Saturday, June 03, 2006

Unnatural Horsemanship 1

Natural Horsemanship is big in equine circles, but is it all it seems? EoR investigates...

The first difficulty is in defining what Natural Horsemanship (NH) actually is, since there are many schools within NH. There are the big name players like Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts ("promoter of peace"), but there are thousands of little trainers all professing to use "natural horsemanship" methods, or using their own variants of the popular Big Name Trainers, such as Intelligent Horsemanship. The trouble is, they all seem to have different approaches and different ideas about what they are doing. It's like a religion splitting into variant and incompatible sects that refuse to talk to one another.
one of those riders who didn't 'get it' and so went out to invent a new way of riding in which *they* could excel. It's not an entirely unknown phenomenon in horsemanship, after all - in redefining the parameters the person who invented the new terminology and the new goals suddenly becomes an 'expert' because nobody can fully understand what they're talking about, and whenever someone else seems to know more about a topic, they can turn that knowledge around to accuse them
of 'not doing things in the right spirit' and thus "win" the argument.

Actually, it is a religion:
Some people call this method of riding "natural horsemanship" because you work with the horse in a natural way, not depending on mechanical devices. Others call it unnatural horsemanship, because it is not the human's natural inclination to treat the horse with respect and allow it to make choices. Both are true, and so there is a built-in tension in the human seeking to use this method. [...] Man in his natural state, or the old nature, does not do God's bidding. When presented with God's way, the true way, some find that their eyes are opened to something they had never seen before, and desire to experience it for themselves. They have a hunger for truth. [...] Just as we are attracted to the higher path of unity between horse and rider, let us continually apply ourselves to the true way--unity with the Master Horseman.

Statements that "natural" trainers do not use mechanical devices (they use ropes, headcollars, and so on) and that non-"natural" methods do not display respect (at least, that is the implication) are both false, not true.

This page provides links to some of the many variants of Natural Horsemanship, and also demonstrates how easily the natural horseperson, having accepted the magic of Natural Horsemanship, is prepared to accept any wild statement, particularly given the importance of "communication" to these practitioners (even though "communication" is important to any horse trainer or rider):
Horses have a definite communication program. No, they don't speak in audible "words" ... they communicate with body language, voice, and "telepathy". (Telepathy is a controversial subject with many. But time and time again this theory has been proven out.)

No, telepathy is not controversial. It is completely unproven. But never let facts get in the way of a good story.

All these schools and sects make it harder and harder for these salespeople to distinguish their particular brand from all the others, leading to desparate statements such as Frank Bell's
No trainer has made this revolutionary philosophy more accessible than Frank Bell. What makes Bell's approach so different? He has single-handedly taken the mystery out of the natural horsemanship movement and created a logical set of exercises that put a solid foundation underneath the horse and rider. Most importantly, it is easy to understand and implement immediately! And you do not need a round pen!

Sometimes the difference between Natural Horsemanship and Every Other Horsemanship is so subtle not even the practitioners can spot it:
The differences can be subtle and philosophical, but they seem to be clearly recognized by the horse.

Then there are the True Practitioners (usually, those who haven't yet made it big) as opposed to the Popular Practitioners:
Granted, there are self-proclaimed "horse whisperers" around, those who would shrink-wrap and package their trademarked methods for profit, in which the horse is more a pawn than a beneficiary. These marketers have gained mass-market audiences, and on the power of their self-promotion alone, they have made their names almost synonymous with "natural horsemanship" - whether or not they fairly represent its ideals.

Natural Horsemanship segues at some stage into Horse Whispering, and is often confused for it. Horse Whispering, however, is a very specific method, and has been in existence for the last two hundred years or so. As Josephine Haworth relates in The Horsemasters:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century [...] Sullivan's method, when he was called in to deal with a particularly dangerous or vicious animal, was simply to whisper a few words into the horse's ear and the animal was transformed into a model of good behaviour. Sullivan said that he learned his secret from a penniless soldier in a public house.

Wikipedia, renowned for publishing incorrect information, confuses Horse Whispering and Horse Training:
Xenophon is often cited as being the original "horse whisperer", having advocated sympathetic horsemanship in his On Horsemanship.

Xenophon was definitely not a horse whisperer. Nor is sympathetic horsemanship the same as horse whispering. But it does serve to illustrate how pervasive the marketing for NH is and how phrases become vague, meaningless and empty catchwords that are used as a sort of password but are really only weasel words devoid of any specificity.

Horse Whispering found its most famous exponent in John Solomon Rarey (who, incidentally, seems a prototype for Monty Roberts, travelling the world, writing a book, and appearing before the Queen of England), and has never really been the same since, except in the claims of those trying to distinguish their methods from the crowd.


  1. Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. Good on you. In some circles the more puffy of the "horse whisperers" are called "the lead 'em and feed 'em brigade".

  2. Wow!

    I can't begin to tell you how thrilled I am to discover your site. I, too, am utterly sick to death of all this phoney "natural" claptrap! It sometimes seems like every horse owner in America has suddenly gone absolutely batty about this silly stuff.

    Actually LEARNING TO RIDE CORRECTLY has apparently gone right out of style, and the countryside is awash in a sea of weedy roundpens!

    And if one more ditzy student tells me that her horse's sloppy canter departs are "a respect issue" I swear I'll choke her with one of those 79-dollar Parelli training halters!

    With many thanks for your clarity and good sense,

    Miss Elizabeth

  3. Obviously no-one here has actually done Parelli. If you had, you would have more respect for people who do practise it and understand it. Miss Elizabeth are you a riding instructor? It sounds as if you are having more of an issue with your student having differing opinions than any thing else. "Out of the mouths of babes" as the saying goes.

    P.S. and the halters only cost $31:00 :-)


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