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p+trim+herd-500Can you recall the last time you were involved in a heated discussion about horses? Do you remember how insistent and emphatic you became, perhaps impatient or even incensed? You were so focused and intent on making your point, were you not? Perhaps your eyes were flashing, your hands clenched and your lips trembling. And just maybe even now you may shake your head and wonder how on earth the other person could not see and understand the simple logic of what you were trying to say at the time. Can you recollect what the topic was? It must have been important and, if it was, the chances are that it was one of those issues concerning horses which seem to erect barriers even between humans who share a deep, sincere commitment to their well-being. So what are some of these issues and are they really about the horse?


Please note that this is an unedited article which has since been revised and published in the book, When Horses Speak and Humans Listen. More information is available here: http://www.horsesandhumans.com/mainsite/whsahl.htm.


There was a time, as I recall, when the question as to whether the English or western style of riding was superior to the other was a source of heated debate. Fortunately, we humans have become more tolerant of different riding styles and the debate has moved on to more pertinent issues, such as those pertaining to the well-being of the horse, in particular, those raised through the emergence of the “natural horsemanship” movement.


Natural or conventional horsemanship

Perhaps the most defining contrast which has instilled itself in our perception of the relationship between horses and humans over the past few decades and how the latter should keep and care for the former is to be found in the gauntlet which “natural horsemanship” has thrown down to conventional attitudes towards horse husbandry and human-horse recreational pursuits and sports. Around the world humans have rejected and are increasingly rejecting the cynical use and abuse of horses, opting for what they believe is a more humane approach to our equine friends and more often than not referring to it as “natural horsemanship”.

A happy athlete by FEI standards

Presumably, it is the “natural” aspect which has captured our imagination, for it seems to embody an approach which is more commensurate with the nature of the horse, as we understand it. The outcome has been a growing movement of humans who are seriously questioning and challenging the assumptions and presumptions that underpin the hallowed bastions of the global horse establishment, and which have passed for equestrian truth for far too long, ranging from how horses are kept to how they should be trained and ridden. It is perhaps worth our while to dwell on some of the issues that have been raised in the process and whether they are indeed being resolved in the horse’s favour.


Accommodation and care

Conventional horse care wisdom, especially as embodied amongst its leading proponents in prominent equestrian countries, such as England, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States and others, dictates that horses must be stabled separately and, if they are turned out, that this occur either individually or in small selected groups in tiny to small yards or fields often without shelter of any kind. Horses are usually rugged while they are turned out and in many cases while stabled as well during the cooler months. Frequently, the rugging is excessive. Invariably, the horses are also shod with metal studs euphemistically dubbed “horseshoes”, a bit like calling a spade a shovel.

The “natural horsemanship” approach to equine accommodation and care, or at least its more advanced practitioners, have rightly challenged conventional practices such as those just mentioned, if for no other reason than that they are alien to the “natural” condition of the horse and as such must certainly be detrimental to the species. The logical follow-on must therefore be the pursuit of practices which are “natural” to the horse. Because wild horses live in herds outdoors, it is felt that a similar setup should always be used for horses in captivity allowing them to live in large fields. Similarly, horses should not be rugged and neither should they have to wear shoes. Rugless and barefoot is fast becoming the new standard amongst the more advanced proponents of a “natural horsemanship” approach to horse care.

Anaïs and Pip with their home between their noses

Anaïs and Pip with their home between their noses

The upshot is that there is an ongoing debate between the respective proponents of conventional and “natural” horsemanship as to whether horses should be kept indoors or outdoors, in a herd or on their own and be fitted with metal studs or not. Indeed, the debate between barefoot and shod can be particularly uncompromising if not downright vicious at times.



The art of horse riding has not been spared either. Whether of the English, western or even the Spanish variety, the proponents of conventional equestrian pursuits have not been and are still not reluctant to employ harsh instruments of domination and control, especially at the very summit of their respective disciplines. Featuring leather, buckles and even chains, bridles are often tight and oppressive enough to merit comparison with human sadomasochistic paraphernalia, as are the heavy, highly leveraged bits that are secured in horses’ sensitive mouths. Small wonder then that conventional equestrian tack has inspired an entire branch of BDSM fantasy enactment known as ponyplay (I kid you not).

Ponyplay – there are also pony boys with masters and/or mistresses

Conversely, it is no small wonder that horse lovers around the world have sought alternatives and have been quick to embrace those offered by the “natural horsemanship” movement. Bits have been discarded and bridles have been traded in for bitless variants or, more commonly especially amongst Western riders, the rope halter. And the debate between the respective proponents of bitted and bitless riding can become as vociferous as that between the supporters of shod and barefoot hooves.

The saddle tree lifts the saddle off the spine and distributes the rider's weight

The saddle tree lifts the saddle off the spine and distributes the rider’s weight

Yet matters are not quite so vividly black and white when it comes to saddles. Perhaps this is because the treed saddles which are so typical of the conventional equestrian tradition are potentially kind to the horse, if they are flocked and fitted properly, and riding occurs sparingly. They lift the rider’s weight off the vulnerable spinal vertebrae and distribute it evenly across the muscles on either side of the spinal column behind the shoulder and over the ribs, that part of the horse’s back which is more capable of weight-bearing than any other. Espoused by a considerable section of the “natural horsemanship” movement, most treeless saddles unfortunately do not do the same, although their supporters could rightly argue in many cases that they not only facilitate close contact between horse and rider, which is indispensable if the human is to move in sync with their mount and thereby minimise the discomfort which their weight may cause, but also avoid the damage which muscular tissue can suffer if it is constantly rubbing against an uncompromisingly rigid surface. Nevertheless, such awareness has not done much to reduce the debate between the respective proponents of treed and treeless saddles.



A similar trend is visible in relation to training. Conventional horse training (although “training of the human to control the horse” would be a more accurate description) largely relies on negative reinforcement in the form of pressure and release with the emphasis placed on the application of external violence or the threat of it, using all of the instruments of dominance and control mentioned above along with an arsenal of others whose descriptions would fill a book and have filled numerous ones.

Is every other part of top-level dressage so good that the eradication of rollkur would excuse it?

Although the “natural horsemanship” approach also employs negative reinforcement in the form of pressure and release (see my paper entitled Yielding to Pressure: The Reality of the Myth for a discussion of the use of pressure and release in both conventional and “natural” horsemanship and how alien this approach is to the horse), it is ostensibly kinder and, as such, more horse-friendly. Indeed, its proponents argue that their methods are derived from the way in which horses communicate with each other and, as such, they are more “natural” and therefore must be more horse-friendly.



If there is any single instrument of training espoused by the “natural horsemanship” movement which conventional equestrian training has embraced more fully as part of its armoury than any other, it must be the round pen, even though its roots are far more firmly entrenched in the history of equitation. How can this be? If the round pen, which plays such an important role in “natural horsemanship”, is accepted so readily by conventional horsemanship, perhaps we need to question just how “natural” it is?

To the horse, is the round pen not simply one endless fence line which signifies his helplessness in the face of a human who controls his movement along its never-ending length? If the horse had a corner, they could at least bury their head in it and turn their hindquarters to the human threat behind it, could they not? But there is no escape except through submission, is there not?

Parelli – still one of the most widely known practitioners of “natural horsemanship”

And so the doubts begin and we turn to other instruments and methods employed by “natural horsemanship” practitioners. What of the bitless rope halter? Is it really kinder than the tight, bitted bridle? Vicki and I used to use a rope halter but then we abandoned it in favour of a firm but gently webbing halter. The one I use for Pip is lined with soft rubber and I fasten it quite snugly on her head, yet always trying as far as possible to do everything on a slack lead. Why? Because more often than not a rope halter is made of thin to thinnish, hard, rounded bits of rope which are capable of exerting a huge amount of pressure without much force being applied on the lead. And immediately underneath the noseband of the rope halter there is very fragile bony structure known as the rostral process. A tug on the lead, even a relatively gentle one, can hurt the horse in this sensitive spot. Yet there is always a bit of slack in the noseband, which means that a fiercer tug on the lead will not merely exert more force on that fragile structure but will also amplify it when the slack tightens suddenly. And yes, that bony structure can break quite easily and cause as much pain as the harshest bit. “Natural” and “horse-friendly”, did you say?

Buck – considered to be such a good horseman, they made a full-length documentary about him

And what of that other indispensable tool of “natural horsemanship”, the “carrot stick”? When I went through my Parelli period, the only carrot part I found was the colour. For the rest, it was a stick but not merely that. It had a whip attached and both could be used to good measure to instil “respect” in the horse. I have always wondered why that tool is not called a “whip stick” or perhaps even “slapstick”. “Natural” and “horse-friendly”, did you say? (For a more extensive discussion of the “natural” of “natural horsemanship” see my post entitled From “Natural Horsemanship” to Holistic Horse-Humanship).


Doing “natural”

And so I could go on questioning the sincerity of “natural horsemanship”, an approach which Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling dismisses as an attempt to secure the horse’s “complete spiritual/mental submission” (The Horse Seeks Me, p. 58), and he would know, wouldn’t he? Yet I must confess that “natural horsemanship” played a hugely important role in my path to the horse, for it marked the first time that I could stand in their presence without fear. Of course, I still needed to cover a great deal of distance down that path before I knew that I could abandon the round pen, the carrot stick and the rope halter and still feel absolutely safe with our horses. But this does not diminish the guidance which “natural horsemanship” provided me with on that path.

No, there is a more insidious side to “natural horsemanship” but it is not unique to it. Here I am referring to a huge temptation we humans regularly succumb to at the expense of the horse. It is our tendency to let our mind dominate our presence with our equine friends. In this case we look at what is supposed to constitute a “natural” approach to horses and then go about drawing conclusions which we apply to every horse. And so we insist that all horses must be kept in a herd out in the field all of the time, that they must be barefoot, that they must not be rugged, that they…. The list goes on. The idea of “natural horsemanship” becomes more important than the horses this movement was designed to serve.

If horses were truly kept naturally without fences, would they not cover great distances to escape horse flies?

Let us take a few examples. “Horses should always be kept in a herd outdoors.” Really? What of horses that are kept in an environment where temperatures can reach 45°C (113°F), where constant rain turns pasture into mud, where they suffer sweet itch, where they are constantly attacked by horse flies during the day or….

“Horses should never be rugged.” Really? What of those that suffer sweet itch or are harassed by flying insects?

“Horses should never be shod.” Really. I must confess that I find this a difficult one, because I have yet to experience a situation in which real horse shoes (the ones you put on and take off like shoes such as ours but which are often inexplicably referred to as “boots”) cannot do a better job than metal studs. The problem is that such shoes cannot be left on all the time. For any horse owner who cannot see their horse every day, this is a major issue. The only alternative is some type of stud, either metal or synthetic.

And so the list goes on….


Not unique to “natural horsemanship”

Yet this predisposition to generalise for the purposes of creating a model and then to insist on compliance with it at the expense of the horse is not unique to “natural horsemanship”. Very often we can see the same approach exhibited by some practitioners of even more “horse-friendly” approaches, for instance, those who espouse positive reinforcement training methods, such as clicker training. Because it works so well with some horses, we are all too ready to ignore the fact that it can create treat-focused monsters out of others, as we have seen with our own mare, Anaïs.

Then there are those horse owners and carers who have decided against riding ever again, prompted in part by their knowledge – backed up by scientific research – that riding can compromise a horse’s health in as little time as the equivalent of a brief coffee break. Of course, this is commendable but should you generalise this approach to the extent that you interpret this as a prohibition of riding in all cases? What of the horse that requires extensive movement in order to remain healthy but whose health would be compromised by excessive movement on a circle, which is as much as one can expect from groundwork with the healthiest of humans in addition to their free movement in the herd? Are we to condemn that horse to relative inaction because it does not accord with our model of what is horse-friendly, namely, not riding?

Then there are others who have not only decided not to ride again but to “allow their horses to be horses again”, essentially turning their properties into horse sanctuaries where their equine friends are at liberty to roam around together. Of course, this is well-intentioned but one could also legitimately question whether it actually helps those horses. After all, horses in the wild travel distances of up to 35 km (21.8 miles) a day, movement which is essential to their physical and mental well-being. How many of us have properties which are so large as to permit this type of movement without human intervention? And if we do intervene, what will we do?

Is it about the horse and, if it is, is it about any horse? Or is it about the horse you are with?


About the horse, really?

And so we find ourselves with a horse wondering what to do to provide the creature with the type of accommodation, care and treatment which would best benefit their physical and mental well-being yet still be within our means. We draw on our knowledge and experience to identify and assess various alternatives. Perhaps we have developed guidelines which we may wish to employ in the course of our assessment and decision-making.

At the end of it all though, when we examine our decision in the cold light of day, can we really say that it is about the horse? Not just any horse but the creature before us? Can we truthfully say that the decision which we have taken is in the best interests of that particular horse? And is not this the only reliable litmus test? And if it is, perhaps we may also want to ask ourselves if it is really worth our while to become embroiled in debates about what is best for horses which leave us with eyes flashing, hands clenched and lips trembling, when really all that the horse before us requires is that we act in their best interests in the situation and at the time in which they find themself? Should you expect anything more of yourself? Would your horse if they were ever capable of considering the question?



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3 Responses to “It’s About the Horse, Isn’t It?”

  1. Kris says:

    Sometimes I think horsemanship is like spirituality; we are all on our own path & our own course & we should be most concerned with that matter. Just like with all people we meet, all horses should be dealt with on a case by case basis, taking into consideration what we have learned from all the horses that came before. Good post! So thought provoking (as usual) & whoa (!) to the pony girl thing. Not at all my cup of tea, but hey, no judgement.

  2. Cindy says:

    People like to make excuses rather than Take responsibility for their actions. I suppose that’s a form of self preservation so that they can further their agenda and protect the ego. These same people form their posse of followers who eagerly swallow then regurgitate said opinions without any critical thought Followers just want to belong to something, fit in, get the blue ribbon, or level 4 status etc…they fall for the marketing and Show-man-ship the horse industry strategically creates. The industry is driven by the almighty dollar and the horse is the sacrificial lamb.
    Just saying!

  3. Jocelyn Grey says:

    This pretty much covered every subject of horse management that I have ever wondered about. Very thought provoking. I am trying to do the right thing for my horses by giving them what they need in as natural a surrounding as I possibly can but your blog confirms what I thought to be true. It has to be addressed for each individual horse as to what is best for them. I have had people be insistent that horses don’t need rugs on yet I have a mare that doesn’t do well in the winter or the cold and the wet while her two herd mates do just fine. They go without being rugged most of the time. It depends on where you live too. If you live in California then you probably don’t need to put any rugs on your horses. If you live in Ontario Canada believe me it’s not at all the same. It can be brutal. So many subjects were touched on in this blog and it is encouraging to see that I am not “out to lunch” or at least not alone in my thinking that for goodness sake we can’t provide a “natural” environment for our horses when we only have 10 acres or less. I have a pretty good setup with mixed terrain but they aren’t doing 35 miles a day I can assure you. Half the time recently they are huddled up against the back of the barn begging to be let in because of the extreme heat and the hordes of black flies. The end up in the isle of the barn with the fan roaring each in their same places with a bucket of water next to each of them and some hay down. They are free to leave the barn whenever they like but with those dang horseflies out there, they won’t go. Not even for food. So I finally realized that allowing them in the barn (a small 3 stall barn 24 ft by 24 ft) but not in their stalls because it’s too hot and the breeze from the fan wouldn’t reach them in a stall, they are a lot less stressed than if they were being swarmed by those horrid horse flies. I felt guilty about them being in this way for a while and if I had a deeper walk-in area they would probably be in that. I don’t mind forfeiting the cleanliness of the isle. Anyway, the only thing I didn’t read in this blog was about deworming. My biggest nightmare.
    I could go on about Parelli but seeing as I agree with you I don’t feel the need. I am alarmed about the rope halter but seeing as I don’t have any, I won’t worry about it. Can’t wait for your next blog. 🙂