Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Beyond Natural Horsemanship - The next step to successful horse training

Beyond Natural Horsemanship

The next step to successful horse training
through Compassion, Wisdom, Skill and Trust

I must admit I am a huge fan of gentle, effective methods of being with and training horses. In many places these techniques are called Natural Horsemanship.  However, there is truly little that is really natural about the way we humans are keeping and training our horses. Domesticated horses do not live a natural life in any way. From natural supplements, to natural training techniques, on and on, the term ‘natural’ is used to market products and methods that are in no way natural. Perhaps they are trying to replicate a natural way of doing something, but they mostly do not take into serious consideration and account, the un-natural way and un-natural environments these horses are living out their lives in. While natural horsemanship, made popular by good trainers such as Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli, have certainly helped immensely to improve how we are keeping and interacting with our horses worldwide (I teach in about six different countries a year and have seen many good changes come about), unfortunately our self-serving human egos still tend to guide how we ultimately handle challenges with our horses. When things go smoothly it is easy to be kind, gentle and ‘natural.’ But when we encounter problems with our horses I have seen the tendency to still become angry, frustrated and immediately move into force, blame, extreme and inappropriate methods of treatment, as well as more pressure towards our horses to make them submit and obey. Humans still tend rush to judge a horse as bad, stubborn and deliberately trying to go against their wishes. How sad a commentary it is on us that the horse, always innately innocent, is so often to be misunderstood and erroneously judged in a negative manner. It is true there are more enlightened humans interacting with horses now than ever before. But, there are still not enough. There is still too much abuse and misunderstanding of the true nature of horses. It is for these reasons I am striving to move beyond so-called natural horsemanship paradigms (of which there is great misconception) and into compassionate, wisdom and trust based philosophies and methods about training, caring for and simply being with our horses.

Let's first have a look at compassion as an element in successful training and interaction with horses. The following is reprinted in its exact form from the online Wikipedia Encyclopedia;

Compassion is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. In ethical terms, the various expressions down the ages of the so-called Golden Rule embody by implication the principle of compassion: Do to others as you would have done to you. Ranked a great virtue in numerous philosophies, compassion is considered in all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues.Wikipedia

Well, without going into Buddhist philosophies which have compassion as a major component, or other religions which also expound on compassion, it is easily seen that a desire to help others is a major element of compassion. As horses are a prey animal, eaten by a variety of predators and prone to fearful flight or fight, fear is a major ingredient in the life of a horse. I think, and absolutely believe, that fear is a form of suffering and pain. Additionally, I truly feel that the pain and suffering inherent in fear are at the root of most all the incredible and inhuman acts of terrorism we see in the world today. But rather than attempt to understand the underlying causes of this ever present fear (generally fear of survival, injury, poverty, disempowerment, on and on), we tend to rush to judgement of others as being evil and without any redeeming qualities. We are the honorable and just ones and they are all dishonorable, bad and beyond redemption. They deserve to be punished and destroyed and we are righteous, good and deserve to thrive. When both sides of a disagreement hold this paradigm, mutual destruction cannot help but come about. But, I digress a bit as this is about horses and humans and not the politics of national foreign policies.

For a little while, lets pretend that all horses are children under the age of 8. On a rare occasion one of these children causes the death or serious injury of another individual, of any age. The question then becomes how to deal with the child that caused the catastrophe? Should he/she be tried as an adult with the possibility of facing the death penalty? Should he/she be deemed as impossible to rehabilitate and never to be able to rejoin society and locked away forever? Perhaps they should be starved, tortured, whipped, or have some other sort of punishment be dished out to teach them a lesson? Is that 8 year old to be judged as a “bad seed” and inherently evil? I simply cannot accept that way of dealing with a tragic incident caused by a child. Nor can I accept that way of dealing with a horse who is displaying behavior that is dangerous, aggressive, or any behavior we humans would rather not have from that horse. To me, all behavior we do not want from a horse is a symptom of fear and fear is a cause of suffering. Fear, I believe, is the basis of all unwanted behavior from a horse. I truly hold the paradigm that all horses are as innocent as children and do not deserve punishment. What they do deserve is, first and foremost our compassion. This means our willingness to attempt to alleviate their suffering, their pain, their fear. If we humans can approach all horses with this willingness to help their end suffering through understanding, knowledge and kindness, perhaps all training and interaction with horses could be become opportunities to assist in the elimination of their fear and replace it with feelings of confidence in their own survival. Additionally, this would instill in the horse the trust that the humans with them has the real intention to offer kindness and help. Furthermore, and very importantly, that we are worthy of their trust and worthy to be accepted as their trusted and good leaders.

Next, lets explore wisdom. That same Wikipedia Encyclopedia defines wisdom this way:

Wisdom is knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well towards finding solutions to problems. It is the judicious and purposeful application of knowledge that is valued in society. To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. The status of wisdom or prudence as a virtue is recognized in cultural, philosophical and religious sources.Wikipedia

The problem in applying this definition of wisdom to equines is that we still do not know that much about horses. Much of the psyche, mind, intuitive aspects, emotional lives and overall makeup of the horse remains a mystery to humans. I suppose this is part of the mystique and attraction they have held for us humans throughout time. They remain as yet, still wild and unknown. So, while this may be part of their attraction, it can, likewise, be part of the problem in dealing with them. Within the natural horsemanship movement there are those who advocate little or no human involvement with horses. “Let's keep them as they have always been in nature.” But they are not in nature anymore. At best they are fenced into large areas and their movements are severely restricted even on bigger tracts of land. They will still require human intervention by way of health care, hoof care, nutrition and more. This shows little wisdom as to caring for horses in this “modern” world.

One way of gaining at least some practical knowledge and understanding of horses is through observation of horse herds and of their interactions with each other. A very good friend of mine and one of the best trainers I have ever come across, Carolyn Resnick www.carolynresnickblog.com, grew up observing local, wild horse herds at a watering hole near her backyard in California. As a child Carolyn was encouraged by her mother to learn about the horses. She eventually became a professional trainer and author on the subject of horses and, through those early childhood observations and her professional life as a trainer, has developed what she calls the “Waterhole Rituals.” Carolyn teaches humans how to replicate these rituals to enhance and improve their communication and understanding with their horses. Unfortunately, not many of us today with our busy lives have any opportunity to attempt to observe horses in a somewhat natural environment. However, simply standing quietly and watching a group of horses anywhere can provide great insight into at least some of their natural herd (group) interaction. Leaders can be distinguished from bullies. The gentle interaction between herd members, mares and foals and the caring aspects of herd life can be easily seen and learned about. Simple learning through observing can be had with horses if we humans are willing to take a bit of time to do so. Just being in the vicinity of horses has a claiming effect on humans and this has been clinically documented.

Gaining knowledge though experience only happens over time. Wisdom is acquired over time through living life. There is no shortcut. So many people I come across want it all so fast. They want everything now and without much effort. I offer a free help center within my website www.WayoftheHorse.org. There are hundreds of archived questions containing lots and lots of answers and information easily available for free if folks would use the simple, special search engine feature of the help center. They don't. Mostly I am asked the same questions over and over. They will not make the simple effort to find the answers themselves (finding out something for yourself assists in learning it, even if it is written information). This is the way it is for many people seeking information and knowledge. They want a magic pill that will quickly provide what they want. It just does not work that way with acquiring knowledge and wisdom of horses. There is no substitute for first hand experience over time. This goes for learning about horses in schools as well. Until very recently the only information provided in formalized education was about maintenance of horses, saddling and equestrian skills. There was absolutely no information provided about the horse itself. Even Pony Clubs in the US and Europe, as based on British Horse Society traditional teachings, did not teach anything about horses. They only addressed the human aspect of maintaining and riding horses. If a horse balked at a jump the traditional approach to dealing with that obviously fearful reaction in the horse was to “make him do it.” In other words, make the horse more afraid of the human than the jump. This is what was taught to children. Thanks to the natural horsemanship craze, some things are just now beginning to change, but just a little. So much more needs to be done. So much more beyond so-called natural horsemanship and guru worship of a few trainers, needs to happen. I suggest to young people who want to learn about horses to volunteer at barns, stables, therapeutic riding centers, anywhere they will be allowed to be around horses. Mucking stalls is a good beginning and is an activity involving horses that will continue throughout a person's life with horses. So, I tell them to “get used to it” and, hopefully, “learn to enjoy it.” One would be surprised as to how much wisdom and knowledge can be gained about horses by being in a stable a lot, mucking stalls.

Let's see what Wikipedia has to say about skill:

“A skill is the learned capacity or talent to carry out pre-determined results often with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both. Skills can often be divided into domain-general and domain-specific skills. For example, in the domain of work, some general skills would include time management, teamwork and leadership, self motivation and others, whereas domain-specific skills would be useful only for a certain job. Skill usually requires a certain environmental stimuli and situation to assess the level of skill being shown and used.”

I certainly agree that a ‘skill is a learned capacity’ & and is learned over time through first being taught the skill and then practicing it. I think a talent may also be a natural aptitude for something. Such as having a talent for music or dancing or even riding. A talent can also be considered a natural or inherent gift of abilities in a specific area. But the concept of learned skills, I think is very applicable to horsemanship and more of the concept of “skill” I am referring to. While experiential learning is extremely important and helps develop skill, formal education and teaching of a skill (piano lessons and riding lessons for instance) will assist in developing that skill faster and more efficiently. Along with regular practice of the skill, learning from a very good teacher is a huge help in developing good skills. What sets one clinician, trainer, group leader, horsemanship teacher or the like, apart from another is their ability to communicate, their knowledge base, their beliefs and personal paradigms, their life experience and their ability to inspire those who they seek to teach to learn more and to reach higher in attaining knowledge, wisdom and skills. I always advocate education about horses. Even learning the traditional British Horse Society ways of equine education will help. Taking as many riding lessons as possible and attending as many training clinics as possible will always assist in gaining knowledge and learning skills. Watching as many trainers as are available (and training DVDs and reading training books and any other books on horses) will speed up the education process and assist in learning skills with horses. Learning methods and techniques that we wouldn't want to use, or do, is also beneficial. Finding out what works and what doesn't work is always helpful. These are some of the more formal ways of gaining skills with horses. But, the hard truth is, there will never be a substitute for what is called; “time in the saddle.” Time spent with and around horses is the best, most effective, most efficient and overall best way to gain the skills required to become successful with horses. I always suggest to folks that they be wary of individuals who claim or want to appear to be the most knowledgeable and skillful with horses of anyone. Any really true horse person understands that learning about horses and acquiring skill with them is a lifelong process. A true horse person is always learning from the horse and other horsemen and women. It never ends as it is the journey that contains the life with horses, and it is the life with horses that is the real reward. It is the acquired wisdom and then the developed skills that gives us the opportunities to communicate with them.

The final element to be put in place in what is beyond natural horsemanship is trust. Here is a definition that comes up for trust online (Wikipedia did not offer a dictionary type of definition for trust, but www.thefreedictionery.com did). I am taking the liberty of not including legal definitions of the word “trust”:



  1. Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.
  2. Custody; care.
  3. Something committed into the care of another; charge.
  4. The condition and resulting obligation of having confidence placed in one.
  5. One in which confidence is placed.
  6. Reliance on something in the future; hope.

v. intr.

  1. To have or place reliance; depend: Trust in the Lord. Trust to destiny.
  2. To be confident; hope.

v. tr.

  1. To have or place confidence in; depend on.
  2. To expect with assurance; assume: I trust that I will be safe.
  3. To believe in a person, place or thing: I trust what you say. I trust I am OK here.
  4. To place outcome in the care of another; entrust.
  5. To grant discretion to confidently: Can I trust them with my safety?

So we can readily see that trust can and does involve a sort of faith that we will be all right (safe or fee from harm) or that things will work out as we wish them to. In the case of horses that faith is in safety, essentially survival. The most important thing to a horse, more important than food, shelter, water, companions or anything, is its feelings of safety, its trust that it is safe and that it will survive. Safety does not really exist in the world outside of our feelings. We either feel safe enough to get on an airplane or we do not. We either feel safe enough to drive a car, ride a horse, take a chance on something new or unknown or we simply do not. One thing is no safer than another in the physical world. It is all about how we feel about it. This is exactly how it is for the horse. So, how do horses develop these all important feelings of safety? The answer is they get these feelings of safety from their herd leaders. Those lead mares (and head mare) know instinctively when to move the herd. They know from experience and their intuition where good food and water is. They can intuit if danger is present. They have to be able to do this in order to survive and to ensure the survival of the herd (and the specie). If humans can have as their underlying and overall goal with any horse the instilling of feelings of safety, that horse will follow that human anywhere and jump through hoops of fire for that human. The horse thinks its survival depends on that human and this is why that horse will attempt to comply with any request that human makes. The lead horse (mare) in the equine herd does not coerce the other members of the herd to follow her. She does not force their compliance, nor bribe them for it. She does not plead nor beg. She does not push them along nor cajole them. She simply goes where she needs to, when she needs to and they follow. It's that simple and that is the kind of inspired leadership we humans need to offer our horses.

We humans have an easier time of it than that lead mare in the wild horse herd. The leader of the herd controls the resources of the herd. We control the food and when feeding time occurs. Food is a big resource. The lead mare also eats and drinks before any other members of the herd as she is their source of survival and she needs to be protected and her needs must be met before the others. She also controls the environment and spatial aspects of the herd. In other words, if she wants to walk through the body of the herd, the other horses simply give way (like the Red Sea parting). It is a given that they yield to her out of respect and trust, never fear. She will intuit if the weather is changing and the herd needs to find shelter. That lead mare is not alpha, biggest, strongest or most dominant. She is, however, the smartest with the highest and most richly developed intuitive sense of all the others. Her acquired knowledge and intuitive skill keep the herd alive. Therefore, she controls all spatial aspects and movement of the herd members simply by going where she feels she should and when she wants to.

What it means for humans to control the environment of the herd is to provide clean shelter, decent blankets (rugs) when appropriate and continuous access to good water. What it means for humans to control the spatial aspects of the herd is really quite simple in theory. It means consciously directing all action, each and every step a horse takes when with us. Every stop, every go and every transition whether a directional or speed transition, any and all movement should be a conscious, clear, appropriately asked request by us, the leaders. All spatial boundaries should be kept at all times. If this sort of leadership is in place and consistently (the importance of consistency in our leadership cannot be underestimated or over stated), it will only take look from us to assure a horse keeps our personal boundaries intact. Our horses would never even think of moving over us, dragging us somewhere, rubbing on us, bumping into us, biting, kicking or striking us in any way ever. They would willingly try to comply with every request we made of them as long as the request was made appropriately and that it is a reasonable request. We would be as the great herd leader of the wild horse herd on the range. We would rule totally and completely. We would rule from compassion, through wisdom, with learned, acquired skill and because we have earned the total trust of our equines. This is what is beyond natural horsemanship. This is true success with horses.