Tips On Natural Horsemanship

Training has come a long way since the days when the term "breaking a horse" could have very well meant just that. Everything from sacking out, a process by which a horse is tied and hobbled before being pummeled with empty burlap bags meant to subdue and intimidate, to the use of cruel mechanical devices, has fallen under the heading of "training." Therefore, it's not surprising that often the results have proven to be nonproductive, with permanent physical and psychological injuries having been inflicted upon countless horses.

Over the last two decades, with the tremendous growth in equestrian pursuits has come a corresponding awareness and concern for improving equine health, care, and management. This has had a profound effect on training methods as well. According to the American Horse Council (AHC), those involved more for pleasure than for profit have determined horse industry growth. The horse industry supports a wide variety of activities in all regions of the country, contributing $112.1 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and providing 1.4 million full-time jobs. With 7.1 million Americans involved in the industry, 4.3 million of whom participate in leisure-time activities, 3.6 million in showing, 941,000 in racing, and 1.9 million as horse owners, there has become a definite need for qualified people to supply and service the equestrian community.

The AHC makes a special note to point out that it is neither the investor nor professional who sustains the horse business. Because the pleasure rider makes up the majority of the market, many of the horses sold are going to first-time owners. These people have a significant bearing on the revenue generated in the market, and they are influential in encouraging higher standards of equine welfare.

Thanks to them, the quest to understand and connect with a horse's natural behavior has taken center stage as a means of communication, dominating the training world and inspiring many to adopt a more humane approach. As a result, enlightened trainers are stepping forward to share their knowledge regarding the character of the horse--how it thinks, acts, and reacts--with the intention of using these instincts to build a foundation of trust and respect.

In this article, three celebrated natural horsemanship experts talk about their backgrounds, philosophies, and training methods to acquaint you with the techniques that have become the benchmark by which we determine a positive and effective training experience for horse and owner.

How It All Started for Pat Parelli

By the age of nine, Pat Parelli already knew that working with horses was going to be his life's work. Having started by mucking stalls for riding rights, it didn't take long for him to become an accomplished rider. By 17, he was on the rodeo circuit. He won the Bareback Rookie of the Year award in 1972, with an outstanding buck off average of just 4% before he moved on to a career in training and starting young horses the "conventional way."

Unfortunately, the road to success was not easy. Like many trainers before him, Parelli realized frustration from two critical aspects of his business--his training methods and his financial situation. These caused him to consider getting out of the horse business altogether.

"I took bad advice because I didn't know any better," says Parelli. "I fell into the common trap of bigger bits and more and more gadgets to gain control and get a better performance. I learned the hard way."

Pat Parelli's Philosophy

Friend and mentor Troy Henry came to the rescue by introducing Parelli to a new world based on understanding the horse's mental and emotional process. Being an eager student of horses and horsemanship, Parelli worked diligently to incorporate these newfound ideas into a more "savvy" approach to getting a prey animal to "want" to perform. He quickly realized that "Horses are easy once you know how they think and why they do what they do, and that if you can get enough mental, emotional, and physical control over yourself and use horse psychology to communicate your wishes effectively, you'd have fantastic results."

Since then, Parelli has taught tens of thousands of students around the world by repeating the same message: "People learn from the inside out. While most riding schools focus on technique, my belief is that attitude has to come first," Parelli stresses. "There is no reason for horses to be exposed to brutality, force, and mechanics, or for people to suffer frustration and danger that can result. I have dedicated my life to teaching people to teach horses--naturally."

Pat Parelli's Principles of Training

Having a logical, safe, and systematic plan is at the heart of Parelli's teaching and training program, which he calls Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship (PNH). He says there are six keys to success: Attitude, knowledge, tools, techniques, time, and imagination, with the degree of achievement dependent on how well someone is able to utilize each of these keys.

Parelli also believes in savvy.

"Savvy" is what helps you become excellent with horses, he says. "After years of study, I've determined two areas of 'savvy' groundwork (on line with ropes of varying lengths, and at liberty with no ropes), and two areas of 'savvy' under saddle (FreeStyle without contact and without reins, and finesse with contact, precision, and vertical flexion), which I have combined into the term 'the four savvys,' " Parelli explains.

A 30-year veteran in the field of training horses, Parelli is steadfast in his belief that natural horsemanship is a way to become savvy; he teaches people to teach horses using communication, psychology, and understanding--ideals he promotes in his three-level home study program (Level 1, Partnership, has 14 1/2 hours of DVD viewing and comprehensive pocket guides), through his endorsed instructors, on tapes and DVDs, on RFD TV, and at his International Study Centers in Colorado and Florida.

To learn more about Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship, visit

How it All Started for John Lyons

Although he rode as a boy, sometimes sneaking off with his friends on the neighbor's horses for a bit of fun, it wasn't until he was 23 years old when he bought five acres outside Kansas City that John Lyons thought, "With this much land, I ought to have a horse." He was unhappy with his sales job in the orthopedic distribution business; horses provided a productive outlet and the opportunity to finally become involved in a world he thoroughly enjoyed.

"Owning one quickly turned into owning two," Lyons recalls. "I was anxious to learn," which, as a result of a fortuitous meeting with Tom McNeil, opened the way to changing his perspective on training. "I was very impressed with the way Tom talked to his black Morgan cross Quarter Horse mare. She responded to voice commands in a way I'd never seen before. As it turns out, she was for sale, and I bought her on the spot."

But it wasn't until years later when he eventually realized his calling and moved to Colorado to become a cattle rancher with a 500-acre spread and "a lotta' horses" that Lyons truly listened.

John Lyons' Philosophy

It was Bright Zip, his beloved Appaloosa stallion, who ultimately taught Lyons the value of partnership. Getting him ready for one of their many high-level reining shows, John was out in the pasture working hard when he realized just how much equipment he was using to get the results he wanted. Even though Bright Zip responded, it was through resistance, not acceptance.

"I didn't like what I was doing, and I didn't like me," he admits.

It was then and there that he decided to live by a different set of rules. He stopped watching what other people did and started to really learn. Twenty-five years later, Lyons is now an icon in the industry. His methods of training are simple and straightforward; he teaches people and horses to become partners by concentrating on the practical side of training--with a gentle touch.

"The term 'natural horsemanship' is an oxymoron," he states. "There is no such thing as 'natural;' it's a learning process for both the horse and rider. Because we want it to adapt to our way of life, not the other way around, the horse has to change about 98% of its nature, which means that it's up to us to understand what its nature is about in the first place."

He goes on to say that in the end, what has to change most is our attitude--on this, Lyons is resolute.

John Lyons' Principles of Training

Since 1980, when he first started conducting clinics at the ranch, Lyons developed a set of rules that still prove to be effective today. The first and foremost is to maintain safety for the horse and owner. Beyond that, "You have to have a lesson plan with a specific starting point and you also need to accomplish goals, even if they're small ones," he stresses.

Lyons believes in establishing respect by using clear signals, responsible methods, and by being consistent--procedures he details in his magazine The Perfect Horse and presents in more than 20 tapes and DVDs, at exhibitions throughout the country, clinics, and through the training services of over 200 certified professionals who have graduated from his 12-week training course. To learn more about Lyons, visit

How it All Started for Clinton Anderson

Born in Australia, Clinton Anderson hardly knew a time when horses were not a part of his life. By age nine, he had his first horse, and by 13 he was on a national polo-cross team. Anderson has since worked for acclaimed clinician and horse trainer Gordon McKinlay, starting and training more than 600 horses. He also has worked with Ian Francis, three-time winner of the Australian National Reining Horse Futurity and two-time winner of the Australian National Cutting Horse Futurity.

After a stint in America with Al Dunning, winner of multiple American Quarter Horse Association World Championships, Anderson returned to Australia, where he took third at the Australian National Reining Futurity in 1997 before returning to the United States to train, tour, and conduct clinics to share his knowledge and help people fully enjoy their horses.

Clinton Anderson's Philosophy

"I like to think of horse training as being on a scale," says Anderson. "On one end are the people who beg their horses to do things by bribing them with feed or treats. Their horses not only don't respect them, they are often rude and potentially dangerous. On the opposite end are the people who mentally and physically intimidate their horses." Both methods are inconsistent at best, Anderson maintains. "If your horse does not respect you or if your horse is fearful of you, it will never obey or trust you," he stresses.

Anderson believes that we want to be in the middle of the scale, "somewhere between being a wimp getting dragged all over the place, and being too rough and aggressive with our horses." He says having your horse respect you is essential, which means that there will be times when you need to move to either side of the middle to get what you want.

Clinton Anderson's Principles of Training

"Horse training is easy--if you keep it black and white," Anderson states. "Horses deal with each other in nature very simply, so if we duplicate their actions, we can get the same results." Because having a horse's respect is key to training, Anderson explains, "we get our horses' respect by making them move forward, backward, left, and right--and always rewarding the slightest try--just like the dominant mare does in the pasture."

Adapting the same principles into a training environment, if a horse becomes disrespectful by pushing into his personal space, for example, Anderson takes immediate action by increasing the workload and pressure until the horse backs down. "As soon as I get respect and effort, I instantly reward that behavior and release the pressure. Reward is great, but you must only reward when you get a desired response."

He claims that you can't love your horse into respecting you. You can love it and reward it for respecting you, but he emphasizes that there is a big difference between the two.

He also understands that a horse learns through repetition. "Horses respond to actions--not words," he says. "If you want your horse to be a willing partner and perform well, you have got to put in the effort." Anderson's advice is that you need to be focused to work through resistance as you reinforce good behavior over and over again.

Appearing on RFD TV in demonstrations, in clinics at his home facility in Belle Center, Ohio, or through his series of tapes and DVDs, Anderson illustrates his training techniques from A to Z. To learn more about Anderson and his Downunder Horsemanship, visit

Take-Home Message

There are a multitude of professionals who have embraced a gentler, kinder, more thoughtful way of working with horses. These range from gold medal Olympic riders to top reiners and cutters. What all these dedicated horse folks have in common is the desire to make the horse's job of working with humans a better way of life, for both horse and owner.

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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