Natural horsemanship: what does it really mean?

  • Deemed a controversial subject by some, Horse & Hound asks well know names in the world of 'natural horsemanship', as well as riders competing in mainstream disciplines, what the term means to them

    The originators of natural horsemanship are widely considered to be Tom and Bill Dorrance, raised in the early 1900s on an Oregon cattle ranch. They promoted a kinder, less violent form of horse training than was general at the time, and influenced later trainers including Monty Roberts.

    So what does ‘natural horsemanship’ mean to modern trainers?

    Monty Roberts

    Monty Roberts, an American whose methods were first put before a UK audience by The Queen over 20 years ago, is perhaps the first name that springs to mind with natural horsemanship. Monty himself, however, dismisses the term:

    “There is nothing on this earth that could be considered ‘natural horsemanship’. It’s fine that it becomes a brand name for an individual, however it’s impossible to consider anything that we do with horses as natural, when they are designed to be grazing large tracks of land, able to see for significant distances in all directions.

    “I love the fact horses will allow us to be unnatural enough to become willing partners with us. We owe them good horsemanship; that has been my aim.”

    Jason Webb (pictured, above)

    Australian Horsemanship’s Jason Webb agrees, saying he doesn’t describe himself as a ‘natural horseman’, as he feels the term has moved away from the common sense, practical-based training he uses and promotes.

    “I grew up in Australia learning and developing methods handed down through generations that use the horse’s natural instincts to train the horse,” he says.

    Eventer Kath Pinington and dressage rider Laura Milner

    The idea that many aspects of natural horsemanship are integral to conventional training is something trainer and former eventer Kath Pinington and dressage rider Laura Milner agree on.

    “To me, a lot of the techniques are just good, common sense horsemanship. What the most successful natural horsemanship trainers have done is to put those techniques into an orderly fashion so that people can learn them,” says Kath.

    Laura Milner has used natural horsemanship trainer Guy Robertson for some of her more challenging youngsters, and says she is comfortable with using aspects of natural horsemanship within her own dressage work.

    “Watching Guy work, it has been very much based on teaching the horse about respecting space, starting with groundwork and going from there,” says Laura.

    Kelly Marks

    Kelly Marks, founder of Intelligent Horsemanship, says for her it’s about thinking from the horses’ point of view and developing feel and timing, rather than relying on brute force and fear.

    “We take the best non-violent aspects of traditional horsemanship and combine that with the latest science available. Our aim is always to do the very best for horses as well as helping the horse/human relationship, which is vital,” she says.

    Gary Witheford

    Gary Witheford, whose website describes his system as “sound horsemanship” agrees the people part of the relationship is fundamental.

    “Getting people to change their ways, to stop saying ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ is key. Once they understand the use of pressure/release, for example, to reward horses for coming forward, everything becomes easier,” he says.

    Eventer turned trainer Tracey Dillon

    For former international eventer turned trainer Tracey Dillon,  natural horsemanship is just the new name for aspects of basic good horsemanship.

    “It brings together different aspects under one banner, but is limited by the concepts involved, as a specific type of natural horsemanship only includes what suits that person’s philosophies. If you only stick to [a certain type of] natural horsemanship the benefits of combining other systems to tailor interactions and therefore communication with each horse individually, are lost,” she warns.

    Continued below…
    See what H&H forum members have to say:

    While the term natural horsemanship might bring to mind connotations of horse whisperers in Stetson hats, there’s no doubt the non-violent training philosophy which sits at its heart should be considered a step forward.

    “Remember, we broke horses using abject violence for almost 6,000 years. It’s time to take pride in the changes that are being made,” says Monty Roberts.

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