive punishment (click here to read more), but this new found education directed me towards using predominately positive reinforcement in my training. As a result I no longer blindly follow the ideas of Natural Horsemanship and choose to approach every training situation with a careful and well thought out approach; armed with science, a deep care for the horse's well being, and a desire to really connect with my horse through this new found understanding of how they learn.
"How horses learn and how we train them is a well-studied and accepted branch of science. But many horse trainers, riding instructors, clinicians, and horse owners continue to describe their training methods or traditions in descriptive, and pleasant-sounding terms that fail to correctly define what is happening. Under the guise of ‘love, language and leadership’, or following the training scale, or adhering to historic or classical horsemanship traditions, people are being instructed to use punishment, or flooding, suppress the root cause of unwanted behaviors, or even create learned helplessness – all things with negative consequences, and they aren’t even aware they are doing so." Lauren Fraser, CHBC (click here to read the rest of the article)
So, why does this mean I'm not a Natural Horsemanship trainer and what kind of trainer does it make me? To be honest, I'm not sure what kind of "label" my training would go under. Perhaps there really isn't a label yet, as the movement towards more aware, science based, and positive horse training is still in its infancy and not yet widely accepted, but i'm not a Natural Horsemanship trainer. It's not that I don't use negative reinforcement, I'm not exclusively a positive reinforcement trainer, but the theories and methods used during Natural Horsemanship type training do not match up with science or first consider the well being of the horse and rarely utilize positive reinforcement; all of which my training is firmly based on.
There are very kind and horse conscious trainers out there that use almost exclusive negative reinforcement that I highly respect, though some of our methods differ, but you'll find even they don't usually label themselves as Natural Horsemanship trainers. They understand the science, they take into consideration the whole horse (mind and body), and they rarely if ever resort to positive punishment to force their will in the name of asserting dominance over their horses.
In closing, I truly believe the handler/trainer must understand how horses really think, and how they really learn, or they run the risk of unintentionally becoming abusive or forceful in their training. It doesn't matter what type of training you do, who your instructor is, or what trainers you religiously follow... Take the time to understand the way training really works and choose your actions carefully. There is a whole world out there of horse training that doesn't fall under the category 'Natural Horsemanship'. You just have to take the time to think past the basics, look past the labels, not be drawn in by quick fixes, and most of all... pay attention to your horse and what its teaching you.