Your Turn: The Next Step In Horsemanship? Science!

Contributor Melanie O’Neill explains why natural horsemanship may not be as “all-natural” as it sounds, according to the principles of Equitation Science.

Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Photo by Jonathan Platt.

I’m an all-natural kind of woman. I don’t wear make-up or high heels. I had three babies by natural childbirth and breast fed them. I garden organically and have been a vegetarian for 35 years. So as a horseperson and trainer, one would think I would follow Natural Horsemanship (NH). But I don’t: I have watched many people practice what they call Natural Horsemanship and I don’t like what I see.

I am a scientist. I ask “why.” I read scientific, peer-reviewed studies. To me, horse behavior has to do with biology, genetics, nutrition, evolution, and psychology, not horse whispering. So I was led to Equitation Science (equitation just means horsemanship, so you could also say horsemanship science).

Equitation Science was started by two Australian horsemen, Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean. They are PhD scientists who applied the scientific method to promote welfare in training, primarily by applying learning theory to training horses. Everyone uses learning theory in horse training; the difference is whether or not you realize it and if you use it in a humane way. I have made the effort to find out the science behind good horsemanship.

Equitation Science has helped collect scientific studies that are made about horses. Many of these studies deal with natural horse behavior. Anthropomorphism has no place in animal behavior studies, but many times that is what happened: The herd leadership idea is purely human. Sometimes you hear about the alpha mare or the stallion leading his mares (hey, I loved Spirit too). Actual scientific observations of herd dynamics demonstrate this is not reality — horses develop long-term friendships with one another and hierarchies are typically established only when resources are scarce. These hierarchies are flexible, sometimes triangular.

For example, a Bay is over a Chestnut who is over a Gray but the Gray may be over the Bay. The horse that moves the herd to water is often a younger one that was thirsty. How does this translate to training? There is no establishing leadership, but you can be your horse’s friend. He can like you or not. So don’t bully your horse and think you are being a leader: You are just being a jerk. If a horse is afraid of you it may seem like respect, but is it really?

The idea of respecting you or your space has no basis in equine behavior. I’ve seen my horse walk up to a horse friend and rub his head on him, so I guess no personal space issue there. His buddy would stand there, walk away or begin an allogrooming session.  However, I have also seen my horse give a wide berth to a horse with gate issues. Does he have more respect for the gate horse? I think not; he knows gate horse is crazy so he stays out of the way. (Alright, that may have been a little anthropomorphic.) Really, my horse has learned the consequences of getting too close to gate horse when he’s at the gate. Don’t be a gate horse.

Round pen work is a popular NH exercise, but I have seen many amateurs doing round pen work during which the horse is stressed — or worse, truly fearful — sometimes even trying to jump out. I would rather have my horse on a lunge line where I can control speed, tempo, bend, and encourage stretching. I also use lunging judiciously as moving on a small circle is damaging to ligaments and tendons. It is actually frightening to see professionals, many of whom are NH trainers, chasing horses with a whip in a round pen. I think most of this comes from the join-up (registered trademark) hype. Join-up may look peaceful, but it is not: The horse is in a state of fear or anxiety.

One of the principles of Equitation Science is to avoid flight responses. Flight responses are a result of fear, and fear has negative effects on the body (physical stress) and the mind (emotional stress which links strongly to memory). Basically, the horse feels he is in danger. Monty Roberts’ own website says to act like a predator. Behavioral scientists have studied join-up and concluded it is a result of applied pressure (chasing) and release (quiet movements), nothing to do with body language or horse whispering. In fact, they used a remote control car the same way a person works a horse in a round pen. They were able to have the horse join-up (registered trademark) with the RC car.

Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Photo by Jonathan Platt.

Rope halters annoy me, but they seem to be obligatory in the natural horseman camp. The finer rope is sharper and applies more pressure per square inch, so it is more severe. Some have knots that were designed to put even more pressure on the sensitive nerves of the muzzle. I find rope halters awkward for lunging: You can’t properly ask for bend or maintain connection. The worst way I have seen rope halters being used is when a line is swung back and forth to get the horse to back up. The horse’s head usually goes up in the air; this creates tension in the back and throughout the body, thus losing any relaxation.

In Equitation Science we practice using minimal arousal. Biomechanically, a horse with head down is more relaxed and supple. In our training, we try to keep the head down; this lowers blood pressure. The key to head down is that it’s not forced. It’s welcoming them to relax. Under saddle is not about gadgets to pull the head down — it’s about teaching them to flex laterally and longitudinally and finding comfort and power in using their body correctly.

One of the good things about Natural Horsemanship is that it encourages groundwork. Groundwork teaches the horse some basic training ideas without the stress of a rider to worry about. I see many natural horsemen teaching the horse to follow their body. The horses follow, stop, back up, etc, all without a touch. It’s nice trick, but how does that help you when you ride? Andrew McLean feels that teaching them to move off your body leads to conflict in training. Have you ever walked your horse down the barn aisle, put them on the cross-ties and had them try to follow you as you walk away? Or how about “follow me into this horse trailer, but now don’t follow me out.” So you have taught them “follow me” but randomly thrown in “don’t follow me”. This leads to stress and conflict behaviors.

The difference between NH and the horsemanship science I practice is groundwork applies directly to under saddle work. Use similar aids on the ground as those used when ridden. When leading, I teach them walk forward or stop with a cue from the reins or the lead. I work to make the aid as light as possible and ensure they are listening to the aid and not the body. When you ride you use the same stop cue. Equitation Science says to train persistence of responses. A horse should go until you give the cue to stop. They should also stay at the same speed, direction, and bend. If you have to keep saying go whether riding or working in hand, your horse doesn’t understand what go means.

Equitation Science is not a method.  It uses the basic psychology of learning theory and equine behavior studies. It doesn’t have steps to master or require any special equipment. It requires an open mind to the advances in science. If you say “but it works for me,” that is called anecdotal evidence. If you say “this is how I have always done it” that is refusal to learn and become better. Natural Horsemanship may have been an advance over the physical abuse of cowboys breaking horses, but it’s time for the next step in horsemanship and I believe that involves science.

Melanie O’Neill is an event and dressage rider from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and a practitioner members of Equitation Science. She organizes dressage shows at Bucks County Horse Park and works at a veterinary clinic. She operates her own business for riding lessons and training as well as equine massage, fecal testing and nutrition consultations. She is married with three sons.

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