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What Is So Natural About "It"?
Out in the paddock I watch as Lizzy encourages Honcho, one of the River Valley Stables horses, to push a ball around. No ordinary ball this one, rather a ball over 1 metre in diameter. Honcho is certainly not yet at the stage of getting a Manchester United signing, however, what is more interesting is why he is pushing the ball around at all.
What is the Point in that?
Where Did "It" Come From?
Over the last several years River Valley Stables has been on the Natural Horsemanship Path. Natural Horsemanship you may ask. What is "It"?
Well funnily enough, "It" was what it was originally called. This new way of interacting with a horse was simply called "It", by its original practitioners, Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and other western horsemen like them, legends in their own time.
Where did the Term Natural Horsemanship Come From?
The style of Natural Horsemanship followed by River Valley is the Parelli System. It was Pat Parelli, the inventor of this system who coined this phrase.
Pat Parelli had been a rodeo bronc rider for 14 years before retiring from the sport and becoming a horse trainer. It was while doing this that he realised that it was not so much horses that needed to be trained at all.
Who Needed to be Trained?
Pat Parelli came to understand it was humans who primarily needed to be trained so they could understand horses. From this observation, the Parelli Natural Horsemanship System was born.
A system of horse (and rider) training that works with the horses nature. But more than that, a system that starts from the beginning, assuming that both horse and rider really have no knowledge. This approach was unique when it was first introduced, as other training systems all presumed the rider at least had a basic understanding.
Who Benefits from this System?
To understand how Natural Horsemanship benefits both the rider, and the horse, I interviewed Russell Higgins, a 4 Star Parelli Instructor. He had this to say;
"The benefits are where the horse becomes more calm, trusting and confident. It willingly accepts the lead and guidance of the rider, and the two develop this harmonious relationship. The rider benefits by having a safer, more fun and responsive horse, while the horse will actually look forward to the interaction with the rider."
How Does this System Differ From Traditional Horse Training Systems?
If you have ever spent anytime riding horses, you will remember that you always got on from the left side.
Why the left side?
Mounting a horse from the left side is simply one example of what most horse training is still based on. That is a style of training to get a horse and rider ready for mounted combat, a system of training devised over 100s of years by the military. A very mechanical system.
You mount from the left because your sword hung on the left side of your body - you could do yourself quite a mischief if your sword was hanging in the wrong place whilst getting into the saddle. From this understanding you realise that many of these types of practices are no longer relevant, but still widely practised.
Hence at the core of Natural Horsemanship is the relationship between horse and rider, not where a sword was best to hang.
What is the Single Biggest Problem Encountered in Horse Training?
To find out what the single biggest problem encountered in horse training is, I again turned to Russell Higgins.
Russell's answer may surprise those who have watched any number of animal shows, and probably grown up in an urban environment. According to Russell, the single biggest issue is that people think like people, (no surprises there), but they also seem to believe that horses also think like people - just big equine four footed people.
There is almost a belief that this big four footed equine person reacts to situations and has feelings as a human would. Sorry folks, but people react like people, and horses react like horses. As Russell says, "It is only once we respect them as horses, that true progress can be made in the relationship".
Even odder in this relationship, is that on the one hand horses are a prey animal, their reactions are tuned to avoid being eaten, humans on the other hand are predators, and that is how horses view us.
The key to the relationship then is to get to the stage where the horse no longer sees us as predators. A relationship where the horse trusts us, but also where the horse realises that in a way the human is the dominant "horse" in the herd and feels comfortable about being lead and guided by a human.
What About Jumping and Eventing Horses?
Most horses involved in Jumping or Eventing have not been trained under a Natural Horsemanship style of training, and even where this style of training has occurred a steel bit in the horses mouth is still used to get the fineness of control that is required.
However, even in these most traditional forms of horsemanship, Natural Horsemanship techniques are increasingly being used.
So back to "It". Why was Honcho Playing with the Ball?
The ball is used to boost a horse's confidence while encouraging curiosity and focus. With an inflated diameter (height) of over 1 metre, the ball allows the trainer to simulate things the horse may be afraid of and also helps build confidence around objects in motion and sudden movements.
Honcho was having fun. He was having "a ball" with the ball.
And at River Valley Stables?
When I talk to Nicola or Lizzy, who do most of the horse training, I notice that now they are very positive about how much happier (possibly a human concept) the horses are, and just as importantly, how much of a better time their riders are having.
I think that is probably reason enough.
If you want to experience what it is like to interact with a horse in a more natural way, then join a River Valley Stables Trek. More details at - www.rivervalley.co.nz
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