When I first fell in love with horses, like most people, it was almost impossible for me to be close and not touch them. I wanted to rub, hug and pet them like big teddy bears. I didn’t know that horses naturally bite each other as a means of communicating their dominance. Since they’re all similar in weight (approximately 1,000 pounds) and strength, their bites and kicks usually don’t cause serious injury to each other. With humans, however, it can be dangerous.
For a while, I would let them rub their heads on me, lick me or nibble my shirt just like a big puppy. That was up until one bit down on my thumb and bit my arm so hard he drew blood. As with a lack of knowledge and communication, touching and/or treating a horse like a big pet is a common set-up for injuries—sometimes very serious ones.
Natural horsemanship teaches us what’s natural for the horse. How the horse experiences the world and responds to it. If I can communicate to him in his language, if I can understand how he sees, thinks and feels, then, as the late Tom Dorrance use to say, I can “offer him the best deal possible.” I can help him if he gets frightened, frustrated or willful. I can reassure and allow him to keep his dignity, earning his trust and his respect. I can become his leader because he wants me to be his leader. This is why groundwork is so important. It replicates how horses communicate naturally with each other. It’s how they establish who will be the leader.
Natural horsemanship is about creating a relationship based on communicating with my horse not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. If I expect my horse to let me ride him, I must be in control in order for both of us to stay safe. Then if he’s happy and goes too fast, I can speak to him physically to help him slow down. If he’s afraid, I can communicate with him emotionally to help him relax. If he’s disrespectful, I can communicate with him mentally to help him have a better attitude.