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Natural Horsemanship VS Classical Horsemanship

Horsemanship: the art or practice of riding on horseback.

Such a simple definition for such a complex and controversial topic. The google definition does not even begin to define the true meaning of horsemanship. It seems like the art or practice of riding on horseback would better define equitation. Horsemanship is widely accepted as the art or practice of working with horses both on the ground and in the saddle. This term was first recorded in 1555, however, its meaning has been around for centuries. Today, it takes on many variations. Equestrians have developed two main forms of horsemanship which are largely similar and vastly different.

The first and oldest form of horsemanship is now considered “classical" or "traditional” horsemanship. It was developed over centuries after the first horse was ridden. Casolani states “From the 2nd millennium BCE, and probably even earlier, the horse was employed as a riding animal by fierce nomadic peoples of Central Asia” (Casolani 1919-56). This act of using the horse for transportation became more and more sophisticated over 100s of years. Horses were used for hunting, traveling, war, and sport. It was during war that horsemanship got its first big revolution. The need for exceptional communication between horse and rider developed what riders today refer to as “dressage.” This gave horsemanship a new level of excellence.

Despite its excellence, dressage did not end the practice of “beating the horse into submission” or “breaking” the horse. Horsemanship still accepted horseman who forced the horse with whips, spurs, painful bits, and other devices. It was not until the term “natural” horsemanship was coined in 1982 by Pat Parelli, that people began to shun the harsher forms of horsemanship. The practice of natural horsemanship was studied and developed long before Pat Parelli by the likes of Ray Hunt and Monty Roberts. And before them, long before them, the better treatment of horses was practiced by Xenophon who states “To quote a dictum of Simon, what a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad.”

Despite its efforts “natural” horsemanship has not ended the poor treatment of horses either. However, it has greatly diminished it. Today, there remains a controversy between the best of “classical’ horsemanship techniques and the worst of “natural” horsemanship techniques. Many equestrians pick a side and the best of equestrians walk a path between the two. Seeing as Classical horsemanship stems from Dressage, its techniques are most effective in the saddle. While natural horsemanship techniques stem from starting horses and so it is quite effective in groundwork.

It is common to see a good rider bypass the horse’s behavioral tendencies and create nervous or ill-behaved horses. On the other hand, a good handler will often miss the physiological needs of a horse and create physical lamenesses. Therefore, a good horseman must understand the horse in its entirety. Which ensures the work with horses is done in the most humane and effective manner. Maybe horsemanship would be best defined as the art or practice of understanding the horse both physically and mentally. That is, it is neither classical nor natural, but a combination of the two practiced with the full understanding of a horse's physiological and mental make-up.


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