Over the past 30 years, natural horsemanship has come to the fore in horse training. Also known as “horse whispering” it focuses on building a relationship with your horse, using the same behaviour shown in wild herds.
Although it is a current training “buzz word”, many of the principles can be found as far back as 400 BC, when Xenophon documented methods of training using reassurance instead of punishment. Classical equitation masters from the 16th Century onwards have also expanded on gentler training methods.
Over time however, some of these methods were lost in commerce as people wanted faster results. This was mainly in ranches, where horses needed to be broken in quickly and sold for profit. Techniques were created which forced horses to accept riders, where they were tied, starved or beaten into submission.
During the 1980s key figures emerged such as Monty Roberts, started to do lectures and demonstrations to draw more attention to the natural, reassurance based training methods. Having been endorsed by the Queen, many wanted to try this new technique to improve their own relationship with their horse.
Natural horsemanship uses positive reward by tapping into a horse’s natural behaviour. Many trainers have spent time studying and observing horses in the wild, looking at how bad behaviour is managed in the herd. Although horses do occasionally fight, conflict is usually avoided by lead mares disciplining anti-social behaviour. This is done by pushing the animal away from the safety of the herd, until it submits – like an equine apology where the horse will lower his head and lick his lips. Only then will the animal be allowed to return. Other observations include how horses naturally react when frightened, using the same techniques mares adopt to get foals used to unusual sights and sounds.
Although all based on using the horses “language” to help train, there are a number of techniques used by trainers across the world. These can be seen on many lecture tours and videos. Before using them yourself, always read and watch an expert. Some colleges now offer courses, so you can learn on trained horses before you break in your own.
Join up – one of the first techniques a horse whisperer will do is join up with a new horse. Join up is done to make the horse see you as a safe area, the leader of the herd. This technique helps to give a horse confidence. You must start with a round pen. Your horse will then be set loose. Keeping your body square, you must force him out to the sides in trot and canter. To get him to change directions, move in front of him so you are facing his forehead. He will then change direction. None of this should be forced or chased. As your horse starts to understand, he will lower his head and look towards you, as he wants to return to the herd. When this occurs, turn your body to a right angle, aligned with his shoulder, and drop eye contact. If join up has worked, he will walk up behind you. As he comes up to your side, you can then walk away and he will still follow you. The horse now sees you as the herd leader, and a zone of safety. When stressed, he will then return to you for comfort and reassurance.
Round pen – the round pen is the basis of most activities. It offers a safe place to work, with high sides that cannot be jumped and no corners to stumble around. The round pen is not only used for join up, but the process is reused and reinforced as tack is introduced. Over time, saddles, bridles and eventually a rider is added, always within the safety zone. Horses with a phobia also benefit from this approach. Items they are scared of, such as rugs or plastic bags, can be brought into the arena. Although the horse can run in a circle away, it will want to return to the human in the middle. Walking slowly up to the item will show the horse that it is safe.
Rope halter – as training increases, some trainers such as Kelly Marks suggest using a specialist rope halter. This halter acts like a hackamore, applying light pressure on a horse should they pull or back away. This pressure is released when they stop or walk forward. By using this approach, the mouth is not damaged and the horse learns how to walk in-hand.
Claustrophobia – if you watch horseracing, you will notice that some horses wear a large rug that covers their sides as they enter the stall. When the stalls open, it is left behind. This was developed to help horses with claustrophobia. Racing stalls are incredibly small, and have high metal shelves on either side. These cold bits of metal pressing on a horse caused many to become scared, rear, and get trapped in the gate. After research, they discovered that the padding of the rug helped reassure the horse, dulling any pressure from the metal. By training horses in it, it also kept them calm on race days.
Clicker training – this has been introduced by a number of American trainers into natural horsemanship. From an early age, when the horse is required to do a certain move, the trainer will use a clicker. At first it is done at the same time, with a lot of praise. Gradually the horse will then associate the click with doing a specific move. This is used more for demonstrations than riding, but similar methods are used to help horseback training. Instead of kicking and pulling, the horse is taught through subtle movement to move from left to right. Pushing the weight forward slightly will change the gait.
All of these things are taught slowly over time, using reward and reassurance rather than force. As a result the horse is a lot calmer and more willing to work.