Is so-called “natural horsemanship” a passing fad or a serious trend? Veterinarian Robert M. Miller, originator of imprint training for newborn foals, and Rick Lamb, host of two nationally syndicated radio programs, argue convincingly for the latter. Then they go a step further.
In The Revolution in Horsemanship and What It Means to Mankind (2005, The Lyons Press), they claim that the growing acceptance of non-coercive, “horse–centric” techniques in horse handling represents a paradigm shift in the history of equine training.
Although many of these techniques date back to antiquity, the book documents that this is the first time they’ve gained widespread recognition and use among the horse-owning public.
Moreover, the authors maintain that this “revolution” in horsemanship is more than just good for horses. They make a compelling case that it provides a profound means of self-improvement for the human species, as well.
In this special report, we’ll summarize some of the ideas set forth in this seminal work, share key excerpts, and relate how two dedicated horsemen came to embark on this groundbreaking project.
Road to the Writing
Though meticulously researched, the book also reflects the personal journeys of its two authors. Miller, an internationally acclaimed equine behaviorist with five previous horse care/training books to his credit, has always been fascinated by the horse’s mind. In his 20s, he was practicing his own version of non-coercive colt-starting at an Arizona ranch where he worked.
“I never let anyone watch me,” he says of his round-pen gentling. “I was embarrassed because my method wasn’t macho compared to others I'd seen.”
Later, after he’d graduated from vet school, he came to realize that the forcible restraint techniques he’d been taught weren’t necessary if he took a horse's inborn sensitivities into consideration. His interest in equine psychology grew.
"Then, in 1979, I attended a Ray Hunt clinic," he recounts. "I was enthused by what I saw and eager to learn more about Hunt’s mentor, Tom Dorrance."
"Two years later," Miller continues, "I watched, fascinated, as a young guy started a colt at a demonstration in Bishop [California]. I predicted then that if the guy stuck with it, he could be the world’s best. That was Pat Parelli.”
Miller went on to author a series of magazine articles with the young trainer; the exposure helped launch Parelli’s career. Parelli and a growing number of other clinicians—most of them gifted teachers and entrepreneurs—went on to spread the word through clinics, demonstrations, magazine articles, and videos.
Their message: that the most humane and most effective training approach is built upon non-coercive techniques that take the horse’s point of view into consideration. Throughout the ‘80s, the clinicians’ message caught hold among cowboys, ranchers, and the horse-owning public at large. Observing this phenomenon, Miller coined a term for it: the revolution in horsemanship.
When he retired from his veterinary practice in 1987, Miller resolved to spend the rest of his life promoting these humane techniques. He traveled the world, lecturing on imprint training (his regimen for capitalizing on the early learning capabilities of newborn foals) and the benefits of the growing horsemanship movement.
Meanwhile, Lamb, a lifelong horse lover, was hosting and producing two popular radio programs “The Horse Show with Rick Lamb” and “The Horse Show Minute.” As he interviewed top trainers, competitors, and clinicians, he began to be intrigued by the innovative methods of such practitioners as Pat and Linda Parelli, Clinton Anderson, John Lyons, Curt Pate, and Richard Shrake, among many others. Inspired, he set about learning more.
In 2002, Lamb attended one of Miller’s lectures on the revolution in horsemanship. Learning afterward that Miller had been considering writing a book on the topic for some time, he proposed that they collaborate on the project.
The resulting volume—a landmark, comprehensive look at the phenomenon, its history, and its key players—took two years to complete. Television host Hugh Downs contributed the foreword, and Marty Becker, DVM, resident veterinarian on ABC TV’s “Good Morning America,” hailed the book as “a fascinating mix of history, science, sociology, and horse sense.”
But Natural for Whom?
Miller and Lamb settled on Parelli’s term, “natural horsemanship,” to describe the horse-handling methods in question. Their rationale is that this term, among many others that might also work, is most universally known.
Skeptics have argued that nothing humans do with a horse is truly natural, in the strictest sense.
“But it’s natural in that it works with the nature of the horse rather than against it,” explains Lamb. He adds that this form of horsemanship is certainly not natural for humans, given our predatory inclinations—“that’s why we need to be taught it.”
Indeed, one of the central premises of the book is that humans’ inborn nature prompts us generally to use coercion as a first—rather than last—resort. This, deduce the authors, explains why less coercive methods never before caught on with the public at large, even though practiced by various horsemen throughout the ages:
This [that horses could be controlled more effectively without the use of force] was not a new idea. Throughout history, good horsemen had proven the efficacy of humane, psychological methods of handling horses. Some shared their techniques; others did not. Some became celebrities and gave command performances for royalty. Others were accused of trickery or something much worse. In the 1600s, God-fearing peasants in Arles, France, burned an itinerant Italian horse trainer and his trick horse, Mauroco, in the marketplace. To them, real horsemanship was so unnatural that it could only come from an alliance with the devil.
Whatever their contemporaries thought of them, these horsemen failed to effect permanent, widespread change in the way the average human related to horses. Instinctively, man always returned to what was natural for a predator, using muscle and violence, to get what he needed from the horse. The revolution broke this cycle.
Today, then, rather than being practiced only by an enlightened few, these techniques are being embraced by average horsemen and -women all over America and beyond.
If the principles at the heart of the revolution are at least 2,000 years old, as the authors admit, why is the revolution just occurring now?
“The historical moment had arrived,” observes Lamb. Specifically, within the last 100 years, according to the authors, the following factors converged:
• Behavior emerged as a field of study, making it more likely that humans would examine how a horse’s mind works.
• The general populace became better educated, and interested in learning yet more.
• Modern technology vastly speeded and facilitated the sharing of ideas.
• Urbanization changed Americans’ attitudes toward animals, such that horses became viewed less as objects and more as companions, and violence towards them became less acceptable.
• Women came to be involved with horses in ever greater numbers—even outnumbering men.
• Horsemanship became a recreational interest rather than a necessary life skill.
The authors say the last two factors—the involvement of women and the rise of horses as a recreational interest—have been especially influential:
Possibly the most significant factor in the speed with which this revolution has spread is the fact that, for the first time in human history, women dominate the horse industry. The clinicians who pioneered this movement will tell you that, without the prevalence of women in their audiences, they probably could not have stayed in business....Most women are nurturing by nature and try to avoid conflict. They are less aggressive than most men, less intimidating in their stance, speech, or movements, and less inhibited about crooning to or petting animals. These are exactly the qualities to which horses are most responsive.
A century ago, people had horses in order to live; today many people live to have horses....The revolution in horsemanship might never have occurred without this quantum shift in the role of the horse. For no matter how much Americans put into their jobs, there is an extra bit of passion that we reserve for our hobbies.
Further, note Miller and Lamb, it is the relationship with the horse that an increasing number of people prize, and it is these same people that are most receptive to the benefits offered by natural horsemanship.
Countering the Naysayers
The book painstakingly deals with the criticisms routinely leveled at the natural horsemanship phenomenon. In response to the contention that it’s all “flash”—that is to say, marketing and promotion—the authors stand firm.
“On the contrary,” they write, “marketing only brings attention to a product, and poor products cannot stand the scrutiny. Indeed, the demand for education has resulted in vastly improved systems of communicating timeless principles of horse psychology and horse handling, enabling ordinary horsemen to achieve extraordinary results with their horses in greater numbers than history has ever known.”
Do clinicians seek to make money sharing their techniques? Certainly, but this isn’t a bad thing, argue the authors.
“As an industry,” they write, “natural horsemanship has a comfortable life of its own, a secure and sizable niche within the larger equine industry. It feeds the hopes and dreams of countless backyard horsemen, and an increasing number of serious competitors.
"All are more than happy to pay for the sustenance. The product is that good. Everybody wins.”
Still, resistance to natural horsemanship persists among some longtime horse industry insiders.
“Horse people are traditionalists, and as such they tend to be backward-looking,” muses Miller, contemplating this paradox. “I prefer an attitude of what I call ‘openminded skepticism.’ It helps you not to miss a good thing when it comes along.”
Lamb adds that many people still don’t understand the principles that undergird natural horsemanship.
“People haven’t seen it in action, or they’ve seen only part of it and it was something they didn’t like,” he says. “Some think it’s just all-gentle, all-the-time, but that’s not accurate. A natural horseman will get after a horse to insist on compliance, but the difference is he’ll always give the horse a chance first to respond to a gentle request—one that the horse can easily understand.”
Some of the most interesting chapters of the book are those containing mini-biographies of key figures of the movement, past and present. Foremost among the profiled is the brilliant, humble, intuitive horseman and self-styled teacher who died in 2003.
“Modern horsemen may not agree on much,” write the authors, “but virtually all of them agree that this revolution began with a cowboy by the name of Tom Dorrance.” Dorrance’s influence, especially through his protégé, Ray Hunt, can be traced to virtually every corner of the natural horsemanship movement.
Others counted as founding figures in Chapter 3, “The Revolution Begins,” include Hunt and Dorrance’s brother Bill, as well as Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts, Richard Shrake, and John Lyons.
Chapter 4, “The Revolution Continues,” presents the next wave of clinicians in alphabetical order: Clinton Anderson, Buck Brannaman, Craig Cameron, Peter Campbell, Leslie Desmond, Bryan Neubert, Linda Parelli, GaWaNi Pony Boy, Mark Rashid, and Dennis Reis.
(An even more comprehensive list of clinicians, with contact information, is contained in the appendix. Indeed, the book is worth its purchase price for that listing, and related resource listings, alone.)
The authors make no apologies for any of the clinicians included.
“Most have something positive to offer,” they write, “—new perspectives drawn from their own life experiences, new ways of explaining esoteric concepts, new techniques, and new tools. This is a good thing! For it increases the likelihood that the willing student will find a teacher that truly inspires him.” (For more on the variances among clinicians, see the box “‘Different’ vs. Right & Wrong,” above.)
In Chapter 11, “Early Natural Horsemen,” the reader meets the philosophical “ancestors” of today’s clinicians—Simon of Athens, Xenophon, Alexander the Great, Antoine de Pluvinel, William Cavendish, and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere.
Chapter 12, “Whisperers, Tamers, and Professors,” presents characters ranging from Denton Offutt and John Solomon Rarey to Kell B. Jeffery and Monte Foreman. These profiles and histories provide a much-needed context out of which the reader can more deeply understand natural horsemanship as we know it today.
Additional chapters discuss equipment, hoof care, health care, alternative therapies, and equine nutrition, all as they relate to the horsemanship revolution.
Other training concepts, such as clicker training and the Tellington TTouch Equine Awareness Method, are also included, and the authors take pains to point out that accepting natural methods needn’t mean turning one’s back on traditional horsemanship (see the box “‘Natural’ vs. Traditional,” above.)
The Bigger Picture
Clearly, as the book details, natural horsemanship principles have the potential for improving the wellbeing of horses. But the authors also insist that the revolution as they’ve described it has the potential to improve human beings, as well.
“The revolution in horsemanship is a test to prove that we humans can use our power of reason to displace our animal instincts, and to have an amicable relationship with another individual, no matter how different that individual is from us. We can avoid the use of force, eliminate conflict, and establish a mutually beneficial relationship if we know how.”
The process involves re-inventing ourselves, not just as horsemen, but also as human beings.
“This new person,” writes the authors, “observes, remembers, and compares. He listens more and talks less. He takes responsibility rather than assigning blame. He controls his emotions. He becomes aware of his body language. He commits himself to acting justly. He cultivates patience. He forgives. And, of course, he places the wants and needs of another living creature ahead of his own.”
The authors point out that if we, the ultimate predator, can change ourselves enough to establish mutually beneficial relationships with horses, the ultimate prey species, then we should be able to do the same for our own species—to the benefit of humankind:
Who among us would not agree that the world would be a better place if our leadership was benevolent, our purposes clear, our intentions honorable, our behavior consistent, and our relationships empathetic?...
We all know there is something different and special about horses. But perhaps it is really that there is something different and special about us when we’re with them. We recognize in the horse a means to reach our highest calling as humans. Perhaps that is the real importance of this revolution in horsemanship.
And, if so, then this book is a clarion call to all of us—about reaching that potential.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January 2005 issue of Horse&Rider.