Why do things work so well some times and so poorly other times? The same exercise with the same equipment can have very different outcomes. I have been thinking about this since I read an article here from the Horse Collaborative blog. It is called "Dressage and Natural Horsemanship: What's the Difference" and well worth reading. I love and hate both of these methods in equal measure. Why do they work? And why are the exact same methods in the wrong hands so destructive?
Dressage works. It is the foundation for all horse disciplines from jumping to western pleasure simply because it is the name given to proven traditional methods. Dressage is what happened when the most effective traditions were formalized for consistent teaching and judging. At its best Dressage is a harmonious blending of two beings into one, dynamic and joyous. But there are also times when dressage is horrifying as you see reins pulled in tight, trainers yelling, young riders verbally abused, or the eyes of a horse rolling as he seeks a moment of release. Higher levels of the sport are too often about pushing the horses and riders to unhealthy extremes rather than developing them to their highest potential.
Natural Horsemanship is much more recent, a product of modern society's desire to become more humane combined with technology for distance learning. It was developed by several brilliant trainers, men wanted to counteract cruel methods by teaching people better ways. The second and third generation of Natural Horsemanship trainers are successfully using video to reach people all over the world.
Natural Horsemanship is as much about allowing everyone access to the best ideas in training as it is about the training itself, and this is a beautiful and worthy idea. It can accomplish incredible things. But the simple equipment can be used in harsh and painful ways. Subtle differences in use can make the same methods coercive, teaching learned helplessness rather than engaging the mind of the horse. The most common problem is followers of this method that lack understanding. People learning to train their own horse without a mentor often train spoiled horses, creating dangerous habits that are nearly impossible to break.
Each method is proven, each teaches proven ways of reaching a horse's mind and body, and each can be used in an abusive manner while still conforming to the rules set out in the teaching. I have learned an incredible amount from both Dressage and Natural Horsemanship. No matter what method is used to work with a horse one thing makes the difference between success and failure. Training must be a two way conversation. The horse must know that you are hearing and responding to them, not just making demands. This does not mean you are letting the horse run over you. It means that when a horse tries to run over you, you are responding, then listening for what he tells you in return. work with a horse must have the goal of two way communication no matter what training method you are using. Develop mutual understanding. Look at the training methods as tools, not goals. "Dressage" or "Natural Horsemanship" is not the end result. The end result is a horse that is willing to be your partner.