Natural Horsemanship & “Savvy”
Natural Horsemanship & “Savvy”
By: Pat Parelli
One of my favorite questions is “who knows how to read…. a horse?” I think there are lots of people who are good riders, good trainers, and can get horses to perform. But, when it comes to “reading” horses and understanding why horses behave as they do, people are at a loss. Many people are not generally taught much about horse psychology and behavior.
Allow me to explain further. People usually think horses are misbehaving or being “bad” when they spook, shy, jig, grind their teeth, swish their tails, are hard to catch, hard to control, rear, buck or run off. What is really happening is that the horse is just acting like the prey animal that he is. The “misbehaving” horse is dealing with things by doing what Mother Nature has programmed him to do – to find comfort or do whatever it takes to save his life. I don’t see “problem” horses. What I see is a massive communication gap between the horse and human.
I see all this as just a massive communication gap.
Communication happens through understanding
Horses are prey animals and people are predators. This is a biological fact. Horses have “known” for millions of years that they taste good and thus are genetically programmed to be hard to catch and reluctant to fully trust humans – even if they are living in stables.
So, when it comes to behavior modification, what works for people does not work for horses. We can verbally threaten a horse, growl at him or smack him, but that won’t change his behavior permanently. Often, he’ll get worse, more scared or resentful. Years later we’ll still be punishing that horse for the same things, evidence enough that the approach has not been effective.
When encouraging desirable behaviors in horses, they respond much better to an approach called “comfort and discomfort”. If we can cause a horse to be uncomfortable at exactly the time he’s doing something we don’t want… and to be comfortable the moment he does what we do want, a horse will make willing and lasting changes in his behavior. Please note that by “uncomfortable” I don’t mean pain or violence. A fly can make a horse uncomfortable!
Don’t Blame the Horse for Acting like a Horse
It’s easy to see the “predator” in people when they are cruel and rough with horses, but what most people don’t realize is that when they get scared, their reaction is just as predatorial. In fright, humans seize up, clamp onto the reins and grab on tightly with their legs… it’s like all their “claws” dig in! This is exactly what it feels like when a lion jumps on a horse’s back to bring him down! The horse, at that moment, cannot distinguish between a person’s fear or aggression. All the horse feels is the predator grabbing onto it’s back and that scares the life out of him! The horse perceives his life is threatened and goes automatically into flight or fight mode… he’ll run off, rear up, throw himself over, buck like a maniac, he’ll do whatever he thinks it takes to “save his life”.
Unfortunately there are far more books and videos around that tell people what kind of bit, martingale or tie-down to select than there are books on how to understand a horse’s mind. I believe people only resort to mechanical equipment and punishment with horses because they don’t have enough horse “language” to solve problems or clearly communicate what they want. Maybe it’s just how they’ve been taught, or how it’s always been done. But there is an alternative. It’s called communication, understanding and psychology. It’s the best way I know to unlock a horse’s mind when it’s braced against us. It’s like the misunderstandings that men and women have in their relationships! Neither one is wrong. They just don’t understand where the other is coming from sometimes, and so communication breaks down. By empowering people with knowledge and teaching them what I know, I’ve helped thousands of people from every walk of life overcome the force, frustration, and fight that is so common today in the horse-human relationship.
Learn to “Savvy” horse
What is important to us is not important to horses.
Horses like…. 1. Safety 2. Comfort 3. Play
People like…. 1. Praise 2. Recognition 3. Material things
Thousands of people have been hurt or killed by a horse reacting out of self-preservation. Safety with horses is not provided simply by wearing helmets and using more artificial aids, but by having the knowledge to read the situation. Safety comes through understanding the prey animal so well that there are no surprises. Safety comes through Savvy and Savvy is knowing how to do the right thing at the right time to help the horse while protecting yourself. Savvy is knowing where to be, why to be and what to do when you get there! Never forget that inside every gentle horse is a wild horse, and inside every wild horse there is a gentle horse.
When we take our human ways and expectations into the horse corral, we’re likely to have trouble with horses because we’re not observing the horse’s protocol. We need to let go of the things that are important to us predators and forget about “winning” over the horse. Instead, we need to be more sensitive to the horse’s needs. Here is the secret to successful relationships with horses… cause our ideas to become the horse’s ideas, but understand the horse’s ideas first.
It’s amazing to me that some humans judge the horse’s intelligence without understanding prey animal psychology. There are even some who try to teach the horse our words, our language. Even though the horse is capable of learning a number of words, I have to ask, is this really what we want? If we are going to enter the horse’s world shouldn’t we at least try learning his language and his ways? Are we not supposed to be the more intelligent creature? When we learn to speak our horse’s language, we’ll get ten times the results and our horses will start to look at us in a totally different light.
With a philosophy of communication, understanding and psychology (rather than mechanics, force and intimidation) you can achieve the kind of relationship with horses that most people only dream about, and reach your highest horsemanship goals without sacrificing that relationship. It’s about love, language and leadership.
Think about it… if we could approach a horse just right, in a way he understood, we wouldn’t cause any resistance. Horses would never feel the need to oppose humans.