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What does natural horsemanship mean to me?


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Allison Acres
13512 Alta Mesa Rd.
Galt, CA 95632
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I have described myself from time to time as a natural horsemanship trainer.  I want to talk a bit about what that means to me.  Make no mistake about it - I am the supreme authority above all the horses around here.  What I say goes.  But I have achieved that position in a manner that causes the horses to become more calm and more safe to handle, by making sure they understand my clear message and that I'm consistent.  I do the least amount possible but the most necessary to ensure obedience and human safety.  I use my knowledge and experience to also ensure the horses' safety while I'm doing this, because getting them hurt serves no purpose - it makes me a bad leader in their eyes and wastes my own time and money. 

There seems to be some sort of idea among some folks that natural horsemanship means letting the horse get away with behaviors that are unsafe or unwanted.  That is not what it means to me!  To me it simply means the process of creating a safe and enjoyable horse that you can actually use to do something (learn to ride on, at the very least, and from there maybe work a cow, go on a trail ride, win something at a gymkhana, whatever) using methods that the horse is likely to quickly understand.  That is the natural part of it - they understand it.

So what does that look like?  Well, we all hear that every herd has the boss mare, and she keeps the other horses in line by doing certain things, mainly by moving them around when she wants to.  Her function is to create cohesiveness in the herd.  They feel safe when she's around, and they are obedient to her, which is important in case there is a safety issue that comes up.  They don't have to stop and think about it when she says "we must go NOW!"  They just go. 

While we cannot be the boss mare, because after all, we are not horses, we can take what we know about how she acts and use it to decide how we should act to get our horses to feel safe and to be obedient, just like she does.  And it does not mean being very sweet and non-threatening and kissy-kissy with our horses in general (although with a horse who's properly trained, we can certainly be those things if we choose to be, as long as we do what needs to be done to make the horse SAFE for us when we want to be all kissy-kissy with him.)  If you watch the boss mare, she lets the other horses know, with as much force as she has to, what she wants.  And we are going to need to do the same thing.  That's where the "natural" comes from in natural horsemanship.  It is natural for them to do as much as they need to do, which can be quite violent, to get their point across.  And we will do the same thing, so that they understand our message and take comfort in it. 

Once we've done what it takes to capture their attention and their obedience, we can start thinking about other natural relationships that they have in the herd.  They have friends and they have sparring partners.  I can get into either of those roles with my horse as much as I am able to safely as long as the horse knows that ultimately, it's my party.  So while I am the supreme authority around here, I don't always want the horses to be unemotional automatons doing everything I say without question and without adding their own opinions.  I do want them to know that there will always be a limit on how they can express their opinions, and that sometimes I don't want or need to hear their opinions.  So in this manner we can have a more open, fun, friendly relationship, while also staying safe and keeping a certain level of respect.  The respect runs both ways though.  I respect the gift they are giving me through their obedience and deference to my leadership, always.

I'll give you an example.  If you are new to horses you might hear me tell you not to use treats.  Yet I often give treats and sometimes use them in training.  The way I see it is like this:  I can immediately back my horse out of my space where he will not be close enough to me to try to mug me for treats, and the process of doing that causes him to come to attention, so to speak, and wait for his next command - to stop expressing his own opinion momentarily while he waits to see what I'm asking of him.  Once you get that sort of relationship with your horse, feel free to use treats.

Another example: When I got married and started wearing a wedding ring, a lot of my horses were very curious about it, and some felt it was an item that possibly didn't belong on my body.  The ones I have the best relationship with would show me how they felt by very gingerly reaching out with their lips, looking at me the whole time and asking if it was OK to continue, and then as long as I allowed them to continue, they would gently take a hold of part of my ring with their teeth and gently suggest to me that they might remove it for me.  If at any moment I gave them a slight cue to back off, they would stop immediately.  And once I got tired of watching them do this really cute thing and told them to stop for good, they stopped for good.  That is what I mean by being the supreme authority but also getting to the point where the horse can have some input.   

So for me, natural horsemanship means using a system of cues that the horse can easily understand, with the goal of getting the horse to be safe and obedient for what you want to do, and also allowing some fun and creativity as long as it's safe, with the ability to stop whatever is happening immediately either just to prove you can or if it's going in a bad direction.  Yes, I will kiss my horses and love on them and talk baby talk to them if I want and explain to them what is going on and let them play and offer silly behaviors, but they know when I'm allowing this and when I'm dictating their every move.  I am the boss mare and the friend and the sparring partner, each to whatever degree I can do safely.  I keep them safe and happy and in return they give me their very best.  The respect runs both ways, and I will listen to and consider their input, but when I decide what we're doing, we're doing it.  And that, to me, is natural!

If you want to learn more about my version of natural horsemanship and about being consistent and giving a clear message so that your horse becomes calmer and safer, give me a call!  :-)