by Laura Crum
The other day I read a critical review of my latest book, “Barnstorming.” The reviewer took exception to some remarks by the protagonist of the story (Gail McCarthy) in which Gail displays a less than admiring attitude toward “natural horsemanship.” Reviewer spent most of the review talking about herself and what a great horseman she was and how she’d learned more from a couple of natural horsemanship clinics than most traditional horsemen learn in a lifetime of working with horses. Based on our disagreement on this topic, she didn’t care for the protagonist and was pretty darn sure she’d dislike me, too. She barely mentioned the book, except to say that despite this glaring flaw, it was a pretty good story. Well, OK then.
This review prompts me to write about the subject of “natural horsemanship” for today’s post. After all, it’s been awhile since I took on a controversial topic. As always, feel free to give your own take in the comments. I welcome dissenting opinions.
To begin, for many years I never knew what natural horsemanship really was. It sounded OK. The name makes you like it, right? For a long time I paid no attention to this movement other than to suppose it was a benign thing. I learned to train horses back when Pat Parelli was still showing bridleless mules at the Snaffle Bit Futurity (and he was pretty damn impressive doing that, by the way—I watched him the first year he put on a show there)—he hadn’t yet made much of a name for himself and “natural horsemanship” just didn’t really exist as a term.
I knew Tom Dorrance. I showed cutting horses with his wife. I absorbed some of what he knew, and I also learned a lot by just paying attention to the horses I rode and trained. But the trainers I worked for in my twenties were traditional horsemen. I saw a lot of skillful riding and training. I saw a lot of abuse. And I learned how to train a horse. I’ve taken at least 50 horses from unbroken colts to good, broke riding horses, and helped train well over a hundred others. That’s not a lot, from a lifetime professional trainer’s point of view, but I was never a true professional trainer. Merely an assistant to a few. When I trained horses on my own, it was for myself and for friends. Still, I learned to get the job done and I’m proud of the horses I trained—two of whom are still with me today (Gunner and Plumber).
Here’s Gunner at 32—taken last weekend. Doesn’t he look great?
I quit training and breaking horses when I turned forty and I really only started hearing what natural horsemanship was after that. It had caught on, and folks were buying it in droves (and shelling out a lot of money, by the way). A horse trainer friend of mine mentioned to me what a bad deal it was. Why, I asked. I mean, it sounded fine. What’s not to like about a “natural horseman”? The little I knew of Pat Parelli (just watching him show a bridleless mule at the Snaffle Bit, many years earlier), he looked pretty handy.
The horse trainer friend just laughed. “They play all these games with a horse on the ground,” he said. “Most of them don’t really know how to ride. And every horse I’ve ever seen that came from a natural horsemanship trainer was ill-broke and cranky. The horses get sick of the silly games.”
Now I knew this horse trainer well. He can really ride a horse, and he comes to the practice roping where I ride a couple of times a week. Not too long after this he showed up with a good looking strawberry roan gelding. He said this horse was five. And that the horse’s previous experience had been with a well known (in this area) natural horsemanship trainer (a student of Pat Parelli). And he said that this trainer had LOVED the horse and thought he was doing great. But the owner took him home and felt that the horse couldn’t do much of anything. Couldn’t take a gait on command, or lope in the correct lead. Wouldn’t stop when asked to do so, or go where he was pointed without resistance. And the horse was cranky. My friend rode this horse that day and I saw exactly what he meant. The horse was ill broke indeed (after a year of training). And he pinned his ears and switched his tail when asked to do pretty much anything.
After this experience, I kept my eyes open when I was around people who were said to follow natural horsemanship methods. And I saw a lot more ill broke horses. Horses that just basically wouldn’t obey their riders/handlers. And I began to see what I thought was the root of the problem. Its called “get off.”
To put it simply, when a horse didn’t do as he was told, or misbehaved in some way, these people got off of the horse. They then began some sort of “game” on the ground that I didn’t really have a clue about, but for the purposes of this discussion, the game isn’t important. What’s important is the getting off.
I’m gonna cut to the chase here. Whether you’re a fan of natural horsemanship or some other method, getting off is not usually the best approach. I don’t blame people who get off cause they think a horse is going to seriously hurt them, and I, too, have taken a frisky colt to the round pen to warm him up a bit before I got on him. But if you find, day in and day out, that you are spending as much or more time on the ground than you are on the horse’s back, than I think you have the wrong method (or the wrong horse). That is if your goal is a well broke riding horse.
I learned to train horses from people who could really ride. If a horse misbehaved they sat up there and rode him. If he was scared they ignored it until the horse figured out the skeery thing was no big deal, and if he was rebelling they let him know that wouldn’t work, in no uncertain terms. They could ride one that bucked or spooked or bolted, and regain control and keep the horse going. And those horses got broke. They became riding horses that would do much more than just maintain a gait or take a lead. They would perform at a high level in a demanding event. If they did misbehave, no one got off and dinked around with them. They were just made to work harder. This was how I was taught to train horses.
Yes, we took our green colts to the round pen and worked with them on the ground. There’s some very useful things that can be accomplished that way. But as our horses progressed in their training, pretty much everything was done on their back. Yes, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. But that’s what they are—exceptions to the rule.
Now I’m not claiming to be the greatest rider that ever lived. Far from it. But when I was riding colts, if a colt gave me grief, I stayed on him and worked it out. If I found that I couldn’t stay on him (and this happened—I did occasionally get dumped), I usually found that colt a more competent rider. Not so much because I was afraid to ride the horse—though sometimes I was—but because it does a horse no good to dump his rider—or to have his rider get off when the horse pitches some kind of fit. It simply reinforces that behavior.
I think most people who have ridden green horses already know this, but I’ll say it for the benefit of the rest of you. If a horse dumps his rider on purpose, by bucking, say, or rearing, the horse is VERY likely to try that particular stunt again. In his mind, it worked. He didn’t want to do something, he resisted and threw his rider and he got out of doing that thing (at least for the moment). In my opinion, it does very little good to “work” the horse on the ground after he has misbehaved. The same principle applies if you get off BEFORE the horse dumps you—at the moment he begins misbehaving. The horse has won the argument the moment you come off, whether you get dumped or you climb off on purpose. And no amount of making the horse sweat with ground work of any sort will change this.
This rule also applies if a horse has dumped you by accident (usually by spooking). If you can get right back on and act like its no big deal and go back to what you are doing, it will usually be OK. But in my experience, if you don’t get right back on, for whatever reason, the horse takes a pretty strong imprint of the experience, and he is apt to be FAR more spooky after that. He didn’t mean to dump you, but suddenly the whole experience of riding is underscored by the possibility that the rider could come off. The horse may find this frightening or full of potential opportunities—depends on his personality. But he will darn sure remember it.
Believe it or not, a horse I knew (belonged to my best friend) actually began to fall down after he dumped his rider by falling in the course of a roping run. He dropped his shoulder two more times after that and did a roll. My friend and I were completely amazed that he would do this—we couldn’t believe it was purposeful, but at the same time he kept repeating that same move that had caused him to fall the first time. My friend began getting after him pretty sharply when she felt that shoulder drop, and the behavior went away and he never fell again. Its interesting.
For whatever its worth, its been my experience that most of the time we need to stay on our horses when they misbehave and work them through it, or we will find ourselves with worse problems in the future. And this is the one clear place where I find I differ with many people. The answer to a less than cooperative horse, for these folks, is round penning or lunging or some sort of game—played from the ground. That’s fine if your goal is working with the horse on the ground, but if your goal is a riding horse, than its my opinion that you will do better to stay on the horse and keep riding him. If you can’t handle what the horse is dishing out, then its best if you find someone who can, and who will stay on the horse and ride him through his hissy fit.
I well remember a correspondence with a horse blogger who at the time was still training horses. She had bought a horse for a client and the horse turned out to have a problem with bucking. I can still remember her telling me all the things she was doing to fix the problem—from the ground. I tried to say what I thought gently, but I could tell she didn’t want to hear it. But I did tell her, “You know, this kind of horse can mostly be fixed only by someone who can sit up there and ride it when it bucks. And if you’re not that person and the client’s not that person then you might do well to look for someone who is.” Of course, she didn’t want to hear that, being as she was a horse trainer and all. And the last I heard that horse was still pitching a bucking fit whenever it got in the mood to do so.
If you get your ego out of the way, the logic of what I’m saying is pretty clear. But there are innumerable people who want to believe that they DON’T have to do the scary thing of staying on the horse when it misbehaves. They LOVE these methods that tell you to get off and work with the horse from the ground. Well, why not? Its darn sure safer for you. It just doesn’t make well broke horses.
There is not (and there pretty much has never been) a horse in my barn that once past the “green” stage ever had to have his rider dismount because the horse was misbehaving. We don’t train horses like that and our horses don’t behave like that. Are there exceptions? Of course. I can think of two times that I’ve dismounted from my broke horse to get him through something—two times in the last thirty years. In both cases (different horses) my solid horse was afraid of a truly scary bridge that he had never been over. In both cases, rather than risk a potentially life threatening slip and fall off the bank, I led my horse over the bridge. And I rode him over it on the way back, and every time thereafter.
I want to point out that I’m talking about “getting off” because a horse is misbehaving, not getting off to give the horse a break, as endurance riders do, or hand walking a horse that is rehabbing, or teaching a horse to show “in hand”, or starting an unbroken colt with some round pen work, or all the other ways/reasons we work a horse from the ground. What I’m getting at here is this getting off rather than riding a horse through his misbehavior. Whether the behavior is fear related or strictly rebellious, or a mix of the two, most of the time the answer lies in riding the horse through it. Not always. But most of the time.
So, I’m going to conclude by saying that the biggest problem with “natural horsemanship” as I see it, is this emphasis on playing games from the ground rather than an emphasis on learning to really ride. There are people who call themselves “trainers” in this group and who actually teach other people, without being able to ride very well themselves. In my view, you are not a trainer unless you can really ride a horse. As in spending years taking lessons and then (usually) years working as an assistant to a professional trainer. We’re talking MANY years of riding lots of different horses, learning to break colts and ride green horses and horses with “issues”. I did all this. I know how long it takes to become a truly proficient rider. You are not gonna learn this in a couple of weekend clinics, no matter how skilled the clinician. It takes long hours in the saddle. A real trainer can ride a horse when the horse doesn’t want to behave. He/she does not need to get off.
Do I think you have to be a professional trainer to train a horse and do a good job? No, I don’t. I have known many relatively “ignorant” people who took green/unbroken horses and made good, broke horses out of them. The main thing they had in common? They all rode and rode and rode those horses. They put in lots of hours on the horse’s backs, NOT dinking around on the ground. Again, I’m not saying that you can’t accomplish some very real progress with a green horse using ground work techniques in the round pen. You definitely can. But the bulk of a riding horse’s training needs to be with a rider. A rider who sticks it out and keeps riding when the horse says, “I don’t wanna.” And several folks I know who don’t have a lot of horse training experience, were able-- through guts, and asking questions of knowledgeable people, and sheer persistence, and oh, did I mention LOTS of hours in the saddle-- to make good riding horses out of their green horses, who often had a few issues to work through.
So that’s my main point of difference with “natural horsemanship” or any other form of training that implies that you can make a good riding horse through constantly playing games on the ground. From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t work very well. The horses I personally have turned out using traditional methods and not “getting off”, but rather staying on and riding the horse through his issues, whatever they are, are all better broke than any horse I’ve seen so far that came from a natural horsemanship background. And by better broke I simply mean more obedient—especially when the chips are down. Which is when the horse (for whatever reason) doesn’t “wanna.” The well broke horse does what’s he’s asked, despite being scared, or tired of this activity, or mad. That’s well broke.
Anyway, you natural horsemanship people feel free to tell me where I’m wrong here. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough natural horsemanship trained horses. Maybe there are some really well-broke ones out there. Let me know.
Mind you, if you are a fan of natural horsemanship and you like playing games on the ground with your horse and you and the horse are both happy, even if he is not a well broke riding horse by my standards, that’s fine. I have no problem with it. What I would have a problem with is “you” asserting that your training methods WERE creating a well broke horse. Even if “you” for instance, can’t make your horse pick up a gait on command, or walk by an obstacle he doesn’t like the look of—without you climbing off. To me, that is not a well broke riding horse.
Oh, and I would also like to add, that a horse who does what you ask delightfully on a good day is all very well, but it doesn’t mean much. All horses, trained with reasonable kindness and firmness (and at least a minimal amount of skill), are happy to cooperate on a good day. What counts is how much you can get the horse to do on a “bad day”, when he doesn’t feel like doing it. That’s what separates the broke from the not-broke. The same can be said for “cueing” just right. Its all well and good but the truth is that a well broke horse will try to do what you’re asking even when you don’t do a perfect job with the cue. That’s what makes a good horse. We don’t aim to be perfect with the cues every time (because that is SO not gonna happen). We aim to teach our horse to do his best no matter how poorly we cue him. And a well broke horse can and DOES do this. I know. I’ve ridden lots of em. Gunner, in the earlier photo, is one.
And finally, I know some very nice people who take great care of their horses who are also followers of natural horsemanship. I may not agree with the training methods, but I like these people very much, and they seem quite happy with their horse life. So if its working for you, and you and your horse are happy, and you’re not interested in my definition of a well broke horse or my notions about horse training, well, I can honestly say that I admire every horseman, no matter how different their methods are from mine, who takes consistent, responsible care of their horses and retires them when they get old. If you’re staying safe and happy, and your horse is, too, then you are doing a good job in the most important sense.
I’m happy to hear your opinions on this subject. Fire away.