Posts Tagged ‘natural horsemanship’

My friend Eileen, who owns James and Madison, né Windsong’s Justa Handful and Justa Royal Sojourner (respectively) by my stallion Windsong’s Justa Firestorm, sent me an article that speaks volumes to the growing trend of close examination of the natural horsemanship trend. Every trend, even those so ingrained that certain features become permanent features of their general landscape, has its heyday and passes over eventually. I have been a rather careful critic of much of natural horsemanship as it is practiced by the average horse person, and I have to confess to being thrilled that Eleanor Van Natta, author of the blog, Sage by Nature, wrote a Nov. 25 article in horsecity.com entitled, A Face-Off With Rope Halters: They’re Knot So Natural After All . The cute title gives an indication of one of her objections to the ubiquitous natural horsemanship-type rope halter.

typical rope halter

Eleanor describes a vet visit in which the vet removed her horse’s rope halter and replaced it with one of her own before working with her horse. For Eleanor, this was a rude awakening. She describes herself as shocked to discover that her vet did not feel rope halters were conducive to horse whispering. According to the veterinarian from that day, Dr. Suzan Seeyle, D.V.M., of Quantum Vet in Yelm, WA,

Rope halters are very lightweight, which is nice, but the knots that are positioned in various places and number are very harsh and severe on the sensitive face of the horse. Rope halters can certainly demand a horse’s immediate attention, but is communication through pain really what we are after? When was screaming more effective than whispering?

She goes on to wonder how many amateur horse owners and trainers who enjoy the rapid results they get with the rope halter can get the same results without it. She also wonders whether they are aware of the potential fact that the “release” or reaction of the horse is due to pain or anticipation of pain rather than obedience and responsiveness.

Just about every user of the rope halter is a victim of flashy marketing or the persuasion of someone who should know better. I know I was. Virtually every trainer and riding teacher I ever had used them–except Wizard Liz, who, in her typical Yankee fashion, “could see no real use for those silly things.” Unless used by exceedingly capable hands (think John Lyons), the potential for causing harm and teaching our horses that the halter is a control device rather than a communication device is too great.

She says,

I kept finding as I scanned and Googled the internet … that the rope halter was an effective means of communication (except for a few horror stories in forums of horses tied up in rope halters or the halters left on them for extended periods of time). But are you simply communicating that you can inflict pain and discomfort on this animal with minimal effort? I had been convinced by natural horsemanship books and videos before buying my halter that the horse is teaching himself with these halters because of the release from pressure. The word pain was never actually used the words used were “discomfort” and “pressure”. A horse is so sensitive as to be able to feel the landing of a fly that weighs less than the weight of a few average sized raindrops. I have made many mistakes with my horse over the years, but perhaps not respecting the lightness of a fly has been one of the biggest mistakes of all. I am a big believer now that there is something inherently wrong with putting something on that sensitive face that can inflict pain for the sake of control and all the while calling it “natural”.

In addition to the dangers caused by ineffective use of the halter in training and the design of the halter itself, there is the plethora of inexpensive knockoff rope halters with poor workmanship and incorrect proportions. Together with inexpert handling, a cheap halter from the local tractor shop might as well be an instrument of torture. Yet the untrained student of natural horsemanship is thrilled with the immediate results. The horse moves backward off the cue from the leadrope and halter lickety-split.

There are some really good rope halters out there along with the bad. The ones I used are made by The Halter Lady, who uses the finest materials, and only makes custom-fitted halters. If you want a halter with no knots on the noseband, that’s what you get. She also makes sidepull halters. I used to love hacking in a sidepull.

Another objection to training with a rope halter is that it makes it awfully easy to pull a horse off balance with just a small correction. The lead rope attaches either permanently or with a snap to a spot just under the jaw. Causing the horse’s head to tilt in this way is definitely not natural. You won’t see a young horse do this in the pasture. Proponents of the rope halter will tell you that it’s pressure on the poll that makes the thing work. But it’s really a tug under the chin. Watch it happen–the head tilts to one side first. Then the poll gives. Folks who start young horses exclusively in the rope halter and lead often have trouble teaching their horses to get and stay in balance for this very reason.

I am glad folks are starting to see that, along with the good things it has brought to the world of training horses and riding them, natural horsemanship has some faults. We need to examine everything we do very carefully.

Later this week, I will describe the Tellington TTouch concept of haltering and leading, and how I finally came to accept and embrace it in lieu of the rope halter. It wasn’t an easy conversion for me, either. Eleanor, I share your pain.


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That’s the old Hollywood saw. Here’s another one: Never underestimate the power of young people or horses.

CEO Danielle Herb, 15, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as a younger child. This could have been a devastating diagnosis with negative implications for Danielle’s future. But no! Horses to the rescue, yet again.

When Danielle’s family moved to Florida a few years ago, she began riding, only to find that it helped her ADD symptoms even more than the commonly prescribed prescription drugs. “Everything was just really amazing. I figured, if it helped me, it had to help someone else,” Herb said.

At the age of 13, Herb began a business teaching other kids with ADD, ADHD and autism the basics of natural horsemanship. She uses horses and equine assisted training techniques to help ADD/ADHD and autistic children to overcome the symptoms of their illnesses naturally without the use of prescription medication. She employs a Youth-to-Youth Mentorship framework for her program, virtually guaranteeing participation by the target population. In addition to being a smart kid with a heart, she’s turning into quite the little businesswoman.

“We started and we had amazing results and we just want to help more. That’s why I am hoping to go national with my program this year,” Herb explained. “I am.. living proof of the power of these techniques, and I want your child to have the same oppurtunity that I did!” To this end, Herb is planning to publish a book, Drop Your Reins: Learn to Trust, all about how to engender peaceful transformations for ADD/ADHD and autistic children using the natural mirroring behavior of horses.

What do you think of that?

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When I first began to learn about working horses in addition to riding them, I was taught to use a dressage whip with a plastic bag, a rope halter, and a series of lead ropes of varying lengths. There were a number of things that stand out about this method: first, I learned that if you really want to get the horse’s attention, that plastic bag will do the trick; second, I learned that I am not an expert rope handler and never will be. More often than not, I’d end up smacking myself in the face with the leather end of the rope. There were weeks on end when I sported red welts to prove it. My trainer urged more practice with the rope, tied to the fence: I was hopeless.

In the round pen, I was so klutzy that once, chasing an “impudent” horse around with the stick and bag, I fell and caught myself on a jump in the middle, collecting a splinter the size of a fountain pen. Even after a trip to the ER for removal, I didn’t think, “Hey, this type of training is not for me.” This was cowboy training, pure and simple. Natural Horsemanship, slightly feminized, applied by a skilled and powerful woman who taught me a lot. Still not for me.

And not enough. Not enough of the right stuff. When I took a clinic with Frank Bell, I had a grand old time. Because my trainer had recently been studying his methods, and went on to become one of his certified trainers, I had already learned most everything Frank taught in that clinic, and I was proud of my mare when she performed like a superstar. Frank is such a gentle man, who emphasizes safety above all else. But in addition to the crucial addition of hands-on work, he also uses the rope and rope halter in his work. So participants got to see me flailing about again. At least I didn’t hurt myself in public.

For a while I was enamored of Clinton Anderson and Pat Parelli. Both use sticks and rope halters in their training. After seeing Clinton Anderson in a demo in Texas, I left feeling that for him, a horse was a unit to be processed, and nothing more. There was no heart or empathy in his training, no emotional congruence. He only wanted the right behavior at the right time. Once Anderson was done with a horse, he was done with the horse. There’s one bit of equipment of Clinton Anderson’s I do adore, and that is his Aussie Tie Ring. Horses who pull back when tied are a danger to themselves and property. I don’t own tie rings because I’ve never needed them, but if I did, you can be sure I’d have a pair.

I’ve never seen Pat Parelli in person. I certainly know that his television shows and DVDs are inspiring, but it’s a fine bit of merchandising and showmanship. I love watching him walk around an arena moving a horse about with just his body language. Seems like magic. But what are we missing between takes? What’s left after that? I admire anyone who can teach themselves how to use all his tools and skills without attending the dozens of clinics normally required.

The woman who took over my old barn in Afton is Parelli certified, and boyo is she a skilled trainer. Her horses turn out beautifully. She is not a bully, and her horses reflect that. But when I moved on to a barn farther away, where most of the training is done in the saddle, I missed the opportunity of watching ground work. I was the only one who did anything like that, and it was frowned upon. No round pen, a very large arena, full of jumps of all sizes, and suddenly I lost the desire to do the work. It showed in Maira’s behavior. Until I met Linda Tellington-Jones.

I’d love to know what, if any, tools you folks out there use in your ground work, and how you use them.

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I think the answer might be twofold:

1. To help us on our way to being better horsemen. But there is another answer, and I don’t like that one as much:

2. To build horsemanship “cultures,” and in so doing, line the pockets of the founders of the schools of horsemanship which spawn these cultures.

Whenever I explore a new form of horsemanship, the first thing I do is look at how much equipment is necessary to do the work. Being somewhat spazzy, I usually end up smacking myself in the face with whips and slashing myself to smithereens with ropes. Both the devotees and the clinicians always tell me that, with time and practice I will be able to use these tools for their intended purpose rather than for self-inflicted grievous bodily harm. 

Stuff you might not really need

Natural tools for Natural Culture??

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