If you read this blog for very long, it will become clear that I have no trust for the “Natural” Horsemanship movement. From my first exposure, with a now world famous practitioner before he was anybody, I have listened to explanations that rarely accurately reflect reality. Among my favorite topics covered by many of the practitioners is the “human as predator, horse as prey” dynamic. It is not that this idea is completely unfounded – humans preyed upon horses for many centuries before we got the idea to domesticate them, and even then it was mainly to raise them as food. My problem with their use of this topic is the inaccuracy in their portrayal of it, and the frequent contradictions in their practices. To illustrate, let me share some of my favorites.
“You have to stop acting like the predators we are” – this is one of my favorites. Yes, horses are prey animals, and their main
defense is running away. I agree that when you work around horses you need to always keep in mind this single fact. But think of this – what is the one thing that most hunters of large animals have in common? They chase their prey. What is the main thing that “natural” horsemanship practitioners all share? They chase horses around a round pen – defenders will deny this, but making a prey animal run is chasing, no matter how calm you remain. So, how is that NOT acting like a predator? The single best way to not be a predator around your horse is to stand still! Even a wild mustang will eventually get curious enough to come over if you just stand stock still.
“Control the feet and you control the horse” – coupled with the previous one, this falls into the contradiction category. Most
of the practitioners that cite this as the reason why they chase the horses around give as an example horses in pasture together. Their claim is that the “dominant” horse (another myth they promote) “controls” the movement, and therefore the feet, of the subordinate horse. Well, who else controls a horse by controlling his movement? Predators! If you watch a wolf pack take down a large animal, it is all about moving or stopping the movement of the animal, until they can maneuver to deliver the fatal blow. The amazing contradiction in the fight for life is that the prey frequently will stop and remain still when their path of flight is controlled. This is the very moment many “Natural” Horsemanship practitioners take advantage of to “prove” their methods are working.
“Horses recognize us as predators because our eyes are on the front of our face and not on the sides” – I had a hard time keeping a straight face when the very serious woman, certified at level 2 by the practitioner I mentioned earlier, shared this bit of wisdom she’d learned from him. Yes, it is true that predators have their eyes forward and prey have them on the side. But let me just say this – if a horse is waiting around to see where a predator’s eyes are placed on their heads, that is a horse who will not survive to reproduce! Our horses are here because their ancestors reacted to threats long before they could see “the whites of their eyes”. They look for postures and actions from a far distance, in order to get full advantage from their flight defense.
Using posture to “calm” or “move” the horse – posture is a powerful tool. Horses read posture exponentially better than
humans. Those moments when you think they’re reading your mind, you are probably telegraphing and don’t know it. A favorite use of posture by “Natural” Horsemanship practitioners is to stand tall face the horse and approach somewhat puffed out (this part I think is somewhat unconscious) when they want to move the horse, and then turn their face away when they are showing the horse they are not a threat (that exact phrasing having been heard numerous times). They claim this has a basis in herd behavior – but there is no scientific basis to this. The only “I’m not a threat” posture reliably found in horses is the foal’s snapping behavior. However, there is another basis for this posture change – for that you need only look at the African plains. In a seeming contradiction, zebras can been seen grazing nonchalantly as lions pass alarmingly close – on other occasions, those same zebra are on high alert when lions are at a much greater distance. The difference? Posture, of course! Lions out for a stroll probably are generally not even looking at the zebra, while those out for lunch are plotting their approach and therefore are focused upon their prey. Equids have survived the millennia by being able to recognize the difference.
We do have a history of a predator/prey relationship with the horse – but the simple fact is that we have been using horses for other
purposes for thousands of years now. In that time, we have bred animals suited mentally to the services we want them for. How else do you explain foals who are naturally curious and friendly, even if no human was present at their birth. My Tally was hours old before we found her – and her first action was to walk straight up to us, as friendly and bold as any adult in our barn! If they instinctively view us as predators, or recognize the eyes being forward, how do you explain her behavior?
Our horses may be hard wired to flee when afraid, but they are not looking at you as a predator. That is, unless you are chasing them around a round pen! Case in point, I leave you with this.
The goal should never be to generate this kind of flight behavior. For an animal whose very existence once depended upon flight, associating that response with humans has long term negative effects. In a later post I will relate my experiences having to resolve that very problem.
Be good to your horses!