Natural Horsemanship Defined
Game #2, the Parelli Porcupine game, following a feel, using your fingers to move the horse’s hind quarters first by pressing the hair (Phase One), then skin (Phase Two), then muscle (Phase Three), and finally bone (Phase Four), plus addition of rhythmic pressure if needed.
I suppose it would be presumptuous of anybody to try to define Natural Horsemanship (the term coined by my main mentor, Pat Parelli) because of the almost mystical persona surrounding it. However, based on what I have been fortunate enough to learn from many great teachers, some thoughts have coalesced, bringing its meaning into better focus for me.
‘Natural’ when referring to horses may be defined as letting horses live in the wild and appreciating them from afar where the horse is just trying to live another day, within the herd, trying to survive based on instinct. But as soon as humans interfere in the horse’s world, very little is natural, except how we can creatively and progressively relate to our horses.
Here is my definition of Natural Horsemanship: humans taking responsibility to understand the horse’s world, including their language, feelings, and perspective; to form a relationship based on mutual trust and respect and communication while providing leadership as a leader in the equine herd would; knowing that playing relationship-building games is natural and healthy; offering feel and timing, causing, then allowing them to explore; retreating when appropriate; and clearly using graduated phases of firmness, with release of pressure, to teach the horse what it is we want to accomplish with him; and finally, giving him the opportunity to take some responsibility too, in order to develop a willing partnership.
The Horse’s World
I think many people’s perception of Natural Horsemanship is that it is touchy-feely and gentle. Gentle and light is the end result that we want in our relationship with our horses, certainly, but getting to that place can be far from gentle as there is nothing gentle about the pecking order of an equine herd. The alpha meting out his/her dominant actions to other horses in the herd can be painful to watch and misunderstood by humans. The hierarchy of dominant behavior is the survival mechanism that has allowed the horse to prevail for 80 million years, and it is the whole basis of horse behavior in Natural Horsemanship.
Interestingly, these actions of dominance by horses in the herd are always “just”. Through body language there is always a warning, with a glance or some telltale sign, before an actual strike or bite occurs. That is why it is so important to realize, as Ray Hunt and other great clinicians have said, that recognizing “what happened before what happened happened” is the critical part of the equation in teaching horses.
So many trainers and horse people never give a warning before they cue or “thump” on a horse. The act of cuing a horse in a repetitive fashion is like wearing a rut in a road – it goes nowhere but down. It is not teaching! Also, the act of punishing and scaring a horse is not teaching. Some primitive-type trainers think that making the right thing easy and making the wrong thing hard must happen “right now”, without any preparation whatsoever. Those people scare an unconfident horse and make a dominant horse resentful. On the other hand, some horse people are passive and give no signal or little direction to the horse, and in this case they end up being dominated by a confident horse that is looking for a leader, or making an unconfident horse that needs direction insecure.
There is a middle ground, however – one of being neither passive nor aggressive, but assertive. Being assertive is fair and just. It is like acting as part of the herd. But being assertive also means we must take responsibility for good timing by giving advance warning of a request, as horses naturally do.
Pressure and Release – The 4 Phases
Steady pressure and rhythmic pressure can be used to signal the horse. But it is the release of pressure that horses learn from. We communicate to the horse and once the desired response is achieved, we release immediately. Or, we can learn to anticipate so we release just as we get the desired response. To quote Pat Parelli: “It’s when you stop doing what you are doing that they learn.” Just as importantly, we must not release pressure at the wrong time or we will have taught the horse the opposite of what we wanted.
Horsemanship involves superb feel, timing, and communication, and builds confidence by using what Parelli calls the “four phases of firmness” which could be called the four phases of fairness. By consistently following the four phases of firmness, we can get the horse to respond to our slightest offering or suggestion.
We must first offer horses a good deal. If they respond to a little pressure, we release. If they do not respond, we increase it in phases: we must first suggest what we want (Phase One), then if we do not get the response we want we ask (Phase Two), then if we still do not get the response we want we tell (Phase Three), and then, finally, if we do not get the response we want we promise (Phase Four) – in that order. In the beginning of teaching there should be ample time (three seconds) between each signal, but as the horse learns, the timing must become quicker and seamless so he does not become dull. (We have to be effective to be understood and understood to be effective, which the 4 phases accomplish. Unclear pressure – no matter at what phase of firmness – without the proper intent and direction spells confusion, especially without the necessary release.)
We must always start with what we want to end up with. In other words, the object is to start by asking the horse with the lightest pressure possible, and if we do not get a response, increase pressure in rapid intervals, until we get what we want. Never start out with the most pressure first, unless it is to avoid a dangerous situation and you need to make a high pressure safety move, at the expense of your horse, not yourself (which should not happen if we have prepared the horse properly). Eventually the horse will see we really mean what we say and will take advantage of our initial offering, i.e. the good deal.
We must not lie to our horses by not following through with the next phase if they haven’t responded. A lot of people are afraid to be “mean” to their horses, and they do not become assertive enough, but it’s meaner to not mean what we say. On the other hand, by being immediately aggressive and not giving a warning first, we are not being consistent with what is natural communication and behavior among horses, and therefore a horse will lose trust and respect for us. They may fear us, but they will not respect us.
Be “polite and passively persistent in the proper position,” as Pat would say. Communication starts by building language. Parelli’s 7 Games makes things very clear to a horse – the Games are the horse’s natural language, and the basis for this communication.
Once horses figure out we’re not trying to hurt them and that we are fair, that we understand their language and understand their unconfident or dominant behavior, they will become very willing to play relationship-building games with us like they play in the herd. In fact, they will look forward to it. That’s why groundwork (Parelli’s 7 Games) is so important before we get on and ride; we can determine what side of the corral they woke up on and they can see what side of the bed we woke up on. That doesn’t mean that we over-do groundwork, so that the 7 Games becomes the 7 Jobs or 7 Tortures. It will be important to mix up the games and be as creative as possible.
If at any time before, during, or after we communicate with the horse we detect that he is scared or nervous, we listen to that and retreat from what we are doing. Rubbing the horse (Game 1 of the Parelli 7 Games, “The Friendly Game”) will help him relax while we are in the retreat mode. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” says Pat Parelli.
Also important is to “take the time it takes, so it takes less time,” as Pat says. Therefore, taking time to let them “soak”, or take a time-out and rest between learning experiences to lick their lips and digest a thought, is vital to the communication process. Be happy with little accomplishments and your horse will be too. Let him feel successful, safe, and comfortable, so when pressure is applied he is not fearful, thus making it possible for him to think and learn. He has to know we are a friend, not a predator. That is why Pat Parelli stresses the “Friendly Game”, like a mother licking its foal, to build trust.
Natural Horsemanship is about developing a relationship based on trust and fairness, while being sensitive to the fact that horses have feelings. It’s about recognizing that horses have something to say and have something to offer us as our greatest teachers if we are paying attention. They can be our mirrors.
Being polite and consistent is important, but just as important is being able to outlast the horse through persistence, causing the horse to take responsibility and do what we want – but not at the expense of destroying his confidence.
Horses are masters at avoidance if they do not want to do something, especially if they are afraid or dominant and don’t respect us as a leader. They are experts at outwitting, out-waiting, and avoiding humans and other predators, which they have done for millions of years.
The key is to get an unconfident, avoidant horse to go from the right-brain condition (opposition reflex) to the left-brain mode (thinking mode), using psychology, not force. Persistence does not mean that we cannot take a break or even stop and try the next day. In fact, retreat is much more important than advancing towards our goal as it helps build confidence. It’s not about the goal, the task, or game, it’s about helping the horse build confidence in himself, in us, and in his environment.
Sometimes we have to know when to quit, and sometimes persistence is important. There are times when we have to be a good leader and persist in our approach until we get the horse to complete the task, or the next day it may be worse, especially with a right-brained frenetic horse. Trying to finish the lesson with the horse’s confidence as our goal will help him complete the task in a good frame of mind.
On the other hand, if the horse is a dominant or a left-brained, horse, variety is the spice the life, and so in presenting things to him we must be progressive and creative in order to keep his attention. These types of horses are very difficult to deal with as they do not respect most humans or see that humans have much to offer. They need incentive and a creative approach to accomplish something, not necessarily Phase Four of firmness.
So a huge part of Natural Horsemanship is learning horse behavior, horse characteristics, and what type of horse we’re dealing with, i.e. a right-brained unconfident or a left-brained dominant horse.
Sometimes we may try for a response and get another instead – one that the horse thought we wanted, or because he was resisting he did the opposite of what we wanted. In this case, do not correct him, but go with it, reinforce it, and try it again. Do not make him feel wrong; make him feel like a winner! Whatever he did on his own, we may want from him some other time, so let him get good at it. Frustration in humans comes from “direct line thinking” or being goal-oriented. We must remember the horse has no goal; he lives in the moment and does what is appropriate to survive. Our attitude has to be “we’re there for the horse,” to help make him become braver, calmer, and smarter. We can be positive disciplinarians when needed, but we cannot be there to punish or criticize the horse for acting like a horse.
Natural Horsemanship is not about micromanaging horses. I would say a big part of Natural Horsemanship is getting a horse to trust us enough after we have asked for a response to take on the responsibility to carry out the request. We then trust and allow him to do so. People are quick to over-control, sometimes out of fear, but more often because as predators we have a hard time believing our horses have the ability to think – in their own way – to carry out their role. Just look at a cow horse with cattle. If we use his natural and innate abilities and give him the directive and leave him alone, he’ll perform. If we get out of his way, we will allow him his responsibility! Just drop the reins and let him go! Cause the behavior, don’t force it, and then allow it to happen. Set the situation up for success and let it unfold, and direct and support as needed.
So, what is Natural Horsemanship? Is it how we feed them? House them or not? How we relate to them? Ride them? Talk to them or “whisper” to them or not? Is it the use of certain tools or techniques we use for them? Or is it simply a deeper understanding of how to get through to them?
Put simply – it’s building a horse’s confidence by developing a relationship and by positive communication.