As I turned onto the long narrow driveway in Royse City, thick trees obscured my view of what lay before me. I didn’t know what to expect as I approached the Rowe’s Ranch anticipating to observe their style of horse training. As I peered through the trees to get a quick glimpse, I witnessed an extensive herd of young horses peacefully grazing. My next glimpse consisted of a stunning Palomino gelding gracefully loping a circle with rider aboard (Shelby). Maybe that seems ordinary, but what happened next, the average horse and rider do not have as strong enough relationship to endure. As Shelby reached forward and released both the bridle and bit from the gelding’s mouth, my jaw dropped. She continued on in a rhythmic manner urging the gelding to jump a monstrous log that lay ahead, and he jumped it with ease. This beautiful demonstration continued with breathtaking jumps, turns, and even an ending bow. The trust between these two gleamed with every step the horse took, and the leisurely communication corresponded with tremendous relaxation in the horse. Pondering, I came to the realization that such beauty had to begin with the young grazers, and must be in accordance to the training technique she followed. That realization is one that changed my training technique, as well as my appreciation and acceptance of natural horsemanship.
The training method Shelby follows while raising her horses is termed as natural horsemanship. She thoroughly explained the process and that “it is primarily based around mutual communication, trust, and respect between the horse and rider” (Rowe, 2016). For human kind, communication relies heavily on how accurately one party exchanges information with the other party. Similarly, horses are trained to team with the rider and compete in hundreds of different events via communication. Not only are horses trained for a wide variety of events, but also they’re being trained through many different techniques. As a barrel racer, Shelby described that “the way they’re trained can impact their performance greatly, as well as their relationship and communication with the rider.” Many training techniques require beating the horse into submission, while the best training techniques adjust human handling to the horse’s natural way of learning and communicating. Natural horsemanship changes the way communication is perceived from the trainer to the horse, and allows the horse to obtain a better understanding of what the trainer wants (Birke, 2008). The exceptional understanding grown from natural horsemanship leads to a more profound relationship between horse and rider, as well as a more consistent performance base (Birke, 2008).
Horses revolve around their natural instincts, which they’ve learned throughout maintaining life in the wild. Clinton Anderson, successful natural horseman, summarized the natural instincts of a horse in the herd and how their communication between each other can be carried on into training (Anderson and Meyer, 2011). In herds, horses communicate almost entirely via body language (Anderson and Meyer, 2011). The sudden lowering of the head with the ears pinned back is the defendant’s first, assertive attempt to urge the other horse to get away (Anderson and Meyer, 2011). If the horse still refuses to move, the horse will then continue to up the threat of aggression to a bite, or even a butt turn and kick (Anderson and Meyer, 2011). Since humans are equipped with such a vocal language, we as horsemen can simply adjust our communication skills by focusing primarily on body language. To do so, the trainer should actively look directly at the horse with squared shoulders when they want the horse to pay attention, and use passive language (no staring and one leg cocked) when relaxation is wanted (Anderson and Meyer, 2011). Relaying our body language the way horses perceive language naturally develops a much more relaxed horse in learning. Though there are many training techniques relaxing the horse, there are many that insist on forcing the horse through human language.
As the genetic makeup of the horse changes through the evolving species, Temple Grandin (consultant on animal behavior) responded that the horse bases their emotion and response systems around both flight and fear (Grandin, 2009). Based on the high flight response, horses are extremely sensitive to their surroundings, and if not approached in the correct manner can freak out instantly (Grandin, 2009). This coincides directly to the use of body language, as approaching the horse (determined by body language) can be a huge deciding factor on if the fear or flight systems are activated (Grandin, 2009). In a series of three experiments to test the horses’ responses to variation in human approach, researchers found that horses have an important egocentric spatial barrier (Birke et. al., 2011). This study concluded that the personal space is a contributing factor to their flight response system, as well as the speed by which they’re approached (Birke et. al., 2011). Due to the reliance that horses aren’t born tame and maintain spatial barriers, the first training methods used by the trainer can impact the horse for the rest of their life.
The reason training methods affect the horse is due to the possible development of a fear memory through two causes. The first cause is past abusive situations, while the other is introducing new sensations too quickly (Grandin, 2009) Unfortunately, an old, cruel method of training that produces these fear memories in horses remains in use by many trainers today (Grandin, 2009). The cruel method is termed sacking out a horse and entails throwing things at the horse quickly and aggressively (Grandin, 2009). Temple Grandin explains the scenario as the trainer taking a yearling with a strong halter and ties it up to a sturdy post. They then proceed to throw tin cans, blankets, sacks, etc. at the horse with great strength (Grandin, 2009). I don’t know everyone’s thoughts, but to me, that is beating a horse by cruel punishment while insisting that it’s only a way to socialize the horse with all surroundings, NOT training. Some of the horses that undergo this beating become traumatized which affects their already high fear response to uncontrollable levels and creates fear memories (Grandin, 2009). Once developed, fear memories are tricky because while they can be tolerated with proper training, they will never fully disappear (Grandin, 2009). It’s sickening that a trainer would willingly beat their horse until the horse gives in, and process the event as successful.
The old-style of training through beating has produced fearful horses with an extreme lack of trust to human kind, resulting in a lower level of respect and willingness. On the contrary to cruel horse training, natural horsemanship has evolved to change the way of communication between horse and trainer. Natural horsemanship correlates to horse whispering and entails the trainer to change their approach with communication and training to that of the horses’ natural instincts in the wild. In order to promote correct behavior, pressure and the release of pressure are typically utilized during natural training (Birke, 2008). There are many different methods and approaches within the categories of natural horsemanship, which together develop a successful, strong relationship (Birke, 2008).
One of the most well known programs involving natural horsemanship is called Parelli. This program was founded by Pat Parelli in 1981 and designed to promote horsemanship skills based on observations of horse behavior, psychology, and communication (Parelli, 2016). One of the most successful processes to begin natural horsemanship is with Parelli’s Seven Games (Parelli, 2016). The seven games consist of the following: friendly, porcupine, driving, yo-yo, circling, sideways, and squeeze games (Parelli, 2016). All of the games are based around the natural horse interaction in herds to establish communication and dominance (Parelli, 2016). In each game a new technique based directly from the horses’ instincts is utilized through personnel training (Parelli, 2016). Throughout these games, the horse and rider develop such a strong language and provide a strong foundation for all of the following skill levels learned in training both in and out of the saddle (Parelli, 2016). According to the Parelli’s, these seven games develop the horses’ confidence in new surroundings, as a learner, in you as the trainer, and among other horses (Parelli, 2016). With thousands of success stories, four different facilities in different countries, and a lifetime of fixing horse problems, Pat Parelli and his crew are definitely of utmost importance in the horsemanship world. His ideas and observations have extensively changed horse training for the better.
As curiosity on natural horsemanship sank into my mind, I quickly found time to head home and encounter these experiences myself with my majestic young, black mare. Before attempting any of the seven games she constantly yanked at her halter when being walked as if saying, “human, you don’t own me.” Sassy as she is, I was on a mission to build a level of respect, trust, and communication with her. I worked the games in order, beginning with the friendly game. The first day, I slowly worked with a rope and agreeing on thresholds. She showed slight signs of doubt as I tossed the rope around her legs by inching away in disgust, so I accepted the success, backed away, and congratulated her with a carrot. By the second day, I was able to toss the rope anywhere around her, with her complete trust and relaxation. As of the current time, I’ve only completed the first game with her and I plan to continue and complete all seven. With the friendly game down, my sassy mare has already showed a tremendous increase in respect. She’s shown this through her bad habit of pulling on the halter at home diminishing, only occurring at rodeos where her nerves are worked up. Not only has her respect increased from the beginning of training, but also her barrel time has been shaved down 0.3 seconds. That may not sound like any improvement, but to a competitive barrel racer, any hundredth to tenth of a second is a huge success. In time, I’m convinced the use of natural horsemanship will replenish any fears in my mare, and provide her with full trust in me.
Horses solely strive to please the human; therefore, there is absolutely no excuse for trainer’s utilizing methods that place the horse in such fear that their brain is corrupted. Although the old style of training still exists, many advocates are trying to reach out to the horse world on the importance of natural horsemanship. Natural horsemanship is an outstanding training method in which the horse feels the most comfortable by valuing their natural instincts. Horses are brilliant animals, and when the human performs communication primarily based on and around the horses’ instincts, the emotional state of the horse will flourish. Not only will the horse be more stable, but the horse will potentially perform at a higher level of willingness. Natural horsemanship resembles pure beauty at it’s finest, and with that I appreciate each and every individual who takes the time to pursue in this immaculate base for training. Looking back in the rearview mirror, the Rowe’s Ranch had the biggest impact on my decision to attempt natural horsemanship, and I hope that many competitive trainers and riders will look into the advancement in training. With that I drove away from the Rowe’s Ranch into the dusky night sky, dreaming of natural horsemanship in it’s prime beauty, and just how much it could change horses on a competitive level.
Anderson Clinton and J. Forsberg Meyer. “Use Your Body to Communicate.” Practice Pen. Clinton Anderson’s Philosophy. Horse and Rider. (2011): 22-23. 9 April 2016.
Birke Lynda, Hockenhull Jo, Creighton Emma, Pinno Lisa, Mee Jenny, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ Responses to Variation in Human Approach.” Applied Animal Behavior Science. 134.1-2 (2011): 56-63. Science Direct. 9 April 2016.
Birke, Lynda. “Talking about Horses: Control and Freedom in the World of Natural Horsemanship.” Society & Animals. 16.2 (2008): 107-126. Books and Journals. 9 April 2016.
Grandin, Temple, and Catherine Johnson. “Horses.” Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 105-36. Print.
Rowe, Shelby. Personal Interview. 9 April 2016.
“The Seven Games.” Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Parelli Savvy Club, 2015. Web. 9 April 2016.