The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 1: Round-pen training


With advances in welfare science and equitation science, great strides have been made in horsemanship, training, and veterinary practices. We now have a much richer understanding of equine cognition, learning abilities, social needs and behaviour, which all play an important role in the evolution of species appropriate training and handling techniques.

Natural horsemanship (NH) is an approach to training that has evolved in recent decades. NH trainers are adept interpreters of equine behaviour. They develop keen observation skills that enable them to respond quickly and appropriately to subtle cues demonstrated by the horse during training. They strive to establish a higher level of communication between human and horse, with a focus on respect, liberty, and learning to ‘speak horse’.  Touted by many as a kinder, gentler, more appropriate way of training horses informed by observations of their innate behaviours and intraspecies social interactions, contrary to what the name implies, it isn’t without controversy. While on the surface it appears to be a very intuitive practice, there are some welfare concerns inherent in the methodologies employed.

While more ethologically appropriate techniques and a shifting culture around horse training is largely beneficial, not all is right in the world of NH. “The premise is that NH works with the basic nature of horses. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a horse’s basic nature is, much of it based on outdated perceptions” (Merkies, 2017). As McGreevy & McLean write, NH is “a relatively modern system of horse-training that originated in Western training. It is based on an interpretation of the natural ethogram of the horse. NH focuses on concepts of dominance/submission, respect and leadership, which are currently controversial and may be at odds with learning theory” (2010, p.282).

This is not to discount NH as a whole, rather, the intention is to take a closer look at some of the training techniques and beliefs inherent in NH, and to challenge some of the more controversial aspects of the practice, with a primary focus on round-pen training. A secondary focus will be on some of the common ‘myths’ such as the concept of establishing oneself as an ‘alpha’ or ‘honorary herd member’, and learning to ‘speak horse’. The potentially negative welfare implications of anthropomorphic language and views, along with the conflict between concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘control’ will also be presented.  

Of course ‘natural’ is better! Isn’t it?

Oxford dictionary defines ‘natural’ as being “of or in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something”. In this case, ‘natural’ is synonymous with characteristics that are innate, instinctive, natural-born, ingrained, inherited, or inbred in the horse. However, it can be argued that the lives of domestic horses are not natural, therefore, nor are the ways in which humans interact with them. So is this really natural for the horse? This question will be revisited after taking a closer look at some of the controversial aspects of NH, beginning with round-pen training.

The round-pen experience

Round-pen training is a prime example of where things can go wrong with NH. When examined more closely, it becomes apparent that what is perceived as a higher degree of communication is actually a series of “adaptive flight responses and learned responses to stimuli” (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7). An integral part of NH training, the round-pen is often where the journey to establish the human-horse ‘partnership’ begins. It sounds idyllic! The horse is often at liberty, free from the constraints of a harness or lead rope. Although there are varying approaches and whips may be used by the handler,  it is common to use only postural and vocal cues that ‘mimic’ natural horse behaviours (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014).

If the trainer is successful in their imitation of the behaviours characteristically exhibited by a dominant horse, then the horse will respond appropriately and assume a lower ranking social position in the human-horse dyad, accepting the leadership of the human (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012). Or so the story goes. In other words, the round-pen is where the handler gains control of the horse, asserting dominance and establishing the position of herd leader/alpha, allegedly based on observations of feral and domestic horses (McLean, 2013).

It begins with a trainer initiating a flight response by using aggressive postural and vocal cues to frighten the horse. The aversive cues are then removed, as an invitation for the horse to approach. Sometimes, before the cessation of the aversive cues, the trainer will step into the path of the horse to force it to change direction and continue to flee, to reinforce a position of control or dominance. Alternatively, the chasing may continue until the horse demonstrates what is perceived as submissive body language, as a plea to ‘join-up’ with the trainer, which is supposed to be representative of returning to the safety of the herd. This entire process may be repeated to test whether the horse does in fact accept the trainer as a leader and satisfactorily performs a following response. If not, the horse may be deemed to be disrespectful or challenging the dominance of the trainer (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012; Merkies, 2017).

Misinterpretations of horse behaviours/responses can result in conflict and reduced welfare, for horse and human alike. For example, the notion that the horse is signalling to the trainer as it would to a higher-ranking horse, or that it ‘wants to be with’ the human because of a feeling of ‘respect’ is more likely a behaviour shaped through negative reinforcement or, possibly, an affiliative signal, though it is believed unlikely that the horse is exhibiting innate social strategies toward the human (McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. 2009). The emotional tactics involved to gain control of the horse result in the animal being pressured to choose between a state of fear (being chased) or safety (remaining with the trainer/not being chased) and represents a significant welfare concern (Henshall & McGreevy, 2014;, 2012; McGreevy & McLean, 2010; McGreevy, Oddie, Burton & McLean, 2009).

It should also be noted that round-pen training does not always produce transferable results. In other words, even though a horse displays following behaviour in the round-pen, there is no guarantee that it will display this behaviour in the pasture or other settings (Fureix et al., 2009).

How does round-pen training align with learning theory?

Round-pen training works in opposition to two of the Principles of Learning Theory set forth by the International Society of Equitation Science (McLean, McGreevy & Christensen, undated).

Principle 9: Avoid and dissociate flight responses

Training processes that involve systematic/deliberate triggering of fear responses should be avoided because fear inhibits learning and reduces equine welfare.

Horse training should not result in flight responses. Stress results in problem behaviours (including escape and aggression). Both acute and chronic stress have a negative impact on horse welfare.

Principle 10: Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training  

Trainers should be able to show that the horse is as relaxed as possible during training. Whilst it is widely agreed that certain levels of physical and mental arousal (e.g. muscle tone and attentiveness) are necessary for learning to take place, it is important these levels are not exceeded resulting in a negative impact on learning, training and horse welfare.

Whilst insufficient arousal may lead to lack of motivation for learning, excessive arousal may compromise welfare and be related to stress (acute and/or chronic) with associated behaviours such as aggression, flight or learned helplessness).

Fear responses (flight, bolting, bucking, rearing, shying) in horses are difficult to erase and should not be intentionally provoked as they can represent a significant welfare issue leading to learned helplessness and chronic stress. Any fear responses should be addressed immediately when they arise through calm, consistent training that reinforces a desired behaviour without allowing the horse to demonstrate the unwanted behaviour. Unless it can be proven that the potential benefits outweigh the negative behavioural and welfare implications, in instances of round-pen training where fear is induced to elicit a flight response, it should be altogether eliminated (McGreevy & McLean, 2010).


The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths takes a look at some of the common, and sometimes problematic, beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.



Fureix, C., Pagès, M., Bon, R., Lassalle, J.M., Kuntz, P. & Gonzalez, G. (2009). “A preliminary study of the effects of handling type on horses’ emotional reactivity and the human-horse relationship.” Behavioural Processes 82 (2009) 202-210.

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hartman, E., J.W. Christensen & P.D. McGreevy. (2017). “Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human-Horse Interactions?” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9.

Henshall, C. & P. McGreevy. (2014). “The role of ethology in round pen horse training – A review.” Appl. Animn. Behav. Sci. (2014), (2012). “Rethink urged of Monty Roberts’ training methods.” Retrieved from

McLean, A.N. (2013). “Training the ridden animal: An ancient hall of mirrors.” The Veterinary Journal 196 (2013) 133-136.

McLean, A.N., McGreevy, P.D. & J.W. Christensen. “Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation.” Retrieved from

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. (2009). “The horse-human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram?” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 12-18.

Merkies, K. (2017, February). Group 3, Question 2: Equitation Science vs. Natural Horsemanship. [Online discussion]. Message posted to

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