Natural Horsemanship (NH) — Onward and Forward – Moving beyond NH to continue to improve horse and rider.

Natural Horsemanship (NH) — Onward and Forward – Moving beyond NH to continue to improve horse and rider.

By: Michael Guerini, B.S., M.S., Ph.D.

Since the early 1980’s, Natural Horsemanship (NH) has seen rapid growth in popularity – particularly among western riders. The techniques vary but are known for focusing on ground work, getting respect, developing a better relationship with the horse, and of course the rope halter has become famously associated with this way of working with horses.

Having apprenticed with a natural horsemanship trainer and having used many of the ideas in my training/coaching, I am very familiar and happy with what I have learned and still continue to use in many situations. For me, Natural Horsemanship methods are a good base for many riders/owners and enthusiasts.

In this blog, I share some thoughts on the good aspects of NH, some of the not so good aspects, and then I offer suggestions on areas needing more focus that currently are not always considered from the NH offerings.

What it has done – the good
1) Ground manners for horses have improved.
2) Many people spend more time working with their horses because they have acquired information that has helped boost confidence or skill of the handler/rider.
3) There has been an increase in rider ability to do homework directed by a trainer and this has opened up more competition and riding options for horse/rider.
4) In most situations, the welfare of the horse has improved … but there are a few “natural methods” that are not welfare-based.
5) There are a number of other good things including getting more people to talk about horse training and building more horse friendly communities — to name just a few.

What it has done – the not so good
1) Developed a quasi-scientific narrative of the ethology of horse behavior. We think we know what a horse behavior means because somebody said something about that behavior – but we really do not have concrete proof gathered by scientific observational methods for all the ideas we espouse.
2) Allowed some folks to think that if they have the “right” halter or pad or saddle or flag (on a stick – sometimes it has a string and not a flag) or “right” type of reins/bit/spurs – folks can branch out and train horses for friends and family or start colts.
3) Celebrated two and three day colt starting ideology. Yes – the colt can be started in this period of time but the key is that it is just a start. These events are a little too commercial and a little too unrealistic and a little too romanticized. I say this because I have met people along my journey who decided that after going to a few of these colt starting events, watching some DVD’s, watching YouTube videos, and attending a few clinics – they can train the excitable or flighty or troubled or green horse. Seeing the after effects of the rider with broken bones or broken confidence or the horse that has been injured is not a good thing.

We should (and MUST for the welfare and protection and development) of the horse (and rider) realize that Natural Horsemanship is one step on our journey to becoming horsewomen/men – we must continue to learn and improve and include other ideas and philosophies into our horsemanship toolkit.

Here are just a few areas I suggest need more attention because we do not often encounter these topics in the Natural Horsemanship circles and discussions.
1) Asymmetry/Laterality/Straightness – There has been a great expansion into understanding the sidedness of a horse (left or right), where horses may have asymmetrical features, and a reminder (from classical horsemanship) that straightness is a key to longevity and proper movement. Understanding these issues can improve the performance and longevity of the horse. This is most especially important for further refining the use of the round pen that has strong ties to NH….we need to make certain that our work in the round pen (and riding) is done right for the progressive development of the horse and with a focus on improving its Asymmetry/Laterality/Straightness.
2) BALANCE — Learn more about balance of the horse and balance of the rider. How the rider sits (straight or leaning) … how the rider uses her/his seat bones … all affect the balance of the horse. An imbalanced rider can put the horse out of balance and create situations that may lead to physical issues of the horse. Without balance … we have lameness, injury, and loss of longevity. There are also the ideas of mental and emotional balance that come into play especially for the rider and in some cases most certainly for the horse. We need to focus on seat and leg and understanding how the horse shifts its weight for balance and we need to discuss how the rider weight shifts can affect hose balance. We need to understand the physics of the head and neck in relation to balance of the balance parts for the horse. Additionally, the Classical Training scale speaks to relaxation as a key level of the training pyramid and most assuredly, in relaxation…the mind, body, and emotions can come into balance.
3) POSTURE — Increase our understanding and abilities to help horses (and riders) develop correct postures. First, we have to understand anatomy… bones and muscles and fascia … and then we need to understand a little more about form and function (how things look and how they work). Again back to the round pen use – we need to make sure that we are promoting good posture by the horse working in the round pen (simply running a horse continually in a counterbent form with the head up and the back hollowed out is not correct for posture). Further on about posture … we need to understand what pulling the head around by the reins while we are standing still (and then also while we are moving) may be doing to injure the neck of the horse.
4) Saddle/Tack Fit. Saddle Fit, bit shape, bit size, bit type, pad type, pad/saddle length, leg wraps … we need to stop and ask for evidenced based answers for how to select what is right for the horse. Just because a well-known NH person sells a saddle or bit or pad … does not mean it is right or the right fit for your horse. There are some really good NH people out there that do saddle fit correctly (I have seen them measure the saddle/tree to fit the horse) … and many know a great deal about bits … and in almost 95% of these situations where I have seen good happen in the area of saddle/tack fit – the horse is fitted directly for these pieces of tack (meaning that the saddle or bit is not bought at an expo or online – it is purchased with good guidance by the maker/seller).

I am not suggesting to anyone that we throw Natural Horsemanship methods away or that they are wrong….I AM suggesting that we need to take the next steps and focus on how we can further the conversation and do more (do better) for the horse.

There are a number of individuals and organizations that can help horse and rider gain more knowledge for the betterment of the horse. I know that my list here will not be complete … but I offer a number of people and organizations that I go to for further information to continue to advance my learning. Organizations – International Society for Equitation Science, riderfitness.com, Equinology, 4DimensionDressage International – to name just a few. People – Manolo Mendez, Thomas Ritter, Deb Bennett, Marijke de Jong, teachings of Sally Swift and Mark Russell — again this is a short list and there are so many more who are willing to educate for the benefit of the horse.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and you are most welcome to share this blog if you wish.
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Dr. Mike Guerini is a scientist, author, and horsemanship Coach in Gilroy California. Mike is focused on balanced horsemanship that takes into account the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the horse. Mike is also the co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T. You can learn more about Dr. Mike at http://www.dunmovinranch.com.

Lameness – Thoughts on how can you be better prepared to help your Veterinarian diagnose and treat your horse

Lameness – Thoughts on how can you be better prepared to help your Veterinarian diagnose and treat your horse

By: Mike Guerini, B.S., M.S., Ph.D.

Lameness can be defined in many ways. One of my favorite definitions comes from a course I took that was taught by Dr. Carrie Schlachter (DVM) who defined lameness as – “a loss of balanced and fluid motion through a variety of movements, any alteration in a horse’s gait which creates asymmetrical movement, any change in performance level or pattern, any weakness that alters the normal performance level of a horse.”

In a lameness examination, the veterinarian will often proceed through these five steps:

  • Learn the history of the horse and the complaint about what is wrong with the movement.
    1. In this — it is important to be able to explain when you last felt or saw what is normal for the horse. Owners and Riders and Trainers often disagree on when normal was last seen so it is important to get input from everyone.
  • Perform a visual and physical examination – often referred to as a static exam.
    1. Touch and sight to see where the horse may have bumps, bruises, asymmetry, etc.
  • Perform a movement exam
    1. Visual and/or with diagnostic tools that are on the horse to measure the movement.
  • Further examination components to identify the diagnosis
    1. Can include nerve blocking and imaging (ultrasound, radiology, MRI, CT scan, nuclear scintigraphy)
  • Development of a treatment plan (which in some cases may also include a veterinarian recommended rehab plan)

Note: — As owners, trainers, and coaches …we can all be challenged at times with determining what leg is responsible for the lameness. One way to identify the responsible leg in the front end of the horse — is to remember, “down on the sound,” which is a way to remember that the horse’s head goes down when the sound leg is on the ground.

Those of us who see a horse each and every day can be regarded as experts on how a horse moves normally … but when things are not normal … we are often challenged to explain what the abnormality is in the movement of the horse. As we ride, we may feel something not right – again – it is the rider that understands the feel but it is sometimes difficult to explain what is off in the feeling of how the horse is moving.

Being prepared to explain what is normal for your horse:

This can be a challenge because not all of us use the same words to explain what we see or feel. Also, when anxiety creeps in when we have a lame horse … it can be difficult to remember everything we have felt or seen with this horse in the past days or weeks.

So how do we overcome this challenge of explaining normal – video can save the day. You can record (high quality video camera or your cell phone) and easily show your veterinarian what is normal. Many veterinarians are willing to look at a quick video (please have these videos easy to find and share) to help him/her see what your horse looks like normally.

With a focused protocol (such as this one recommended here) we can have a library (on our phone) of how our horse(s) moves normally. In all of these guidelines — make sure that you keep the entire horse in the view screen

  • Video horse at Walk and Trot in a straight line filmed from behind (coming and going).
    1. 1 walk line of about 100 feet coming and going.
    2. 3 Trot lines of about 100 feet coming and going.
  • Video horse at Walk and Trot in a straight line filmed from the side.
    1. 1 walk line of about 100 feet.
    2. 3 Trot lines of about 100 feet.
  • Video horse at Walk and Trot in a circle (film from inside or from outside the circle … just be consistent on position from where you film and make sure to capture the whole horse). These circles can be 10 to 30 feet in diameter.
    1. 1 circle at walk to the left.
    2. 3 Trot circles to the left.
    3. 1 circle at walk to the right.
    4. 3 trot circles to the right.
  • Capture the above straight lines and circles on both hard ground (packed dirt is okay) and on soft ground.
  • The above can be done in-hand (on the halter) and it is also a great idea to do these same videos with the normal rider on the back.
    1. When lameness is seen with the rider and not (or not as easily) with the horse moving in hand … there can be rider/tack related issues that are creating or enhancing the lameness.
      1. Some of these rider/tack issues can include saddle fit, rider balance, rein contact (rein lameness) …and maybe a few other issues that also need to be corrected while the horse is treated/in rehab.

The above protocol for capturing video is really helpful to use when you want to explain normal. You can capture video yearly, semi-annually, or quarterly (or more often if you wish).

For the suggestion of recording this video with the rider – this focused protocol is better than capturing video of a horse in a class/test at a show because at the show you do not have total control of the distance traveled, number of circles ridden or the aspect from which to video.

Other benefits of these videos include:  being able to see rider changes in position or balance, see rider changes in rein contact, and evaluate the progressive development of your horse in hand verses under saddle.

I know this blog gives you some guidance on how to be better prepared for a possible lameness in your horse.  You are welcome to share this blog post and thank you for reading.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a scientist, author, and horsemanship Coach in Gilroy California.  Mike is focused on balanced horsemanship that takes into account the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the horse.  Mike is also the co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T.  You can learn more about Dr. Mike at www.dunmovinranch.com.