An Ethologist’s approach to Natural Horsemanship.

I remember viewing the early years of ‘Natural Horsemanship’ with some bemusement. The growing question was; just what was it that was being referred to as Natural? Was it the idea that one animal riding on the back of another was natural? If it was, I was very puzzled – in what way could this be considered natural? So I raised this objection with some Natural Horsemanship folk, only to be told that I had it wrong – what Natural Horsemanship meant was that the horse was treated in a natural way. This seemed to me to be even more confusing: after all, cordial relationships with the hunters that fed on horsemeat for tens of thousands of years before ever a saddle was dreamt of could hardly be termed natural to the horse. And so I left the issue, as I’m sure did many others, assuming that there was some kind of visceral ‘feel-good’ quality about the term that people liked, whatever the actual meaning of the term might be, and that this was just another fad. However, if the end result was to be an improvement in management and training of horses then any ‘fuzziness’ about actual meaning could surely be forgiven.

Now, some years later, it seems that those who distanced themselves from the populist nature of the term and went on about their business should perhaps have been more critical of the looseness of thought that it was bound to bring with it. If there was uncertainty about what the term meant then, now there appears to be a total confusion. There are such a great number of different versions of ‘Natural Horsemanship’, using a range of varying techniques and theories, that the term means everything and nothing – from psychological abuse of horses made to go round and round as if stuck on some nightmare carousel, through circus-trick teaching in which horses lose their dignity while riders stand on them, to genuinely affectionate and humane training. The novice horseperson is subjected to an endless stream of claim and counter claim that often have more to do with showmanship, self-promotion and operation of commercial franchises than with ethical animal treatment. Pseudo-science is marshalled in support of a multitude of methods whose real nature may have little or nothing to do with natural horse behavior – despite claims that they are based on numerous hours of ‘wild-horse-watching’.

There has been a great deal of litigation as a result of attacks on some of the high-profile figures in this, ‘Natural Horsemanship’, arena, and while this process may have enriched the coffers of the litigators it has done little to clarify ideas for the horse owner that merely wishes to achieve the best ethical partnership possible with the equine/s in their care. So, instead of taking an adversarial and negative approach that merely provokes polarisation let us recreate the term ‘Natural Horsemanship’ as if it were totally new and carried none of the baggage that often serves to obscure the issues. What should this term mean, and what are the logical consequences of its adoption as a philosophy?

As the first step of this definition process let’s discuss those characteristics that might be considered most fundamental to the nature of horses. First, and foremost the horse is a social animal living in extended family harem groups which may, depending on the population and range area, be part of a greater herd comprised of a number of both harem and bachelor groups. Through membership of the group each individual is connected to the others in a network of co-operative relationships that provides for social contact, safety, rearing of young and is directly supportive of all other innate behaviors, both simple and complex. Nor is this a matter of nature alone, for nurture greatly affects behavior via the mechanism of culture.  It is through the filter of this family upbringing that the young horse acquires functional patterns of behavior that are most likely to produce a stable, well-mannered, co-operative, affectionate, communicative personality (or, more appropriately, either Horsonality or Equinality!) that is open, curious and quick to learn. So we might logically suggest that a ‘natural’ upbringing is an essential foundation of ‘Natural Horsemanship’.  In fact if we were to go as far as to suggest that any lesser foundation would render the notion of ‘natural horsemanship’ empty and redundant we could be considered uncompromising – but certainly not irrational.

Having raised the horse as naturally as possible we now have also to confront the issue of how we might keep it. Let’s imagine that we have raised our young horse to the age of 30 months, at which point, whether it be colt or filly, it will have to be removed from the harem group. Neither gender can remain in the natal group, and for each the reason is the same: exogamy, the innate protective strategy against the dangers of inbreeding. In the wild, colts of this age would be driven out of the harem group and would join a ‘bachelor’ group of immature colts and young stallions. Such a group can very easily be created, and will allow the opportunity for the all-important play behaviour that is a central feature of the development of young male horses. Unfortunately, there is no naturally occurring female analogue of this social group. Fillies of this age group would be driven on to the periphery of the natal band, from where they would either join an adjacent harem group or be captured by the highest status member of a bachelor group. The best we might do is to keep such fillies in mixed age female groups, but while this may be as widely supportive of innate behaviors as is possible, p lu s also making such fillies available for riding purposes, it cannot easily be termed natural.

We have yet to get to the first training session and already there is a growing division between what is common practice in terms of care and management, and what can be considered to be natural. Would it then be reasonable to suggest that the majority of domestic horses are raised without either knowledge or support of equine culture? Whether we might be happy with this idea or not the answer has to be yes. Now at this stage we could start considering the ethics of such management, (and would find it easy to refer to the “Five Freedoms” for support, were we to need any!) but let’s not.  Up to this point we have been developing a train of logic - read back if you will -  and you will see that we have steered completely clear of emotive words or phrases and simply worked away patiently to build a hypothesis. Since this method has worked pretty well so far let’s stay with it, after all, there is no great need to rush, and we can always apply some ethical reasoning later should we wish.

So, we have agreed that the average horse is a culturally ignorant equine; of course, the innate drives or urges are still present, but the behavioural patterns that would have been acquired during a natural upbringing, and could then serve as a rough b lu eprint or guide, are missing.

Even if the average horse had a genius level IQ it would still be very liable to make any number of mistakes purely due to ignorance. It’s going to have problems with social interaction with other horses, problems of anxiety, of learning, judgment and a lot more. We don’t have to guess about this as plenty of good research work has been done over the last fifty or so years to illustrate exactly these outcomes in a number of different mammalian species.

Where, then, is the logic in treating this type of horse in any ‘natural’ way (supposing it was available) when we have agreed it is ignorant in that respect, and could not reasonably be expected to understand if we did? The most logical approach would be to plan a very patient and progressive education in order to fill in as many of the gaps in the horse’s knowledge as possible – all the while being careful to build into any lesson plan relevance to that which is already known.

Were we to continue this line of reasoning there would be a large number of management practices that would not stand up to any close scrutiny as having any conceivable ‘natural’ basis; stabling, forced weaning, castration, shoeing, bitting and so on. Yet these practices form the underlying methodology behind many a horse that is trained according to ‘natural horsemanship’. So does this term actually mean anything at all – or is it merely an umbrella for a mixed group of techniques, the use of which obscures the fact that many of these function at a level of learned helplessness? And, if this is in fact the case, could it not fairly be said that use of the term ‘natural horsemanship’ is generally misleading and open to manipulation for the primary purpose of making money?

The society of the 21st century is bombarded with images of instant gratification; why wait when you can have it now! Yet not all things can be reduced to this level. So-called ‘instant fixes’ may well exist in connection with inanimate objects – but they are very rare with living organisms. We accept that a person who has suffered a traumatic or deprived upbringing may require years of support in order to become a well balanced and happy individual, so why do we not apply the same principle to horses? The distressed or abused person is able to talk to health care professionals, but even then the process of recovery can be very slow. Communication between horse and person is nowhere near as easy – and yet there is an acceptance of ‘quick fixes’ for complex equine psychological illness, as if a twenty minute session being chased round in circles in panic could possibly offer a long-term cure. If the same treatment were suggested for a socially maladapted person it would be greeted with howls of derision!

For many years horsemanship consisted of a number of skills that required patient hard work and study to master. Just as there have always been (and still are) ignorant brutes that literally ‘break’ horses there have always been those who practised horsemanship as an affectionate and co-operative partnership that can truly transcend the inter-species barrier. The scientific disciplines of ethology and comparative psychology surely offer the 21st century horseperson an even greater opportunity to understand the nature of equines – and to design management systems that produce good psychological welfare. Were the term ‘natural horsemanship’ to be applied to this process then it would not only have real meaning but would be a significant advance in our stewardship of the horse.

I submit that the challenge to all horsepersons is to develop an informed, educated and humane philosophy that truly serves as a guide to attaining an ethical partnership, without feel-good terminology or quick fixes, fads or rushes of media blood to the head, and without the use of pseudo-science to obscure the all too-common human urge to dominate another species.

© AD Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2004  - Al l rights reserved.





1.       Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour

2.       Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and comfortable resting area

3.       Freedom form pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

4.       Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind

5.       Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering