Whenever someone uses the word “natural”, I feel a sense of dread. But nothing puts the wind up me more than the words “natural horsemanship”.
Having watched so many of my horsey friends attempting this strange practice, I have come to the conclusion that it would be far more accurately called unnatural horsemanship.
Natural horsemanship is meant to be a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse’s instincts, with the understanding that horses do not learn through fear or pain, but rather from pressure and release of pressure.
But will someone please explain to me how making a horse stand on a small platform like a performing seal is natural? Or how poking a horse in the face with a long stick to make it move backwards is natural? Or how making a horse lie down and pose for photographs is natural?
These are all things I have watched my natural horsemanship friends doing, and the look on the horse’s face is invariably the same: so far as I can see, if the poor creature could speak he would say: “Please, either climb on me and take me for a gallop or leave me alone.”
The obsession with what is natural grips our society today, but in the search for what’s natural we often end up with practices that are about as far from natural as it is possible to get. And never is that more true than when it comes to horses, who have to put up with the craziest “natural” of all.
The preoccupation with natural remedies is bad enough. Horsey folk seem to think pretty much everything can be cured with turmeric now, or other herbs and spices. A vet I know was once called to a stable yard to find a horse’s badly cut leg covered in mustard powder. He asked the stupid owner: “Do you want me to treat it, or eat it?”
This obsession with natural is ridiculous because the basic premise of all horse ownership is not natural. But that doesn’t make it bad.
The point is that it’s a contract: the horse and human enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement by which the owner keeps the horse fed, watered, safe, and free from disease and injury much longer than it would manage in the wild. And in return, the horse allows the human to use it as a method of transportation, or these days more usually as a form of enjoyment or sport.
The natural horsemanship devotees do not seem to understand this age-old contract, perfected over thousands of years of man’s working relationship with horses. They persist in the idea that the human and horse must forge some other relationship, because conventional horse-riding is somehow cruel. Many reject the use of saddles and bridles and even shoeing.
Instead of riding, they “work with the horse on the ground”, as if that made it all so much more ethical. “On the ground” means lunging the horse on a rope; or else they free-school the horse, whereby they let it wander loose while they stand this way and that, communicating with it through body language.
But the growing numbers of owners who would never dream of actually getting on their horse have one thing in common. So far as I can see, they also, coincidentally, can’t ride or are scared stiff of horses.
The growth in natural horsemanship has coincided with a growth in ownership by people, predominantly women, who cannot ride.
A fallacy has been allowed to take hold that you can own a horse like any domestic pet, to cuddle and groom and play about with. It suits the proponents of natural horsemanship to tell overgrown kids who want a pony that riding it isn’t essential, because they can then make money from selling them the branded kit for “forging a relationship”, and the endless books, videos and training courses that are advertised online.
Owning a horse and not riding it must be one of the fastest-growing hobbies in Britain, but at some point those who have encouraged this will have to account for the vast numbers of equines standing in fields doing nothing – overfed, overweight and suffering from potentially fatal diseases, such as laminitis, associated with lack of exercise.
Unsurprisingly, the leading natural horsemanship gurus are multi-millionaire businessmen, at the head of worldwide franchises. Some of these training videos have less to do with what is the kind treatment of a horse, and more to do with telling non-riders with no skills they can own a horse without allowing it to move about at speed.
Perhaps the only truly natural thing about natural horsemanship is the human instinct to survive by making lots of money.
Melissa Kite is a contributing editor of the Spectator