California Riding Magazine • November, 2014

Horse Sense for Humanity
Nothing "natural" about "natural horsemanship," but it's still the best path.

by Chris Irwin

 The phrase "natural horsemanship" is a contradiction of terms. It suggests that horses are fine as they are. The problem here is that there is nothing natural about what we are doing. We are not only trying to convince a prey animal to allow a predator on its back and control its every movement, we are—at least as far as I am concerned—trying to get them to like it.

Trying to pass this off as "natural" causes confusion that results in real physical consequences for both horse and rider. The natural conformation of a horse's back is inverted, not rounded. Some breeds are more naturally rounded than others, and alpha stallions and mares in the wild achieve that state for brief moments, but you will never see a consistently rounded and collected horse cantering around in the wild. It emphatically is not natural.

While it is vital to understand a horse's natural behavior, too much emphasis on the "natural" results in riders sitting atop inverted horses. That's bad for a horse because its back then has less strength to carry the rider and is drastically inhibited from achieving maximum forward impulsion from its hindquarters. And it's bad for the rider, too.

Let me reiterate: We are not trying to create something natural here, or allow our horses to behave as they do out in the pasture. I don't want a natural horse; I want a supernatural horse!

Chris having a carriage load of fun driving his horse "Thunder" at a beautifully balanced calm and collected canter.

Horses are "naturally" flight animals—prey victims waiting to happen who often get stressed out at the slightest noise or change in their environment. What we can and should do is tap into the natural psychology and etiquette of the herd. That allows us to pursue our own ends while keeping the horse's best interests in the forefront. That's quite different. We're saying, "I know you don't normally stay in this shape of relaxed, supple, collected movement, but that's what I want you to do because if you try it you'll find out how much better you can move and feel, even with me up here on your back. It's the best use of your mental and physical potential and it'll allow you to carry me confidently." We're using natural means, but to artificial ends. And as long as we keep the horse's best interests in the forefront, I believe that's how it should be. As Oscar Wilde once said, "Nature is what we are put on earth to rise above."

 What a horse and rider are ideally aiming to do is create a unit in which the body, mind and spirit of both creatures are balanced and working together toward achieving maximum potential. The rider becomes a sort of benevolent shepherd to the horse and has its complete trust, while the horse becomes an agile and powerful companion, willing to help out with what the rider can't do for himself. Our ultimate goal is to resolve the predator and prey polarity. We have to understand it, embrace it and we have to use it, but eventually we want to evolve beyond it. We want to create a new thing—a two-headed entity that has balanced its predator drive and aggression with the awareness and group-oriented mindset of prey consciousness.

Of course, the point I'm really trying to make here is that if we hope to develop the kind of integrity that leads to meaningful and lasting results then whatever we do to the horse we must first create within ourselves. If we're going to be in that kind of partnership within the riding arena, we need to carry that kind of mental balance around with us everywhere we go. It's not something you can turn on and off—although I can't see why you'd want to. I think the world is desperate for people who can compete with each other without victimizing the loser, for people who can see past their own immediate needs, who can lead with the best interests of the herd at heart. In fact, I think this is the next step in human evolution.

Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement. It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into 18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at