Can a Dressage rider benefit from Natural Horsemanship?

WarmbloodQuestion: I have been a traditional English rider for almost 30 years now. I am currently at level 2 dressage, but hope to go higher with this horse. I have also ridden the hunter circuits.

My question to you is I have no real information on how Natural Horsemanship works with the English riders. My dressage gelding right now displays some rather undesirable manners. Would learning NH help us, and is there a way English traditional riders can learn this. I’m not interested in the ‘cowboy’ way.

My trainer is also curious about whether or not NH could be integrated into our programs.

From April Reeves: Thank you for this question! Yes, Natural Horsemanship can and should be a part of all English disciplines, and especially so since many of the horses are much larger and full of personality.

I teach groundwork and riding skills to English riders that fall under the NH classifications daily. All my English students have asked about the style I teach, and they are a little shocked that the methods come from an NH background. They have never been privy to the methods before (from other coaches), and have found amazing results with their horses. They tried to achieve them with other traditional ways that took longer and did not always give them the real solid foundations they were looking for.

Natural Horsemanship is not really about ‘cowboys’ or the methods that cowboys use. It’s a discipline of understanding horses on a deeper level, and applying techniques that get through to the horse, any horse, in a softer, faster, easier flow (natural). Some of the terms used are ‘Communicating to a horse like a horse’ (Adiva Murphy), ‘Inspired by Horses’ (Jonathan Field), ‘Training Through Trust’ (Doug Mills). While many traditional English disciplines find this a bit “fluffy”, if you look deeper you will find a valuable training methodology that works for any and all horses.

What you are asking is perhaps a way to integrate it into your program in a style that fits your discipline. This is important as being a multi-discipline rider I fully understand how NH techniques in their “raw” form need to be adjusted to accommodate English styles.

I believe all horses can start with NH groundwork and roundpen techniques, regardless of where they are ending up. However, there is a point where traditional NH techniques do not fit the needs of dressage or Hunter/Jumper. The foundation training for young horses that applies to all disciplines are:

1. Rhythm,
2. Balance,
3. Staying in gait without continuous leg pressure,
4. Giving and soft jaw and poll to bit,
5. Lateral flexion,
6. Longitudinal flexion,
7. Good whoa and go buttons,
8. Move off the leg with obedience and
9. Give to leg pressure.

All 4 year olds I start, regardless of breed, must have this foundation before moving into single disciplines. With this foundation you can also discover the potential of each individual horse. While some of these foundations may have a NH influence, basic training of youngsters remains fairly consistent. I believe NH has added a positive influence in that some of the skills and exercises, such as rhythm and staying in gait, become quicker and easier, allowing less skilled riders to accomplish good sound young horses, and skilled trainers to move the training along faster without the increased stress levels to the horse.

As for ground manners, the majority of NH roundpen and groundwork exercises apply, especially in trailer loading, where Natural Horsemanship techniques tend to be quick and have long lasting positive effects, with no need for force. This has proven invaluable for those with larger, stronger horses. The age of ‘using a broom’ to load a horse is disappearing, and certainly had no ‘positive’ lasting effects.

There is a growing trend in the dressage world to move from strict traditional methods to incorporating the softer methods of NH. Problem is there are very few who teach this, as most of the NH methods have to be restructured to fit the requirements that solo disciplines demand down the training scales. For instance, although a self-carriage with draped rein may work in the western pleasure divisions, you could not teach this to a hunter or jumper. There are ‘crossroads’ in training where the horse’s education must be defined and trained appropriately.

There are limitations to NH as it applies to breed specific training under saddle. There are also limitations to the dressage and hunter/jumper worlds. But NH has merit in the beginnings of each discipline, and should be given a second look by the English crowd as to whether there may be a better way to get to the final destination.

Natural Horsemanship Equipment
I think one of the biggest hurdles with the English riders/trainers is the use of the NH equipment. Rope halters and long horseman sticks are still a bit foreign to this group. I have come up against this barrier, but when the techniques are used on a 17.2HH Dutch Warmblood whose ground manners were dangerous at the start, and within less than an hour this same horse is walking quietly, head low and oblivious to external distractions, it’s easy for the English disciplines to accept these new methods.

NH equipment is neither cowboy nor western; it is a useful set of tools and skills that allow any trainer to accomplish great things in shorter time spans with no force required.

Problem Horses
Without question, Natural Horsemanship has given hope and possibility to many horse owners who had exhausted every avenue. I for one was in this situation with a 16.1HH Appendix Quarter Horse gelding who was the most challenging animal I have ever worked with to date. Without NH skills I’m sure this horse would have ended up in the slaughterhouse or hurt someone. I had to revisit my ground skills, and add to my repertoire, a year of intense study and clinics to become comfortable and confident enough to work with such a horse. Today this horse is quiet and safe, and very large and powerful. It’s the perfect combination to begin selective training. If you had asked me 5 years ago whether we would get to this point, I would have said ‘no’.

It’s one thing to have a 14.3HH problem horse. It’s another thing to have a 1400lb. 17.2HH spring-loaded, run-from-everything, rear over backwards, bolt and rip-through-your –hands-on-the-lead 4-year-old Warmblood colt take you on (get the visual?). While many of the large horses are fairly level headed, the odd one is not. Natural Horsemanship techniques apply to all sizes and breeds.

My suggestions to you would be to do research on each NH trainer in your area, to ensure you get the style of NH training that complements your discipline. There are too many NH trainers who have found it easy to move a horse around a roundpen, but lack the riding skills and multiple disciplines to be able to accommodate your needs. Find a trainer that also rides and pins in the show circuits. This way you know the trainer has additional skill sets required to understand what dressage riders need.

You may want to keep an eye on my schedule (Horseman’s U), plus the schedule’s of Adiva Murphy (groundwork, riding, multi-discipline), Jonathan Field (groundwork, some multi-disciplines) and Julie Goodnight (groundwork, multi-disciplines). Try to at least audit these Clinician’s clinics if they come near your area.

As far as your gelding’s unsavory manners, purchase a good DVD and view it over and over until the methods begin to ‘stick’ (I suggest Adiva Murphy’s Groundwork Levels).

Your trainer also could benefit from learning at least the groundwork skills. Adiva Murphy has a great set of DVD’s out that any savvy English trainer/coach could adapt to their specific disciplines. Adiva trains for dressage and shows in English classes, and has adapted some of the NH ‘raw’ methods to a refined, softer approach. She also has an incredible Trailer Loading DVD, which she (all 5 ft. 2 inches of her) works with a 16.2HH, 1400lb. Quarter Horse ex-stallion who vowed never to step foot near a trailer. Adiva had never seen the horse prior to filming this DVD, and it was all over for the big guy in around one hour, where the temperamental giant agreed that trailering wasn’t all that bad after all. This skill is not privy to just trainers like Adiva; the methods are transferable to any intelligent human.

And isn’t trailering one of the biggest problems with the least amount of real-time help available?

I hope this helps you and thank you for writing in to me. I hope to see you in one of my clinics sometime.

April Reeves

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