So it's been brought to my attention that maybe I should be focusing a bit more on the "why" and "what" of natural horsemanship. As there seems to be a few misconceptions that need to be cleared up; at least on my side this story!
Misconception the first;
"You just play games with your horse, while I need to train an athlete."
This one hits me the best, because I LOVE talking about the reasons why we "play" with our horses. I'd like to start with the discussion of why I use the term "play" instead of "train". It's really easy too, the reason is because of human perceptions and the way we take on roles with our horses. In a horses world, there is no human aggression. We may take their very loud cues to each other to mean aggression, but they are never "mad" at each other. They are always using a different level of a cue to get their point across. Sometimes that point is "hey, I'm eating this grass now! Get lost!" and that cue may start as a stare, then go to a bum turn, and then followed up by a kick.
Horses don't have a verbal language of words to communicate, so instead of getting louder with their voices as we would to get a point across, they get louder with their physical cues. But it's never "I hate you for not moving", it's "hey, seriously though, move!" So that brings me to why I say "play", because it sets you up to go win a game, instead of wanting to win a war. If you take weapons with you from the start, you are going to end up in a fight. And with a 1200lb horse, you aren't going to win the way you want to. So if you go into it as wanting to win a game, you are setting yourself up to have fun! And fun means staying positive, and away from human aggression attitudes.
So from there, why play games to win? In horse world, horses "play games" with each other every day to test their levels in the pecking order of the herd. And whoever wins all of the games in the herd, gets to be the alpha. Now that alpha is not the strongest in the herd, and they are almost never the one who beats on the other horses the most. They are the ones who know both wit, speed, and compassion. (there's a reason why the alpha is always a mare ;) ) So by playing "dominance" games with your horse, you are winning levels in the pecking order.. slowly working your way to the top.
Why would you want to win them all? Because a horse doesn't respect or trust you just because you tell him to. He needs to know WHY he should put his trust in you. Why are you the best pick to protect his life? So by playing games he grew up playing with other horses (and even his mother as a young foal), you are telling him in his own words why you are the best guy for the job.
Now, I believe that brings me to misconception the second...
"I need to dominate my horse so he'll respect me, not be a partner that will get taken advantage of."
We already talked about the dominating bit, it's not about scaring your horse into submission.. it's about showing him, in his language, that you are capable of being the alpha.. that you are capable of protecting him, and capable of observing when danger is present.
On a side rant, this brings me to my favourite issue that people have with left brains (usually extroverts, but introverts get in there sometimes too) the busy mouth horse who always seems to be nipping at you or anything close by. This is most often than not seen as a "bad habit" and the horse gets scolded for being "rude". So here's what's really going on... Horses play games with you, to test you. They are constantly pushing you around, nipping at you and testing to see how tough you are... Not to belittle you, but to see if you have things under control.
"If you are going to lead me away from my herd, you better be able to protect me! And if you can't even protect yourself from me, how are you going to protect us both from a predator?!"
So the nipping, biting and pushing is a test. And if all you do is get mad and blame the horse for being bad; you've failed the test ten fold (leaders have patience, and insight)
Now where does the partner thing come in? This is another one of those "human perception" dealies, where we say "partner" so you approach the horse as a smart and capable "equal", instead of an idiot who must fall in line. If you can have compassion and respect for the horse, you will get what you want out of the deal a lot easier than if you expect and demand respect just because you've labeled yourself the boss. Being a boss with a horse has to be earned. And to earn it, you need to be a partner. Not a dictator. By being witty and smart with a horse, you can make them see your side of the story as something that might be their idea. And by allowing them to make some decisions, they will see you as a provider and a guide. Rather than the angry hairless rat screaming "OVER" and shoving them all the time ;)
And my final misconception today is...
"Natural horsemanship is too touchy feely and soft."
Have you ever seen horses in the wild? Or maybe even watched a herd of geldings for a day? Have you seen how rough they are with each other?
Natural horsemanship is based around the ideal that you must learn how the horse communicates to one another, and then use that language to get them to work for you. So sometimes that language is very loud, and very physical. And sometimes that language is very soft, and almost unseen.
When I first started into learning how to train with natural horsemanship I felt very insecure at just how loud I had to learn to be with some of the more aggressive horses. Defending your space from a rearing, charging and striking aggressor is pretty intimidating for a meek little chick like myself... But when you learn HOW to use that ideal, and what it really means; you can see the world of difference it makes.
Our first few sessions with Spirit really made that ideal hit home for me; because he was a very aggressive horse when you asked him for anything. He was happy to hang out, be groomed and go grazing.. but as soon as you asked him to lift a hoof for you, you had a couple flying at your face.. I had my coach work with him for the first 2 sessions as I had no idea where to even begin with an attitude like that. I knew he wasn't attacking out of fear, he was flat out angry at the idea of me trying to win any games against him, he wasn't going to give up his pecking order level easily. And that made me very nervous. But she went straight to work, playing games, and winning. Those games were VERY loud. Spirit would stand up and strike, and she would defend her space and bat him away with a carrot stick. Any bum that turned in her direction got a sharp bite to push it away. And when it seemed like it was just a battle of who had the bigger fists; he settled. He licked and chewed, and took a deep breath... and while he needed many more sessions after this to get to his cute, loving self now; he was forever changed for working with us. He finally understood that we could keep him safe, and we proved it. He finally understood we were trying to have a conversation with him, not just a battle for grass space.
BUT, and you need to understand this, we never got angry at him. Even when he was threatening to kick our heads in, our "bites" back at him were never out of anger or aggression. They were timed, calculated and placed to match his level of output. If we ever got angry, or even pushed a bit of aggression on him; he never would have come to trust us. He would've introverted and suppressed his own self due to confusion and fear; and while that may have brought him into submission for a time... it would've created a ticking time bomb. Horses don't understand human anger, they don't know why you're "mad" all of a sudden because they stepped on your toe.. all they understand is that you suddenly didn't protect yourself, and now your heart rate is racing and you aren't a leader anymore. You aren't up for the job of protecting yourself, or him... so now he's nervous and his heart rate is starting to skyrocket. If you don't have control over yourself in those moments, you are also a ticking time bomb.
I hope this has shed some light on a very interesting idea of horse training... It is something I live by, every day. And something I know will take this industry by storm, the more people choose to understand it, rather than write it off because of ignorance. Horses deserve the best of treatment for being a horse; not for being play dough. To get the best work and effort out of a horse; they need to be the best horse they can be because of our care first... then with proper language and leadership they can grow to be the best athletes they can be, in any discipline. Healthy in the body and the mind.