Horses are herd animals, evolved for social interaction and the ability to escape predators. The horse has a highly developed communication system practiced primarily through body language. Horses use ear position, head position, speed of movement, threatening gestures, showing of teeth and swinging of hips, and many other gestures to communicate. They are quick to escalate a behavior if early warnings are not heeded.
Owners learn to use body language to communicate with the horse. In Natural Horsemanship, the handler or trainer uses body language along with other forms of gentle pressure with increasing escalation to get the horse to respond. Horses are quick to form a relationship of respect with humans who treat them in this fashion; "firm but fair" is a motto.
Most Natural Horsemanship practitioners agree that teaching through pain and fear do not result in the type of relationship that benefits both horse and handler. The object is for the horse to be calm and feel safe throughout the training process. A horse that feels calm and safe with his handler is quick to bond with that person, and the results can be remarkable.
The basic technique is to apply a "cue" for an action and then release the pressure as soon as the horse responds, either by doing what was asked for, or by doing something that could be understood as a step towards the requested action, a "try". Timing is everything, as the horse learns not from the pressure itself, but rather from the release of that pressure. These techniques are based on the principle of negative reinforcement, rather than punishment by physical force, which most Natural Horsemanship Practitioners avoid using whenever possible.
Most natural horsemanship approaches emphasize the use of groundwork to establish boundaries and set up communication with the horse. As with all successful methods of training, there is an emphasis on timing, feel and consistency from the handler.
Natural horsemanship has become very popular in the past two decades and this philosophy has capitalized on the use of behavioral negative reinforcement to replace inhumane practices used in some methods of training, the ultimate goal of which is a calmer, happier and more willing partner in the horse.
What it is, where it came from...
A client doing his first ride
History of Natural Horsemanship: Gentle training methods have always had to compete
with harsher methods, which often appear to obtain faster, but less predictable
results. In particular, the cowboy tradition of the American west, where the economics of
needing to break large numbers of semi-feral horses to saddle in a short
period of time led to the development of a number of harsh training methods
that the Natural Horsemanship movement specifically has set out to replace. However,
most of the original natural horsemanship practitioners acknowledge their own
roots are in the gentler methods of some cowboy traditions, particularly those
most closely associated with the "California" or vaquero horseman.
The modern natural horsemanship movement developed primarily
in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky
Mountain states, where the "buckaroo" or vaquero-style cowboy tradition
was the strongest. Brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance were early modern
practitioners, who had background in the Great Basin
buckaroo tradition. They had a particularly strong influence on Ray Hunt.
Many later practitioners claim influence from the Dorrance brothers and Hunt,
some having trained directly with these individuals.
Other trainers who developed from slightly different
influences claim influence from John Solomon Rarey, as well as any number of
other teachers and mentors who were well-versed in methods of gentle-breaking
young horses. Several other practitioners derive inspiration from concepts used
by Native American horse
In Europe a number of variations are practiced that
developed independently of the American model, influenced by Spanish or Hungarian
horsemanship traditions as well as the teachings of Classical dressage. Some include work rooted in
the use of human body language to communicate effectively to the horse.
The term "natural horsemanship" came into popular
use around 1985
and has only been widely used since the 1990s.