The centaur portrays something significant about our horsemanship desires. That primal mythological being displays the metaphoric equestrian ideal; head, arms, and torso of a horseperson blending gracefully into the body and legs of horse; Equus sapien. Those who ride horses understand this conceit clearly; become the horse. Sophisticated Thessalonian Greek tribesman imagined and mythologized this man/horse creature, a cultural reflection of man’s emotional and physical blending with the species Equus caballus. The centaur image expresses pastoral man’s exalted and cherished blending with the horse. The centaur defines the willing partnership many of today’s horsemen seek.
A current expression of the centaur is what some term natural horsemanship, a renewal of the manifestation of our desire to connect with horses in a willing and conciliatory fashion. Ethical horsemanship More than ever, or ever in recent memory, people seek true unity with their horses, harmonious partnerships based on understanding and mutual confidence rather than force or coercion. Horsemen hope their horse allows total control willingly and readily¾dependably, consistently, and reliably¾wherever and whenever they ride together. The connection horsefolk seek is empowerment from the horse, a controlled extension of their self. The ideal connection is a pairing achieved willingly, a partnership that becomes something much more than the sum of man and horse.
Man continues to renew and refine the relationship that has bonded him to horses for millennia. Horsemen continue to seek a connectivity of their minds to the horse’s body as horsemen always have. The horsemanship ideal remains the same through time: that a rider’s thought becomes horse’s action, the centaur effect. Indeed, modern horsemen report that horse/man relationships approach this ideal with regularity. The nature of the horse, however, is such that the regularity remains uncertain.
Consistent blending of man’s thought to the horse’s physique requires a thorough and multifaceted understanding of the horse’s nature. Subsequently, the development of an ability to communicate physically with horses is required to connect with horses in a positive fashion. Kinetic empathy, or understanding through movement, describes the gesture language used between horses, and between horses and humans. The language of horsemanship is the language of kinetic empathy. An acceptance of the time it takes to refine relationships with horses remains an important aspect of communicating with horses. Horsemanship involves more than training. Horses form strong pair bonds in a herd to develop fluent communication between horses to facilitate group survival. Group survival is the horse’s nature, and the horseperson needs to take the time to develop a familiarity with horses, both on an individual and general basis. Horses need to know how those in their group move, and respond to their movements, and as well the horseperson needs to know equine locomotion on many levels. Understanding and comprehending the kinetic empathy that horses utilize involves appreciating the gaits of horses. Horsemanship involves bonding, becoming familiar with one another, as is the horse’s nature. Much of this bonding is the blending of a physical connection. Pleasing matches take time spent together.
The connection between horse and man is subconscious and conscious, inherent and acquired. Advanced horsemen and horsewomen communicate to and with horses on many levels, much as horses communicate with one another. Awareness in both species becomes comprehensive as the relationship develops, with both man and horse knowing the movements of the other, as well as the other’s expected responses to their movements.
Man’s relationship with the horse has been pressing for some time. Mary Leakey discovered early African man’s footprints fossilized next to the hoof-prints of an early African horse. These hoof and foot prints next to one another dated 3.6 million years into the past. That is a long time ago. Man and horse have spent a long time coevolving. Before merging together in the dance of domestication, man and horse developed group survival strategies that involved sophisticated social interaction and communication. Much of the early communication in mankind involved gestures. The majority of horse communication involves gestures and body language, acknowledgements and responses to movements. Horse and man’s ability to communicate merged in the domestication process. Mankind has spent a long time coevolving with horses, and here we continue to refine our interspecies communication and understanding of one another.
Imagine 3 million years ago, pedestrian man, fleet horse; footprints fossilized together on the same ancient plain. Three million years ago man and horse gazed at one another, watching the others movements, coming to understand the other’s intent by the other’s movements, the beginnings of the sharing of the language scientists today term kinetic empathy. The contiguous footprints of man and horse do not prove any sort of close relationship so long ago in Africa, but the shared ecosystem implies that the two species have been aware and observant of one another for at least three million years. Horses have been vulnerable to the many of the same predators as man over time. In response to predation, each species developed a safety in numbers survival structure, becoming social in nature. Later, in Asia, man and horse converged in a socially communicative regard that had independently developed over time. The awareness and contact between man and horse ebbed and flowed until the right combination of horses, folk, and resources allowed the connection to develop, allowing the species to merge. By six thousand years ago, horses had merged with people both physically and socially. Horses were stabled, milked, trained, and likely ridden, as the Botai archeology suggests. The shared social structure between man and horse quickly flourished as the language between the species became refined with close and continuous contact. The new relationship between these two social species facilitated the eventual development of inland civilizations. The combination of the two species soon exceeded the sum of man and horse before their social merger.
“The Footprint Tuff” at Laetoli in the eastern rift valley of Kenya, Australopithecus and Hipparon, must have had wondering what if might take to tame that resource, assessing the horse’s power; the African horse looking at man, skeptic then as skeptic now, yet curious, both being chased by the same predators as they emerged from the forest to the plains. Three million years is a long time for two species to contemplate one another in increasingly intense fashion. Some people seem born with an animal understanding or connectivity in their blood, perhaps biologically relevant to the long developmental association man and horse have experienced together.
The kinetic language to effectively connect with horses has been selectively enhanced and incorporated into man’s genome over time. The ability to communicate with horse is inborn into man’s central nervous system as it is inborn into the horse’s. The gesture language has converged. For some individuals the language appears more readily expressible than for others. Children raised in the presence of horses and other domestic animals develop an understanding of the language the animals utilize to communicate with one another, as well as the language the domestic animals utilize to communicate with the children and others. Children quickly come to appreciate the nature of horses if they are allowed abundant opportunities to be taught by horses, which is to grow up around horses, to live near and with horses, to ride them from a young age. Children often quickly connect by understanding the gesture language of horses, and by responding with a gesture language of their own, which facilitates bonding. Bonding is understanding of the other, predictability of the other, knowing of the other, and the understanding is that of movement. Bonding and understanding go hand in hand, as bonding is about becoming familiar with the movements of the other, the meaning of the movements, the responses to the movements. Harmony of movement becomes the ideal. Harmony with horses requires experience and understanding; familiarity. The harmony is a harmony of movement, a harmony of responses to the others movements, a continuous reciprocity, and rhythmic togetherness, a staying out of the way of the locomotion of the other. The bond between man and horse is a bond of mutually appreciated movements. The language of horsemanship is mutual appreciation of movements. Adults and children alike over time learn to react to these movements with conditioned subconscious movements of their own when handling and riding horses. Exceptional communicators develop willing partnerships with horses. Horses evolved a group survival strategy, and part of the strategy is to flow with the herd, to appease the group. As horses appease others in a herd, horses are willing to appease their riders, provided a fluent language of horsemanship has been comfortably established. As in a herd, horses are willing to lead, as well. Provided communication is fluent, a horse’s nature is to both willingly appease and to willingly lead their rider. The relationship—the bond of mutual appreciation and predictability of the other’s movement—is best served to be experienced and secure.
Those folk without an animal sense of kinetic empathy can learn to communicate with horses by educating themselves regarding the history and nature of the horse. Adults unfamiliar with horse movement and locomotion often require a more formal conscious learning process regarding horse’s nature, initially at least. Communication with horses becomes subconscious with time, provided one takes the time to become familiar with horse movements, and the language in which horse’s communicate with both one another and with people. Spending time with horses is essential. Adults cannot become fluent in the language of horsemanship without spending lots of time with horses—hours a day, days a week. A variety of activities facilitate an understanding of horse movements. Grooming and brushing and rubbing horses is an excellent way to become fluent with horses. Hanging out with horses in grazing scenarios allows people to become with the responses of horses to the movement of others, both four-legged and two. A bond has to be established. For some the bond with a horse can come instantly, for others bonding takes more time. Some pairings are unable to find balance, and therefore cannot bond adequately to allow the development of a willing partnership.
Successful horsemanship depends on the refinement of a fluency of movement between horse and rider. The accomplishment of fluent human/horse connections requires understanding of the nature of the horse. Learning theory is important to appreciate. Learning theory is based on evolutionary processes. Group survival facilitated socialization. In addition to sharing a language of movement with horses, man shares the principles of learning with horses. Humans and horses learn in similar fashion. Mares teach their foals both how and what to learn. Similar learning allows training. These connections have been modified and melded with longstanding threads of horsemanship. Horsemanship has been developed into schools and methods. Many of these methods are sequential, explanatory, and formulaic, and many of them help horsemen establish effective relationships with horses. An understanding of the theory and application of these methods is necessary to gain full advantage of the techniques and to be able to apply what is termed natural horsemanship to specific disciplines effectively.
Finesse, informality, and variety are equally essential horsemanship virtues, but they are less often addressed in natural horsemanship programs and will be explored here. Accomplished horsemen are those who become exposed to a wide variety of horses in a wide variety of disciplines and applications over extended periods of time. Individuals remaining buried in specific disciplines have a tendency to become close-minded to the horsemanship of others, and this can preclude effective refinement in their chosen discipline. Horsemen seeking improvement and enhanced performance are wise to view new strategies and thought from a wide variety of sources with an open mind, and attempt to garner improved language skills from each horseman they encounter. There are many effective adaptable traditions and horsemanship methodologies and theories, and most all of them have information to potentially improve our relationship with horses, although some may teach us what we ought not do with horses.
The language of horsemanship is making a comeback, and our connection with horses is deepening in many exciting and innovative ways. Facilitating man’s longtime connection with the horse—a method of signaling and communing with the horse—physical language more than verbal language, an emotional language. The communication has reached renewed levels of sophistication, and it is a language that transcends words in many ways. Exploring the origins and future of the language of horsemanship is a primary intent of this book.
Understanding the nature of the domestic horse is the basis of the language of contemporary horsemanship. Horsemen must be able to read horses and develop a perception and awareness of their myriad levels of perception and projection. Horses strive to understand horsemen and reciprocate effectively and efficiently. Willingness and understanding need travel both ways. Domestic horses possess inborn tameness that horsemen can tap into deeply and effectively. And do. Through time, beautiful horsemanship has been practiced far and wide. Common fundamentals of the language persevere, handed down from horseman to horseman, from man to horse, from horse to man in direct and indirect ways.
A huge culture of horsemanship became lost in the industrial age as horses became obsolete. Cruelty surfaced, a result of confusion and world war. Horse suffered a brutal transition as folk lost daily contact and man lost touch with horse’s nature. Competitive sports, high stakes, and greed also took its toll on horses. Doping in race and show horses is just now getting seriously reined in. Once again the horse is being considered. Today we seek to embrace horse’s nature, again.
Despite this disjointing, psychological savvy remains in both man and horse as how to communicate with one another. Traditional horsemanship threads have been actively carried on through time with the Mongols of the Asian steppes, Persians, North Africans, Vikings, Laplanders, Spaniards, Americans, European dressage and jumping equestrians, thoroughbred horsemen, draft and carriage horsemen, Far East horsemen, cavalry and military, law enforcement, and many other horse-dependent cultures and disciplines. Today’s new horseman is the natural horseman, observing and understanding horse in its natural circumstances and applying that knowledge to the effective training of horses.
In America the thread of horsemanship reached the horseback cattlemen of the Great Plains, and they are currently the most prevalent practitioners of natural horsemanship. Cattle-working cowboy types are currently those most exposed to be able to observe horses in natural settings in North America. Ranch horses are not often stabled, and most run together on open range or in large pastures when not being ridden. Additionally, feral horses frequent the fringes of cattle ranches and grasslands of the west, and allow additional observation of natural equine tendencies. It is often these professionals who emerge to interpret natural horsemanship. Cowboys are known far and wide for spending time contemplating horses rather than fixing fence, and many are horseback ten or more hours a day. The combination of watching and riding horses forms a basis for interpretation that this treatise expounds upon and carries through other disciplines.
Beyond buckaroos, there are many other proficient and effective horsemen who effectively combine knowledge garnered from watching horses interact with one another to the training and partnership development of their riding horses. Natural horsemanship, although dominated by cowboy types by name, is effectively practiced in many disciplines including dressage, driving, horseracing, polo, jumping, eventing, steeple chasing, fox chasing, trekking, trail riding, jousting, vaulting, and many others as the list goes on. Some apply applications differently than others, and not all natural references or behaviors translate as intended or proposed.
Horse behavior has the potential to be both over-interpreted and misinterpreted, and horsemen need to use care in arriving at assumptions based on what they perceive to be natural. The most successful horsemen are those willing to re-interpret what appears to happen naturally and otherwise, and to apply training strategies with the horse in mind with special attention paid to the horse’s physiologic and psychological parameters. Intentionally (or unintentionally) tiring and exhausting horses appears to be one of the more popular misapplications of natural horsemanship. Nearly anyone can put a horse in a round pen, chase it to exhaustion, and hop on. Of course horses trained in this fashion are someday going to be outside the round pen. The opportunity for them to have their day will eventually arise. This is one example of a current misapplication of natural horsemanship. This book will outline the physiologic parameters horsemen will expected to follow to support and encourage horse welfare regarding this and other questionable types of training, natural and otherwise.
As ever, journeys with horse are spells of learning, never-ending accumulations, modifications and clarifications of knowledge resulting in evolved and refined expressions of understanding and connection. The journey may also include broken bones, enlightenment, and wisdom. After a basic language is established and natural circumstances are recreated for horses, the development of balance, timing, and feel between horse and man can progress to unforeseen heights, and the results can be refreshingly rewarding—naturally rewarding. At times horsemanship feels synchronous and fluid, and these are the times horsemen relish, those moments and experiences when time becomes suspended for both horseman and horse. This book intends to inform and teach, to provide a source for unleashing motivated and compassionate horsemen’s inherent ability to communicate with horses, to allow horsemen to prevail and succeed with their horses.
The combination of man and horse is an ideal, the perfect ideal, a revered and special partnership cultured and nurtured over time that continues to defy our imagination. Natural horsemanship attempts to mesh two minds together, combining the sensual, intellectual, and physical advantages of both perspectives. Natural horsemanship aspires to a rich symbiosis with horse. It replaces the ideology of dominance, wherein the horseman does all the thinking and commanding and the horse does as instructed. Coercive horsemanship removes the horse’s perspective, and limits the horse’s effective contributions, which are immense. Ethical horsemanship aspires to a mutually considerate relationship with the horse.
 Last Horses and First Humans in North America, S David Webb and C Andrew Hemmings, 2006, pages 11-25, from Horses and Humans: the Evolution of Human Equine Relationships, BAR S1560, Archeopress, Oxford, England
Dr Gustafson graduated from Washington State University as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1979. He is a practicing veterinarian, animal welfare journalist, equine behavior educator, and novelist. The application of behavioral science to the husbandry of horses enhances optimal health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity. Behavioral, social, locomotory, and nutritional strategies enhance the prosperity, vigor, and health of stabled horses. Sid offers veterinary care, training, husbandry, and conditioning from the horse's perspective to achieve willing and winning equine partnerships with humans.