"A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities." - Nuno Oliveira
Natural horsemanship or conventional –which training style is more effective? This question is being asked in increasing frequency these days. But how can you choose between the two when both parties possess trainers who swear by the method as well as riders who implemented it and found it sorely lacking? How do you decide if that new approach highlighted by Horse Illustrated, or demonstrated at last summer's clinic will even work for you when it seems that the results shown are all too different from the ones you achieve at home, when you're on your own?
To answer this we first need to look at a second question: What causes this variability? As each situation is different it could truly be any number of reasons, but there are several core aspects of your horse's life that will have an enormous impact on how efficiently they respond to your training -or anyone else's, for that matter.
Today we will take a look at the first -and possibly greatest- aspect: the basis from which the training method is applied. Any training style (both natural and conventional) can be a method of great communication when used correctly, or a torture if used incorrectly –even if this misuse is unintentional.
Let me provide an example. An inexperienced rider (we'll call her Jane), new to horse ownership, is working with a lame horse and is innocently oblivious of its pain. Jane does not yet have the horseman's "eye" that notices such symptoms, and consequently takes no action to remedy the issue. Her mare (which we will name Tidbit) is like most horses, possessing a generously forgiving nature and puts up with this unintentional suffering for some time. But it is only when Tidbit begins to balk at cues and adopts a generally unhappy; high-strung spirit while under saddle does Jane notice anything is amiss. No longer is she working with sweet, gentle-natured Tidbit, but an altogether sour-tempered creature. "What happened to my loving Tidbit?" Jane might ask herself. She goes through all the routine corrections in her training-method encyclopedia but none remedy this "sudden" and "unexplainable" change in behavior. The unsuspecting Jane begins to rethink her training method. "Maybe Tidbit is becoming disrespectful. Maybe," she wonders, "Tidbit will no longer listen if I use this method." This inexperienced horseman sets out to find something better. More effective. Something she can do herself and will achieve fast results –she would like the old Tidbit back as soon as possible. And so begins an unfortunate downward spiral in the relationship between horse and well-meaning rider.
It is easy, observing as an individual outside this situation, to see the obvious root of the problem, and we know the consequent issues were not caused by the training method.
The root lied in the manner of how –and when- it was applied. Jane did not know better and was applying her method at the incorrect time. Her horse was lame, and when its body-language reflected that pain, the training method became cruel because it was punishing a response, not a behavior. And as a result, her relationship with Tidbit became strained.
People are always learning –and sometimes the wrong things!- and there is no way for a person to always be able to identify the subtle difference between a horse responding from pain and genuinely behaving in an unacceptable fashion. Even the most experienced rider will never know everything there is to know about horses and riding, and the danger of trying to find a training method based solely on how quickly it could allow you to achieve a desired result –even if it's for the best of intentions- is that it can cause you to overlook what started the behaviors in the first place.
Unfortunately, both natural and conventional training styles are riddled with quick-fixes and shortcuts –as well as trainers who recommend them. Both are also guilty of marketing cure-alls or gadgets guaranteed to cure your horse of certain behaviors or mannerisms – and these (no matter the training style) will deteriorate your relationship with your equine friend.
These seemingly easy solutions can be deceptive because they cause riders to forget that the real issue lies at the source of the problem. If you are not delving to the root of the problem, you will only be masking symptoms of a larger whole.
They make correctly treating a problem more difficult because they often create more problems in their effort to fix the original. If you succeed in quelling one problem, another will eventually rise to take its place. A horse suffering from lameness might not show any outward signs at first other than apparent stiffness, but if a rider does not observe that and realize the root of the issue it can escalate to limping, avoidance of cues, moving out more lazily than general or rushing through strides, have a lack of collection and balance, and develop a keen sourness to being ridden or worked in general. All these symptoms can be interpreted to the horse being crabby, or just being difficult and sour tempered. One can attempt to remedy this through spurs, a richer diet, draw reins, correction, etc. And while none of these things in themselves are bad, they will only worsen the situation because they were not addressing the root cause: That the horse is in pain.
Which brings us to an extremely important note: When considering ANY training style or method it is vital to judge how it will affect your horsemanship as a whole. Horsemanship is not only about developing one's skills on the ground and under saddle, but also in the husbandry the animal receives and especially in developing one's eye for noticing the subtle signs that show an animal that is in need of something or in pain. This is the heart of horsemanship. Developing this eye is what separates the good riders from the great, because, in the words of Nuno Olivera, "A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities."
When you develop this "eye" for horses –specifically your own- your horse will perform more willingly because you will never push him beyond what he is capable of doing –mentally, physically, and emotionally. Undesirable behaviors will become less frequent and some will even stop altogether because you will be looking for (and see!) the little things your horse is trying to tell you. Negative behavior is often times the horse's only means of speaking, and they oftentimes resort to it when we fail to pay attention to more subtle body-language. As this eye becomes more skilled in reading horses body-language, he will not have to behave negatively to make you to see something is wrong.
So maybe riders should not look through the lens of "Natural or Conventional? This method or that?" but instead ask themselves, "Will this method better my horsemanship, or cause it to deteriorate?"
How you answer this question, no matter the method, is the key to bettering your relationship between horse and rider.
Next week we will take a closer look at the differences between the two training styles, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and how differently each develops your horsemanship.
To read part 1 of this series, click Here.
Questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you!