Performance Horsemanship or Natural Horsemanship? My Performance Horsemanship Philosophy in Detail

Performance Horsemanship or Natural Horsemanship?
My Performance Horsemanship Philosophy in Detail

In simple terms, I strive to follow natural horsemanship principles when training my horses, while keeping the big picture in mind that my horses have a job-they have to be broke enough to work cattle.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? However, I am somewhat reluctant to call what I do natural horsemanship.

Why? Because I understand that not all of what I do is considered “natural horsemanship” by some people.

What I have found is that the word natural has been taken out of context by some natural horsemanship enthusiasts. What should be simple has been made complex. In some people’s eyes, you cannot be a “natural horseman” if your horses wear shoes, if you ride your horse in any sort of bit, or if you feed your horses grain. Do a google search for Natural Horsemanship, and you will see what I mean.

I ride with spurs. I will use a curb bit on my horses. I will use a training aid like a german martingale if the situation warrants it. Sometimes our rope horses are rode in a tie-down. Currently none of my horses have shoes, but they will be shod if they need it. If we really think about, nothing that we do with our horses is natural!

I still like to think that I am a Natural Horsewoman. I own and have read all of the books by the “Fathers of Natural Horsemanship”: Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, etc. I follow their principles of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. I strive be gentle as possible, yet as firm as necessary with my horses. I am constantly learning, researching, and expanding my horsemanship knowledge. I want what is best for my horses. When I hit a roadblock with my horse, I try to think what the horse is thinking, and feel what the horse is feeling, to understand the cause of the resistance, so I can fix it without causing my horse undue stress. I want my horse to think for himself-if they notice a bear in the woods, I want them to get us outta dodge! I want my horse to be my partner-not a machine-because at the end of the day, my horses are not show horses. They are ranch horses, and we have a job to do.

So that is why I like the label of “Performance Horsemanship” better. In training my horses I strive to develop control the five main body parts of the horse-the head, neck, shoulders, rib cage, and hips. When I can independently control the different body parts of my horse, we can be more successful at working cattle. How I develop that control might not be considered natural by all people, but I never use fear, intimidation, or force to get the control I need. If a job is too much for a particular horse, I admit it. Putting a horse in a situation that they can’t handle would only cause injury to human, horse, or cattle. The most important thing at the end of the day is that everyone: human, horses, and cattle, are handled without injury and/or undue stress. It may not be natural, but it gets the job done, and my horses are sound and happy, so I must be doing something right.

Molasses Cows

Becoming a Horseman: Understanding the Social Hierarchy of Horses; and How it Affects the Horse-Human Relationship:

Image

Even domestic horses still have the herd instinct.

We’ve all seen it happen-a new horse owner, or even someone that has had horses for awhile, with a horse that is buddy sour, pushy, biting, kicking, bucking, bolting, or generally misbehaving. Sometimes it is simply because a green rider bought a green horse that was unsuitable for them. Other times they buy the right horse-an experienced, older horse-and gradually the horse’s behavior turns bad.

What happened?

The rider hasn’t earned, or kept, the horse’s respect. The rider hasn’t proved to the horse that they are a worthy leader. So the horse, lacking leadership, becomes the leader, and no longer respects the rider. The horse does what it wants, when it wants, and ignores the rider completely.

In this article, I will discuss the horse’s herd instinct, and the social hierarchy in a wild herd. By understanding this instinct, and “speaking horse” by acting as the boss mare, we can become the leader in our herd of two with our horse, earning their respect. And a respectful horse is a safe, fun horse to ride.

The Herd Instinct:

Horses are herd animals. They need social interaction to thrive. In a herd, the horse that can make the other horses move is dominant and the leader. Herd members respect the herd leader; the herd leader doesn’t get crowded or chased away from food. In wild herds, the herd leader (usually a boss mare) is responsible for finding food and water, deciding when the herd moves and rests, and determines who gets to eat and drink first. The boss mare can decide who gets to stay in the herd, and she will chase away unruly herd mates. Since there is safety in the herd, horses want to belong. The lone horse without a herd is more likely to be eaten by a lion. The horse is comfortable with the social hierarchy, they are ok with following a leader, as long as they feel that they belong, that they are safe in a herd.

How does this herd instinct apply when we are working with our horses? To put it simply, we must understand and use the horse’s herd instinct and need to belong, to ensure our safety. To be safe around these large and flighty animals, we need their respect. We need to be the leader, the boss mare, in our herd of two with our horse.

The Boss Mare:

The lead/boss mare is the boss because she makes the other horses move-first by snaking her head and pinning her ears, then by biting, and if needed, by kicking or striking. The lead/boss mare ups the pressure until the less dominant horse moves. She does not yield, or move her feet. The horse that moves is the less dominant horse. The lead/boss mare only uses as much pressure as necessary-she doesn’t go around kicking other horses just because. She gets the respect of her herd mates without causing them fear.  However, the boss mare has to earn the respect of the other horses. The other horses will test the boss mare, to see if she really is the strongest horse, the best horse for the important job of being the leader. The boss mare must always be prepared to defend her position as the leader, to prove that she is worthy of being the leader. Some horses will test the leader daily. This is a normal horse behavior-and they will test humans too, to see if the human is worthy of being the leader.   Don’t be offended by it-it is just how horses are-but you need to be prepared to be the leader, and be prepared to have your leadership tested.

Earning Respect Without Causing Fear:

To ensure our safety, and to earn our horse’s respect, we need to show the horse that we can make them move their feet, and that they cannot make us move-that we are the boss mare. Once the horse respects us by understanding that we can make them move their feet, then they can accept us as the leader. They key here is to use as little pressure as possible, but as much pressure as necessary, to get the horse to move it’s feet without causing fear. If we can gain the horse’s respect without causing them to fear us, then we have earned the role of the leader. If we earn the role of the leader, then the horse will be able to trust us, and with the horses trust we can achieve great things. I want my horses to trust me so that we can work as partners. I want their respect without fear.

Sleeping Mustang

The sleeping mustang trusts her herd mate to watch for danger.

Can’t I Be Friends With My Horse?

I find that many owners want to be friends with their horses, and that is great. However, they tend to think that they will get their horses to like them by bribing them with treats and making excuses for why they are pushy and run them over, saying “Blackie is just scared, he doesn’t mean to run me over.”  The problem here is a lack of respect. How much would you like a friend that has no respect for you and runs you over?

We all want to be “friends” with our horses, but we need to remember that our horses are big animals that can and will hurt us. Your horse will still be friends with you if you earn the role as the leader in your relationship, and you will have a much safer experience.

Does Your Horse Respect You?

So ask yourself-does your horse respect you?

When you lead him in from the pasture does he try to run you over, or follow quietly?

When grooming him does he move into you or away from you?

When you ride your horse does he neigh and whinny and worry about where his friends are, or does he listen to you?

These simple little tests can tell a lot about your Horse-Human Relationship.

DisengageHindQuarters

Useful Ranch Horse Skills (That are also handy if you need to run away from a posse)

(Please Note: This post is for entertainment purposes only. I do not actually advise running away from the law.)
Listed below are some useful ranch horse skills that are also handy if you ever find yourself in need of running away from a posse.

1. Wait patiently saddled and tied.

StandSaddled

A good Ranch Horse will stand saddled and tied, waiting patiently until they are needed to work.

This trait is also useful, just in case you need to get outta Dodge quickly-you can’t be wasting time saddling your horse!

2. Walk through water.

ZebMolassesWater

Whether you are out in varied terrain rounding up cattle, having a horse that is willing to cross water is very useful to be sure that you don’t miss any strays.

If you need to outrun a posse, being able to walk your horse in the flow of the creek is even more useful for making your trail hard to follow.

3. Lean off the side and pick up objects from the ground.

GroundPickUp

Dismounting to pick up a dropped object takes time, so being able to lean over and pick up and item from the ground is super handy when you are running short on daylight and still have a lot of work left to do.

It is also handy if you are trying to outrun a posse-you can’t let dropped items leave a trail marking where you have been!

4. Stand on their back.

Zeb Standing On Molasses

Ok, so this really isn’t safe horsemanship, but it can be useful! Standing on your horse’s back increases your field of vision, allowing you to more easily look for strays.

Or, to allow you to check if a posse is chasing you!

Kids-don’t try this at home.

5. Run. Fast.

RunAway

Having a fast ranch horse is handy if a heifer decides to break loose from the herd and make a run for the back section.

Having a fast horse is also handy when out-running a posse.

6. Ground Tie.

GroundTie

This is a handy skill, having a ranch horse that will patiently wait for you while you fix fence so that the heifers don’t become bovine escapees.

It is also handy if you horse will wait patiently for you to wipe out your trail with a pine bough, so that the posse can’t track you.

Hope you enjoyed this fun list!

Becoming a Horseman: The Top 5 Qualities That Separate Riders From Horsemen

What qualities do the top horsemen share? What separates the “riders” from the “horsemen”? I have come up with a list of the top 5 qualities that I think separate riders from horsemen.

5. Balance

A Horseman is balanced, and not just in the saddle. A Horseman has learned how to balance their emotions, to never get angry with the horse, to remain calm, cool, and collected in every interaction with the horse. A Horseman strives for balance in all things with their horse, from their position in the saddle, the horse’s balanced way of moving, to balancing the horse’s training to provide variety and prevent boredom.

4. Timing

A Horseman has great timing. They know when to apply and release pressure/aids to the horse to maximize the horse’s learning and understanding. The understand that the horse learns from the release, not the application, of pressure. They take great in the timing of their aids when they ask the horse to do something, and do not ask the horse to perform a maneuver they are not ready for.

3. Feel

A Horseman has great feel. They know where the horse’s feet are at all times, at all gaits. They ride in rhythm with the horse, using their hands, legs, and seat to communicate with a “soft feel.”A Horseman is also aware of the horse’s mental and emotional states, and can feel when to ask for more, and when to quit for the day.

2. Experience

A Horseman is experienced. They have spent a lot of time, with a lot of different horses, and usually spent a lot of time with a mentor, to become the best horseman they can be. Through their experience they have learned how horses think, and how to clearly communicate with the horse.

1. Dedication

A Horseman is dedicated. They never stop learning, and are constantly striving to become a better horseman. They are dedicated to the welfare of the horse. They work consistently with their horses, to ensure that the horse is capable of performing the requests of the rider. They expect 1% improvement everyday.

A Horseman is constantly working to improve their horsemanship, constantly working on these 5 qualities.

I am always working on these 5 things, from balancing the demands of life and work and family with my horsemanship, to developing my timing and feel, always increasing my experience by working with my horses and expanding my knowledge by reading books, watching training dvds, and spending any time that I can with mentors and trainers that I admire. It takes a lot of dedication to keep working on improving my horsemanship!

I would love to hear from you! Do you possess these qualities? What do you do to work on these qualities? What qualities should be added to this list? What do you think separates Riders from Horsemen?

Becoming a Horseman: The Importance of Consistency

One of the great mistakes people make is to not ride often enough and to try to accomplish too much when they do. -Ian Francis

Strive for 1% Improvement Every Ride. 100 Rides, 100% Improvement.

Continue reading

What is a Horseman?

What is a Horseman?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “Horseman” as:
1. a rider of driver of horses; especially one whose skill is exceptional
2. a person skilled in caring for or managing horses
3. a person who breeds or raises horses

While the dictionary definition is technically correct, a Horseman is more than those things.

Horseman is not a title that is lightly given or easily achieved. To be called a Horseman, it must be earned, and is one of the greatest compliments that can be received.

A Horseman (or Horsewoman) is someone who has learned how horses think, and who has honed their skills to be able to communicate clearly with horses. A Horseman views the horse as a partner, not a tool.

A Horseman is someone who has dedicated a lot of their time to learn about horses and horsemanship, and continues to dedicate their time, because they realize that you never stop learning with these amazing creatures. A Horseman views themselves as a life-long student of the horse.

Through their experience and never ending thirst for knowledge, a Horseman is someone who has learned feel, timing, and balance. A Horseman knows when to push a horse, and when to back off. They understand the importance of getting a horse’s respect, but they can achieve it without causing the horse fear or worry.

A Horseman understands that horses must be allowed to move freely forward, that impulsion is a necessary ingredient for creating a performance horse. A Horseman has honed their riding skills, so that they can allow the horse to move freely and not interfere with the horse’s athleticism.

A Horseman has a positive attitude. They know that the way to go fast with a horse is to go slow. There is always tomorrow. They don’t let their emotions get in the way of how they work with a horse. This lesson might be the hardest one for a Horseman to learn.

A Horseman has learned how to properly care for their horse. A Horseman learns how to recognize the early signs of soreness in their horse, so that it can be treated before it becomes a problem.

The process to becoming a Horseman does not happen overnight. It is a Journey, a life-long dedication. There are many different paths to becoming a Horseman, many different disciplines in which to enjoy these amazing animals. For those of us that are lucky enough to be able to travel this road, the reward is great-a partnership with our horse.

Someday I hope to be a Horseman. I really enjoy this Journey, and each horse that I work with teaches me more.

What do you think? How do you define a Horseman? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Becoming a Horseman: The Importance of Feel, Timing, Balance, and Experience

You don’t have to do much research about horsemanship to hear that it takes Feel, Timing, Balance and Experience to become a Horseman.

Of these words, Balance and Experience are pretty easy concepts to understand.

Timing is a little more complicated, but most riders can be taught the idea of the timing of their cues.

Feel, however, is much harder to define, and hard to teach. Feel is a vague word that is often used by trainers, clinicians, and instructors. Most of them agree that to become a True Horseman, you must develop feel.

It is a word surrounded by confusion, with the connotation of having an almost magical quality, leaving the reader confused and wondering if “feel” is some magical talent that only horse whisperers possess.

In this blog, I will examine different definitions of Feel. Some of these definitions come from Natural Horsemanship trainers/clinicians, and some from top Performance Horse trainers. I will look at the connection between Feel and Timing, take a quick look at Balance, and also at the role that Experience plays into developing Feel, Timing, and Balance.

Hopefully this will help clear the confusion around “Feel” and help you on your path to becoming a horseman!

What is Feel?

In Bill Dorrance’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel,” he describes feel as “the language of horses.”

In his book, he describes two kinds of feel that we can use to communicate with our horses.

Indirect feel is the feel that we use when the horse is loose, in the corral or round pen, when we use our body language to communicate with the horse.

Direct feel is the feel we use when we have a direct connection with the horse, such as a halter and lead rope, bridle, the rider’s leg and seat, etc.

Using these types of feel, the person can influence the horse to respond into doing different things.

Feel & Collection

For a lot of people “feel” is synonymous with vertical flexion and collection.

I think that this is because it takes a good rider with a decent amount of “feel” to be able to achieve collection with their horse. However, I think that constricting “feel” to collection is a mistake. The rider should be able to “feel” the entire horse.

Let’s consider this quote from Tom Dorrance’s book “True Unity.”

“The older I get the more it’s beginning to dawn on me how most people seem to have so little feel of the whole horse-of what’s going on in what part.” (Page 9)

Later in his book, Tom Dorrance tries to define feel:

”I’ve looked in dictionaries for the definition for the word feel. I haven’t been really satisfied with the definitions I’ve found for this thing I’m talking about with the horse-this thing between the horse and the person. When I talk to people about this feel and the timing, I realize how difficult it may be for them to try to get what I am trying to say.” (Page 12)

Like the Tom Dorrance quote above suggests, Dr. Robert Miller agrees in his book Natural Horsemanship Explained that feel is something between the horse and rider. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to feel (Chapter 8). In Dr. Miller’s chapter on Feel, he discusses feel from the standpoint of the horse, and has many examples of how riders can use more subtle signals to produce horses with feel, that respond to light cues. He states to “Reward the slightest try by releasing the pressure. That’s how lightness is developed. That’s a horse with ‘feel.’”

Dr. Miller also describes feel from the standpoint of the human as “the ability to detect the response of the horse and to anticipate its consequences.”

Martin Black defines feel in his book Cow-Horse Confidence as more than just physical, more than just where the horse’s body parts are. He states, “We must be aware that, where the horse is concerned, ‘feel’ is emotional, mental, and physical.”

He also describes his training methods as the Feel Approach: “With the feel approach, you support and encourage the horse through each step of the process, motivating him through pressure and relief, and rewarding each ”try” he makes along the way. This allows the horse to make decisions, learn, and understand the purpose of what you’re asking.” (Pages 34-35)

Craig Cameron also agrees that feel is more than physical. In his book, Ride Smart, he explains:

“Feel is more than just a physical touch, it’s also an emotional response and a mental approach to whatever situation you find yourself in with your horse…You’ll have to develop your own lightness and understanding of the horse, or feel. For example, when your horse is giving to the bit in response to one of your requests, the most important thing you can do is give back, or release the pressure you placed on the horse. The release is the only thing in it for the horse. What you’re trying to say to the horse is: ”When you give, I’ll give.” That’s a feel. “When you’re soft, I’m soft.” That’s a feel. “When you yield, I yield.” That’s a feel. It’s something that you’re going to have to work on over a period of time. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your horse. It’s about give and take and truly a game of feel.
You can recognize that you’re developing feel by your horse’s responses. It’ll take time for you to learn when to use more pressure and when to use less. In the beginning it might take a lot, but in the end it should take less. The result is a feel that’s more of a suggestion and finally just a thought.” (Pages 38-39)

One of my favorite definitions of feel might be the simplest:

“Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”
Mike Major, Ranch Horse Versatility, page 80

Jack Brainard agrees with Mike Major’s definition. In Jack’s book, “If I Were To Train A Horse” he states:
“Good trainers develop a ”feel” for the horse, which means they know where his feet are and when to cue (the horse).”

Now that we have examined some different viewpoints from different trainers on feel, what do they have in common?

The rider must be attuned to the horse’s body placement and response to the rider’s cues, and the rider must be able to feel when the horse is doing right, so that the rider can encourage the correct response.

How does the rider “feel” the horse?

The rider “feels” where the horse’s body parts are, so they can be sure that the horse is in the correct position before asking the horse to do something, so that the horse will be a lot more successful at doing whatever we ask, and the horse and rider will both be happier with the result.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider emotionally, (is the horse mad? scared? irritated?) then the rider adjusts what s/he is asking the horse to do to change the horse’s attitude.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider mentally, (is the horse ready to perform the requested maneuver? has the horse remembered previous lessons that build on the requested maneuver?) so that the rider makes sure that the horse can actually do what the rider is asking them to do, so that they build the horse’s confidence instead of creating fear and confusion.

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Feel:

Feel is the ability to know where the horse’s body parts are, to be able to communicate with the horse to move it’s body parts, and to be able to read the horse’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to the rider’s requests.

What about Timing?

If you have taken my How Horses Learn Lesson, you should already have a good idea of what trainers mean when they say that a rider has “good timing.”

Remember the Teaching Moment? That split second immediately after the horse performs the requested response? That split second when the rider should be giving reinforcement, whether it is negative reinforcement by releasing the rein/leg cue, or by petting/rewarding the horse?

If the rider has good timing, they give the reinforcement during the Teaching Moment, to help the horse learn.

In Sandy Collier’s book “Reining Essentials,” she states that “Timing is everything.” In the following paragraph, she describes why it is necessary for riders to develop great timing:

“Remember, horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. And when you release, your horse will associate this reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. So if you’re a split second late releasing, you’re confusing your horse and slowing his learning, or even inadvertently ”rewarding” something else entirely.” (Page 12)

Timing and Feel are often mentioned together, because they both need to be used together to be effective.

Mike Major describes how Timing and Feel are intertwined in his book, Ranch Horse Versatility:

“Timing and feel intertwine and are such an important thing. Timing is a state of mind, knowing when to put pressure on a horse-or not. Good timing in training is one of the biggest virtues to develop when you work with a horse. Your training is effective, and it takes less time to accomplish your goals because you understand the right time to ask your horse to do a maneuver. Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”

Chris Cox’s definition of feel in his book Ride the Journey also combines the concepts of feel and timing:

“Feel is applying the pressure you use to set boundaries with your horse and knowing when to release that pressure. Developing feel takes time and practice, but you can perfect your feel so that you release pressure the moment the horse gives to you. You might be applying leg pressure as you ask the horse to side-pass, or holding a brace with your rein, asking him to give laterally. In either case, you want to maintain consistency in setting that boundary until your horse gives. As soon as you feel that softening, that give, from your horse, you must release the pressure.” (Page 27)

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Timing:

Timing is the rider’s application, and release, of the cues to the horse, keeping in mind that the horse learns from the release, not the application, of the cue.

Balance:

Balance is a much easier concept to explain. A rider that is balanced is able to move with the horse, instead of getting in the horse’s way. A balanced rider enable the horse to more easily perform maneuvers. A balanced rider is not bouncing on the horse’s back, making them sore, or hanging on the horse’s mouth, giving conflicting signals. The quickest way for a rider to develop balance is by taking riding lessons from a good instructor.
For more about Balance, watch my “Performance Position” video by clicking here.

Experience:

A rider must ride a lot of hours, on a lot of different horses, to develop feel, timing, and balance. Find a mentor to learn from that is successful in the event/discipline that you want to ride in. Take lessons. Go to clinics and expos and demonstrations. Read every book and article you can. Watch training DVDs. Ask questions. Take my online horsemanship lessons, or contact me about online video coaching.

It takes years of dedication and hard work to become a horseman. It is not something that magically happens overnight or after one lesson.

That’s why it’s called a Journey!

Please feel free to leave a comment-I would like to hear what other people feel about “feel!”

Recommended Reading:

Bill Dorrance, “True Horsemanship Through Feel”

Tom Dorrance, “True Unity”

Ray Hunt, “Think Harmony with Horses”

Jack Brainard, “If I Were To Train A Horse”

Sandy Collier, “Reining Essentials”

Chris Cox, “Ride the Journey”

Mike Major, “Ranch Horse Versatility”

Martin Black, “Cow-Horse Confidence”

Craig Cameron, “Ride Smart”

Dr. Robert Miller, “Explaining Natural Horsemanship”