Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is natural horsemanship a myth?

Dear friends,

Just wanted to climb on the old soapbox for a few minutes. I came across a well-written article online that put forth the argument that natural horsemanship is a myth. I won’t say who wrote it, but I was surprised. I expected him to know better.

A myth is a story that can’t be proven true. Natural horsemanship is a protocol, a system of foundation training and relationship building that is based on a particular mindset: a commitment to understanding the nature of the horse, using that nature instead of fighting it, and making every situation a win for the horse as well as for the human.

Natural horsemanship is not a story, so it can’t be a myth.

But that is nitpicking. My real problem was the way this article characterized modern clinicians of this ilk, especially the more successful and visible ones, as charlatans intent on selling gullible people things they don’t need. No names were used, of course, but the writer obviously thought we’d know whom he meant.

I don’t. The fact is, I know most of the clinicians. It’s my job to interview them, write about them, analyze their ideas and help my listeners, viewers, and readers make sense of it all. I’ll admit, some are better teachers than others, but I honestly know of none that deserves this sort of slapping about. They, like all of us, are simply trying to make a living providing something of value for the marketplace. The good ones succeed. The not-so-good ones go on to something else. None that I’ve met are charlatans.

The article, as it turned out, was really an excerpt from a book about a “real” horseman, one who wasn’t so well known but who had really special talents and had taken the moral high road with them. He worked very hard and helped many people. But he wasn’t a national phenomenon, and, presumably, he didn’t make a lot of money doing it. I knew of this horseman and considered him the real deal, every bit a natural horseman, whether he used the term or not. The writer was a relative newcomer to horses.

It was more than a little dishonest, I thought, for a writer to be promoting the sale of a book by lambasting horsemen who promote themselves. Fortunately, the public is smart enough to see through this. In my experience, they look at what’s being offered. If they find value in it, they buy. If not, they don’t. Period. They aren’t swayed all that much by what some writer says from the sidelines.

One last point. The article also called these natural horsemanship clinicians “horse whisperers” and didn’t mean that as a compliment. I guess the writer thought it sufficient indictment of the term that it was associated with a successful book and a successful movie. (What does he have against success, anyway?) The horse whisperer term has a rich history going back more than two hundred years. I can recommend a good reference if the writer would like to learn more ...

You know, my friends, everyone is selling something and I for one do not consider that a bad thing. I’m glad the grocer sells me bread, the airline sells me tickets to the places I need to go, and clinicians sell the fruits of their labors. But I can’t stand it when someone adopts this holier-than-thou attitude about free enterprise at the same time they’re trying to sell me something.

Don’t let anyone tell you that natural horsemanship is a myth or that the teachers of it are crooks. Let the work speak for itself.


Bucking when pushed

I received the following question from a viewer. It's a good one and I'd like to share the answer with everyone.

Hi there,I just watched your show for the first time and was very impressed. I have a problem that I can not find the answer for. My 6 yr old Quarter horse gelding, has started to buck when he feels pushed or doesn't want to do something. Also, if a man gets on him. I have had this horse since a baby and have broke him. I am as green as he is. It scares me that he thinks he can buck when he doesn't want to go into a situation that he doesn't like. Do you have any suggestions ground work or bits ect. Please help. Why all of sudden he started bucking? I have checked my equipment and have had him vet checked for any problems. I know you are busy, but if you could find sometime to answer this, I would appreciate it. Thanks, BB.

Hi BB,

I'm glad you enjoy my show. I'm going to make a calculated guess that what you're talking about is not really bucking in the sense that rodeo horses buck, where all four feet are off the ground and the horse is determined to throw the rider off his back. What's much more common is that the horse does a little hop or simply kicks out with his hind legs. What we call this doesn't matter. It's an act of defiance, it can unseat the rider, and it's scary when it happens. It's happened to me. It happened to my wife yesterday, and it will probably happen to you again in the future on this horse or another one.

Why would your horse do this? It could be related to a medical problem or faulty equipment, but it's far more likely that he's simply testing you. To a horse, it's very important that whoever is calling the shots is a competent leader. It's like a child who gets a little sassy. He's testing the boundaries, checking out your mood, your determination to enforce the rules. It's a power play, of sorts, and if there is no negative consequence to this behavior, it can easily become a habit, which is harder to break.

Think about what you do when this happens. Do you stop pushing your horse and let him rest while you compose yourself? That's a natural human response. It's part of your survival instinct to back away from scary things. But if you do that, you are rewarding the horse's behavior. Instead of creating a negative consequence, you are creating a positive consequence - release of pressure and rest - thereby increasing the chance that he will do it again. And because your horse has initiated all of this with his behavior, he is the one leading the team, not you. That's unacceptable. YOU must be the leader because being the leader is the only safe role for you to play when you interact with a horse. And here's some very good news: Your horse will be perfectly content with your leading the team IF you prove you are competent to do so in a way he understands.

The solution requires forethought and preparation and yes, a little courage. The next time your horse does his little bucking act, you are going to create a negative consequence for his choice.

My first priority is that you don't get hurt, so I recommend adding a "night latch" to your western saddle. This is usually a stout leather dog collar that runs through the gullet of your saddle and over the pommel, creating a loop you can hold on to that gives you much greater security than grabbing the horn. Your fist can close around it completely. Real working cowboys and colt starters often have this on their saddles so don't think it's just for beginners. Any tack store or pet store should have this.

Secondly, you need a spanker of some kind. A riding crop works well, or it could be the end of a lead rope. It needs to be something you can carry easily while riding and apply quickly to make the horse uncomfortable when he makes a bad choice.

Thirdly, I want you to practice stopping your horse with one rein. You need to be riding in a snaffle bit for this (not a curb or leverage bit). Instead of pulling back on both reins to stop him, you will pull on one rein only. Pulling your horse's head to one side unbalances him and causes him to have to think about his feet instead of whatever else was on his mind. He has to step across with his hind feet ( called "disengaging the hindquarters"). He will circle about a few times, slow down, and stop. You may think that you are giving up control with a "gentle" bit like a snaffle. You're not. A snaffle, with its jointed mouthpiece, just allows you to work each side of the horse independently, which is best for doing the one-rein stop. By practicing this ahead of time, you will get used to the feeling, your horse will get used to the feeling, and you will build your confidence that you can really stop a horse this way.

With this preparation, you are ready to retrain your horse. Be sure you feel secure in the saddle, that your stirrups are not too long, and that your cinch is tight. Wear your helmet. Have your spanker ready and be sure you can quickly grab your night latch.

Now ask your horse to do something that he has previously resisted. This time you will be ready with a surprise for him! When he bucks, instantly spank him sharply on the rump. This is not a little love tap, but a good whack that he will understand. As quickly as you can, grab the night latch with one hand and pull his head around with the other rein. He'll probably lurch forward a few steps. That's okay! You're ready for that. You're deep in the saddle, pushing against your stirrups, and already busy stopping him with one rein. Don't be angry. Don't be frightened. Be determined. He will probably go around in circles several times. That's normal. Don't release the rein until he has come to a complete stop and relaxed. Then release the rein and reward him. Give him plenty of praise and stroke him affectionately on the neck and rump. Create a POSITIVE consequence for his good choice, i.e., yielding to your leadership by stopping his feet and relaxing. Give him a minute or so to think about this. Then do the whole thing again.

A couple things are happening here. First, of course, the horse is getting an unpleasant result from his choice. Horses don't like to be spanked any more than we do. Curiously, if you react quickly and do it without anger, the horse is not likely to blame you or become frightened of you. You want him to think he did this to himself. You just happened to be there when this occurred. Second, by proving to him that you can control his movement by bending him and causing him to have to circle around to keep his balance, you are demonstrating your leadership of the team. Horses like to be straight and they like to be in control of their own movement.

By the way, I'm a believer in the "gentle as possible and firm as necessary" approach to using pressure with a horse. In this case the degree of firmness required is fairly high to be absolutely certain the horse gets the message. With repetition and consistent application of consequences, the degree of firmness needed diminishes. We work toward gentleness and lightness in communication, but the horse has to know you are willing to do whatever it takes to discourage unwanted behavior.

Your horse might learn the first time, but it will probably take several repetitions, and several days of consistent training in this manner to really convince him it's not in his best interest to throw his little temper tantrum. Try to work with him several days in a row and do not let other riders on him, at least not during this crucial training time. That will just confuse him and undo some of what he's learned from you. At this stage in his life, he needs one rider. You!

You mentioned groundwork. Groundwork does two things: it establishes the rules of the relationship (that the human leads and the horse follows) and it establishes a language of pressure and release that the horse understands. Groundwork goes a long way toward preventing riding problems because it works on the relationship. It can also help with riding problems that are relationship based, as I believe yours is. So, bottom line, I think a good program of groundwork, such as that used by Clinton Anderson, will definitely help. However, because this bucking behavior has occurred several times, a pattern has been set and you also need to break that pattern with the riding solution I described.

Always look for opportunities to reward your horse for good behavior but don't be afraid to punish him for bad behavior. He will actually feel more secure with your leadership if you show him there are boundaries of acceptable behavior. By the way, the same goes for the sassy child. He is often crying out for good parenting, to be reminded of where the limits lie.

I hope this has helped. Plan ahead and be safe. If you get too frightened or you feel the situation getting out of hand, stop. You can always train your horse another day.

Good luck!
Rick Lamb