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A Natural Look at Horsemanship

18 August 2011 No Comment

A Natural Look at Horsemanship
By: Pat Parelli

If you were a horse… …what kind of rider would you want?
How would your rider’s attitude, feel, timing, balance, savvy and experience affect you? It’s normal to look at a horse’s behavior and slap a label on him; he’s a good one, or, he’s got vices… such as; he’s a bucker… a puller…a bolter… a rearer… he’s stupidà stubbornàthick headedàor crazy.

When you look at things from the horse’s point of view though, it gives you a very different picture. That “crazy”, “stupid” or “stubborn” horse is probably afraid of people, saddles, a bit in his mouth or pressure on his body. And a scared horse doesn’t just think he is going to get hurt. He thinks he is going to get killed! He will do anything to defend himself… anything! I’ve heard people talk of horses running blindly into trees, falling over, trying to jump 7 foot fences, even killing themselves by flipping over. If you thought someone was going to kill you, how would you react? This is what separates the traditional approach to horsemanship from the natural approach, the attitude towards the horse and the horse’s behavior. The normal person thinks, “stupid horse”, while the natural horseman thinks, “why did that horse feel like his life was being threatened?”

Horses are prey animals – Humans are predators
This is a biological fact. Prey animals have their eyes on the side of their head so they can see all the way around them. This enables them to be very perceptive to danger so they can quickly fly from fear. Predators have their eyes on the front of their head because they need binocular vision for hunting. Since predators are the danger, they don’t run away… they stand and fight or they freeze.

When wild horses first see humans they see a predator, and naturally, they are afraid. This is no different for the “domesticated” horse. He is still a prey animal and has a bit of that wild horse nature in him. Even though a horse may have been raised by hand, Mother Nature can come quickly to the surface in an “oh no” situation. That’s when horses start running off, bucking, rearing, striking, kicking, throwing themselves to the ground, charging or being hard to catch.

All these “bad behaviors” are exactly the things that help a prey animal survive in the wild. They are designed to out-think predators, to do the opposite of what a predator wants, to be quicker, run away and out-maneuver them. For people, this can be frustrating and sometimes dangerous.

If you are having some of these problems with your horse, stop for a moment to consider these behaviors and what is really causing them. Your horse is not a bad horse. He’s being a smart prey animal. Now, ask yourself, “What could I do to get my horse to do what I ask without evoking these defensive reactions?” This is the real question for the aspiring horseman.

Part of the problem or part of the solution
The hardest thing for many people to accept, is that maybe we have something to do with our “horse’s problem”. An old teacher of mine once said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are probably part of the problem.” This might be a good guide when examining our relationships with our horses. For example, I often have people tell me that all their horses have a rearing problem. So, I wonder, what could this person be doing that might cause these horses to feel uncomfortable enough to rear?

There are some very common misconceptions about horses that lots of people seem to share. Probably the first time you ever got on a horse, these are the things someone told you. Not only are they not true, they could be the cause of a lot of trouble for both the human and the horse.

1. Horses are supposed to be safe and simple
Once you understand horse psychology and have developed your feel, balance, timing, and savvy, this is true. However, most people expect to be able to do anything they like with a horse from the first moment they touch him. They also expect the horse will behave perfectly, stand still and not do anything wrong under any circumstances. To expect this, especially as a beginner, is a good way to get bitten, kicked or run away with.

2. No preparation needed. You just saddle up and get on
This is why people get bucked off, run off with and deal with “cold-backed” horses. Tying a horse to the rail and throwing a saddle on is akin to tying a girl to a tree so you can kiss her. If a horse is not willing to stand quietly, giving you permission to put the saddle on, without having to be tied, then he is telling you he is not really accepting the saddle. Horses are often scared of the saddle, which is why they need to be cross-tied. If a horse can’t accept the saddle, he is telling you he doesn’t have enough trust in you or he is just not mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I believe that preparation is essential. Preparation gets horses in the mood to be saddled and ensures you have a good enough relationship with them to know that they aren’t going to misbehave when you do up the cinch and get on.

3. Kick to go, pull to stop. That’s how you operate a horse
I think of all the lies we have been told this is the most damaging. Somehow these techniques for going and stopping have been handed down to lots of people. I see horses being kicked and kicked, the riders trying to get them to go forward. All the while the horses are getting more and more stubborn and resentful. Then the spurs and whips come on because the common perception is that the horses can’t feel the kicking well enough. Next, just pull the reins to stop… how many hard mouths have you come across? People start having to pull harder and harder on a horse that does not want to stop. When just pulling back on the reins doesn’t work so well anymore, they use bigger or harsher bits. Then along comes some kind of tie-down or martingale because the harder they pull, the more the horse flings his head up into the air.

The natural approach involves squeezing to go forward and lifting to stop. When you pull back on two reins, it causes a horse to set his jaw and plunge his weight forward. When you lift the reins, it causes a horse to lower his hindquarters. When you want a horse to go, you should be able to simply bring your energy up and squeeze lightly with you legs. To stop a horse, you should only need to relax and let all the energy out in your body. The big secret here is causing it to be the horse’s idea and desire to stop. If he’s not scared, if he has respect for you, and if you have helped him find impulsion (part of my teaching program), you can stop any horse without reins.

4. You need strong arms and quick hands
Most horse-riding equipment only perpetuates this misconception and the problems that follow. There are reins with rubber on them, with “stoppers” and various grips so you can hang on no matter what the horse does. Quick hands and strong pulls will only produce bracey horses. When you reach for the reins to fast, a horse tightens his jaw and neck in self-defense, preparing for pain in his mouth or on his head. Then his head goes up as another attempt to get away from your hands. The tighter you hold and the stronger you pull, the more claustrophobic and panicky the horse will get. Tight reins, hands that grab too soon and close tight too quickly wake up all the prey animal survival instincts and instead of control, you get everything you never wanted.

Learn instead to have hands that close slowly and open quickly. Your hands should open when the horse gives to pressure whether they are holding the reins or a lead rope. Any time you touch a horse, handle a rope or reins, you can put “feel” into your hands by closing your fingers one at a time and then releasing the instant your horse feels soft to you.

5. You have to show a horse who is boss
This myth is the one that causes the most problems. It leads to aggressive, insensitive treatment of the horse, which only creates defensive responses, fear and resentment. It is true that horses are natural followers and are looking for natural leaders. In a horse herd the leader is called the “alpha” horse. He (or she) is the most dominant horse and all the others follow his lead. If the alpha is calm, the herd is calm. If the alpha is alert, the herd is alert. If the alpha gets scared, the rest of the herd knows to be scared. This is how the herd mentality saves prey animal’s lives.

A domesticated horse is still looking for a leader. If you earn that alpha position, you’ll have a trusting, respectful horse that follows your lead willingly. If you aren’t a good leader then your horse might try to dominate you and become the alpha himself. And, if you are an aggressive leader, your horse will not trust you and become afraid rather than confident with you. Horses do not understand punishment. They learn through instant comfort or discomfort from their actions, without heated emotions involved. They don’t cope well with human emotions like anger and frustration, and aggression only evokes fear and confusion in them. A horse will not care about anything except surviving if he thinks his safety is threatened. That’s why they can endure all kinds of cruelty and harsh, punishing treatment just to survive. That may not seem logical to us, but then, we don’t think like prey animals…yet.

A Natural Approach
In natural horsemanship, we learn to think like a horse, prove we are not going to act like a predator, and how to be assertive rather than aggressive. Assertive is somewhere between being aggressive and being a wimp. It’s when you are able to be as firm as necessary without getting mean or mad. It’s about being fair and just, and offering a horse four “phases” of friendly firmness. The first phase being as light as possible, the fourth phase matching the horse’s resistance and adding four ounces. Horses need black and white lines. They need to know when they are right and when they are not, without getting over-criticized for making a mistake. You can cause a horse to be uncomfortable without hurting him and this is the secret of becoming a horseman. A horse will put a lot of effort into finding the right thing to do if you are fair with him, and he’ll respect you for showing him the easy way. So what’s the answer….

Think like a Horse
You’ve probably heard about relationship therapies that urge you to step into someone else’s shoes, to see things from another point of view in order to understand others better and avoid misunderstandings. The same applies to the horse-human relationship. Probably the first thing to accept is that this is a relationship. Secondly, that the quality of the relationship is solely your responsibility. In order to think like a horse, the first step is to understand prey animal psychology. You need to find out what makes horses tick, what motivates them. Contrary to public opinion, food is nowhere near the top!

Horses are interested in:


… in that order.

You need to understand that horses perceive you as a predator, that is, a threat to their very existence. In order to convince them that you are not going to hurt them and to prove you are a worthy leader, you will have to learn how to play the same kinds of dominance games that horses play with each other.

The 7 Games
After years of observing horses in their natural state, I have identified seven distinct games that horses play with each other to establish the “pecking order” in the herd. I simply call them, The 7 Games, and once you know them you can use them very effectively to both befriend a horse and earn the right to be his alpha.

Through the 7 Games you can establish the kind of relationship that most people dream about, even with a very difficult horse. They work because they enable you to “talk horse”. Once you can communicate in a way the horse knows and understands, he will have a very different perspective about you, the “predator”. When your horse trusts and respects you as his leader, most, if not all, the so-called vices and problems with horses just go away. Most people are looking for that special device or that one technique to solve a particular problem. What I have to offer is a strategy for understanding and dealing with horses that not only solves problems, it prevents them.

My Goals For You
My number one goal is to put more fun into your time with horses. Once all the frustration is gone, this is easy. Secondly, I want to help you develop skills around horses that probably 98% of all horse owners don’t have. Third, is to give you a pathway to follow if you want to develop those skills to a very high level, such as professional or competitive goals or simply pursuing the art of horsemanship.

Whatever your goals are, I want you to become the kind of person your horse wants you to be. I want you to be excited, happy, safe and successful in your relationship with horses.

Pat Parelli tours the world sharing his savvy with people interested in doing much more than just riding their horse. Having developed one of the best teaching systems in the world, his programs are being taught in colleges and are used by professionals for teaching people and training horses. His motivational and inspirational performances are sought the world over.

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