Jump to: navigation, search

Natural horsemanship

File:Camargue naturally approached 1a.jpg
Staranzano(Italy), Cona Island. A practitioner of natural horsemanship approaching a semi-wild horse.

Natural horsemanship is the philosophy of working with horses by appealing to their instincts and herd mentality. It involves communication techniques derived from wild horse observation in order to build a partnership that closely resembles the relationships that exist between horses. [1]


Basic ideas

There are countless "schools" or theories of natural horsemanship but the following ideas are common to most of them:

  • Horses are social 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. It is possible for humans to learn to use body language to communicate with the horse. 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. Similarly, 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.[2]
  • 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. [3] 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 human must be knowledgeable of the horse's natural instincts and communication system, and use this knowledge in their work with the horse.
  • Like many other forms of horse training, operant conditioning through pressure and release are core concepts. The basic technique is to apply a pressure of some kind to the horse as 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 reinforcement, rather than physical force, which most Natural Horsemanship practitioners avoid using whenever possible.[3]
  • Most Natural Horsemanship approaches emphasize the use of groundwork to establish boundaries and set up communication with the horse. This can include leading exercises, long reining and liberty work.
  • As with all successful animal training methods, there is an emphasis on timing, feel and consistency from the handler.[4]

Natural horsemanship has become very popular in the past two decades and there are many books, videos, tapes, and websites available to interested equestrians. This philosophy has capitalized on the use of behavioral 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. [3]

Natural Horsemanship avoids fear- and pain-based training methods.[3] While natural and gentle methods of training have been around for millennia, dating to the advocacy of gentle methods by Xenophon in Ancient Greece,[5] there have also been any number of techniques over the years that attempted to train a horse by breaking the horse's spirit, often forcing it to fight back and then be dominated or defeated.[6] Natural Horsemanship advocates point out that by removing fear an individual gains trust from the horse. By not scaring and hurting the horse, the horse learns to work with people in a partnership versus as an adversary. [4]


Many of the techniques used by Natural Horsemanship practitioners have ancient roots. The idea of working sympathetically with the horse's nature goes back at least to Xenophon and his treatise On Horsemanship, which has influenced humane practitioners of horse training in many disciplines, including both natural horsemanship and dressage.

The first known man named 'horse whisperer' was the Irish Daniel Sullivan, who died in 1810 and got famous of training intracable or vicious horses.

In the 19th century Willis J. Powell, John Solomon Rarey [7] and the Austro-Hungarian major, Konstantin Balassa described their gentle methods of horse taming. [8]

However, 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.[citation needed]

The modern Natural Horsemanship movement developed primarily in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountain states, where the "Buckaroo" or vaquero cowboy tradition was the strongest. Early modern practitioners were brothers, Tom and Bill Dorrance, 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.[9]

Other trainers who developed from slightly different influences claim influence from John Solomon Rarey, as well as any number of unsung teacher and mentors who were a horseman and horsewomen well-versed in methods of gentle-breaking young horses. Several other practitioners derive inspiration from concepts used by Native American horse trainers.

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.[10] [11]

The term "Natural Horsemanship" came into popular use around 1985.[12] and has only been widely used since the 1990s, when it obtained a significant boost from the popularity of Nicholas Evans' book ( and later film ) The Horse Whisperer, which promoted popular awareness of Natural Horsemanship.


The natural horsemanship movement has been criticized from a number of angles. The first criticism is that claims of Natural Horsemanship being something new and different are wholly unfounded, that similar methods have been around for a very long time.[13] Some practitioners, particularly in classical dressage and other English riding disciplines consider much of the movement to simply be the application of humane methods of classical horsemanship that have been practiced for centuries.[14]

Another common concern is that the movement has been promoted with too much hype and marketing. In particular, there are concerns that promises of near-miraculous results can mislead some people to believe that they can accomplish miracles with their horses with little effort, education, or experience in horse training, which is simply not true.[15] A related concern is that practitioners rename common pieces of horse equipment and then sell their versions for inflated prices. [16] In this vein, some trainers view the use of particular brands or styles of common equipment as having more to do with personal preference than anything else.[12] Others view certain tools as unneeded or prone to misuse.[17]

In particular, the characterization of "traditional" methods of training as "inhumane" rings false to trainers who use time-honored humane training methods. Though some critics acknowledge that some historical techniques were not always gentle, they point out that gentle techniques have always existed as well.[14] Others express concern that natural horsemanship fails as a complete method of horse training.[18]

Other trainers point out that the very act of catching and training horses is not "natural" at all, that everything people do with horses is not actually "natural" to the horse.[12][14] These individuals note the need for humane training of horses, but attempt to downplay the romanticism and marketing that characterize much of the movement. Finally, with the popularity of streaming video on the internet, some natural horsemanship practitioners have been taped in circumstances that put their methods in an unfavorable light.[19][20]


"I've started horses since I was 12 years old and have been bit, kicked, bucked off and [trampled]. I've tried every physical means to contain my horse in an effort to keep from getting myself killed. I started to realize that things would come much easier for me once I learned why a horse does what he does." - Buck Brannaman[21]

"The thing you are trying to help the horse do is to use his own mind. You are trying to present something and then let him figure out how to get there." - Tom Dorrance[4]

"When people think of natural horsemanship that could mean a lot of things. It isn't natural for a horse to be around people, and it's not natural for a person to be sitting on him either. When we use these words we speak about what's natural for the horse to do within his own boundaries" - Bill Dorrance[22]

Further reading

  • Hempfling, Klaus Ferdinand. Dancing With Horses
  • Lyons, John with Sinclair Browning. Lyons On Horses
  • Miller, Robert M. and Rick Lamb. Revolution in Horsemanship Lyons Press, 2005. ISBN 1-59228-387-X

See also

  • Operant conditioning
  • Reinforcement


  1. Kinsey, J. M. and Denison, Jennifer. Backcountry Basics Colorado Springs, CO: Western Horseman Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-0-911647-84-6. Chapter 1: 'The Start 'em Right Evolution'.
  2. http://www.sinningtonmanor.co.uk/about.htm
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Lyons On Horses, Doubleday, 1991
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 True Unity, First Edition, Word Dancer Press, 2003
  5. "Art of Horsemanship", J.A. Allen Publishing, 1999
  6. The Man Who Listens To Horses, Monty Roberts, Random House 1996
  7. Tachyhippodamia or the New Secret of Horses to which is added The Braking, Training and Taming Horses by J. S. Rarey Philadelphia, W. R Charter, 1872
  8. Die Zähmung des Pferdes. Wien, 1835
  9. Miller, Robert M. and Rick Lamb. Revolution in Horsemanship Lyons Press, 2005. ISBN 1-59228-387-X
  10. Hempfling, Klaus Ferdinand. Dancing With Horses
  11. Tamás Sárffy
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Rashid, Mark. "All things Natural" Accessed June 28, 2010
  13. [http://www.rfdtv.com/shows/willhelm.asp "Charles Willhelm" '"RFD-TV, web site accessed June 28, 2010
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 [http://justinewilsondressage.com/thoughtfuldressage.aspx Wilson, Julie. "Natural Horsemanship: Just what EXACTLY about it is natural?" Thoughtful Dressage March 16, 2010. Accessed June 28, 2010
  15. [http://www.everything.com/Types-of-Natural-Horsemanship/#axzz0sBvnOktj Davis, Karen Leigh. "Natural Horsemanship :: Types of Horsemanship" Accessed June 28, 2010
  16. "Unnatural Horsemanship 3" June 3, 2006. Accessed June 28, 2010
  17. "Burning the flag may not be such a bad idea…
  18. [1] ontent/view/1687/1433/ Abbot, Julie. "Racinet Remembered." '"Horses for Life Volume 48. Accessed June 28, 2010
  19. "horse-man-shit" EBaum's World
  20. "This is almost too easy"
  21. Buck Brannaman's web site
  22. True Horsemanship Through Feel, Lyons Press, 2001


Premier Equine Classifieds


Subscribe to our newsletter and keep abreast of the latest news, articles and information delivered directly to your inbox.

Did You Know?

Modern horse breeds developed in response to a need for "form to function", the necessity to develop certain physical characteristics in order to perform a certain type of work... More...

The Gypsy Cob was originally bred to be a wagon horse and pulled wagons or caravans known as Vardos; a type of covered wagon that people lived in... More...

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Arabian horse bloodline dates back 4,500 years. Throughout history, Arabian horses spread around the world by both war and trade.... More...

That the term "Sporthorse" is a term used to describe a type of horse rather than any particular breed... More...