Those who know me, know that I'm a natural horsemanship teacher. But those who know me best, understand that I'm more interested in safety, progress, and ultimately, mastery. I don't condone, old methods that don't allow progress. Therefore, natural horsemanship seems to be the best way forward, in the realm of training horses. Ironically, in natural horsemanship, there are a handful of problems. Ideas and techniques that have been taught for dozens of years now, by many famous trainers, without the full understanding of their consequences. Some things look and sound good on the surface, but underneath it all, they may prove to do more harm than good. I've decided to outline four of these "natural horsemanship" pitfalls, so you can learn to be better equipped for your own training experiences and better prepared when someone comes along, spouting their own rules about how natural horsemanship should be taught.
Here is number 1 of 4 big pitfalls in natural horsemanship:
"The Quick Release"
Have you ever heard of a quick release? Did you know you can release too quickly? The biggest pitfall in natural horsemanship training is: quick hands and quick releases.
A fundamental idea in natural horsemanship is that when a horse does what you want, you can let them know they are doing the right thing by releasing the signals you are using to activate the horse. Many natural horsemen teach that you have to have a quick release to teach. The bottom line is, they are right, but maybe not as smart as you might first consider. A release that happens too quickly can interrupt a thoughtful horse and even cause him or her to brace against you. For instance, let's say you're riding and you ask your horse to back up. Let's say he responds and you let go of the reins in a quick, heavy fashion. "He did what you wanted, right?" But did you happen to notice how he popped his head up. That's a sign of tension.
Horses need the release, they just need it to be smooth. Jerky, fast, heavy hands, even when releasing, cause tension. Remember to be elegant when you ask your horse to do something and when you tell them, "good job."
Number 2: "Exaggerated Body Language"
Have you ever seen a foal catch up to his momma when she decides to leave? The momma makes a suggestion with her body and the foal responds to the suggestions. Cool right? Have you ever heard the phrase, "exaggerate to teach?" Novice trainers often take this to mean you should exaggerate your body language to show the horse what you want. Master trainers know this concept too, but don't use it like you may think. Did you know that your body language plays a huge role in how your horse understands you? But did you also know that over exaggerating your signals can often send the wrong signal to your horse and add confusion rather than clarity.
Let me give an example: Let's say you're riding and ask your horse to go sideways to the left, by softly applying pressure from your right leg and allowing your free leg to stick stiffly out into the summer breeze. At the same time, you lean to the outside (right), because you were taught that's how you initiate sideways. After all, most natural horsemanship trainers teach their students to push their horse sideways, in just that fashion. But did you know that by contorting your body in this way causing a series of muscles in your opposite thigh (left leg), to over tighten and cause the horse to feel multiple leg signals from you, which can be very confusing? On top of that, he or she may feel inclined to go the wrong way, just to keep you on top. Because, as you intimately know, when you carry a load on your own shoulders, you prefer it to be in the middle.
Basically, the principle of exaggerating to teach, is useful, but not masterful or elegant. The master seeks to find harmony, balance, precision and beauty. Too many natural trainers are teaching and allowing the opposite to occur. I know, because I see it every day. And... I used to teach those techniques myself. And where it all came from, was ignorance. Monkey see, monkey do. It's that simple. But now we know better. Now we can offer so much more to the horse. And so can you. When you apply your signals with less body language from you, you look more grounded and much easier to read. This is a good thing. Imagine if I had an important message tattooed on my hand that I needed you to read, and I kept jumping up and down and waving my hands. You wouldn't be able to read the message. That's what often happens to our horses when we send over exaggerated signals with our body while riding and while on the ground.
Number 3: "The Horse Knows How"
I can't tell you how many times I've heard and corrected my students in the past for saying, "The horse knows all this stuff. That all the problems exist only on the human side. If we could just get ourselves together, the horse would do it for us."
The bottom line is this: That statement is NOT TRUE! Horses don't know nearly as much as natural trainers often profess. Can a horse jump naturally? Yes. Can a horse canter? Yes. Can a horse do flying lead changes? Yes. But do they do it well? No! Do they practice it daily? No. Do they manage to keep themselves balanced and ready for a rider in their daily activities? No. Do they understand your signals and weight distribution? No. This is why master trainers take a new, better version of this principle. And it goes like this:
"The horse can learn to do it. He can learn to understand my signals. He can learn to be more balanced, in areas he's not naturally balanced. But he isn't perfect and neither am I. So we both have things to learn."
Saying a horse knows something, can get you into real trouble. I mean safety kind of trouble, let alone advanced training. I've heard students say their horse knows what to do in a horse trailer, only to have them fly out backward and smash themselves and their horse to bits. I've had students assume the horse knows what to do on a trail, only to have the horse blast into a tree and nearly jump off a cliff. It's better to assume, the horse doesn't know, but can learn. This new thought could allow you to be less frustrated and more thoughtful about your own learning. Instead of beating yourself up for taking five years to get flying lead changes, you might consider the fact that your horse never understood them in the first place and the only reason it took so long, is because you were both learning at the same time. The next time around is always quicker. Not because the next horse knows more, but because you know how to help him or her learn it better.
Number 4: "Maintain Gait"
I have to say, this one is the big one for me. This is a huge pitfall for so many students because so many instructors firmly believe the horse is supposed to maintain gait naturally. In other words, if you ask your horse to trot, he's supposed to trot until you ask him something else. This principle is rotten to the core. (wow, there was a lot of animosity in that comment, yikes! Sorry about that.) I want to illustrate how ludicrous, and "slave driver like" this idea is, and it all comes from early natural trainers, which, unfortunately, lingers today with many renowned trainers.
Imagine you're a horse. Imagine your owner sits on your back. Imagine she kicks you in the sides and says trot. Imagine you start trotting, but don't feel right about it, so you back off and walk. Now imagine your owner saying, "you bad horse, you know better!" With that, she kicks you harder. Now, you feel scared and start to trot a little too fast, almost canter. Then you're owner slams on the reins and says, "You bad horse, you know better." You see... you can't win with this kind of thinking. Let's look at this story from a mastery perspective instead...
Imagine you're a horse. Imagine your owner sits on your back and asks you to trot. Imagine you start trotting but it doesn't feel right, so you back off and walk. Now imagine your owner, reaches down and pets you while saying, "Is everything alright? Did you take a funny step? Are you ready to try again?" Then with kind suggestion, she asks again and you respond. This time you're better prepared and ready to go for a little longer, but not forever. That would be stupid. You're not a robot, after all. So naturally, you slow down and consider walking again after a few times around the ring. Now imagine your owner petting you and saying, "Well done my good and faithful friend. You trotted for a long time there and I could tell it wasn't easy. Well done! Good Job! You're amazing! I can feel you need a breather, then we'll try again in a few minutes.
Could you image being that persons horse? That's the mastery that all horses deserve and you... can offer it, if you avoid the above four, not so common pitfalls.
One last note on "maintain gait." Any form of advanced horsemanship dedicates copious amounts of time to transitions work. In fact, the ability to transition between gaits, is far more valuable that the ability to hold gaits. Masters know this and use the principle of practicing transitions. Even early in their training. In our very own mastery courses we teach this early. I've seen too many natural trainers and students avoid transitions and even reprimand their horse when he or she offers transitions. But you can be different. You can be smarter. You can take the quest to mastery and make your dreams come true. You can even make your horses dreams come true on this journey, because what your horse dreams of, is a social stimulus that makes his life feel purposeful, fun, and amazing. You can be that for your horse. These courses can help you.
Comment below, love to hear your thoughts. If you have specific questions, let me know. I'll email you personally.
PS. Here is a short video from the Mastery Courses, showing how to start with basic transition work, including slow and fast walk. You'll find this video and so many more in the entire course collection.