An “Ethical Practice”: The Research behind Natural Horsemanship Techniques

We finally have quite a foundation of knowledge with research to support it. I wanted to talk about one of the most popular methods to reach “9”. As previously mentioned, there are many different formulas to reach 9. 8+1, 7+2, 6+3, 5+4… but which method should we use? I witnessed and experimented with different training methods to get the results I wanted. As we just talked about how horses think and learn, there are certainly some methods that we can cross off of our list. But what about methods that claims to be ethical? When learning and experimenting my way through training methods, I did run into some that I felt made sense. I tried them, they worked, and then I was sold. I was starting to use “natural horsemanship” as an alternative to traditional Xenophon methodology. I used it on all my horses, purchased the home curriculum and equipment, and taught it to all of my students. My horses were calmer, my results were faster, and there was equine psychology to back it. But what did the research say?

Natural horsemanship uses herd dynamics and horse to horse communication as the foundation for methodology. This is why it all seemed to make sense to me, for the horse. It was clear, and I could observe a herd in pasture and confidently understand where each cue came from. A horse pins their ears and delivers a kick to the chest of another horse, the horse backs up. We mimic this by putting up a snarly face, shaking the lead rope, and/or tapping the horse’s chest with stick; using pressure-release to get the horse to back up. It all mimics the dominance factor of the equine herd hierarchy. Sure, like I said, it makes sense and it works, it is yet just another method to reach 9. However, it all assumes that the horse will consider us part of the herd, another horse, the leader. Where did this assumption come from? Is it possible for the horse to truly think of a predatory two legged creature as one of its own?

While it is suggested by renowned trainers that humans can enter the horse hierarchy through mimicry of behaviors (Roberts, 1997; Parelli, 1995), the research finds this to be muddy waters. Round penning or “join up” has shown to be ineffective in its attempts to be ethical. Studies have shown that a simple hand touching of an unbroken horse raised the same amount of chronic stress as any other aversive stimulus such as a whip (McGreevy, 2004). And it is thought that the horse does not “join up” to the trainer, it simply learns how to avoid being chased (Krueger, 2007). From this perspective it really seems more inhumane. The horse is enclosed and cannot use their flight responses. So the horse remains in a state of hypersensitivity due to the chase. The reward for “joining up” is some “gentling” or petting and rubbing. While scratching and rubbing on the withers or forehead have shown to lower heart rates and stress (Feh and deMaieres, 1993), when applied to round pen training, petting and scratching had no significant effect on the horses’ tendency to then follow trainers in the round pen in a study done by Krueger (2007).

There are many surrounding questions regarding human leadership for the horse. One thing we are trained to assume is that a horse “bonds” to a human and would therefore seek out the human’s companionship. However, there is little evidence that a horse would approach a human in a pasture with anything other than mere curiosity or from being conditioned to do so. Studies show that after a “successful” session of round pen training, horses showed no increase in their tendency to follow trainers (Krueger, 2007). Due to the human chasing, applying pressure, and causing stress in an enclosed area, the horse merely joins the human in a case of “learned hopelessness”. Trainers who base interactions with horses on herd equilibrium: flight, herd instinct, and hierarchy are overlooking the factors of foraging, coalitions, kinship, affiliations, as well as the reality of the effects of conditioning on all innate responses (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). The misunderstanding that training should depend on the horse’s response to “want to bond with us” is anthropomorphic.

If natural horsemanship bases training tactics on the idea of herd dominance, let’s explore what dominance is and why it is important. Dominance refers to an ordering between group-living animals, not necessarily linear (Appleby, 1983) which dictates the priority of access to resources. Drews (1993) defines this as: “an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agnostic interactions, between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome and default response rather than escalation of conflict”. Grazers living in a social setting utilize this language of dominance as strategic survival strategies. Remember survival of the fittest? Fitness pertains to the amount of offspring you have, not the same “fitness” that we tend to think of. Every species wants to live long enough to have optimal amounts of offspring in order for the species to continue to thrive. The language of dominance allows for conflict to be minimized during competition for a valuable resource. Conflicts can harm individual fitness as well as the integrity of the entire herd (Krause and Ruxton, 2002). Dominance is also context specific. A dominant horse in relation to food might not have dominance priority to shelter access (Kiley-Worthington, 1990). So if dominance is constructed to avoid conflict for resources, how does the human fit in the “dominance hierarchy”? They don’t. Humans have no reason to condition a horse to move out of its way in order to obtain the same resources. The horse is simply classically conditioned to move away from the human through force and pressure and “natural horsemanship” becomes a false justification.

Now that we understand that placing the human in the herd is a silly concept that is not biologically accepted by the horse, what about psychologically? Natural horsemanship is classical conditioning through negative reinforcement (the removal of forced pressure in order to encourage a behavior to continue). After the horse learns that they do not want to experience the pressure, they are conditioned to respond to a lesser cue, hence the “whisper, ask, and tell” idea behind increasing pressure. When we compare negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement, what do the results look like? Well, Sankey et al. (2010) put this question to the test and measured and compared equine heart rate and emotional state under the two different types of reinforcement. The team of researchers measured the horses’ short and long term perception of the human, just after training and five months later. 21 ponies underwent experimentation. They were of mixed breeding made up of 11 mares and 10 geldings from two different riding schools. None of which were ever taught to back up nor had prior introduction to the trainer. The ponies were fitted with heart rate monitors in their training sessions which typically lasted one to three minutes, once a day, for five days. Each pony was given three chances, at 10 sec each to respond to the cue “recule!” which is French for “go back!” The negative reinforcement group used an adverse stimulus such as a carrot stick in front of their head and body. By trial one, if the pony did not back, the stick was shook in front of the pony until they stepped back. Right when the pony stepped back, pressure was let off and the pony was led back to its home stall/pasture. The positive reinforcement group was started the same, given the vocal cue, but by the second trial, the experimenter gave the cue and stepped toward the animal with no contact or pressure. When the pony stepped back, following the trainer, a reward of a carrot or pelleted feed was immediately given and the pony was lead back to its home stall/pasture.

Not to my surprise, the results showed numerous statistically significant differences. While none of the ponies understood the vocal command on day one, by day five 11 out of 11 ponies understood from the positive reinforcement (PR) group and 7 out of 10 from the negative reinforcement (NR) group. The PR ponies were quicker to back on command than the NR group. 5 out of 10 NR ponies responded by the second trial, and 2 by the third. All 11 PR ponies responded by trial number two. Behaviors during training sessions differed. Most NR ponies side stepped during their training task while none of the PR ponies did. All NR ponies laid their ears back in at least one of the five day sessions when the carrot stick was applied while all of the PR ponies pricked their ears forwards during an average of three out of five sessions. Most NR ponies were reported to have their head raised with some tossing while backing up. Most PR ponies had their heads either neutral or lowered. The NR ponies displayed hollow necks while backing and PR ponies displayed rounded necks. On day one, before the experiment, the groups showed no difference in heart rates. Over the entire training period the mean heart rate was higher in NR ponies than PR ponies. Studies even indicate that on day one, heart rate increased at the exact moment of agitation from the stick. There was no heart rate increase in the PR group, not even when the experimenter stepped forward toward the pony or while receiving treats. From day three on, the NR ponies showed increased heart rates before the researcher even gave the vocal cue, predicting the averse stimulus. Before training, both groups showed similar interest responses to the human. After training, PR ponies were faster to initiate contact with the trainer and spent more time near the trainer, while only two NR ponies came to greet their trainer. After five months, again only 2 NR ponies came to greet the trainer (one being the same pony as in the short term trial) and 10 out of 11 PR ponies greeted their trainer. PR ponies were faster than NP to initiate contact with an unknown person and spent more time near her. These are astonishing results of only five training days consisting of only one to three minute sessions! The use of positive associations also yielded faster and stronger results with better memory recollection, thus becoming a win across the board. And we have plenty of research to support the interpretation of the results.

Positive reinforcement produces a win for the horses. It showed no signs of increased heart rate or stress, and a win for humans who formed stronger bonds along with faster training success with quality results. Horse are not the only creature to have greater success with positive reinforcement training (rhinoceros: Holden et al. 2006; primates: Laule et al. 2003) and a recent study by Sankey et al. (2010) showed that horses trained with positive reinforcement learnt faster a series of handling and veterinary procedures using such strategies than horses trained without it. Arousal levels need to be significant in order for learning to occur and stress is known to impair attention and learning (Mendl 1999). Stress may drive the attention from the task itself to the human holding the stick which causes the vocal cue to be associated with the stick rather than the task (Shors 2004, Bisaz et al. 2009) as it did with the NR ponies by day three. And as far as behaviors goes, studies show us that head tossing indicates discomfort (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007; Sondergaard and Halekoh 2003) as our PR also ponies displayed. Positive reinforcement promoted roundness and self-carriage, encouraging fundamentals of equitation (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007). Hinde’s study (1979) shows us that a succession of negative interactions can lead to a negative memory of the partner, hence why the recollection and trainer greeting was much higher in PR ponies. It is quite clear for horses and for researchers that human presence with positive reinforcements leads to a more positive perception of human and handling procedures (Hausberger et al. 2008). And other studies (DePassille et al. 1996; Munksgaard et al. 1997) show that fear of humans and handling is reduced in the horse when human presence was associated with food rewards. We already knew that horses have good long term memories, but we have underestimated them. Hanggi and Ingersoll’s 2009 study showed that horses can recall tasks more than ten years later! Horses can also generalize their daily positive human interactions to unknown humans, thus decreasing stress and increasing equine welfare in a human controlled world (Henry et al. 2005), which may be why PR ponies were all more comfortable approaching strangers.

With significant differences all across the board, what does this tell us? Horses, being prey animals, do not look at humans as herd members. As humans, predators, the best thing we can do is train with positive reinforcement. Natural horsemanship is a false justification to use classical conditioning with negative reinforcement, force, and pressure cues. Horses do not bond to a human leader than uses force and domination. Horses bond to humans who create positive associations without force, exhibiting themselves as non-threatening. While taking away negative reinforcement can sometimes be difficult to do, especially when riding, many equitation trainers insist on the importance of secondary positive reinforcements in correspondence with primary ones. Researcher and equestrian Oliveria (1991) would stress for a horseman to have a pocket full of treats when working with a young or green horse. He claimed that people would laugh at him, calling him “unmanly” when he would give treats to his horse. This is the notion in the equine industry; I have witnessed cases of it firsthand. However the research and the data do not lie. The results speak for themselves. If we can all stop looking for the next trend in horse training and just simply start creating more positive associations, we can witness more togetherness and peace among horses and humans. If the pony study showed us one key thing, it is that we only need a few short but positive interactions to truly change horses’ perception of humans. It’s time to create a relationship that can be perceived and interpreted just as it is; a human and a horse.

Works Cited

Appleby, MC. (1983) The probability of linearity in hierarchies. Animal Behaviour 31: 600-608.

Bisaz, R., Conboy, L., Sandi, C. (2009) Learning under stress: a role for the neural cell adhesion molecule NCAM. Neurobiol Learn Mem 91: 333-342.

DePassille, AM., Rushen, J., Petherick, JC. (1996) Dairy calves’ discrimination of people based on previous handling. J Anim Sci 74: 969-974.

Drews, C. (1993)The concept and definition of dominance in animal behavior. Behavior 125: 283-313.

Feh, C., de Mazieres, J.,1993. Grooming at a preferred site reduces heart rate in horses. Anim. Behav. 46, 1191-1194.

Giles, SL., Nicol, CJ., Harris, PA., Rands, SA. (2015) Dominance rank is associated with body condition in outdoor-living domestic horses (Equus caballus). Appl Anim Behav Sci 166: 71-79.

Hanggi, EB., Ingersoll, JF. (2009) Long-term memory for categories and concepts in horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 12(3): 451-462.

Hausberger, M., Roche, H., Henry, S., Visser, E. (2008) A review of the human-horse relationship. Appl Anim Behav Sci 109: 1-24.

Henry, S., Hemery, D., Richard, MA., Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behavior of foals towards humans. Appl Anim Behav Sci 93: 341-362.

Hinde, R. (1979) Towards understanding relationships. Academic Press, London.

Holden, MD., Gregory, J., Watkins, V., Radford, L. (2006) Operant conditioning programme for White rhinoceros and Indian or Greater one-horned Asian rhinoceros. Int Zoo Year Book 40: 144-149.

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1990) The behavior of horses in relation to management and training: towards ethologically sound environments. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 10.

Krause, J., Ruxton, GD. (2002) Living in Groups. Oxford University Press.

Krueger, K. 2007. Behaviour of horses in the “round pen technique.” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 104, 162-170.

Laule, GE., Bloomsmith, MA., Scapiro, SJ. (2003) The use of positive reinforcement training techniques to enhance the care, management and welfare of primates in the laboratory. J Appl Anim Wel Sci 6(3): 163-173.

McGreevy, P.D., 2004. Equine Behaviour- A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. W.B. Saunders, Edinburgh.

McGreevy, P.D., McLean, A.N., 2007. The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. J.Vet. Behav.:Clin. Appl. Res. 2, 108-118.

Mendl, M. (1999) Performing under pressure: stress and cognition function. Appl Anim Behav Sci 65: 221-244.

Munksgaard, L., DePassille, AM., Rushen, J., Thodberg, K., Jensen, MB. (1997) Discrimination of people by dairy cows based on handling. J Dairy Sci 80: 1106-1112.

Oliveria, N. (1991) L’art equestre. Ed Crepin Leblond, Paris.

Parelli, P., 1995. Natural Horsemanship. Western Horseman, Colorado Springs, CO.
Roberts, M., 1997. The man who listens to horses. Arrow Books, London.

Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Henry, S., Fureix, C., Nassur, F., Hausberger, M. (2010) Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 13: 753-764.

Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Leroy, H., Henry, S., Hausberger, M. (2010) Training experience induces lasting memories of humans in horses, Equus caballus. Anim Behav 79: 869-875.

Shors, T. (2004) Learning during stressful times. Learn Mem 11:137-144.

Spondergaard, E., Halekoh, U. (2003) Young horses’ reactions to humans in relation to handling and social environment. Appl Anim Behav Sci 84: 265-280.

Warren-Smith, AK., McGreevy, PD. (2007) The use of blending positive and negative reinforcement in shaping the halt response of horses (Equus caballus). Anim Wel 15:481-488.


8 thoughts on “An “Ethical Practice”: The Research behind Natural Horsemanship Techniques

  1. Thank you for sharing the great post! I’m wondering how this would look while riding, since riding engages pressure/release aids such as rein pressure and leg pressure. For example, I ‘see-saw’ my reins gently as a cue for my horse to collect her head, and as soon as she collects, I release. This seems like negative reinforcement – how would I change it to a positive reinforcement? Also it seems like negative reinforcement is unavoidable at times when the horse is engaging in dangerous behavior (like biting). What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Morgan,
      Thank you for your input. I’m glad you enjoy my posts. Sometimes negative reinforcement is unavoidable but we would like to try to use it as little as possible and as lightly as we can to avoid added stress to the horse. For example, your collection of reins. This is when you can evaluate and get creative in trying to find another method. My Thoroughbred is the horse who loves liberty and dressage work. When I first started training him I used natural horsemanship and would do the same as what you mentioned. After some thought I tried positive reinforcement with a clicker to get him to collect. I would be on the ground and have him follow my finger down and in towards his chest and “click and treat” when he would arch his neck and put his head on the vertical. I added a verbal cue with this and worked at a stand still, just reinforcing every time he did so. I then moved onto the walk, then trot and it soon carried over to riding. I basically “clicked and treated” every time he collected. He now holds himself willingly at the canter, no bridle. This was all through positive reinforcement and no pressure. And when we absolutely cannot think of a way to teach without pressure, we can always use a secondary positive reinforcement with the negative reinforcement to add an incentive and a means to create a positive association. And to answer your question as far as an unwanted behavior such as biting, it is important to back up a step and analyze why it is that the horse is acting out. Humans tend to think horses get “naughty” or “have attitude” but knowing the cognition of the horse, it may just be a fight response to some kind of stimulus. The best way to actually solve something like biting is to find out what stimulus causes the biting and address that rather than addressing the act of biting itself. That is just how horses have been able to survive so we can’t really blame horses for being, well, horses. In the end the horse will then find you to be a “safe place” making your interactions safer for you both! Reduce stress, don’t cause it. Hope this has helped answer your questions and stay tuned, more posts to come! 🙂


  2. Also just having read through more of your posts, I wanted to again say thank you for doing this important work! There are many blogs out there that share similar ideas but your writing, research and balanced tone is wonderful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations on another interesting read!
    Although it has a catchy ring to it, I could never quite bring myself to be a full believer of ‘Natural Horsemanship’. The part I like is its founding principles in regards to herd dynamics, prey vs. predator psychology, body language cues and using our own bodies to communicate. But we could just call that ‘Horse 101’. Where the NH concept loses me is when the horse (supposedly) accepts the person not only as a member of the herd, but as a higher ranking member! In order for this to happen, doesn’t the horse have to give up their ranking for us? Is this a join up? Or a give up? This inevitably brings us back to learned hopelessness.

    Over the last 30 years, I haven’t met too many horses that had it both, education plus a great attitude. I have met the very educated ‘robotic’ horse with the minimalist attitude (just do the job enough to be done). I’ve met the educated horse with the burned out bad attitude (ears pinned and tail swishing when asked to do anything). I’ve met the horse that had their owner wrapped around their finger (or very spoiled). And I’ve met the charming yet spirited horse with little to no education (or slightly dangerous).

    Fortunately, to have something to compare to, I have been in the presence of that type of horse that has everything; spirit, willingness, positive attitude, and high education. It’s that type of horse that does their job, even if their job at that moment is to stand perfectly still (without being tied) for a bath, like it is the most important thing in the world for them. After I saw an owner (who btw was in her mid 70’s) of a horse like this, do a few more day to day type things with her horse without the use of pressure or force, nor a halter or a lead, I asked her what she did right. She told me that she raised him since he was a foal. She raised him without an agenda. She treated him for the horse she wanted him to be one day. And she never disrespected him.

    Consistency. Without an itinerary or a rush for results. Positive reinforcement. And respect. This is what I took from her answer. The only problem is, her method doesn’t fit neatly under a catchy sounding label that’s easy to market! Nor is it music to the ears of the ones who want immediate results!

    Speaking of methods, I have heard and seen many success stories related to clicker training. But I have also witnessed horse owners (who think they know what they’re doing because they saw a youtube video on it) create a huge problem. I liked reading your reply very much about how you trained your TB to self-carry. I would like to know more about how you begin to introduce this method with your horses, as well as some red flags to be wary of. I know this topic is quite involved, but perhaps it would be something to write for your blog in the future.

    Thanks again for the great read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maggie,
      This is a beautiful story! What an awesome relationship, that is exactly what we want! Humans are so controlling by nature. We are the top predator, we are just so use to having the final say. But same as it would be with other humans, give respect to earn respect, it should be the same with animals. This tends to be a hard concept to grasp for most horse trainers. Natural horsemanship still does not give the horse the final say. We “whisper, ask, and then tell”, finishing with a “you better do it or else” which does not seem very “natural” to me. It is natural for the human to have that superiority, but there is nothing natural about it from the horse’s perspective. I will definitely be building and working up to methodology I tend to use when working with my horses. I first just want to finish laying down the foundation as to why I do what I do with reliable sources to back up my reasoning. We are nearing an end to the basics, so training tips should be coming soon 🙂
      Thank you again for your wonderful input and thanks for reading; more posts are underway!



  4. Hi Veronica. I”m not sure if I will express this right….but there is a “common ground” shared by both man and horse which is how we have gotten along for so very long. Do horses see humans as humans? Likely! Can we be part of their herd as a human? Perhaps-just not as a horse. There is a shared space (not sure if it has a name) where man and beast come together and share experience. How much does it matter that one is prey and one is predator? Perhaps more than we know and less than we think it does. Here in Central Maine, winter is long and cold so riding is not always an option. To get my herd out and moving, I take each, one at a time, out to play in the field. They have a chance to run, buck, get the ‘yahoos” out be chased by a predator-me! My black horse loves this. If I don’t chase him, he stares at me with his ears forward until I do. Then, off he goes, jumping and tail held high at speed around the field. On occasion, he will come in when I call him…and get only so close…and then whirl away with tail held high…you can almost hear him say “nah nah nah nah’ under his breath! They all love this time (especially, I think, since they know this predator is not nearly as fast as they are!). If there wasn’t some type of acceptance of each other, a prey animal asking a predator to chase him- for fun -just doesn’t make any sense! Just my thoughts.


    • Lisa, you’re comments hold true and I do not disagree with them. I too, play with my horses. The reason it works for you is the distinct difference in how the horses sees you. His perception of you comes from learned experiences. My horses play with me, they love it when I chase them, and they are not afraid of my whip what so ever. Playing is a positive experience, thus creating positive associations. A human must know how to properly play in order to not scare the horse into a negative situation. Ever witnessed that scenario when a not too great horse person chases their horse around, thinking they are playing, then cannot catch their horse after that. The relationship is all determined by the associations we create. Hope this puts your comment into some perspective. Thanks for sharing.


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