The Horse Whisperer Generation
By Will Clinging
I received an email that really got me thinking. The writer expressed an appreciation for the fact that my training methods do “not rely on props and games, so common since the ‘horse whisperer’ generation (as I call it) evolved.”
The horse world has changed a lot over the last several years, not necessarily for the better. The introduction of “natural horsemanship” has changed the way people interact with their horses. It has changed the philosophical approach of many people to account for seemingly natural horse behaviour. It has encouraged a relationship based on leadership where we are to be the dominant horse. It has changed how we physically correct our horses with methods that are gentler than those of the past. All of these are good things, right, so where is the problem?
Using natural methods, people work towards a better relationship with their horses with games and groundwork. But I see these same horses learning all kinds of bad behaviours because of the lack of a relationship that actually develops. The problem, I think, is that there isn’t a clear understanding of what our “better relationship” should be like; also, these same people would not know the difference between natural methods and conventional methods if both were presented professionally.
As a trainer, when I look at any horse magazine I see other trainers marketing themselves and their methods, promising that their way is natural, gentler, or kinder. I myself was guilty of this when I started. It has essentially been forced upon trainers to do this to make a living. It is hard to make a good living in the horse training business so using any advantage with the paying public makes it easier to survive. So when the public says that they want a better relationship with their horse and they want to use a natural method, that is what they get. All this marketing has created a generation of horse people who are more concerned with the popular appeal of the methods they are using than with the substance of what they are teaching the horse.
The method many people choose to use with their horse is largely decided upon by which trainer had the better marketing rather than the core of the program itself. The offer to have everything we want with our horse if you just follow step one, two, and three is powerful. There are certainly those who do want more down to earth training, but finding a trainer who is all about the horse can be difficult.
I feel that many people are missing the point about natural horsemanship. Natural to a horse means clearly defined boundaries and authority. It means that if they step out of line there is a consequence. It means if they do not accept the responsibility to behave within the herd-established behaviour, they are severely reprimanded or even banished from that herd.
Natural to us means that we love our horse; it means that we don’t want to use physical pressure to correct the horse when he steps out of line. It means that we will be the dominant horse. Unfortunately, more often than not people don’t know what being the dominant horse means, so there are no defined boundaries. I am not just talking about personal space.
If you use a round pen and chase your horse in circles, do you understand what you are trying to accomplish by doing so? If there is rarely a consequence for bad behaviour that actually gets the horse’s attention, the horse will not accept our authority. This leads to a conflict that is often not dealt with because there is no understanding of where things are breaking down. We are too wishy-washy and our horses know it.
I don’t have a problem if people love their horses, except that it can lead to too much affection and a lack of discipline. The unwillingness to use physical pressure to correct a horse just makes him think we are weak. I am not suggesting or condoning excessive physical correction, but horses communicate and correct each other physically and they don’t often hurt each other. What does it really mean to be the leader for your horse? Does it mean that he is to follow you everywhere and do what he is told to do, or does it mean that you have taught him to be responsible, attentive, and free to make mistakes with a benefit or consequence based on his actions?
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Before natural horsemanship there was just horsemanship. For those who think the old way of training horses was cruel, brutal, or too physical, I would argue that there have always been those who take things too far. I believe that this is still the case. Cruelty and meanness have not gone away. In the past there was a practical approach to training, which was not about games, gimmicks, and marketing.
Main Photo: What is natural to a horse may not be what you consider natural. Horses are very physical with each other and when a lesser ranked horse is out of line, a dominant horse will reprimand him harshly if necessary. Credit: Shutterstock/CCTM