by Laura Crum
Kerrin made some interesting comments on my last post (How to “Train” a Solid Trail Horse) on the subject of NH or “natural horsemanship.” Like many traditional horseman, I have never had much use for this form of training, pioneered by Pat Parelli. I watched Pat Parelli show a bridleless mule at the Snaffle Bit Futurity maybe thirty years ago, and I thought he looked like a real hand. But I have not been impressed with the money making machine he created in NH and its games and tools and clinics, nor by what I have seen of NH horses and NH practices in general.
But…the truth is I really know very little about NH. By the time it was fashionable, I had already paid my dues in the traditional horse training world, and the only horse training I did any more was for myself and friends. I wasn’t interested in interacting with trainers of any sort—I’d just had enough of that world. I knew enough to train and get along with my own horses successfully, and that worked for me. So my actual experience with NH was/is limited to the times I’ve run into practitioners (in real life and on the internet) and what my friends (almost all traditional horsemen) have told me.
The consensus has always been that NH horses are pushy and not respectful, that the NH people get to call themselves trainers without ever learning to ride, that the answer for every problem is working the horse from the ground, and that no NH horse was ever effectively trained such that it could compete at a high level at anything. I’ve seen a little to support this view, but I honestly just haven’t seen enough to know. And my most recent interaction with a NH practitioner has been entirely positive.
Several years ago my friend Wally and I were looking for a home for a flunked out rope horse that we had trained. Wally and I bought Lester as a two-year-old because he was by a three quarter brother to my horse, Gunner, and we both thought Gunner was a great horse. The breeder gave us a really good price on the colt and seemed quite anxious to be rid of him, despite the fact that he was obviously the most athletic horse in the group and appeared kind and cooperative. I asked where his mother was, so I could see her, and was told, “We got rid of that crazy bitch last year.” I ignored this. And that was our first mistake.
Lester turned out to be kind, smart and easy to train as a riding horse. He was very athletic and could really run. Wally and I trained him together and we thought he would make a great rope horse. We were wrong.
Lester had a crazy streak. I now think it was inherited. He simply could not take any sort of intensity or pressure or stress. Over and over again he would show his ability to execute and then blow up. He would make five great roping runs and then rear straight up in the box. He would travel down the trail nicely behind another horse and then be a basket case if asked to go out by himself or put in the lead in a “scary” place. Lester was willing to get truly violent when his buttons got “pushed,” though he never meant to hurt anyone. I always felt that he was just as likely to hurt himself as his rider. He wasn’t defiant; his circuits just plain shorted out under stress.
Of course, we tried to work with him. But nothing we knew how to do really improved him. He’d go well for awhile and then blow up again. We had several other people who were competent riders/ropers work with him, but they all got the same result. I tried all the training tricks I knew, but nothing helped. In reference to my previous post about tying, I tried this technique with Lester fairly early in the piece. But Lester did not respond the way the other colts I’d worked with responded. If tied by himself Lester just got worse and worse; his violent behavior continued to escalate. I feared he would hurt or kill himself and gave up the tying. And yet Lester remained a kind, cooperative horse most of the time. If not stressed, he was great. Anyone could ride him at a walk, trot, lope around the arena, or follow another horse on a trail ride. He would take either lead, spin a little, stop and back readily…for anyone, including a beginner. He was reliably pleasant and calm for this sort of work. We certainly succeeded in his training to this degree, anyway.
After several years of persisting, we gave up the idea that Lester could be a rope horse. He was immensely talented—we’d been offered ten thousand dollars by someone who saw him make three great runs one day. We turned it down—we knew well enough how that would end up. An unhappy roper and a horse that was sent down the road. Lester might not be rope horse material, but we were fond of him. We didn’t want him to come to a bad end.
My friend wanted a riding horse for her teenage daughter and Lester had proven that he would pack beginners reliably in an arena and on a trail ride in a group. So we loaned Lester to Sue to be a kid’s horse.
This worked surprisingly well (except when Sue’s daughter wanted to try barrel racing, which Lester—predictably--showed a lot of talent at, but—equally predictably-- he always blew up when under pressure) and Lester stayed there until Sue’s daughter outgrew her horse phase. He then went to Sue’s niece. But eventually she lost interest, too. And Lester needed a home. Lester was a teenage horse by now and I really wanted to find him a forever home, as I just had too many horses.
Wally and I resolved to find him a place where he could babysit beginners—which is what he was good at. And my friend Kerrin decided to give him a try. She and her partner have a ranch where they teach kids to ride and educate people on horsemanship. Kerrin is a NH practitioner, and I also knew her to be a kind, competent horseman who took great care of her animals. Whatever prejudices I had and have about NH, I didn’t let them get in my way. It’s my belief that there are good horsemen and poor horsemen in every discipline and method.
Lester has thrived with Kerrin and her crew. He fits their uses and they love him. I’m not sure if NH practices improved Lester’s quirks or not—perhaps Kerrin could tell us. Its possible, too, that age has mellowed him—he’s in his 20’s now. But I do know that Lester has had a good life at Kerrin’s ranch, as do all the horses that live there. So I have to say that I am really grateful to this particular NH practitioner.
In the comments on my last post Kerrin asked why all the bashing of NH, and it got me thinking. I don’t really know why non-NH folks have such a low opinion of this training method. I stated earlier in the post what my perceptions have been, and the perceptions of others that I know. But are these perceptions correct? I thought I’d open the door to letting people tell me what NH is and whether or not it is a training method that can make a good horse. Maybe I just need a little education on the subject?
I would particularly like to raise the point Kate made at the very end of the comments on my last post. It seems that most of the poor horse behavior attributed to NH could just as easily be attributed to middle-aged women who have never owned/trained/ridden horses before and acquire a horse thinking the main goal is to be “nice” to the horse and that being nice will result in the horse loving them and behaving well. This is just not true, as any experienced horseman can tell you. The goal is to have a good partnership with a horse and this can only come about if you are willing to be firm/a leader/set boundaries/reprimand appropriately….or however you would like to phrase this key aspect of horsemanship which involves teaching the horse to respect you. Kerrin also referenced this aspect of the situation in one of her comments. For whatever reason, this sort of novice horse owner really seems to gravitate to NH.
I would also add that a person new to horses who wants to ride must spend a lot of hours riding a steady eddie horse in order to learn to ride effectively. It is not possible to work with a horse other than a steady eddie if you can’t ride competently, or rather, its possible, but nothing good will come of it. It’s my perception that many NH people have not learned to ride well enough to deal with a horse who is anything other than a schoolmaster. But they buy an unsuitable mount…and then can’t deal with it. It appears to me that the NH program encourages them to work with this horse, using games from the ground, and believe they are training it to be a riding horse. I do not think this is a workable concept, and would venture that this sort of pattern is one reason the NH horses have a poor reputation in the world outside NH. But maybe I am wrong in my perception?
So, please, chime in and give me your explanations. It is quite true that I don’t really know much about this subject.