Natural horsemanship is a discipline of horse training which believes that trainers should work with horses, using gentleness, body language, and trust to establish a relationship, rather than against the horse, with brute force. Numerous people work within the framework of natural horsemanship, developing their own personal styles and passing them on to the riders and horses that they work with. The common thread between trainers who appear to have radically different natural horsemanship techniques is that they build a friendly relationship with the horse, rather than an adversarial or tense one. Trainers believe that natural horsemanship techniques result in a calm, agreeable horse who cooperates with his or her rider in a partnership.
As the name implies, natural horsemanship focuses on the natural traits of horses, looking at the ways in which horses communicate with each other. There is a heavy emphasis on body language, which is used as a communication tool by horses from a very young age. Although humans cannot precisely replicate the body language of horses, they can be aware of the placement of their bodies in relationship to a horse. In addition, communication through the eyes and tone of voice is an important part of natural horsemanship.
Reinforcement is the key to natural horsemanship. Horses are given positive reinforcement for a task which is performed correctly. In addition, the trainer will use gentle, firm, but not harsh pressure as a negative reinforcement tool. For example, if the trainer wants the horse to move to the right, he or she might firmly place a hand on the horse's left shoulder, applying pressure until the horse moves, at which point the pressure will stop. The horse has learned that a negative situation, in this case the pressure, will stop as soon as the horse is compliant. Learning how and when to apply pressure as a training tool is an important part of natural horsemanship, so that the pressure is never used as a punishment.
By studying equine behavior, trainers can rely on behavioral training to teach the horse, rather than force, which tends to breed a relationship of fear between horse and rider. By reinforcing desired behaviors, the trainer hopes to guide the horse, encouraging the right action and making misbehavior challenging. Because it is slower than traditional “breaking” methods of horse training, natural horsemanship requires patience and a positive attitude on the part of the trainer and rider. Many adherents to the training technique, however, believe that the hard work is worth it.