For a horse-human relationship based on reciprocal expression

The last decade has increasingly developing the Natural Horsemanship, a form of training based on mechanistic negative reinforcement. This method which was later developed by various schools overseas, seduces the owner of the horse creating a sensation of control of the animal. This control, however, is illusive.

The horse subjected to these method of training, learns superficially and reactively. In this way the horse is conditioned to respond precisely to the demands of human and thereby meeting the human expectations of an anthropocentric performance (see photo example below).

But the horse is a complex living being, a system linked to a number of internal variables that responds external variables. The relation and combination of these variables is never a mathematical science that is why many, many, horses respond very negatively to these techniques, arriving to express strong unbalanced emotions due to pressure, often invasive, that is applied in order to have the excellent performance training objective. These emotional unbalances go along with muscle tension states more or less evident, various forms of aggression more or less ritualized, bipolar reactive behaviour, depression, generalized anxiety.

In fact all the Natural Horsemanship methods work mainly on the emotive part of the horse brain (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, read more on “The Emotional Brain” written by Joseph Ledoux). This is due to negative reinforcement  applied during training, but not only (read more on Learning Theory and Instrumental Conditioning). The mechanical exercises and the obsessive request for a desired/correct behaviour in the horse impacts on the emotional status of this animal through the mainly activation of the fast/reactive way, and the significant less activation of the cognitive/slow way (read Ledoux).

Another big problem about Natural Horsemanship is the concept of Leadership. This concept is used as scientific concept applied to training, but in reality is far away from a scientific concept. Scientifically, in nature, social dynamics are situational, not schematical and not one-way action hierarchy. In a herd, depending on the situation, there are different horses with different resource behaviours, there is not a schematical and fixed leadership. In Natural Horsemanship the well-known claim is: “You must become leader of your horse”. This sentence may result in strong and dangerous misunderstandings.

In the video below that I have shot several years ago in the Italian territory of the semi-feral Esperia horses, a young female advances towards me with an explorative/cognitive behaviour. What does she express? How would you look to other horses behind her? Was she looked upon from the other horses as the leader or simply as a mare with more curiosity and explorative behaviour as her personal resources?

That which, as in the case of these “natural methods”, is defined as natural, in reality is out of the natural context for horses. Proponents of these “natural” ways, claim that their techniques are based on observation of the horses in nature and therefore have scientific value.  If you don’t observe in an objective and scientifically prepared way, you can read anything you want as you are often trying to recognize what you already think you will see. Things are different in nature, and the extrapolation of the term “natural” does not honour the specific behavioural and social characteristics of the horse, often leaving physical, mental, social and relationship injury, more or less hidden, with a significative impact on horse welfare and wellness.


Author: Francesco De Giorgio, cognitive ethologist, equine behaviour researcher, horseman.

Photo: Internet source


Comments on: "Equine Welfare & Wellness: a critical review about “Natural” Horsemanship" (12)

  1. The video did not comet through. Would like to have seen it. Interesting discussion.
    I wrote an article a few years ago for a French/English magazine on “what is really “natural” for a horse” — wow did the comments come flying into the magazine. I thought it was pretty basic science, but I guess some of the cult followers took it as an attack. I said the only thing “natural” that humans do with horses is social bonding — everything else is humancentric and all about what we want, not horses. Similar, I think to your approach of allowing a horse cognitive decision regarding it’s behavior and how it would like to learn, and do things using it’s own abilities.
    Glad to see this discussion happening. Thank you.

  2. Like to repeat what Mary says … welcome but very brave
    I feel the only time people should call it natural horsemanship is you joining in with a herd of horses running free and mingle quietly observing … any training should be a partnership and they should want to please you XXX

  3. Someone somewhere is forgetting how the limbic (’emotional brain’) actually works: its purpose is to express our basic needs, but preferably in a balanced way. Unlike the brainstem, it is capable of learning. If unregulated (no nurturing) then in the worst case you have a feral animal/person. Many parts of the system have modifiers – for example the hypothalamus registers both hunger and fullness – and some parts only inhibit, such as the septal nucleus and cingulate gyrus (and in humans the medial prefrontal cortex). It’s not possible to only affect those parts which register basic needs without influencing the others. Thus ‘training’ must be balanced, and the relationship with the horse be one of cooperation – but clear and not ‘woolly’.

  4. In my own experience as a breeder and remedial horsewoman, I have found that some of the horses who have passed through my hands that were from the ‘natural’ school, were fearful and disconnected. I completely agree with the use of the word ‘bipolar’. I’m not qualified to give a diagnosis, but it certainly fits my feeling about them.
    I was asked to visit a ‘natual horsemanship’ yard to help with a very powerful cob. During my visit I wandered round meeting the horses in the field, and met a sweet, nervous mare. Her owner duly arrived boasting about the levels she was doing with the mare, but when the woman entered the field with me, the mare threw her head up, rolled her eyes, flattened her ears. Her face was pulled tight and her tail was clamped and there was no chance of the owner touching her. What amazed me was the fact that it didnt matter to the owner. I kept asking her if she thought that her technique was working. Was the horse bonded to her, or happy in any way with having her near. She just just didnt get it. Whatever your ‘school’, if the horse responds poorly, it obviously isnt the approach you should use.
    It’s a sign of madness when you continue using the same methods, but expect a different outcome. How come so many of us just keep pushing with a blind faith that it’ll all be OK if just keep repeating the same lessons

  5. Nina Bondarenko said:

    I am very pleased to see this discussion. Having observed so many “horse whisperers” and Natural horsemanship proponents forcing horses do repeat actions for an hour or so in order to reinforce “leadership” or “obedience”, without regard to the physical wellbeing or ability of the animal to carry out the actions safely or without pain. Paul McGreevy is doing great research in Australia into assessing stress and welfare in performance horses such as Dressage competitors – especially the misuse of equipment.

  6. I have never liked the term “Natural Horsemanship” as I do not believe there is anything natural about it. It is a marketing term only and has made a few trainers a lot of money. Others want to catagorize me as a natural horsemanship trainer. I have used the term too as I have earned my living as a teacher/trainer for a very long time. I know of only several ‘trainers’ who do not overdo pressure. Humans have short fuses and want everything now. Calm and quiet training, for me, is the best. No need for fast work. I prefer to do most everything with horses in slow motion. they seem to really like it and learn very quickly that way (especially with lots of reward of totally peaceful moments). All the clinical jargon and psychobabble are lost on me. My experience ove the past 50 years has been in the field with the horses. Also, when faced with a terrified horse you are trying to help, who wants to kill you to save himself, I wonder what all the clinical folks would do? There are ways though to keep safe and help such a horse. In the long run, probably natural horsemanship has put people on a better path with horses. So, good has been done. But we need to go further. Consider going Beyond Natural Horsemanship/Successful Training Though Compassion, Wisdom, Skill and Trust.

  7. Very interesting article and mostly well-written.

    However, the little part of me that could be labeled OCD is, in reality, my gift to the world: that ability to find typos after it’s too late.

    1) The word “dinamics” should be spelled “dynamics”.
    2) The word “itilian” should be capitalized to be “Italian”.

    Thank you for putting up with me. 🙂

  8. This is a topic I have considered at length, based not on “scientific” prinvciples, but on my own observations over nearly 50 years spent with horses. My grandfather trained horses for military service, I watched his techinques evolve over the brief years I was fortunate enough to be in his company. He actually communicated with the horses, and the conversations were unilateral; he would patiently await replies, and if he didn’t get what he expected he modified his requests instead of just resorting to the “bigger stick” approach. He also introduced me to men like Tom Dorrance & Ray Hunt, who used the same simple tools; observation, understanding & patience. If a horse reacted poorly, they knew it was because they failed, not because the horse made a mistake.
    The image used in the article is of a notable NH trainer named Pat Parelli; I have worked with many of his students & followers. At first I was impressed with the famed “Parelli” results, until I witnessed firsthand how he accomplished them. The image is in keeping with my current opinion of this man, and the entire application of natural horsemanship in general; humans have once again taken a “good thing” and mutated it into a tool to serve only themselves. In the current strain, natural horsemanship is little more than a method to exact desired responses but do so in socially acceptable mastery. It is not a true bond, it is just veiled brutality.
    The image is also indicative of the lack of morals associated with commonly accepted practices; placing 2-year old “athletes” into competitive service or prompting a foal to jump a log … are either “natural”?
    Franklin Levison makes a few very good points, most noteably that about what a NH practioner would do when facing a terrified horse trying to kill them to save himself. I’ve been there, and despite my desire to succeed, my desire to live was a little stronger so I ducked & saved the “lesson” for another time. At no time did any of those horses ever take the initiative & use it against me later, as advertised by so many NH proponents. We simply started again, I corrected my mistakes, and we moved forward. Took me a lot of years to realise that it was entirely my fault when a horse got so scared they felt they had to retaliate against me to survive.
    One last note on NH; how in the heck did we deteriorate to the point that 3-day “trainers’ challenges” were considered OK? This is NOT training! This is showmanship purely for the sake of sensationalism, and in no way regards effective or even humane treatment of horses.

    • Hello Kevan,
      Thank you very much for your extensive reply. It has been a pleasure reading through your experiences and the encounters you have had over the years. Searching for more understanding in the modern methods, but finding out instead that the relationship element in these methods is absent is very sad.
      You were probably lucky having had the possibility to observe your grandfather’s work and be faithfull towards your own intuition.
      The trend goes hand in hand with a tendency for people to focus on performance and competition, also in the human world, in order to find some kind of affirmation.
      The NH hype unfortunately only brought us many misunderstood horse, some highly agressive. We are working very hard to create awareness towards the risk of conditioning where contact is actually lost (and the true bond as you say).
      Thank you again for your interest, a lot of horses probably have been lucky with the possibility to meet you, instead of the NH-products.
      Kind regards,
      Francesco & Jose

  9. Donald U.Newe said:

    Brilliant article ! Thank heaps for it !

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