I’ve never been a sucker for “natural horsemanship”. Everyone knows the big names—Pat Parelli, Josh Lyons, Clinton Anderson, Craig Cameron, Monty Roberts, Chris Cox, blah blah blah. The basics are always the same: a horse, a rope halter, a round pen, and a ridiculously long lead rope.
“Natural Horsemanship is meant to be a psychology based training platform for horses and trainers, and it consists of five basic concepts. Psychology based means working with the inside of a horse instead of the outside. The five basic psychology concepts are: Approach and Retreat, Pressure and Release, Rewards and Consequences, Desensitization, Foundation Training.” – Don Jessop
Natural horsemanship techniques vary in their precise tenets but generally share principles of developing a rapport with horses, using methods said to be derived from observation of the natural behavior of free-roaming horses. Natural horsemanship promotors face criticism that their techniques are not “new” and are repackaged in order to be able to sell products and merchandise. – Wikipedia
Over the past twenty years, natural horsemanship has gained a reputation as a system of commercialized horsemanship. Many natural horsemanship trainers require their students to buy expensive memberships and over-priced equipment. As a general rule I don’t subscribe to any natural horsemanship trainers, but I strongly believe that the best way to become a more educated equestrian is to experience many different methods and follow George Morris’s advice to “take what you like” from each one.
Enter Steve Rother, of Rother Horsemanship (AKA HorseTeacher.com). Steve is based out of eastern Washington and studied under Ray Hunt (one of the fathers of natural Horsemanship). His “Excel With Horses” program is dedicated to helping those wishing to pursue a better relationship with their horse.
Here’s a look at his riding demo (with his fab horse Professor) from the Mane Event in 2014:
I was drawn to Steve’s clinic because of its title: “The Dynamics of Building Confidence for Both Horse and Rider”. Confidence is a BIG DEAL for me, especially with the spills I’ve been taking lately.
For the clinic, Steve was working with an amateur rider and her young OTTB gelding. The horse had only been off of the track for about a year and the owner was getting back into horses after some time away. “My mind knows what to do but my body doesn’t do it automatically anymore,” she told Steve.
The first thing he did was switch her halter. Steve likes to call leather halters “catch ’em and drag ’em halters”—they’re good for getting the horse out of a field, but they’re not the right tool for groundwork.
The first thing Steve honed in on was that the horse wasn’t really respecting his owner’s space. Steve (who was mounted on Professor, the coolest little reining horse around) took the horse’s lead rope and immediately started spinning the end of it to drive the horse out of his bubble. He and Professor went about their business and the OTTB was expected to move out of their way, to the point that Steve was even able to keep the horse out of his space while he and Professor practiced their spins.
“If he can’t give me space, how’s he going to give my leg or rein space?”
He passed the OTTB back to his owner and helped her apply the same concepts from the ground. It was her job to make it uncomfortable for him to be in her space, to get him out of her way and to access his “brain, mind, and emotions” by moving his feet. She pushed his shoulders and his hindquarters away from her until he reached the point where he was paying close attention to her body language.
It can be hard to push through the horse’s resistance until he always says “YES” to the rider. Our instincts don’t want the horse to be uncomfortable, but Steve believes that a lack of clear leadership causes anxiety. The horse must learn to accept the push and pull that the rider exerts on him.
“My horse’s feet are my feet—he is an extension of myself.”
Once the rider is committed to taking a leadership role with the horse, it’s just a matter of creating a plan, setting a goal, and practicing with a measured sense of balance, rhythm, and timing. It’s important to give the horse the opportunity to make mistakes so that he can learn from them!
At the end of the clinic, Steve jumped Professor over a barrel that was laying on its side in the middle of the arena. He told the audience to always question whether or not they wanted to do something, even if they felt like they weren’t entirely ready to achieve it yet. At its core, Rother Horsemanship’s main objective is to help each equestrian transform into the type of person that is forward thinking and willing to make mistakes. They want to create horses and riders that seek out the challenging thing!