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Natural horsemanship principles: gentleness, patience, firmness

Before I mention any exercise or method, before we get into practical work, I would like to introduce some principles.

A good horseman needs to understand and adhere to the philosophy before even thinking to start working with a horse.

These horsemanship principles are the most important part of the program I propose to you.

All the exercises and methods are techniques to support your horsemanship, but the main skill you should develop is your relationship with the horse, your behaviour towards the horse.

“This is an individual process […] It has to come right out of the inside of the individual.”
Key principles | Natural Horsemanship
Tom Dorrance
True Unity

All commands are given with our body, no verbal commands, no threatening behaviour

Horses communicate with their bodies.

Of course we can teach them tricks, and command by voice: “Whoa”, “Go”, clucking and other things.

Yet, how would you like your horse to respond to someone else when you are riding him

So, verbal commands are useless, except if that does help you to feel better with your horse.

Some people need to express their worries, or simply their feelings. In such a case, using verbal commands can be useful, but eventually you should give up this bad habit.

On the other hand, aggressive behaviour should always be proscribed.

Some horsemen _ in particular the Australian horsemanship also known as Downunder Horsemanship by Clinton Anderson _ have based their methods on the prey vs. predator concept.

It is true that horses are basically prey animals, and have a very strong self-conservation instinct.

We should always keep that in mind, but we should not use it in our relations with the horse as this would imply leadership based on fear.

We interact with horses simply by positioning our body in a direction on in a posture that they understand.

Eventually, our looking to the hindquarters will be enough to obtain a response.

After a long partnership, thinking might be enough: I am not talking about telepathy or other mystical concept, but spending time with each other will enable your horse and yourself to better comprehend, and tune with each other.

Key principles | Natural Horsemanship
No conflict

Make the wrong thing difficult, but not impossible, and the right thing easy

That is a principle on which all the horsemen I studied agree: From Xenophon to Rarey, to Parelli, to Hunt, to Brannaman, and others.

Let the horse experiment and make it difficult if you want to stop a bad habit.

If your horse starts to move every time you want to put your foot in the stirrup, make him move backwards, over thirty to forty feet. Then stop and let him have a peaceful moment with you. Pretty soon, this horse will stand still by your side all the time.

If you are used to play “Catch Me If You Can” with your horse in the pasture, just change the rule of the game. Make him move, far and fast. Every time he comes back to his fellow horses, cut him from the herd, and send him lope elsewhere in the field. After a few minutes, he will wait nicely for you and your halter… and he will thank you for catching him!

All this will help the horse figure out what is best for himself.

On the contrary, if you make this wrong thing ‘impossible’, you create a conflict zone between you and your horse.

Key principles | Natural Horsemanship
make him an offer he can't refuse

Always offer the good deal first, the firm deal comes after

This is the other side of the “wrong thing/right thing” medal.

When teaching your horse, you should start by offering a good deal, a gentle cue. Then if he does not respond, you should firm up and “make him an offer he can’t refuse”.

Well, you may not be as extreme as Don Corleone, still you ought be as firm as necessary: That means your level of command should be high enough to obtain a response from the horse, but that level should never reach the hard red zone.

Most of the time, the second deal is a higher level of pressure that is uncomfortable enough to let the horse decide to do something. Then, it is yours to be consistent and not to release pressure until you get the expected response.

Safe place

Always keep the horse within your rectangle, offering it as THE safest place in the world

Being a horse owner or a rider is a thrilling experience as you are in command of a 500-kilo living being.

You squeeze slightly your calves and here you go, you raise your right index and here you turn, you put your weight in the back of your seat and here you stop…

“With great power, comes great responsibility” says a not-so-philosophical movie.

Horses are legitimate to expect from their owners or riders all consideration, respect, comfort, and security that they deserve. And that is what the rectangle is: A zone of comfort, peace and security.

A young horse will figure out pretty quickly that his rider can provide this peace and sense of security he constantly seeks.

Older horses have often been taught bad habits, sometimes have experienced that being with a rider means getting kicked, whipped, yelled at, pulled and pushed, etc. It will take a lot more to make them understand that rectangle is a safe place. You will need to prove yourself first. Then, if he moves forward you will back him up to where he stood initially, maybe a couple of steps more. If he backs up, you will make him walk forward back in place. The same is true if he goes right or left. Pretty soon, that horse will understand that peace is right under you, nowhere else.

mutual respect

Controlling independently the hind end from the front end is a key to establish mutual respect

That is a common principle to both Australian and American horsemanship, that is of course something we can see in classic dressage too, although the motivations might not be the same.

When classic dressage practices this as a stretching exercise, and a step to teach by-passing, Natural Horsemanship emphasizes the importance of such moves as foundation to a balanced horse.

I first read that was of great importance without understanding why. Then, with young horses, I could observe how efficient it is to establish leadership. With older horses, it is simply a matter of improving physical capacities.

Some horses are so stiff either from the hind end or the fore end, that this will have an impact on their capacity to move right or left, to jog, trot or canter.

Some horses will need to understand the moves in order to stretch their muscles, their legs.

This will free them, unlock new possibilities.

They will feel more comfortable and more inclined then to follow your cues in new exercises.

Matter of synchronization

Always control the level of energy in the horse's motion

I try to visualize my body and the horse’s body as one. Since my feet do not touch the ground I think of his feet and legs as being mine.
Key principles | Natural Horsemanship
Ray Hunt
Think Harmony With Horses

With this in mind, try to imagine your legs running without your consent.

Pretty weird, isn’t it?

You should have this bizarre feeling when your horse decides to fasten his pace or to change gait all by himself.

Pulling hard on the reins or kicking the flanks is not the right answer to get tuned with your horse.

It is a matter of synchronization: Your body’s life will give the tempo to your horse, your pelvis will conduct your energy down the horse’s legs.

be patient

Let the horse be a partner, thinking and taking decisions

This is very easy to understand but it requires patience.

When asking something to your horse, you should let him some time to figure out what you want.

Keep asking nicely, and let him think and try.

If the response is wrong, make it difficult and redirect the horse’s energy toward the right response.

Sometimes, that means you will have to wait for five to ten minutes before the horse starts to get it.

Just wait.

All the time you spend to let him think is not wasted, it is an investment. As the more you will advance in the program with your horse, the quicker he will understand you and respond correctly.

The last (but not least) key principle

Reward the slightest try

That is the last principle to keep in mind when being with horses, but certainly not the least. Maybe the most important as you will build you relationship, and your horse’s capacity to learn on this: “reward the slightest try”.

You have to know that your horse will not be perfect after only one session.

Actually, he will not even be perfect after ten or one hundred sessions, as there always is something to improve.

Yet, from the very first time you work with your horse, you ought to make sure that you will reward him right on time!

For instance, when you want to teach your horse to back up, you will reward him as soon as one foot moves back by releasing all pressure, and petting the horse.

Eventually, you will feel your horse and you will be able to reward him as soon as he shifts his weight back.

Finally, when you become more and more accustomed to your horse, you will read his mind and know when he thinks about backing up, then you release pressure which will leave an empty space to your horse to back up.

Key principles | Natural Horsemanship
Take your time

One last thing, maybe the most important.

If there is one thing to learn by heart, then they are Louis Armstrong’s words: “We have all the time in the world!”

Please, make sure you understand all these principles, because the soonest you will apply them, and the best results you will get.

Ready? Let’s start the Foundation Groundwork.

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