Wednesday, June 4, 2008


There are a lot of techniques out there for everything, these days, especially horse training.

Everyone thinks they have the ultimate training regime, to make the best possible horse. A few people are open enough to accept new ideas, and incorporate them into their own ways of doing things.

I'm going to talk about a couple of different philosophies and how I feel about them, here. Feel free to put in your own opinions in the comments, of course.

We'll start with the most recognizable: Natural Horsemanship. Pat Parelli and Clinton Anderson are two of the more famous advocates of this philosophy.

I like Natural Horsemanship, the basis of the technique is working with your horse in a way that speaks to his natural inclinations, that he can understand. There are a lot of things that can be accomplished this way, and while they may take a little longer, I think they turn out a better understanding between horse and rider.

I use several of Parelli and Anderson's specific techniques myself, from teaching a horse to lower it's head to avoid needing a stepladder to bridle or halter them, to using the round pen to establish or re-establish my dominant position in the herd. I use other techniques that are Natural-esque that I've figured out on my own, and a couple of those are what brought Monkey to the point of showing properly at halter from not wanting to lead at all, and also brought him to the point where you can pick up his feet without him going bug nuts on you.

One thing that I feel Natural Horsemanship is lacking, for all of it's value in communicating with the horse on a level that his mind can understand easily, is the consequences side of the coin.

Yes, Anderson uses harder work as a consequence, especially for gate or barn sour horses, but a herd doesn't trot or lope a horse in circles if they do something the more dominant members don't like. That's a consequence that the horse comes to understand, but not one that speaks to his natural bent.

Horses in a herd environment punish bad behavior with nips, and kicks. So why is it wrong to slap a hip with a cupped hand to simulate a light kick, or use fingers on a neck to intimate a nip? This is how your horse's mother taught him the social niceties of living in a herd in the first place. I'm not talking about beating a horse, or even making it hurt, I'm talking about just enough to get their attention.

Again, take Monkey for example. When I was working with him on his feet, it started as a matter of trust. I had to desensitize him and let him know that I wasn't going to hurt his fragile legs when I handled them. We spent a long time after workouts just touching and rubbing and asking him to stand still when I did it.

After a while, he started letting me pick his feet up. So I started working with him when he wasn't worked. And he went right back to his old habits. He knew what I wanted from him. He simply didn't want to comply. A little patient work, with very little result, and I found myself in a conundrum. That is, until I tried a back foot and he kicked at me, and I reacted instead of thinking. I hauled off and smacked him on the hip, it made an impact and a sound, and he started a bit. Then I went to pick up the foot again, and lo and behold he didn't try kicking me again.

I had already established my dominance in his herd, and he was responding to the natural heirarchy. I didn't hurt him, but I did give a consequence that made him understand that that wasn't acceptable, in a way that he's learned and lived with all his life.

That's what I mean about consequences the horse understands.

Now, a little further down the line from Natural Horsemanship falls Alexander Nevzorov. If you haven't heard of him, and I would be surprised if very many of you have, you can search his last name and find his website.

His precept, that a horse should be trained without use of a bit, spurs, or any form of restraint, is a bit extreme for me. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the kind of communication and camaraderie that allows you to work with your horse without those things. I just don't agree with doing away with them altogether.

Frankly, I don't see how it could possibly be safe. Of course, if you're going to learn his methods, or even participate in the online school forums, he requires that you first stop riding for at least a year, and reject completely all horse "sports." Which takes out the possibility of an exited horse running off in a crowd setting, to be sure.

The thing that really rubs me the wrong way about Nevzorov is the ego, honestly. He's demanding of his "students" and that's fine, but he's also placing demands on the general public, vilifying anyone who rides with a bit at all, and maintaining a PETA-throwing-paint-on-furs-esque drive to show the cruelty of bits in general.

Oh, and the hypocrisy of demanding that students or even curious passers by swear to his ideals before even going to his online forums, and at the same time maintaining a photo gallery of the "vicious sports" and encouraging the like-minded to haunt events to get more of these pictures is astounding.

So, while he may have methods that are useful, insightful, and downright genius, I don't know them. I won't go into his forums to see if any of them are posted, and I won't purchase his video.

You can find video of his results on the internet, on Youtube, and I admit that they're rather impressive. It's a beautiful thing to see a horse playing with a person at complete liberty, jumping and kicking and never touching the man standing in front of them. It's enough to give you chills when you see the horse perform a flawless courbette without any prompting at all, just because they enjoy it.

It's too bad that the master of these techniques is more concerned about immediately solving the problem he perceives in horsemanship than in sharing the knowledge that allows him to do these things. He'd probably win more hearts freely showing people his techniques and speaking gently against the things he eschews, than by adopting his extremist moral high ground.

I have to wonder how many people out there are like me, intrigued by the concept and thirsty for knowledge, but completely turned off by the manner in which the precept is presented?

Surely I'm not the only one?


PawPaw said...

I don't know that I ever fell in a school of training, but I did what worked. Of course, some of it involved slapping the horse. Not mean, not angry, just like popping a toddler on the diaper to let him know that he was being bad.

There's something to be said for paying attention to how the horse responds to the bit. I had one mare with a soft mouth and even the gentlest bit caused her pain. So I went to a hackamore and taught her to neck rein with the hack. She loved it, responded well, and would do anything I asked her to do. She became a horse that I could put a kid on with total confidence.

Then there was Fred, an abused gelding that I acquired. Fred responded well to a snaffle bit. He was ornery with a lot of bad habits when I got him, and after teaching him that he could trust me not to hurt him, there were still times when I'd have to slap him, or put a knee in his ribs. However, Fred became the horse that I could put a toddler on. He'd lock up solid, because he knew that I was in charge and if he hurt the child I'd be very angry. He wouldn't move until I led him and we spent many a pleasant afternoon with me leading him around the paddock with some small child on his back.

I think you're on the right track.

I bet that Nevzorov would have a stroke if you showed up at his place with a horse that used a tie-down. It's all what works with the horse.

Pay attention to the experts, certainly, but let your own brain be the guide.

Horse Prof said...

Interesting ideas, Farmgirl. I, too, try to take what I like from each individual and leave the rest.

In this area Parelli has somewhat of a bad name, mostly by the old cowboys who laugh at the idea of people trying to do things slower, without force. Personally, there are many of his techniques which I disagree with, but many more which I use regularly. I especially LOVE his halters and leads, although they are over-priced.

I had never heard of Alexander Nevzorov until you mentioned him, so I had to go look him up. He seems to be trying to make enemies with a large portion of the horse community.

He is obviously an incredible horseman and is entitled to his opinions. However, he is a little over the top as to what he considers cruel.

Yes, bits can be cruel. But a snaffle in the wrong hands can be a lot crueler than a spade in the right hands.

Spurs can be cruel too, no doubt about that. But it's more about how they're used, not their use in general. The purpose of a spur is not to reprimand, but to accentuate your aid. (There was a really good article on spurs in AQHA's bi-monthly publication this month).

The other issue I have with the natural horsemanship trainers is the type of people they attract and their lack of ability to keep them safe.

They attract the rankest of beginners and the people who don't want to "hurt" their horse. The natural horsemanship techniques take a fair bit of skill to master, which most of their audience lacks.

These people watch one video or attend one clinic, then seriously injure themselves when they go home and try it themselves. Or screw with their horse's mind. I've seen multiple horses round penned badly. Typically, they were much harder to catch after that and warier around people in general.

So, 3 pages later, just take what you like from each person, leave the rest. It's all what works for an individual anyway.

English rider comes western said...

horse prof- a person after my own heart, i have fought long and hard with some people over here in england, who believe pretty much what this Nevzorov believes. i will ride a horse in a stronger bit, if it keeps me safe, but use it softly, i will change that horse back to a snaffle or hackamore if someone with less gentle hands gets on, its about the rider.
i believe the same for spurs, they are not always cruel, and if used correctly mearly make your job a lot easier on top!

i have done parelli with my first horse and it worked wonders, after being kicked 2 days after we brought her, she proceeded to scare the life out of us by rearing constantly and just being stupid. we found parelli a year after getting her, and the horse i see down the yard, although we no longer own her she is on the same yard, is one which you can play with in the school, you can turn her loose and she will run to follow, and she enjoys it.

BUT there is many horses for which parelli is too harsh, if they dont do it, it gets tough, it depends on the horses temperement.

Also parelli uses a lot of repition, gets a little tedious after a while, but having seen horses working, doing dressage, showjumping bareback with no headcollar, nothing, that is a joy to see, and something i would strive to with a horse anyday, for them to want to do that for me.

i think that what everyone else has said is true, you must take the useful bits from methods and discard the rest, you should not be so blinded as to completely follow one method.

i also agree with horse prof on the bit about beginners, things like this should be handled with care, not used as a fast track into the world of horse knowledge.

just listen to your horse, they'll tell you wen you find the right way of communicating with them, and you'll see the results!

Holly said...

I'm part of a less popular training club. I clicker train. I'm a cookie trainer. I use a marker to mark the correct behavior and I reward that behavior, not always with food, but sometimes with food. I use .all. 4 quadrants of operant conditioning, +P, -P, +R and -R. I use +R the most and +P the least. If I have to resort to +P, then one of several things has occurred.

1. I've planned poorly. It's my job to think out the training plan and adjust to each individual being trained.

2. My training plan is not chunked down enough. I'm not explaining it in a way the training subject can understand.

3. I've moved too fast to the next step and the training subject isn't ready for that yet.

I've used operant conditioning on my kids, my coworkers, my horses, my dogs and my birds.

most people don't understand .how. to use all 4 quadrants and so they make huge leaps in what they think I do, or why I do what I do when I do it.

I look at and plan my training around facts....what I can see, not what I think, they might be thinking.