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.

Spice up your Horsemanship Ground Work

Spice up your Horsemanship Ground Work

by Dr. Mike Guerini, Ph.D. (www.dunmovinranch.com)

Ground work is the foundation to successful horsemanship.  At this time of year many of us are getting back to riding and we all to often skip the good review of ground work we all need. I hear things like “It is boring,” “It takes to long,” “My horse is dead broke and does not need ground work.”

In truth, every horse can benefit from ground work.  Every rider can benefit from preparing the horse with ground work. IN doing our ground work correctly, we develop correct footfalls and habits for our horse when moving, we learn how our horse moves (so we can improve this or know when something is wrong), we develop responsiveness, relaxation and respect of our horse, and we further the connection.

We have all heard that we need to make sure our horses move forward, halt, step back, move their haunches, move their shoulders, and go sideways each way.  Well there are so many movements we can add to our ground work to develop better footfalls, better communication and responsiveness, and a better connection.  Here is a short list of 30 things to work on next time you run out of ideas (or get bored) doing ground work.

  1. Walk normal speed
  2. Walk slow speed
  3. Walk fast speed
  4. Walk in circle
  5. Go forward cue
  6. Lunge in circle with reverse to inside
  7. Walk in figure 8’s
  8. Walk in squares (move shoulders or haunches at each corner)
  9. Walk in triangles (move shoulders or haunches at each corner)
  10. Walk in serpentines/cigars
  11. Walk — Ground pole step over where we choose which front foot steps over — Standing still
  12. Walk — Ground pole step over where we choose which front foot steps over — While in motion
  13. Back straight
  14. Back in circles
  15. Back in figure 8’s
  16. Turn on forehand (Small circle with forehand, no pivot foot)
  17. Turn on haunches (Small circle with rear legs, no pivot foot)
  18. Staircase diagonal walk
  19. Shoulder forward (it pushes to the right when you are on the left side of the horse or pushes left when you are on the right side of the horse)
  20. Haunch left and Haunch right  (next two are more exacting movements of this one, so I use this to warm up first)
  21. Three track right and left (horse legs in three tracks, RF track 1, LF and RH track 2, LH track 3)
  22. Four track at walk right and left
  23. Side pass
  24. Trot
  25. Trot fast (extended)
  26. Trot in circle
  27. Trot in figure 8’s
  28. Trot in serpentines/cigars
  29. Trot over ground poles/cavaletti’s
  30. Staircase diagonal Trot

After these 30, there is an entire series of obstacle courses that can be set up for ground work that include some of these along with obstacles. I am sure you could build many many obstacle courses with combinations of these and obstacles.

Please share this blog and let me know how you and your horse are doing with these movements.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com.  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (http://www.coachscorral.com/), an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (http://www.hydrot.com/).Spice up your Horsemanship Ground Work

“Broke,” “Green,” and “Finished” Horses – Is this what we want?

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com)

Have you heard about the “Dead Broke Finished Horse” that a friend purchased the other day.  Or maybe you heard about the trainer down the road that has a “Horse that is Broke to Death” that you need to purchase or ride.  I have seen people get giddy with excitement about the prospect of purchasing a “Broke” Horse.  Still others are joyous about getting a “Green” horse.  Some excitedly tell me that they finally have their horse “Broke” and can get some things done now and maybe even move on to getting him “Finished”. Normally about this time when I hear these stores I am grimacing and groaning.  Broke and Green are not terms I want to use to describe the quality horses I work with and here is why.

Many of the online definitions for the word “Broke” center around — having no money; bankrupt; To cause to separate into pieces suddenly or violently; smash;  To vary or disrupt the uniformity or continuity of.

As we move on and look at the online definitions of “Green” we find —  The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between yellow and blue, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 490 to 570 nanometers. (Had to throw in the nanometer range for a few of the science geek friends who know me).  I have not seen a naturally green colored horse so far in my life.

For these first two words — nothing in the definitions I just shared with you are useful in describing a good quality horse.  Surely most people know what you might be speaking about but that is the problem — these two words are totally open to interpretation based on experiences.

Finally we come to the description of “Finished” —  Highly accomplished or skilled; polished; Having no more use, value, or potential; washed-up; nothing more can be done with the item. Okay — so I might not mind having a highly accomplished or skilled horse but  I certainly do not want a horse that is “washed-up”.

What is the solution to this problem?  In the next section of this blog I want to share with you how I describe the skill levels of horses.  With this description we shall all understand the ability of horses.

In many things — a picture is worth a thousand words. I shall begin with Figure 1 that summarizes how I describe and categorize horses. I welcome your thoughts and comments and hope this blog is shared and discussed so we can all cease using terms like Broke, Dead Broke, Green, and Finished..

HORSE SKILL LEVELS

Figure 1: Horse Skill Levels

Foundation —  On the ground or in the saddle the horse goes forward calmly, backs, and moves left and right (side to side).  The horse knows to respect your space, stand quietly, tie to a solid object, pick up feet on command, and be groomed — all in a safe manner.  The horse is learning that pressure and release cues/aides mean something and the horse responds.

Mindful — A horse that is mindful has awareness.  Certainly cues and aides are something that the Foundation horse learns. When they reach the mindful level, pre-signals and soft/subtle aides guide the horse.  We might describe a horse being mindful as one that is moving forward and is feeling the rider and knows what is coming and responds with the lightest possible aide.  Once you have a horse at the mindful level you are making that connection that leads to harmony, rhythm, relaxation and balance.  A mindful horse is seeking guidance from the rider to know what it should do next.

Practiced — This is a horse that understands the job and can get the job done.  This horse can easily respond to aides with athleticism, quickness, and agility.  With a practiced horse we no longer see hesitation by the horse.  The practiced horse is one that comes with experience and is working towards that perfect maneuver with the rider.  A practiced horse is frequently limited by the ability of the rider.

Competent — This is a horse that has the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully — sometimes even when the rider is lost in the saddle.  99% of the time the competent horse can respond to the aide without hesitation and achieve success.  A horse at this level excels with a good rider but can also help the less experienced rider succeed.

As I wrote this blog to describe skills of the horse it dawned on me that we might be able to describe riders in much the same way.  I look forward to you sharing and commenting on this information.

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Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at http://www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).