I once made the mistake of buying a piece of equipment from the website of a world renowned “Natural” Horsemanship ‘guru’. I say mistake because once they have your information, they won’t stop trying to convert you. I choose not to use the man’s name because my intent is not to start a war with his followers (but at least you know the gender now). If his followers are devout enough, they may likely recognize some of his language – so be it. But in this post my intent is more to utilize his language to stir others to scrutinize more closely the nonsense he and his ilk often spout.
While scanning through my e-mail clutter folder I came across the latest newsletter from this ‘famous’ horseman. Normally I pass them by, having read several in the past and knowing they offer little substance. However, the subject of this one – lunging – caught my eye.
The fact that “Natural” horsemen too often denounce lunging as “bad”, while instead seeing value in chasing a horse around a round pen, has long fascinated me. As a student of equine movement and biomechanics, it is glaringly obvious that what I typically see in round pens is physically far worse than an appropriately lunged horse. But this fellow takes his war on lunging to a whole new level.
The scene is set with a question allegedly sent in by a follower:
“I hope you can give me some advice please, I have a four-year-old Appaloosa mare … the problem is I am trying to lunge her but she keeps turning into [sic] me when I try to lunge …. I did get her to follow my fiancé in a circle to get her used to my commands…. do you have any other ideas?”
Now, it is interesting to note that the technique she has employed is actually the most common method of starting to lunge used by old masters of classical horsemanship. I have not personally started horses on the lunge in this manner, mainly because it does require a helper (something not always handy). But I have seen the technique employed many times. For confused or frightened horses it is a very calming way to start.
Now, I fully expected that the answer would entail something akin to “Get thee to a round pen!” But I was shocked at the direction that it took.
“After reading your question twice I have made the decision that you are single line lunging. Please utilize my [insert sales pitch] to discover how I feel about this activity.”
First, let me pause in this answer to say that “single line lunging” is actually just lunging. Anything else is long lining (two lines, still on a circle), long reining (sometimes also refers to two lines on a circle, but sometimes in-hand work with two reins), or ground driving (two lines following no prescribed pattern). I point this out simply to say that another characteristic of the “Natural” Horsemanship crowd is to make up their own ‘lingo’. These practices are centuries old, and you can read masterworks from centuries past where they use the terms I have, and they all mean the same thing (with that one noted exception, where modern times have expanded the meaning). Inventing new language for common things is either a sign of ignorance (not likely), or a craven marketing ploy whose psychological underpinnings would take their own blog to explore.
But I digress … please continue with your expert answer, sir …
“I have often said that single line lunging is the second worst piece of horsemanship on earth. It follows only striking the horse for pain.”
Really?! So, this …
… is worse than this?
Or this …
… is worse than this …
… or this?
I could do this all day. Just Google ‘horse cruelty’ and look at the images for thousands of examples of things that should rise well above lunging on the “worst piece of horsemanship” scale. (On second thought, don’t. Just the 30 seconds it took to find the above image made me nauseous and started the tears.)
Again, this post is not a war on round pen training, or a claim that lunging is perfect. I’ll even share this example of a time when Tally’s balance was bad, and without correction this sort of lunging would certainly cause physical damage over time.
But this was in the period after her round pen training (picture near top) by the other trainer, and it was only a few weeks before she was in the balance of the picture in the middle of this post. Horses will always start work on circles out of balance – whether you use a round pen or lunge line, it is the trainers responsibility to correct that balance problem.
The purpose of this post is to point out the hyperbole utilized in the name of marketing and developing a cult-like following. Lunging has a long history in the training of horses and, with care, is an incredibly useful tool for all stages in a horse’s training. To equate that with the worst of horsemanship practices is beyond irresponsible – it is an intentional and mercenary misrepresentation. It does a complete disservice to those who are honestly trying to understand their horses and learn to be good guardians – and minimizes the vast array of cruelty practiced in the name of horsemanship.
This particular ‘guru’ is not alone in this practice of intentional hyperbole. I have, more than once, heard these ‘gurus’ claim that our horses will literally kill us if we don’t follow their methods. One of those has literally killed horses at training at his center – something he claims just “happens” in horse training, and requires no apology or explanation. In my forty plus years around trainers and training centers, I have personally known of only one horse who died in a training session. Though it was something of a freak accident, that trainer freely admitted that she should have done something to prevent it.
That is the extreme of the hyperbole – but it exists in almost all of the “Natural” Horsemanship rhetoric. Your horse is not trying to be your boss – their greater drive is friendship. If they happen to glance away from you, it is not disrespect – or even lack of focus. When was the last time you were able to focus on one thing, for 20-30 minutes, without once glancing away for a moment? And we have the better wiring for concentration! Again, I could go on and on.
If you practice “Natural” Horsemanship, and have a loving relationship with your horse – good for you! I certainly don’t want to knock something that is working for you. But, in this age of increasing hyperbole, reality and truth are being lost – and with them, vital information we need. If you follow a “Natural” Horsemanship ‘guru’, try not to adopt their hyperbole. When you hear it, don’t take it at face value – question it, do research, and trust your own eyes. You can embrace training practices, without embracing the hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric that may accompany them. And don’t dismiss another training practice just because someone else decries it. Take the time to look into it and give an honest, open minded evaluation. If you don’t like what you see, fair enough. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that the “second worst piece of horsemanship on earth” might actually be a useful training technique.
Be good to your horses!