The Nature of Natural

The Nature of Natural

By Tim McGaffic



When I first was introduced to what today is called natural horsemanship, there wasn't a name given to what Ray Hunt, Tom and Bill Dorrance and others were doing with horses. They were just people who were very good with horses, who tried to see things from the horse’s point of view in so doing so they were able to get good results with less coercion than the traditional methods of the time. They understood the basic truth that all methods and techniques we use with horses (either now or in the past) do not occur in nature and, therefore, by definition are not natural. However, the foundational principles of learning do occur in nature—they work in combination with the horse’s instincts and his perception of the world to influence the final behavior in any situation.


Man has been riding horses for many thousands of years.  The earliest date for domestication is now thought to be around 5,000 BC. That is a long time for man to be studying the nature of the horse, and it would be foolhardy to think that one individual in the 21st century is going to be able to bring anything genuinely new to the table.  In considering the “nature of natural” I will bring into the discussion certain principles expressed as ideas, notions or myths through the ages but which have recently been scientifically tested, replicated and proven.


Many principles of learning are rooted in the process of natural selection that is a big part of evolution as we understand it today. Behaviors that worked for the horse were rewarded in nature. For the evolving horse, food was found, predators were evaded, safety was found in the herd and that reward leads a species to try the behaviors again and again, while conversely the behaviors that fail are abandoned. For any species, this is the beginning of trial and error learning, or as we know it today operant conditioning because of B.F. Skinner. The concept of trial and error or reward learning is fundamental to all training, so we will cover this in some detail.


As we approach training of any species, it is good to have an understanding of how that species sees the world, what their natural habits are, and what instinctual responses they demonstrate.

All of these elements have a great effect on the species’ perception of a given situation and their ability to learn or be trained for particular tasks. This also affects their motivation and thus their willingness first, to be in our care and then, to be trained. In our discussion our main interest is the horse, the species Equus caballus.


Equus caballus and his relatives


Through the millennia of evolution, the horse has developed behavior patterns that are suited to his environment and thus the species has survived through adaptation. From “Horse Power” by Juliet Clutton-Brock, we learn some common traits:


The horse exhibits what is known as Type I Behavior, which is found in Equus przewalskii (Przewalskii’s horse), Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli) and in the rare mountain zebra (Equus zebra).  


These equids form non-territorial, long-term, cohesive family bands of one stallion with one to six mares and their young. Sub-adult mares are abducted from their parental bands by bachelor or family stallions who thereby start a new family band or increase their harem. The stallion will guard and protect his mares and foals, but he will not guard a territory. This type of social organization is an adaptation to migration and to environments with unpredictable conditions as well as to a regularly changing but constant food   supply.


The wild horse will not defend a territory, but a stallion will defend his mares and within the family band there is a powerful dominance hierarchy. On a migration, the dominant stallion will keep the band moving from the rear while the highest ranking mare will usually be the leader of the band. All the other horses will follow in order of their dominance. The foals follow their mothers in order of age with the youngest fires. These behavioral patterns explain how a convoy of horses or cavalry charge can be held together and kept moving by a human rider taking over the position of the dominant leader whom all the rest will blindly follow. This behavior also explains the apparently aggressive actions of a free-living stallion who will try to form a band by abduction mares and will then bite, kick, and rear in his efforts to protect them.


Although the long ranging and high speed mobility of the horse makes it the ideal means of transport for humans, the process of domestication cannot have been easy, which partially explain why the horse was the last species of livestock to be enfolded into human societies. Early on in the history of early husbandry and before the practice of castration became widespread the management of a group of domestic horses must have required considerable courage and knowledge of animal behavior. The wild ponies would have been quite small, about the height of a present-day New Forest pony, but they would have been extremely strong and very difficult to break in to harness or for riding.


As we look at all domesticated animals we see some common traits, ones that allowed them to be domesticated and ones that enabled them to be controlled and trained.  Of the 148 large mammal species in the world, only 14 have been domesticated. Why? The Anna Karina principle applies here, which might say “All domesticated animals are alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way”


The common traits in all domesticated species are:

  • They live in herds or packs
  • They maintain a well-developed dominance hierarchy among herd members
  • Herds occupy overlapping ranges rather than mutually exclusive territories

[1] Juliet Clutton-Brock, Horse Power…


This social order is ideal for humans to fit into. Humans in effect take over in the dominance hierarchy because young animals imprint onto the human in the same way they do their elders within the species. In light of this, the actual importance of the prey-predator relationship that is so often talked about becomes a very small part of the picture. Perhaps you may be threatening, viewed in the dominance order, but horses simply do not view you as a predator.


The flight instinct and how it affects the human-horse relationship is another matter. As we go about training the horse, the importance of where the horse considers himself in the hierarchy cannot be overstated. It is a question that he probably is continually asking and when the answer is consistent—regardless of where his position is, feels certain and eventually safe. All the horse really wants to know is “Am I going to be all right? Is this safe”?  If his instincts tell him otherwise, then flight is usually the response, which is one of the natural instincts of the horse. This is not in your best interest and it is the one aspect of the horse that you will always and forever deal with. Let’s take a close look at this and other instincts of the horse.


Horse Instincts


The horse’s instincts are hard-wired into him and all trainers have to deal with them, especially the flight response. However, the final expression of these instincts is altered by experience, otherwise known as conditioning or learning.

                    Learning is the creation of new pathways in the brain.


The horse’s instincts are:

  • Feeding

  • Fighting

  • Reproduction

  • Herd instinct

  • Flight response (defense)


Every species has a main defense mechanism to respond to real or perceived danger. The horse’s is the flight response. In addition, and this is very important, the horse does not possess reason as we know it. Presented with a problem the answer must be fairly straightforward or the horse will often choose the default solution—flight. This is called conflict. When a horse becomes conflicted, the solution is often the flight response, especially if the horse has not yet gained the fundamental concept of learning to seek for solutions.


The more the flight response occurs as a solution, the more often it will be the solution of choice. This is because the flight response is extremely reinforcing. It only takes a few repetitions before this becomes the solution of choice.

Bear in mind that the flight response can show itself in stages. Mild expressions of the flight response are:

  • Raising of head and neck

  • Hollow contracted back

  • Tail swishing

  • Wider eyes (Rollers)

  • More open nostrils

  • Short quick steps

  • Tail overly raised or clamped


If the perceived problem persists for too long, then hard wired anti-predator behaviors may appear:

  • Shying

  • Bucking

  • Rearing

  • Bolting or stampeding (these result in the horse largely switching off any conditioned response, including trained controlling responses)


There are training systems and trainers who advocate pushing the horse through these responses, with the hope that the horse will become habituated to the stimulus that is causing the response. Most often this does not work because the response has already occurred, thus reinforcing rather than discouraging the flight response. At that point the horse has actually practiced the flight response so it becomes a regular feature of the horse’s behavior pattern.


The flight response is expressed ultimately by the moving of the feet. So being able to slow the feet down or even stop them completely is very important. We will spend lots of time on downward transitions, stops and backups for this reason.


Remember, too, that the flight response varies widely in domestic horses. Draft and pack horses have been selected for a reduced expression of the flight response, whereas horses used for race and speed events have a stronger expression. It will also vary widely in individuals of a breed.


How the horse learns


After identifying and understanding the flight response, the next important piece of understanding the natural horse is to appreciate how he learns. We want to become proficient at teaching our horse responses to stimuli other than his ever popular solution of flight and all of its ramifications. Remember: When two or more drives compete in an animal’s brain, the one with the greatest survival value at the time will dominate.

  • If it’s hungry, the animal seeks food

  • If it’s alone it will seek other members of its species or substitutes

  • If it feels pain or pressure, it will seek to remove the cause

  • If it is fearful, it will flee

*If you're interested in reading more of  "The Nature of Natural" please contact Tim McGaffic