California Riding Magazine • May, 2014

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Natural Horsemanship equals language of horses.

I wasn't asked a direct question about natural horsemanship but as I read Facebook and travel across the country I see a lot of different opinions about what natural horsemanship is. I think the name is really misleading. I know that Pat Parelli coined the phrase natural horsemanship but I think the definition has been diluted and is misunderstood.

In my opinion, and only in my opinion, natural horsemanship means that we are trying to work with the horse, training the horse from the inside out, and that means understanding the language of the horse. I'm going to discuss two areas where I think the phrase natural horsemanship gets confused and lost in translation. I am going to start with the need to learn the horse's language and then cover the need for follow through.

The horse's language is pretty simple and a horse is easy to read if you know what to look for. Sometimes the true nature and language of a particular horse is masked because the horse is spoiled. Just like a human, we need to peel the layers away to see the true nature and personality of the animal. Let me give you some examples.

A horse, no matter if it is wild or domestic, is born with the instinct to survive. There are several aspects of this instinct and the first is flight. If something startles a horse, a noise or an abrupt movement, its instinct is to bolt and get away. Some horses have a stronger fear and are more likely than others to bolt. We normally want our horses to have less of this reaction. However, a cold-blooded horse, like a draft horse, may not have enough of this instinct and this type of horse can be dull and non responsive even to loud noises. There is a balance between extreme flight mode and non responsiveness and we work to achieve that balance.

We don't want our horse to go into flight mode and endanger himself or risk our safety. When a horse is in flight mode, it does not care about anything but getting away. Even if there is a barbed wired fence, a car, a tractor, or a drop-off, the horse will continue to run. If the horse pulls back and fights the halter, again, the only thought is to get away. Either the halter or the hitching post or both may eventually snap. If you are in the way, the horse will run right over you.

A second aspect of the horse's survival instinct is to fight and this is where another part of natural horsemanship comes in. If we put the horse in a position where the only alternative is to fight, it will fight because that is how the horse perceives it can survive. Remember that a horse can go in six different directions: left, right, forward, back, up and down. When we block all of those directions, the horse only has one thing left to do and that is to fight. If, for example, a wild horse is boxed into a canyon by a predator, it is going to fight by rearing, striking out, kicking, and biting. This behavior is the instinct to survive and it is part of the language of the horse. So, to understand the language of the horse, we must understand the two basic modes of survival, flight and fight.

There are other aspects of the horse's language and one is the concept of pressure and release. I remember that 25 years ago when we talked about pressure and release people thought we were crazy. Back then, I was going around the country riding bridleless and demonstrating my horses at liberty. I was learning the language of pressure and release and how to communicate with my horses. For example, if I ask my horse to back up with contact on the lead rope or with my body, that is pressure. The moment the horse backs away from the contact of the lead rope or my body, I release. When we quit asking—that is the release.

Controlling Feet

Another aspect of the horse's language is control of the feet. For example, if I send a horse off to the left, and encourage it to go left, and maintain it going left, I am controlling the feet. If I ask the horse to go left and it stops on its own or decides to go off to the right, I'm not controlling the feet, the horse is in control. When I control the feet and give the horse a place to go, an opening, and encourage him with as much pressure as necessary, I am not only in control of the horse's feet, but his mind as well. Once you control the feet, you control the mind of the horse.

Notice that I said I would get the horse to go left with as much pressure as necessary. This is what we call follow through and it is also a part of the language that a horse understands. We begin with the least amount of pressure and if the horse does not respond, we increase the pressure. We do this until we get the desired response from the horse.

If you look at the herd dynamic, you see that there is always a pecking order. If you have a herd of 30 horses, you will never see the leader hanging out with number 30 in the pecking order. If the leader is challenged by another horse entering its space, the leader will push the other horse away. At first it may only be a look, what I call the snake eye. If the other horse persists, the leader may put a hip toward the other horse, and then it may start backing up fast and kicking. Both horses may start kicking and they will continue to kick until one gives up and the other establishes leadership. They literally go into fight mode and may bite, strike, break legs and crack ribs but they will not quit until leadership is established.

This is follow through and an increase in pressure until the desired result is achieved. We do not go to that extreme behavior but we must increase the pressure until we get the desired result. We do not bite, kick or beat our horses, we simply do not use brute force to achieve our leadership but we do follow up. Years ago when horses were beaten, it was not communication but out of misguided anger. We want our horse to be submissive, but only by using language the horse understands and becoming the leader.

Another aspect of the language of the horse is consistency. If we are not consistent in our requests or our follow through, the communication with the horse is garbled. From request to request, day by day, we need to be consistent in our way of requesting and our expectations. If I put pressure on a horse to go left and the horse does not go left, but I release the pressure, I have taught the horse to not go left.

As I said, it is important that we control the horse's feet because as we control the feet, we capture the mind. Then, the horse starts to look to us for leadership. Now, here is something that most people don't realize. Just because you get the horse to connect with you doesn't mean the horse will be totally compliant, it can still be rude and obnoxious. If you have badly spoiled your horse, you can control his feet and capture his mind and he may follow you around like a puppy dog but put in the right circumstances, the horse will be pushy, rude and obnoxious. That is how the horse has learned to be around the handler. I see this all the time. For example, the horse does very well with ground work but when he gets to the back of a trailer he freaks out. He has evaded the trailer so often and has learned to escape in the six different directions by bolting into or away from you, pushing between you and the trailer, backing up very fast—anything to avoid the trailer. The interesting part is the horse knows how to go into a trailer but just buffalos the owner because the owner does not understand the language and is not willing to follow through.

I have traveled many times with my horse Tennison and have used him often for trailer loading demonstrations. One time, about 4 o'clock in the morning, he refused to go into the trailer and I really don't know why. He wasn't lame and he was bright eyed so maybe he just wasn't ready to rise and shine. I reminded him of the cues and I followed through when he resisted. He loaded and we went home.

Timely Correction

I cannot stress enough the importance of follow through. Sometimes we call it correction and a lot of people don't like the word correction. But, if a horse runs into you, whether it is an accident or it is deliberate or it is a lack of manners and respect, the horse must be corrected. There must be respect, both the horse for the handler and the handler for the horse. You have only a couple of seconds to make the correction because a horse lives in real time. If you wait, the horse will not connect his action with your response. Also, when the correction goes on and on and on, the horse will not connect the dots. You only have a couple of seconds to make the correction and then leave it alone. If the horse kicks you and you can't correct it immediately, don't do it at all.

These principles apply to riding as well as ground work. You don't have to have a cowboy or rope halter and a 14' lead to practice natural horsemanship. What you do have to have is knowledge, an understanding of the horse, and the ability to communicate with the horse. Remember, it is never, ever the horse's fault. We are the intelligent ones, they don't have the rational mind of the human. They can figure us out if we are consistent in our actions, we give them a place to go (an escape route), and follow through.

I have seen Steffen Peters ride a horse, make a correction, release and I could see the entire demeanor of the horse change. He made the correction, quickly released and allowed the horse to go forward (the escape route). I have seen many riders pull back on the reins and attempt to get the horse to go forward. The horse may go forward but because the rider continues to hang on the reins, a mixed message is sent to the horse. Asking the horse to go forward while pulling on the reins is a total miscommunication and the horse gets confused and blocked up as it has no escape route.

Natural horsemanship is an understanding of the horse's language and communication with the horse in a way the horse can understand. When your communication with the horse is very clear, the horse will look to you for direction and become very responsive to you.
Let's learn the language of the horse, communicate clearly and have a great relationship with our horses.

Charles Wilhelm