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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

Natural Horsemanship and Other Horse Training: The Good, The Bad, And The Now What?

Google ‘What is natural horsemanship’.

You’ll find dozens of pages, with definitions such as, ‘a way of working with horses based on the horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication’.

Most natural horsemanship proponents state that it is more natural, fair, and kind than ‘traditional’ horsemanship – which is said to involve force, bullying or intimidation to achieve goals. There are natural horsemanship instructors, trainers, and even home study programs to help people achieve advancing levels of horsemanship.

My Natural Horsemanship Experience

In 1998 I returned to horses after an absence. I purchased a young gelding named Raz, and was invited by a friend to watch a natural horsemanship clinic a few hours from my home. I was impressed – both by the results people achieved over the course of the clinic, and also by what the clinician was telling me about horses, how they learn, and how we can work with them. I was hooked; I bought books, and DVD’s, and purchased special equipment – ropes, halters, stiff sticks to act as an extension to my arm – all seemingly designed to enhance my communication, without fear or force.

I started taking clinics, and week-long camps. After a number of years I even did a 7 month apprenticeship with a natural horsemanship trainer. I became a handy horsewoman: I could ride my horse bareback and bridleless, at all gaits, even on the trails; I could load my horses at liberty, or from inside my truck, or from the top of a trailer; My horses would stick to me in the pasture without a halter, at a walk, trot, or canter.

I taught others natural horsemanship methods, and I helped people with problem horses. I decided to become an instructor. I tell you all of this so that you can understand my perspective in what follows: For 8 years I intensively lived, breathed, practiced, and preached natural horsemanship. And I won’t lie to you: natural horsemanship methods helped me achieve my training goals. But was there a cost?

The Good

Natural horsemanship taught me many good things that I carry with me to this day: • to have feel, and good timing • how to adeptly use negative reinforcement, AKA pressure and release • to condition my body and mind to stay calm, even when the horse was not • the importance of groundwork, and that riding horses isn’t everything there is to gain from working together • the importance of shaping behavior – breaking a complex end goal into small steps • it started me on the path to thinking about working with horses in ways that worked for them – more than any other instruction I had previously received, and for that I am eternally grateful

My experience in the world of natural horsemanship also led me to believe that the majority of people who are attracted to it are good people, with a genuine love for the horse. I do believe in the basic goodness of people, and those I met practicing natural horsemanship were no exception. I met wonderful people and horses, some who are friends or mentors to this day – which in many ways, makes this post very hard for me to write.

The Bad

Part-way through my apprenticeship, my veterinarian husband was doing a textbook order, and asked me if there was anything in the catalog I wanted to order; ‘Equine Behaviour’, a textbook by Dr Paul McGreevy caught my eye. At this point in time, I had questions about some of the things I had been taught to do with horses, and no one in the horsemanship world could tell me 'Why' I needed to do it, other than to say, ‘That’s just what you do’. I hoped the book could give me answers. I started reading.

By chapter four, ‘Learning’, I was feeling some small seeds of doubt, and confusion, about what I thought I knew about how horses learn, and the methods I had been using to train them. ‘Social Behavior’, chapter 5, shattered what I had been taught about hierarchies, social structure, and dominance. Chapter 15, ‘Miscellaneous unwanted behaviours, their causes and resolution’, had me seriously questioning how I had been addressing behavior problems.

I’d like to be very clear about two things in this post: These things I had been taught in natural horsemanship that weren’t aligning with what I was reading were not taught with the direct intent of deceiving me. The information were simply based on out-dated or incorrect information about horse behavior, social structures, consequences of training, and what is required to achieve results.

Natural horsemanship is NOT, I repeat NOT, the only style of training where this happens. This can be hard for people of different training backgrounds to get their heads around, but the same rules of learning apply to all horses, no matter the training method used. The problems I was learning about were not just happening with natural horsemanship - they can occur in ALL training methods. It just so happens that branded natural horsemanship is very good at marketing and distributing such mis-information to large numbers of people.

The crux of the problem

During my 8 years practicing natural horsemanship, I had been swayed by positive-sounding descriptions about what I was told I was doing with and to the horse – but I had not learned the true facts about learning and behavior, nor the consequences of using certain approaches in training situations.

Positive language, euphemisms, and catchy phrases are used and shared to describe training methods, but they fail to objectively explain how the horse is learning.

‘Make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy’ is a classic example. This saying can be interpreted a number of different ways, depending on who hears it, and how they decide to apply it. To one person it might mean ‘Set the training situation up so that the horse can succeed, and offer the wanted response. Ignore any unwanted responses, and reinforce the wanted response.’. To someone else, that same phrase can mean, ‘When the horse does something you don't want him to do, make things unpleasant or difficult for him, until he stops. When he stops doing the unwanted behavior, and does the behavior you want instead, immediately stop making things unpleasant or difficult and leave him alone.’ Those two interpretations of the exact same phrase are going to have completely different ‘feels’ to the horse while he learns. If we look at both approaches objectively, the first involves reinforcing wanted behavior, the second involves punishing unwanted behavior. Unfortunately for the horse, both ways may very likely work – that’s just a fact of learning. But the second way - using punishment - can have unwanted consequences (that the trainer may not be aware of), because the phrase ‘make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy’ doesn't give a trainer all of the information needed to make an informed decision.

How horses learn - the basics

To put it very simply, all horses learn the same way:

  • they inadvertently create associations about things/events

  • they learn that their responses/behavior can result in either outcomes they desire, or outcomes they don't desire

In the above example, punishment is employed when a trainer wants an unwanted behavior (eg, not loading in a trailer) to be less likely to occur in the future. Punishment may work, but numerous studies have shown that punishment can result in unintended consequences. These consequences happen whether trainers are aware they are using punishment, or not, and some of them are listed here:

  • Punishment can result in the animal experiencing fear, pain, or frustration

  • Animals experiencing pain or fear have a hard time learning, and may simply inadvertently offer the desired response purely in their efforts to escape what is causing them pain or fear

  • Training that creates fear, pain, or frustration can result in the animal creating negative associations about training, and the trainer

  • Punishment suppresses learning

  • Punishment damages the trust between animal and trainer

  • Punishment can result in a psychological condition known as ‘learned helplessness’

  • Punishment tells the animal the animal what not to do, but offers him no clues as to what he should do instead

Going back to my experiences at the start of this article, although I could successfully get horses to do whatever I wanted, I didn’t understand the negative consequences of using punishment to achieve some of those goals.

Punishment happens all too frequently in horse training, and I unknowingly used punishment because I did not understand the basics of how animals learn and how we train them. I was unable to make an educated and informed decision about the consequences of my actions, because I didn’t have all of the information. I had beautiful language (e.g., 'Love, Language, and Leadership') that led me to believe I wasn't using punishment when 'doing' natural horsemanship, when in fact it was a mainstay in much of my natural horsemanship training.

This is a very serious problem with the majority of currently applied horse training - natural horsemanship included; horse trainers and riding instructors of ALL disciplines and training methods are not taught the basics of learning and behavior, and the horse is paying the price.

Part of being a good trainer is understanding the benefits or consequences an approach has in a given training situation. Without an objective and factual understanding of behavior and training, such an understanding isn't possible.

Horse people readily accept new research and scientific information about exercise physiology, nutrition, preventative health care etc., yet they still cling fast to their out-dated beliefs and traditions about horse behavior and training – especially if it is packaged in an appealing format, or when it is presented as one of the beautiful and time-honored traditions of their historic discipline. Most horse people can knowledgeably discuss gastric ulcers, or dewormer resistance in parasites, but their eyes glaze over when you try to talk about advances in the understanding of behavior and training.

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.

Where do we go from here?

Our understanding of learning and behavior has grown dramatically in the last century. Other animal training industries have embraced this knowledge, and are making changes to how they approach training, while still getting their desired results. It’s time for the horse world to catch up. In addition to teaching horsemanship, I am also a certified horse behavior consultant, and I am not the only person in my profession seeing serious problems with training that is thought to be kind. In the words of one of my behavior colleagues ‘It’s time to stick our heads above the parapet, and speak up about what we are seeing’.

In the dog training industry, behavior consultants and trainers are speaking up about similar problems seen with methods promoted by ‘dog whisperers’ who sell their methods as natural, kind, or based on pack theory, when in reality they instead utilize punishment, flooding, and behavior suppression. Organizations such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior even have position statements on the use of punishment, and the outdated concept of dominance hierarchies to explain the social structure of animals. The information is out there, the facts are readily available; there is no longer any excuse for failing to become educated.

Although I’m an optimist, I’m also a realist, and I’ll be honest: Changing how the horse world thinks about training is not going to be easy. It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to take time. These out-dated traditions and training practices are deeply ingrained, and have become core beliefs that people have about horses and training. Speaking from personal experience, such a radical shift in thinking can even be emotionally painful - especially when we’ve based our training philosophy around incorrect information about how horses learn and behave. Waking up to the realization that we may have caused serious problems for an animal we love hurts.

But if not us, who? If not now, when?

'When you know better, you do better’ said Maya Angelou. Let’s do better, horse world.

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