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.
Clinicians are dealing with a lot of people who don't know what they're doing. These clinic participants have to get off their horse because they don't know how to work through the problem or are scared. In either case, they need to go back to their comfort level and we all know how quickly horses realize this.
People come home from clinics and have only learned so much, so they repeat the ground work or whatever because, once again, they don't know how or are scared to take the next step. That's how the bored, cranky horse is created.
Natural horsemanship is like most things. It has its positives as well as its negatives. I spent a few years taking clinics whenever one was held nearby to see what these guys had to teach. For the most part they were good experiences and I took home something from all of them, including learning stuff about myself.
But yea,in order to have a well-broke horse, you gotta stay on and ride it through the difficulties.
Well said, Susan. And I'm sure there are things to be learned from natural horsemanship. I was just taking on my main point of disagreement with the method.
I'm not firing as I agree with you about the "not getting off" when a horse misbehaves. Personally, I'm not very familiar with Natural Horsemanship as I only recently met someone who is into it, but that's probably because I live in Switzerland. However, I've been hearing about Pat Parelli for yonks, just never saw a clinic, or read a book, or met anyone who followed his methods until a few months ago.
Now, at my stables, there is a lovely American lady who does Natural Horsemanship, and I think she's quite high up in the scale of qualifications as Parelli instructors (I think there are various levels,but correct me if I'm wrong). However, this person rides a horse with a classic dressage background, and the lady's daughter was once Swiss Junior Champion with this horse. This is a well-trained horse who can do flying changes, pirouettes, etc. My friend (as I now like to call the American lady) sometimes rides the horse (and she is a really good rider), but most of the times I see her she's doing ground work with him, and I must say that the rapport between the two of them is really beautiful. Now I don't know how much this rapport comes from playing the "seven games", but from what I've seen her do with her horse when she "plays with him", I think the games must help.
I've also seen this lady occasionally work with other horses to improve their manners on the lunge, or their behaviour on the lead rope, and from what I've heard it has helped these other horses owners, and that they've been happy with the work this lady does.
I quite enjoy watching her work with her horse, as there's so much body language involved, often incredibly subtle. Sometimes I think they look beautiful together, other times I think the movements look, well, kinda funny! But overall, from what I've seen (and, seriously, I've seen very very little!), I'm inclined to believe that Natural Horsemanship is a good extra tool to have access too.
But I don't think you're going to get make a well-trained riding horse by getting off him whenever he misbehaves and playing games with him...
Cesca--That is really interesting. And it illustrates what I was wondering about. Maybe there ARE well trained NH horses (by my standards), and I just haven't run across them. Since this horse can do dressage at a high level, then he certainly qualifies as well trained. I haven't had the experience of seeing a Nh horse that appeared to have a really great bond with his rider/handler, but maybe I will some day.
I think natural horsemanship appeals to the rider who wants to be "friends" with their horse rather than say "ok clip clop we are gonna get on and get this done and the more you misbehave the more I'm gonna make you work". These people who want to be "friends" with their horses are often the riders who have issues with people, raising kids etc. They don't take charge and dish out ideas and commands. Kids, horses, dogs etc. are all the same I find. If a kid makes a mess they clean it, if a kid doesn't listen the first time there's more work. Being a "step parent" I've never once had issues with kids that aren't mine. They know if rules aren't followed and my words listened to theres gonna be a LOT more work than just doing it in the first place. I found they really dislike digging post holes for fences, hehehe. Same for horses. Bolting earns them much more work until they are going "Ok I want to stop now" thats when I keep them going a bit longer until they are going "PLEASE let me stop!!" thats when I say ok time to rest. Never failed me with a carriage horse that didn't want to stand and wait for passengers when doing rides. 4-6 hour days get really long when we walk the whole time rather than taking breaks when we load up and wait for passengers. Bucking is no different. After we buck we lope circles, sometimes they get their ribs raked. It's going to be really uncomfortable and really hard work.
However natural horsemanship is a great tool. I believe it's up to the rider and their abilities that can make it work. I'm a fan of round penning. I can teach a horse a lot on the ground and do so before I ever get in the saddle I make sure I have breaks and gas before I ever get in the saddle and because of it the only horses I have had in for training that turned to be bolters were the ones who came to me to fix that problem. Natural horsemanship people who "get off" are usually the riders who lack control in other areas in their life. Thats just my opinion. I've met a lot of people and done some clinics and I can usually pick out a persons personality the first 5 minutes of watching them handle their horse and others around them.
Thank you, Sydney. That's a very insightful comment. Maybe I just haven't watched any truly skilled NH folks at work. My approach to bucking and bolting has always been much like yours. Works for me.
I have worked with some really good natural horsemanship trainers and some not so good. I still am not exactly sure where I stand on the issue as a whole. A few random thoughts I have about it.
1. I'm a chicken in the saddle and I have a green horse who figured that out. She started bucking. All the groundwork in the world would not sort this out. I needed to get on, put an oh-crap-strap on the saddle to hang on to (english saddle) and ride it out. My trainer told me to get on, wear a helmet and hunker down and ride it out. It took months to build up my confidence to the point where I can now give her a sharp tap with the whip when she sucks back and she responds by going forward instead of bucking. We did groundwork before we got on and though it helped reinforce the aids, it never did a damn thing for my confidence in the saddle. That took actual riding and sitting out the bucks. If I was too scared to ride them out, my trainer would get on. But she pointed out that the horse was gonna keep bucking with me until *I* could ride it out. She was right.
2. The groundwork that masters such as Tom Dorrance do, takes years AND (I would argue) a feel that most of us might never get in our lifetime. Sure, Buck can move that horses feet and get that horse in line in five minutes. Despite having taken clinics and private lessons, I still can't tell. Did she yield totally? Is she doing it right? I'm just as likely to over do an exercise because my feel isn't the same, which leads to crabby, pissy horse who doesn't know what you want. There *is* such a thing as too much practicing. Most NH horses could tell you about it.
3. It's not a game to them so please stop calling them games. I haven't seen horses run other horses around and make them jump logs and barrels. I have seen horses play by rearing and striking at each other, nipping at each other and then chasing each other. Quite franky, I don't want to play these games with my horse.
4. I don't want my horse so in tune that she moves ten feet away from a twirling rope in under ten seconds. I'm an amateur. I want a horse that's a little slow on the uptake. NH seems so often about getting each stage perfect before moving on the next one. I think this can lead to never getting anywhere. For most of us, done is better than perfect.
I think that the idea behind some NH practices are solid. Having your horse respect you on the ground is a good goal. But sometimes I think folks get hung up too much on trying to be a horse and talk like a horse and get inside the horses head too much. Just like you can never know what other people are thinking, you can NEVER EVER EVER know what your horse is thinking (unless you're a horse psychic which is a whole other can of worms, I'm sure).
Now that I've started to go off the deep end and am rambling about God knows what.......that's a small sampling of my opinion on NH. Thanks for writing this post and giving me some food for thought....
Laura you are right. The real training of a broke horse happens in the saddle. As I am now older and more breakable myself :( I try really hard to not get on until I am pretty sure I won't have to get off. And I don't let the kids get on until I am as positive as you can be around horses, that they won't have to get off.
Natural horsemanship is NOT all about ground work or getting off. It's about getting the horse to a place where getting on and staying on works. Safely. Good natural horsemanship trainers HAVE TO BE good riders too. The difference is that they can teach games on the ground that educate and entertain both horse and rider, and can be taught to beginners to give them a place to start.
Anyone that can't stay on, no matter what, can't really be a professional horse trainer. However, we all train our horses whenever we interact with them, and natural horsemanship gives us tools to teach them some good stuff.
Most of the people one sees using "natural horsemanship" are not trainers, they are (pet) horse owners that also want to ride. If they are not yet good riders like you and the people we know that grew up on the back of a horse, they have to start somewhere.
If the horse is pissed off about the games, they are doing it wrong, plain and simple. Done right the horse is engaged and cooperative. Might look a bit uneven in the beginning and it can be hard work at first. Kind of like any other activity, done right it just looks and feels good to the participants and the spectators.
Agree with all of what you said. It's an age-old tenet of horsemanship: you gotta get right back up on the horse if you fall.
Agree also with the idea that too many natural horsemanship followers are trying to be 'friends' with the horse instead of the boss. Abuse is not necessary, but horses are herd animals who are extremely adept at immediately discerning out who is dominant. This is how well trained horses can deteriorate seemingly overnight into problem horses when handled by a timid rider. Heck, that's how I got one of my first horses. The owner claimed she couldn't do anything with her, she wouldn't listen. This horse was extremely well trained and it only took me one smack with a bat for her to know I meant business and she was a perfect angel ever after.
The Fugly blog always dissed the Parelli "cult" and their overpriced goods and ridiculous training techniques. There was an article somewhere, a Q&A, in which a reader wrote asking about how to get her horse to stop biting, and the advice involved a lot of carrots. !?!?
There was also a video circulating a couple years back of Linda Parelli basically beating the crap out of a horse who was blind in one eye and I think, if I remember correctly, tied to a tree. It was HORRIFYING to watch. The Parellis were trying to get the video removed, and it appears they were successful because I can't find it anywhere. It used to be here. http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/80925308
I guess they have plenty of money for lawyers after you sell enough $60 sticks.
Mona--I pretty much agree with everything you said there. These are my impressions, too.
Kerrin--Well, I have to admit that my impressions of natural horsemanship are from an outsider's perspective. If i were still actively involved in training horses, I would go to a clinic and check it out for myself. I guess what I've seen may mostly be about people who didn't know what they were doing and were probably doing it "wrong" from a skilled NH point of view. The movement does seem to attract a large number of people who can't really ride and like playing the "games" instead. And this is where my impressions come from. It makes sense that if the horse is cranky and uncooperative the games are being done wrong. But anyway, you at least, know that my "old-fashioned" methods did turn out some nice horses(!) And the fact that I, too, am older and more breakable (great phrase), is why I currently ride only older, solid horses. No wish to get broken myself.
CE Wolfe--Great comment. I always thought it hilarious that dear Cathy, who wrote the fugly blog for years, dissed the Parellis, but was all about those carrots herself. Like most traditional horsemen, I never trained horses with treats. Some of my friends have made very clear explanations for why they DO do this, so I try not to be so narrow in my views any more. However, as I say, no horse in my barn was ever trained with treats, and we did make some nice horses. Horses that both trust their rider (see my previous post on Twister) and do what they're asked to do--including some very difficult and stressful things (like team roping). Neither carrots nor games were used in their training, and they turned out pretty good.
First of all, let me say that "Gunner" looks fantastic! To think he's 32! You've taken great care of him.
I really enjoyed your post on NH. I've never been a fan as I don't want to be a pasture buddy to my horse, I want to be the trainer. Last June, I purchased a 5yr old apendix Quarter Horse who apparantly has had people "bail out" a few times. When this horse spooked or if I nudged him too hard, he either reared or bucked to get me off. Luckily, I've been able to stay on. I do lunge him to loosen up those long thoroughbred muscles before getting on and making demands. He's a beautiful mover and a nice horse to be around, but if I were to play games with him I know that I'd lose his respect. He still will "think about" popping up when I first ask him to move out by bumping my heels on him. He just plants his front feet and starts throwing his head. I keep him moving in circles or whatever I can get and I now bump him with my spurs. The spur is what he respects and moves out immediately when he feels them. Once we get past that misbehavior at the beginning of our ride, he doesn't try it anymore. By the way, his teeth are floated every 6 months, he's shod every 6 wks or when sooner if neccessary. He has his own turnout pen and I ride every other day. I've learned that the more I ride him, the better horse he becomes.
Kramer's Mom--Sounds like you're doing great. I have known many horses that responded really well to spurs. And some horses that you absolutely could not ride with spurs. They truly are all different. Thank you for the comment.
Oh Laura, I'm so with you on this.
Of the whole NH crew, I tend to like Mark Rashid and the Dorrances best of all. But the rest of it? You've gotta ride through it, just like you said.
Now there is a place for continued ground work with a spoiled or pushy alpha horse. But it doesn't need to be fancy games, it can be practicing of basic showmanship halter skills (walk, trot, haunches turn, forehand turn, back, sidepass). I also often like to do liberty work when walking Mocha cool on winter nights. But that's the key--we do this as a wind-down AFTER a successful training session in the saddle. And I'm working it for the purpose of being able to have her follow directions without needing a lead, ground tie, and soften up her sidepass, turns, and backups without needing to work a lead. But I do it because I want that level of responsiveness and attention from a horse on the ground.
I also will ground drive, round pen or lunge as a conditioning thing, especially if I think the saddle and rider is getting in the way of what needs to be done. But it's done with a specific training goal, not a game.
Girlfriend, I have figured this out after years of working with my horses, starting out in Parelli and ending up with Rashid.
It's WAY easier to teach someone to do the ground exercises than it is to teach them to ride. You can distill ground work because it doesn't take an ounce of feel. I still believe in ground work done correctly, but the big jump for me has been in being the same person in the saddle as I am on the ground. And that takes a hell of a lot of time in the saddle on a good number of horses. Something most newbies don't have a prayer of doing.
I have to say around here there are some pretty lousy horseman roping cattle. Their horses are a mess, act like idiots, they get after them in ways that can only be called abusive and end up with some pretty messed up horses. So I guess every arena has some folks who would be better served riding ATVs and Volvos.
I agree about staying on. This is why I sold Smokey. I couldn't do what needed doing with that horse, mainly staying on through my own worry. His new rider can. And I'm on a horse I can stay on easily and am becoming a better rider for it. Now I'm building feel, the feel I need if I'm ever going to improve as a horseman. Natural, unnatural or somewhere in between.
And I've loved all your books. There's always some goof ball out there. Thanks for getting them out in e-book editions.
I'm mostly with you on the NH thing. I see a lot of supposedly NH "trained" horses at endurance rides that won't stand to be vetted or pulsed, won't rate on the trail, and are real PITA in camp. When the owner brags to me about their NH-trained horse, I know to watch out when I'm pulsing, because THAT is going to be the horse who leans, paws, or tries to bite, much more often than the classical dressage rider's horse, or the cowboy's horse, or the retired racehorse.
I have, however, seen a *few* NH-trained horses that are just fine on the ground and under saddle...coincidentally, those horses are not owned/ridden by the same people who have the wiggly PITA horses. Hmmm. Not a coincidence?
With all of the (many) training challenges I've experienced with my Dragon, it rarely occurs to me to get off the horse. She's MUCH bigger than me. I am much more in control of the situation--and much safer--when I'm on top! That said, the Dragon hasn't shown much talent as a bucking horse, for which I am tremendously grateful.
Even when she's furious with me (not often, but very intense when it happens), we sort things out and make our peace with me in the saddle and her moving the feet around. It ain't always pretty, but it works for us.
Some great comments here.
Joyce--What you say makes perfect sense to me.
Breathe--Yes, there are tons of lousy horsemen in all disciplines, certainly including ropers. As a group, ropers are NOT known for their horsemanship. From reading your blog, I know you're on a good path with your own horsemanship, and I totally admire your honesty and your choices. And I'm so glad you've enjoyed my stories.
Aarene--I think you've hit the nail on the head, as you often do. There are probably a lot of good Nh horsemen out there--and maybe I just haven't spent enough time around them. As breathe pointed out, there are plenty of lousy "traditional" horsemen, too. I think the point of my post was really--no matter your training approach, you do need to ride through a horse's misbehavior (at least most of the time). And I, too, feel MUCH safer on the horse than off. The notion of getting off rarely/never even occurs to me, even if my horse is acting up. I feel much more in control of the situation when I'm on him. And I totally admire the great job you are doing with your dragon, for all her fire breathing ways.
Those who can ride - DO and those who can't ride - do Parelli.
I have said that a million times. It is a way that wanna-be's interact with horses in a way that is guilt free for them.
I took a few lessons with a Parelli certified trainer (because she was coming to the barn where I was boarding and I am always open to new ideas)...I could out ride her seven days a week and twice on Sunday. My horse was better trained as green four year old than her 12 year old "trail partner".
Anyone can hang a shingle that says "I R Trainer" but the proof is in the pudding. After my NH experience I want to see a horse that said trainer has "started and finished" before I pony up for lessons or a clinic etc.
The only positive that I have seen is that they do take good care of the horses, they are fat, shiny and in nice corrals.
Let me start by saying, I never liked lunging or ground work. Never. I did learn some of it years before anyone invented NH, but it was just a tool as far as I was concerned, for getting my horse ready to ride. So, I may be a bit biased about NH games and methods. That being said, now that I'm older and have a green, sometimes naughty horse, I find that it helps if I use some of the NH groundwork before I get on, I can usually read the horse well enough to tell if he's going to be good or naughty. But I agree, you shouldn't get off to deal with a problem.
I also think there's a big difference between Ray Hunt, the Dorrances, Buck, and some of the current NH showmen. Some of the clinics of today look like a three ring circus, and I believe the older pioneers in the pre-NH days were about turning out a good saddle horse.
Good post, you certainly brought up a lot of things I'll be thinking about for a while.
kel--You crack me up. That's sort of how I feel, too, but you said it better.
redhorse--Good comment. As I said earlier, my experience with NH has all been observing some NH trained horses and trainers, somewhat from a distance. My impressions are pretty much what I said in the post, but I will admit that my knowledge of natural horsemanship is not at all deep. The thing is, nothing I've seen has made me want to learn more. At least when it comes to the "students" of the method that I've witnessed.
As I said, I knew Tom Dorrance, and you're right, he was no showman. He did have a magical way of approaching horses. It did NOT translate into making a terribly competitive cutting horse, but his wife's horse had a very pretty way of working, and in retrospect, I would rather have had that mare than many more competitive horses that were trained with harsher methods.
Well, Laura, I guess that "reviewer" expected some kind of agitprop work promoting whatever he or she believes in. Rather than plausible characters, who may not be nice and cuddly all the time.
Having worked as an outfitter and kept draught horses does colour my thinking. I want my horses to do a job. That might be carrying me around a trail safely and sensibly. Or some other task. What I want actually is relatively simple and well within my horse's capabilities. And if there is enough work that the horse gets tired, all the better.
Actually this discussion rather parallels my experiences lately hiring graduates. Finding young people who just want to work is harder than it sounds. Too many of them argue and whine, just like a horse bucking and napping. They are full of self-importance, just like a poorly trained pony. I've just had to recommend for a graduate employee the equivalent of being worked until his blanket is wet by a skilled trainer who won't take crap. Is there a link, perchance, between how horses behave and the attitude of our new "Generation Y"?
I do see various people playing with their horses at the barn. They play games, fiddle and do almost everything except ride. So their horses are their pets, like my cat that I love to play with. (But a cat is nice and manageable.) These people are nervous, even afraid, and all the trainer has done is give them a way to avoid their fears. Then I see the people (teenagers, mostly) who just get on and ride, and ride, and ride. They are the ones who make progress through determination backed up by good training. One has to ride until that is as natural as walking, or more so.
White Horse Pilgrim--I totally agree with everything you say there. Those same thoughts have occurred to me. Thanks for the insightful comment.
Well, since no one has has done it, I will: I follow Clinton Anderson's Natural Horsemanship method. When I first went to one of his tours last year, I felt that his training method filled in a lot of the holes in my training knowledge. He gives step by step instructions to learn how to train your horse, which I find quite helpful. My barn owner also follows his method and is able to give advice when necessary. Basically, I think of the ground work as building blocks to doing things under saddle. CA has no "games" like Parelli, everything is about gaining safety, respect, and responsiveness. Different exercises either sensitize or desensitize your horse. I trail ride, so the desensitization exercises have been really helpful in teaching my horse what to do when he's scared: keep moving as he was, or stand quietly. However, my horse is also lazy, so the sensitization piece of things has helped me learn to teach him to be more responsive to my cues.
Is there risk of "boring" your horse? Sure, just like with any overly repetitive lesson. If your horse is bored, move on.
I agree about needing to actually ride your horse and work on things from the saddle- those lessons are a big part of CA's method. For me, his method gave me a path to follow when training my horse, rather than picking up bits and pieces of things as I went.
I don't think there is one "perfect" training style for any rider or horse, but Clinton Anderson's works well enough for me. My horse is respectful on the ground and under saddle, and I know how to maintain that. CA's method put some more training tools in my belt.
Oh, and I write about more of these lessons on my blog: http://punkskidrock.blogspot.com/
Thank you for the comment Punks Kid Rock. I was hoping more folks who use "natural horsemanship" methods would comment. I am sure that every training method has useful tricks, and have been interested to hear from those who have commented that most folks agree with me about staying in the saddle and working things out. I don't myself know the differences between Parelli and CA, so it was interesting to hear about that.
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