What is natural horsemanship and how can it help form a strong bond with your horse? We asked our Harry Hall Heroes yard winners and natural horsemanship trainers, Zoe and Rhian from Top Barn Horsemanship to take us through the basics of natural horsemanship. From what they do in their sessions to getting to know the owners too.

Nowadays the term natural horsemanship isn't used as often and we like to refer to it at Top Barn simply as horsemanship. We believe the term “horse-man-ship“ is about man and horse coming together to find a common language and mutual understanding. Horsemanship, in our opinion, starts on the ground, where you can learn a lot about your horse's character, reading them in the moment, in any given situation, learning what they are/are not able to do, and how they respond or react to situations they're faced with.


How does a horse's personality affect how they learn?

Much like people, horses have their own personality, behaviours and characteristics. For instance, some horses are more energy-efficient and need to find the motivation or a point to an exercise before they will put more effort in, some horses are more highly strung, tense and tight and they need to find more relaxation before they can be calm enough to think straight to learn something new. Some horses need repetition when learning, whilst some horses learn really quickly and will get bored easily, for instance, some horses are bolder and braver and others tend to be more sceptical and fearful.


So, whenever we work with a horse or horse and owner partnership, this is where the horsemanship comes in, we are always reading the horse, studying their posture, their thinking process and how they are breathing and blinking, this gives us feedback on when to ask for more or when to quit asking.


Why reading a horse is important with natural horsemanship:

Everything we do in our sessions, with being able to read the horse and act accordingly, is to set the horse up to succeed and offer the path of the least resistance. This gets the horse and owner in a learning frame of mind which enables progress more quickly, especially from those who have come to us as a last resort, those who are often stuck or scared.  


At Top Barn we want to set up everybody to succeed so we believe in a building a great foundation first, this means starting off together on the ground, this is where we are able to teach people to start reading their horse's body language and give them the skills and knowledge to apply certain strategies to help them become independent thinkers and great puzzle solvers. People seek help from us usually because they have got a problem or they know something isn't working,  or they just genuinely want to improve in any area of their ground or ridden work.


Could a natural horsemanship trainer help you?

People often come to us because they have lost confidence or are not getting on with their horse, by assessing the partnership on the ground first it allows us, as instructors, to see what kind of contract has been written between horse and owner. The agreement the horse has with the owner is usually the same once they get on and depending on what level of confidence the owner has, will reveal if there is a problem and/or how deep it is. The great thing about horses is that they don't tend to change too much, horses are very consistent animals, for example, if they are sceptical and worried on the ground about something they will usually be the same when ridden. We can give the owner some strategies to help the horse gain confidence and relaxation, so when they saddle up after this, they are working together and both feeling more confident.


Rhian loves using analogies/metaphors with her students, her favourite is the idea of having her students “wear“ a leadership badge,  there is only one of you (you or the horse) that can wear that badge at any one time. Most horses we see come through our gates have been wearing that badge a long time and the real challenge is helping the person change and gain the badge back. When the horse wears the badge you are not truly in control of your horse as they make decisions based on being a prey animal, purely looking after their own self-preservation often with the owner being taken along for the ride, quite literally! This might sound ok to some but until you want to do something new, different or out of the ordinary with your horse and they decide they don't like the idea of that then suddenly it’s not ok and that can be unsafe.


What do you need to try natural horsemanship?

We have got some fantastic facilities at Top Barn, such as round pens, a huge obstacle park and a safe arena, we use the combination of all our facilities to get to know the horse first on the ground and see how it responds to certain questions before we ask the owner to saddle up. Of course, it’s not all about the horse, we are also taking these opportunity to get to know the owner, constantly reading their posture, breathing, learning process’s and habits. We can also read all their fears, frustrations, confusions and tensions. Once we can coach people out the other side, this is where the fun really starts!  


Equally, if people come to us with none or little of the above, we can help develop and coach the subtleties and nuances required, it's the small differences that make the big changes towards progression.


We dreamt of creating a centre that attracts anybody to come, learn and have fun, and we're pleased to have got to that point. We welcome people from any discipline, wearing any tack and riding at any level, anyone who is stuck, lacking confidence, or a competitive rider looking for that “slight edge“.


Learning to read the horse can bring an added layer to any partnership, giving natural horsemanship a go could be the change you're looking for.