Training the Natural Way
By Heike Bean

True dressage training is purely for the horse - the horse's body and mind determine at what rate training can progress.

When considering training the horse ‘naturally’, most people will instantly think about "Natural Horsemanship". Although this is certainly one way and most likely the best-known way of natural training, dressage should not be overlooked. Dressage actually means ‘basic training’.

During the years, I noticed that a lot of horse owners have very incomplete and often wrong perceptions about dressage. To many of them, dressage means not much more than complicated manoeuvres executed in an arena, horses being longed in tight sidereins, horses being forced between bit and legs, muzzles being pinched shut, and to top it all off: you need an European Warmblood for this, and you can't turn him out because he is too expensive and could hurt himself.

Looking at the dressage competition scene I can very easily see how one could come to this conclusion.

Horses are indeed expensive, most of them never leave a stall, they are clipped, blanketed and coddled any which way, they are so insecure due to their unnatural living conditions that they are impossible to handle on trails, they have lots of problematic ground and under saddle behaviour, and many of them are clearly very unhappy with their allotted living and working conditions. Matter of fact, not few of them quite visibly hate their destiny, demonstrated by frustration, anger, disobedience, tension and aggression.

The contrast of natural horsemanship, of a horse willingly following his owner without a halter, of a horse staying calm in difficult situations, in a relationship of mutual trust and respect, is in such a case quite glaring.

Yet, personally, I came to the conclusion that there are shortcomings and benefits in each training method.

Being raised in Germany, dressage is a way of life, and for the last 42 years of my life I have strived to understand and apply its principles CORRECTLY.

Dressage is a very involved and complex training system, although the basic idea behind it is nothing more than gymnasticising the horse's body so it can easily respond to the physical demands of carrying a rider, while only utilizing the gaits and movements that come naturally for this particular horse, and at the same time training the mind so it can comfortably and willingly submit to our human demands.

So, this seems to be quite a simple and realistic goal, but when contemplating this task in more detail we will find that it requires deep knowledge of the horse's physique and psyche, and a human who is very educated in both, who has trained his own body and mind to accomplish the complex task of teaching another being. It can certainly be compared with the role of a school teacher, but to make things quite a bit harder, the human body has to learn to adapt to the motions of the equine body, follow it, influence it, shape it, and not hurt it at the same time.

True dressage training is purely for the horse. Its intention is to create a willing and competent athlete who can easily support the weight of the rider and become attuned to the ever so slight signals of his rider so every manoeuvre is light, effortless and of the horse's own will.

Force, frustration and anger have no place.

The horse's body and mind determine at what rate training can progress, and any indication of stress or discomfort is addressed and the demand lessened.

The horse's body will also determine how far training can progress. Many horses are just not built for collection, and the rider/trainer has to be content with training or first level achievements, which will still ensure a very pleasant horse to ride.

In true dressage training, the horse's body is considered a very precious and easily injured organism, and all exercises are geared toward gradual and progressive development. There are training goals established, and only when all basics are solidly in place does one move on to the next step. Nothing is ever asked of the horse that is beyond the reach of his own, innate and natural physical and mental abilities. Applying the wrong exercise at the wrong time is detrimental. Asking an immature body for movements that are too complex and overwhelming leads to early breakdown. In true dressage training, every exercise is designed to strengthen, supple, teach better balance, and create confidence.

This is where truly knowledgable and compassionate training become evident.

Unfortunately, it is more and more common that 3-year-old horses are subjected to strenuous ring work.
When I grew up, a horse was never backed until the fall of his fourth year, was hacked a lot and in his fifth year he was regarded as a young and unbalanced baby who was forgiven all kinds of immature movement and behaviour.

The biggest drawback of dressage training is the fact that it is such a complex matter, that it requires years and years of becoming first a proficient rider, then a trainer. And when done incorrectly, dressage is very damaging to the horse, just like when we send our children to an incompetent teacher.

This is why "Natural Horsemanship" has such great appeal. And justly so. It teaches an average horse owner about how the horse thinks, acts, and mentally operates, about the basic physical and mental 'controls', and about relationships. It certainly has improved countless horses' lives and kept many owners from being injured.

The main concern I have is that with “Natural Horsemanship”, as well as common 'dressage', the individual physique, fitness, developmental phase, and age of the horse may not be regarded. What can safely be asked of a horse at a given time or readiness is too often overlooked.

Just as an example: disengaging the hindquarters to gain control and maintain obedience is certainly a very valid concept. But doing this to a two-year-old horse in tiny circles, over and over, because he does not execute something that he did not understand or can't even physically execute at that age, is physically and mentally very abusive, in my opinion. I cringe when I see something like this. Or backing such a horse up for many steps at a time, again and again. I wonder what his hock joints will look like when he is 4. I could name countless examples of exercises in all areas of horsemanship that are in my eyes detrimental to any, but especially a young horse's future soundness.

In the past, the life of a horse must have been more precious, I guess. Every care went into the proper training so the horse could stay sound and healthy for the years to come, and his body was still sound and strong when his training was more or less complete years down the road.

It would be wonderful if, in the context of "natural", we would find our way back to this respect and wisdom.

I would love to see these two training methods merged, with the: basic ground training of "Natural Horsemanship", the creation of trust and communication on the ground, and the wisdom and respect of century-old and proven methods to carefully and compassionately create this athlete we all would love to have.

Add to this natural living conditions in a herd environment and iron free feet, maybe even an iron free mouth, and we come pretty close to truly "natural".

About the author:
Heike Bean is co-author of the book, "Carriage Driving - A Logical Approach Through Dressage Training”, and has written many articles on dressage. She has been a horse owner for over 40 years and holds a college degree as a grammar school teacher. Heike is a German FN approved riding instructor, and has been a trainer for ridden and driven dressage for 20 years. She has also been a competitor, clinician and driving judge for many years. Heike is now retired, and is learning about hooves and barefoot as much as she can.