The fundamental difference between what has come to be generically called “natural horsemanship” and what has been accepted over time as traditional training techniques comes down to one question: When you look at your horse, what do you see?
Many people see the horse as a creature to be controlled and dominated through a process commonly known as “breaking.” .. In fact, many people who practice traditional training techniques are sincere horse lovers, and treat their horses to the best when it comes to food and overall care.
However, those who practice natural horsemanship see the horse a little bit differently. It’s true that horses are animals, and as such, they do not share the human capacity for complex reasoning and logic. But that doesn’t mean they are simply “dumb” animals. People who practice natural horsemanship (in any of its many forms) share a core belief that we must see horses as they see themselves, that is, through the eyes of another horse.
Wikipedia defines natural horsemanship as “the philosophy of working with horses by appealing to their instincts and herd mentality.” When a horse behaves in a way that seems unreasonable or illogical when looked at through the lens of human behavior, it’s easy to pass judgment and pronounce the horse “dumb.” But when you take the time to see a horse’s behavior the way another horse would see it, most of the time you can make perfect sense of its reaction.
To really illustrate the difference between natural horsemanship and traditional training techniques, let’s say you have a horse who is terrified of being bathed (i.e., the spray of water is cause for absolute panic). An old-fashioned cowboy solution might be to tie the horse to a pole in the middle of a field, and spray him with water until he either kills himself or gives up and submits to the bathing.
Another “traditional” method of dealing with this problem might be to twitch or sedate the animal. Both of these methods are focused on dominating or “breaking” the horse, and neither of these methods addresses the “why” of the problem.
Now, let’s say you want to apply the principles of natural horsemanship to this problem. Would a horse in the wild ever take a bath? What does a horse do when he is caught in the rain? And a more basic question, why would a horse fear water? If you can think like a horse, you can solve this problem without causing major stress to either you or your horse.
There are lots of great resources out there on why horses might fear water in general, and lots of advice on how to proceed, but the natural horsemanship solution to this problem is fairly consistent: slow and steady wins the race. Think like a horse. When would you most like to be sprayed with cool water? On a hot day, right?
The first step, then, is to pick a hot day when your horse will more likely welcome the feel of water. Start with a trickle of water on his feet and legs, and slowly work your way up his body. If you have to do this over several days, so be it. Don’t push your horse too far. It takes a long time to build up trust, and only seconds to shatter it. If you’re in a big hurry, your horse will know it, and his stress level will go up because of it.
The bottom line is, that although the example of bathing your horse is a specific one, the lessons learned from it can be applied to many facets of horse training. When you practice natural horsemanship instead of traditional training techniques, you will build a long and satisfying relationship with your horse. You will both love just being together.