Updated: Feb 13, 2021
"The horse didn't change. Humans did." - Barry Hook
Ask an old school cowboy, a dressage rider, a horse breeder, and a natural horsemanship trainer how to handle a misbehaving horse and I will guarantee you that you will end up with 4 different answers. Better yet, ask each of them what defines a "misbehaving horse", and you will end up with a different set of answers again. Want me to really blow your mind? Ask 4 different natural horsemanship trainers how best to deal with a misbehaving horse and you'll probably get the same type of answer, but with 4 different approaches.
So, with all these inconsistencies when it comes to communicating with your horse, who's got the right answer? To answer this, we need to start with the question.
Breaking Down The Question
Here's a scenario for you: Have you ever been around a passive aggressive human before? You know the type: Someone who never comes right out and just tells you what you did to make them angry, and constantly leaves you guessing what you have to do to make things better. So your interaction is a constant guessing game of trial and error. Sound frustrating? Imagine now that you and this other person don't even speak the same language.
This is how most horses feel.
We can't expect our horses to work, to behave, to be calm, or to trust us, if we are constantly getting after them for giving us the wrong answers to questions they were never asked. THIS is why it is SO important to know what, how, and when to ask things from our horses.
No. That is not a typo. I specifically typed the word, "ask". More on that later.
What are we asking the horse to do?
"My horse paws at the stall door and at the gate during meal time, moves around when trying to tack up, and doesn't stand still when I try to clip him, what do I do?"
Ask the cowboy what we are asking the horse to do, and the response will sound something like this: "We're asking him to act right".
Ask the dressage rider what we are asking the horse to do, and the response might be: "We're asking him to be patient".
Ask the breeder, and it may sound something like: "We're asking him to be respectful".
Ask the natural horsemanship trainer, and the answer will likely be: "We're asking him to stand".
Pay particular attention to these questions. Technically, everyone in this scenario is correct. Yes, we are asking that the horse "act right". Yes, we are asking that the horse learns to be patient, polite, and respectful. However, each question comes with it's own set of "answers". So, which question actually asks a question with an executable answer that makes sense and is clear to our horse? If YOU were the horse, would it be easier to answer someone who's asking you to "act right", or someone who is asking you to "stand still"?
Until you find the most effective way to ask the correct question, it is unreasonable to expect your horse to give you the right answer. But... what does the right answer look like?
What's Your Definition of "The Right Answer"?
Using our above scenario as an example, here's a sampling of "answers" that I have personally witnessed.
A cowboy may tell you to whack him on the nose when he's misbehaving, a dressage rider may tell you to ignore the behavior until he stops, a horse breeder may tell you to use a twitch to distract him while trying to clip him, a barn owner may tell you to feed that horse first so that he doesn't paw at (read: destroy) the stall doors, but a natural horsemanship trainer would say: "Make him move".
Would ALL of these answers produce results? Yes. So it's up to YOU to choose which method you can live with as "correct". Consider the following when deciding which method yields a TRULY correct answer for you and your horse:
- Did that method produce the expected result at all?
- Was the expected result situational? (Does he only stand in the arena but not in the cross ties? Is he behaved under saddle, but tries to kick or bite in other situations?)
- Did you only get temporary results?
- Did the method cause other behavioral issues to arise in its place?
- Did the result come at the cost of the mental, physical, or emotional well being of the horse?
Telling a horse what to do (instead of asking) by hitting a horse, or causing a horse any amount of fear or discomfort using things like spurs, twitches, leg ties, etc (aka gimmicks), will never yield long lasting results because the horse isn't learning anything. No questions were being asked of him. Think about it! Did you learn better when someone told you the answer, or when you were able to figure it out on your own?
Oftentimes, additional issues will begin to surface in response to these tactics, ultimately leaving you with a horse who is head shy, who bites, who kicks, who is fearful, distrustful, injured, and dangerous. IF these methods produce results, they may be situational. "My horse is fine once you get a saddle on him, but..."
Ignoring the behavior doesn't teach the horse WHY or HOW he got the correct answer, so results will be inconsistent and temporary if you get a result at all. Imagine being told to grab a book and read while your horse destroys his stall until he calms down- THEN you can interact with him! Your horse may eventually learn, but how much are you going to pay in repairs before he gets it?
So why not just feed him first? Why not just bribe him with a treat to get him to stand still? Recognizing that the horse is misbehaving and responding by giving him exactly what he wants only teaches the horse to keep doing it. You are rewarding the horse for the behavior, so as far as he's concerned, he "got the answer right".
HOWEVER, a horseman understands that horses are LAZY creatures with a pecking order. A horseman knows the correct question to ask and then translates that into "horse speak". So an example of a method that a horseman might use is: When we ask a horse a question, the horse has the CHOICE to give the correct answer, or not. The correct answer is rewarded. The incorrect answer is met with the horse equivalent of your coach telling you to do 50 pushups for being a hot head. We never FORCE a horse to do anything, but we certainly never ignore bad behavior either. The result? The horse understands the question, learns the answer, and is able to apply those answers to any situation. "She told me to stand. No matter what. Because when I don't, I remember her making me do things I would rather not do". So, by CHOICE, the horse will give the correct answer. Every. Time.
So ask yourself again, "Which is the correct answer?". Would it be easier to find individual methods, tricks, and gimmicks to get your horse to stop pawing, stop dancing in the cross ties, stop moving around when tacking up, stop walking away when trying to clip them? Or would it be easier for you and your horse to simply recognize that all of those behaviors are rooted in your horse's singular inability to simply stand still and tackle that one issue, once and for all?
So, What Is the Truth About Natural Horsemanship?
The answer is in the name. A lot of people can own horses, work horses, breed horses, train horses, but a "horseman" understands horses. Eats, sleeps, speaks, and breathes horses, and ultimately understands that the key to a well behaved horse is one that feels calm and confident.
Are we a bunch of tree hugging hippies who want to talk to the spirit of your horse and tell you how being a Capricorn ultimately affects how you interact with your horse? No. Well... To be honest I suppose there are people like that out there and to each his (or her) own, but I'm not about that life and that's not within the scope of this post.
Are we, rather, a group of individuals who have made it our life's mission to understand the language and behavior of horses and teach that to humans? Absolutely. The issues arise because what we've effectively done is take a horse (a prey animal with a herd mentality) and bring them into a human world (a predator animal reading this blog from a sophisticated electronic device) and expect them to "act right" without any guidance. Rather than learn how to ask a horse a question, humans are quick to scold them for the wrong answers. If we're supposed to be the smart ones, why are so many humans trained by their horses?
My point here is that what we do ISN'T MAGIC. It isn't special. It isn't "hippy dippy new agey crap", either. In fact, the root of what we do stems from generations upon generations of people who simply understood horse behavior and how to let a horse be a horse. We don't treat them like dogs, or humans, but as they are. And we do so with respect, patience, and trust. BUT! I'll stop typing and let you see the results for yourself. The horse in the video below is the same horse that was presenting with the biting behaviors in the picture at the start of this post. After 1 session.