Real life

Melissa Kite — after nearly 40 years of riding, all I know is: horses are horses. They are not people

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

Natural horsemanship has a lot to answer for. After a cross country event the other day, I rode back to my trailer to find the two women parked next to me doing some very strange things as they loaded their horse.

One woman led the pony up the ramp quite efficiently, flicking it with the rope to stop it hesitating and then shut it inside. Whereupon her friend shouted: ‘No! Get him back off, quickly!’ And she lowered the ramp, untied the pony and pushed him back down the ramp.

‘He’s got to choose to load,’ said the woman, who I now noticed was a little hair-brained looking. ‘He’s got to chooooooose to load.’ A conversation then ensued between the loony woman and the sane woman in which the loony woman insisted that horses must be allowed to ‘self-load’ on to trailers.

The loony woman then started to lead the poor pony around in circles, waving a rope in the air and making cattle herding noises. After about the fifth circle, she ran towards the ramp and let the pony go, which was apparently the signal for the pony to choooose to load.

But you know what’s coming next. The pony being a pony, and not a human being who could rationalise the future and understood he was going home and that all would soon be well, chose not to load. He chose to stop and stare at the scary gaping mouth of the trailer, then he chose to lower his head to eat the grass.

The loony woman tied him to the back of the trailer, in front of the lowered ramp, on a short lead so that he couldn’t eat or do anything but stand looking up the ramp into the terrifying dark recess. And he stood like that for the next hour.


‘How long do you suppose they are going to wait for it to choooooose to load?’ I asked the builder boyfriend who was busy throwing a bucket of water over Grace to wash her off.

‘It’s going to chooooose to stand there all night by the look of it,’ he said.

Now, under what system do you suppose that tying a horse to the back of the trailer and making him have a good think about his behaviour would be called smart, or kind, or natural? Natural horsemanship. It is a dangerous cult. The people who do it seem to think horses are human. But horses aren’t human, and they get pretty confused when people treat them as if they were.

The self-loading horse stood tied to the trailer choosing not to load as the builder boyfriend loaded Grace the non-natural way, which is to say he ran her up the ramp shouting ‘Go on with you! Get in there!’ and clapped her round the backside.

Once loaded, she munched her hay happily as the self-loading horse stood at the bottom of his ramp staring dejectedly into space. The owner cracked open a flask of tea.

The reason natural horsemanship fans persist with these strange practices is that they have become followers of men in Stetsons: gazillionaire cowpokes who sell American ‘down on the ranch’ inspirational hokey about lassoing horses to happiness. Well-meaning Brits with naughty Thelwell ponies are sold the idea of going on a ‘journey’ to understanding their horse. All will be well, they are told, if only they listen to what their horse is telling them.

A lot of my horsey friends worship the ground walked by the men in Stetsons and have tried to persuade me to join the journey. I try to tell them that, in my experience, anything with the word ‘natural’ in the title always turns out to be anything but. Anything purporting to be a ‘journey’ usually has you going round in circles.

A friend who is a devotee of Pat Parelli urged me to go on his website and read the section about  horsenality, or, as he calls it, the natural horse training Horsenality™ system. All horses, according to Parelli, are a combination of either left-brain or right-brain and introvert or extrovert. Under his special system, extrovert horses go fast, introvert horses go slow.

Mr Parelli, I salute you. If I had a business idea half as smart as selling people the information that some horses are faster than others I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.

But after nearly 40 years of riding, all I know is: horses are horses. They are not people. Just because you wouldn’t like to be run up a ramp, clapped round the backside and given hay to eat while you’re travelling home does not mean a horse won’t find this acceptable. Come to think of it, I would prefer it to travelling on the Southern service from London Victoria during rush hour.

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Show comments
  • bionde

    Love it.
    I remember many years ago when I had a horse at livery, when a fellow livery owner could not get her horse to walk out of the yard, I was asked to get on said horse and get it to go through the gateway. Thereupon I mounted the horse, gave it a firm squeeze, a good clout on the backside and roared at it. It then walked through the gateway and the other horseowners mother said”Our Linda would never do that- it isn’t ladylike!”

    • Kennybhoy

      lol 🙂

  • BoiledCabbage

    Never buy shoes you cant walk away from.

  • Juddax

    Lol, so so true. Thanks for a good giggle 😉

  • Michelle Laureen Crowley

    I think one has to look at how horse treat horses if one wants to be natural about it. How do horses in a herd move each other along? They certainly do not stand around discussing choices. A nose on the bum is what moves another horse along. Natural in my understanding would doing what horses would do with other horses in a herd, not what humans would do with other humans.

  • JenM

    Ridiculous. And if we were treating horses like natural horses they wouldn’t be going in a trailer to a show in the first place! Parelli/Monty all the way, said loony woman might of been allowing the horse time to react and weight up the situation rather than being typically human dominating and forcing an outcome. The long way is the short way ultimately.

  • Sandra Draibye

    It is really too bad that you don’t educate yourself before you start espousing your notions of superiority. The fact that not all students of natural horsemanship are experts at it is hardly a basis to discard a training method about which you clearly know nothing- unless of course becoming better at what you do and building a better relationship with your horse isn’t your objective – but having a basis on which to espouse your obvious superiority over others is… And if you were going to choose someone to learn from someone, someone that studied under Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Ronny Willis and is frankly brilliant – might just not be a bad choice. The student you watched was not in fact doing anything that I have ever seen taught as part of the Parelli program – too bad you didn’t check on that. But Pat Parelli’s horses do self load – and they do run to him from their fields and they do win in competitions. Do yours? Tom Dorrance once said that we were only scratching the surface at understanding the horse – and he may have been the closest thing born to a horse. A closed mind is nothing to feel superior about – we can all learn from others – and 40 years of doing something with a closed ridiculing mind probably means you know about as much as you did when you started. I feel sorry for your horse.

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