The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths 

The second part of The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship challenges some common beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.

The ‘alpha’ & the dangers of dominance

“Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). If a trainer/handler believes that they need to be in a place of dominance in the relationship that may, in the trainer’s mind, condone the use of force or punishment which inevitably has negative welfare implications (Diehl, 2015; Webster, 2005). With efforts to establish this dynamic at the beginning of the NH training process, horses often experience confusion and negativity as they are forced to adapt to this artificial hierarchy (Birke, 2008).

Believing that a human can attain an alpha position or establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy at all may have negative implications for training. For example, if a trainer or handler is behaving in a dominant manner, it may trigger a fear response in the horse and condition avoidance behaviours. Furthermore, even if horses do have a hierarchical society, there is considerable debate around whether that hierarchy would involve humans, and to think that it would is most likely a purely anthropomorphic view. Such simplistic notions deny the complexity of horse-horse interactions and the subtleties of equine body language. The latter of which will be discussed a bit further on (International Society for Equitation Science, undated; Hartman, Christensen & McGreevey, 2017). For now, let’s return briefly to the prevalence of anthropomorphism in NH training.

The problem with anthropomorphic language

Traditional horsemanship dictates that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way their owner expects or requires at a particular moment (McGreevy, 2012). This concept of the horse having malicious intent is a clear case of anthropomorphism. In reality, a horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse may have been startled by an unexpected sound or object or, more likely, was reacting to another aversive stimulus, such as an unbalanced rider or unclear signals from the rider.

As McGreevy & McLean (2010) indicate, applying anthropomorphic terms to horses ascribes them with a human thought process and overlooks their inherent cognitive process. Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with a human and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences. There is no evidence that horses aspire to please humans (or other horses) or work toward shared goals. When humans have an expectation or false belief that the horse ‘understands’ what it is ‘supposed’ to do, what is required of it, “they are likely to give inappropriate signals to the [horse], such as delayed, inconsistent or meaningless reinforcements, resulting in deleterious behavioural changes” (p.41).

The ‘honorary herd member’

Many NH trainers believe it is possible to be accepted as a member of the herd and establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy. However, there is no scientific evidence that horses accept humans as a herd member. Recent studies indicate that life in a herd is more complex than simply a hierarchy dominated by one single leader or alpha mare, as was previously believed. Herd dynamics are fluid, relationships tend to be affiliative rather than hierarchical, and movement is often resource motivated and can be initiated by any member in the herd, not only by a stallion or alpha mare (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; McLean, 2013).

In its Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training the International Society of Equitation Science (2017) explains that although older, more experienced horses will often exhibit leadership-type roles in herds of feral horses, and that agonistic interactions i.e. aggressive/submissive interactions between two or more group members may be common, particularly in domestic situations where management styles may result in more competition over food and shelter, this does not indicate that one horse is trying to dominate another.

Amongst humans, leadership is a reflection of shared expectations, with the leader acting intentionally. Do horses have the cognitive ability to understand human intentions and therefore share expectations during a given task? There is insufficient evidence that this is the case. It is more likely that horses approach humans out of curiosity or “because they have been trained to do so”, not because they accept humans as leaders (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017, p.7).

Learning to ‘speak horse’

While horses are capable of complex inter-species interactions, interactions within the equine-equine ethogram are far too complex and subtle for a human to mimic. Tail and ear movements are a prime example of equine communication that can never be replicated by any handler or trainer, no matter how skilled. Nor are the morphological differences between the two species lost on the horse (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017).

While one can reasonably commit to being a keen observer of equine behaviour and develop an understanding of the subtleties of their body language and facial expressions, it is perhaps naive to believe that horses reaction to humans are based on anything other than a combination of instinct, learned, and conditioned responses. “It is beguiling to think that we can learn to ‘speak horse’ and enter their social hierarchy by mimicking their signals and behaviour. However, we are unable to mimic their signals with any subtlety as we do not have the same visual signalling structures” such as tails and ears that move (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7).  

Liberty vs. control

There is an inherent conflict between the aspiration of liberty and the exhibition of control. Even at liberty, the horse is not actually free to behave in a manner of its own accord. Rather, it is exhibiting learned and conditioned actions in response to subtle cues by a human. Thus, it could be argued that even at liberty, a great deal of control is still in play, possibly more so than at other times. “Indeed, for all that owners eulogize liberty, horsemanship of any sort is about control…. While horse owners [strive to ensure] that horses … go softly and without constraint, they [are] also asking horses to do specific tasks required by riding or NH groundwork. Asking horses to go sideways or backward is still asking them to do something on human terms” (Birke, 2008, p.119).

Conclusion: Natural for whom?

The intention of this review is not to discredit NH training entirely. Rather, the intention is to encourage horse owners and trainers to engage in a critical examination of NH, and any other training techniques, prior to adopting them. There are likely as many or more positive aspects of NH than there are negative and results can vary drastically. Much like many other things in our lives and in relation to horses, the outcome will depend on interpretation, implementation, and the specific nature and needs of the individual horse. The methods can be applied with care or in a manner that causes harm.

While NH strives to approach horsemanship and training with a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, there are inherent conflicts in a number of the practices employed. Such as the use of fear and dominance in training, and the tendency to ascribe higher cognitive abilities to the horse.

More research is needed to separate the species-appropriate concepts and techniques from the strictly human-serving and potentially damaging ones. One suggestion is to replace the word ‘natural’ in natural horsemanship with ‘distress-free’. In doing so, would a filter or bias be removed, enabling practitioners to properly assess the impact of their training methods on horses? When viewed through a lens of ‘distress-free’ training, how would NH practices rank in terms of welfare?


Birke, L. (2008). “Talking about Horses: Control and Freedom in the World of ‘Natural Horsemanship’.” Society and Animals 16 (2008) 107-126.

Diehl, N. (2015). “Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions.” The Horse. Retrieved from

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.

International Society of Equitation Science. (undated). “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” Retrieved from

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

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

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

Webster, J. (2005). “The assessment and implementation of animal welfare: theory into practice.” Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 24 (2), p. 723-734

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