When someone says they do dressage, you can picture them doing specific movements like half pass, pirouettes, and piaffe. When someone says they do show jumping, you can picture them jumping a course of brightly colored fences with rails that will fall down when hit... But what do you picture when someone says they do natural horsemanship?
Many people think natural horsemanship is something is about rope halters and lead ropes dragging on the ground, western saddles, flags or strings being swung around the horse, lots of standing around doing nothing in between hind quarter disengagements, and horses moving with 'bad' posture.
A Grand Prix dressage trainer once told me she was "uncomfortable around natural horsemanship people because they dressed the same, like in a cult". She said this while wearing Pikeur full seat breeches, Ariat show shirt and vest, Dansko clogs and was holding her Jack Russell terrier in one hand and a dressage whip in the other.
For the average onlooker, natural horsemanship can be hard to understand because it is not about doing anything in particular. In an attempt to figure out what it is all about, onlookers will search for clues, and things like equipment and clothing are easy to see.
Even people who study natural horsemanship can get caught up in the equipment and doing things, rather than understanding why they are doing them. Certain exercises get repeated, like hindquarter disengages, neck bending, and waving things around the horse. The trouble is, natural horsemanship is not about doing any of those things.
What is natural horsemanship?
For me, the naturally part of Dressage Naturally is about knowing the horse as he is by nature, valuing his trust in you, and striving for calmness, attentiveness, responsiveness, and eagerness through using understanding and communication rather than fear, mechanics, and forcefulness.
Are you thinking: "Wait! I also value those qualities and priorities but I don't do natural horsemanship!'" Yay! Many natural horsemen won't say they do natural horsemanship even though they may, in reality, share the same principles and priorities.
Principles & priorities before exercises.
The principles, priorities, and qualities that natural horsemanship seeks are universal. Natural horsemanship is a way to live and be with your horse that will help you do the things you want to do with him. That's why it's not as important to do natural horsemanship as it is to be a horseman.
A natural horseman is someone who prioritizes the horse, calmness, keenness, understanding, etc., in everything he does. One person could take their horse out and school upper level dressage and be a true natural horseman, and another could take their horse out, swing a stick and string around, do a bunch of hind quarter disengages and dwell a lot and be the furthest thing from 'natural'.
Principles and priorities are what drive people's choices in any moment. You can't tell what kind of horseman someone is by looking quickly or by seeing what clothes they wear; you can tell the horseman by knowing what drives their decisions.
Don't DO natural horsemanship - BE a natural horseman.
You don't have to do natural horsemanship to be a natural horseman! You can do your sport while embodying natural horsemanship principles.
Don't be afraid to learn from many sources. If you have a teacher for your discipline and feel that something is missing with the overall partnership with your horse, find one who knows how to develop things like calmness, attentiveness, responsiveness, and eagerness. Unfortunately, not all professionals will welcome this, but you have to be the best advocate for yourself and your horse. Humans like to lump things in boxes with labels, and categorize each as 'right' or 'wrong'. Be cautious of that.
Remember your principles and priorities and a world of possibility will open up for you.
A Deeper View Of Natural
Natural horsemanship starts with understanding the nature of the horse, and is even more about you and how you are with your self. It's about being your natural highest self instead of the version of you that has judgments and doubts and fears of inadequacy. Being a natural horseman is about being in the moment with your horse instead of being distracted by the future and beating yourself up about the past. Being a natural horseman is about being present and aware of yourself so you can see the cause and effect of what you do with your horse. It's about being able to feel the energy of the moment and to trust your instincts in real time. Being a natural horseman is about having principles and priorities that reflect your responsibility to the horse and keeping them in the front of your mind.
A Note about Natural vs Science-based vs Traditional vs Classical
There have been so many debates over these terms. I have no interest in trying to figure out which one is 'right' because they all are and none of them are. 'Classical' is claimed by many different techniques, so I don't even know what to picture when someone says it. 'Traditional' is simply what a lot of people have done for a long time; there are many different traditions, so again, I don't know what to picture when that term is used. Science is important (I have a Bachelors in Biology and my dad is a scientist) but I also know science still can't describe everything that is actually happening. 'Natural' also has many different interpretations, I already shared mine.
In the end, you have to create your own dream and your own way of being with your horse. Find your own team of advisors, and navigate your own way. There is no combination on the planet like you + your horse.
Be scientific enough to have a need for evidence without closing yourself off from a desire to connect with magical experiences that are bigger than yourself. Everything is energy and the most cutting edge of quantum science is pretty darn close to spirituality. Be traditional enough to humble yourself to time-proven necessary practices without losing your natural, free, beautiful, vulnerable self when you are with your horse.
When we can do all of that while remembering that our horses truly owe us nothing, we will already be excellent horsemen and you will naturally want to seek out exercises and strategies for creating calmness, attentiveness, responsiveness, and eagerness. You can do this in any specific discipline.
Natural horsemanship is everywhere
You don't have to make a choice between a certain discipline of riding and learning the principles and priorities taught in natural horsemanship. Natural horsemen are everywhere in every discipline, wearing all different kinds of outfits, and doing all different kinds of things with different types of horses.
The reality is that many competition-based disciplines do prioritize the task, not the principles. In show-jumping competitions, the most important thing is clearing the fences. In dressage competition, the most important thing is clean tests. Of course it is! That doesn't mean you can't still form your own priorities for your horses beyond that.
THAT is natural horsemanship.