Has anyone found that natural horsemanship training messed your horse up? How does this happen?

I recently left a barn (felt a bit like leaving a cult) where Parelli-style natural horsemanship was the main technique used with the horses. I was suckered in by the rhetoric and felt like I was philosophically on the same page as the trainer. It wasn’t a show barn and, in fact, not a lot of riding went on. As far as my riding goals were concerned, I saw plenty of red flags early on (plenty of flags in general, if we are being honest. My horse and I would happily never see a flag again), but the training was affordable, and the facilities and turnout were nice. I thought I would just give it some time and see how the trainer did, try to keep an open mind and learn something new. My horse needed a better foundation, and a slow and careful restart from the ground seemed like a good judgment call.

Over just a few months, though, I felt that my horse went from being merely “difficult” to outright dangerous. The trainer had 2 months working 1-on-1 with the horse, then began to involve me in weekly lessons. When I saw how significantly the horse’s behavior had deteriorated, I was shocked. But the trainer explained that things often get worse before they improve, that the horse was previously shut down due to abusive training measures, and I shouldn’t be surprised if he needed to re-learn everything as if for the first time.

To me, it felt like Groundhog Day, where the horse and I were repeating the same “discussions” every time I asked for something. Those discussions escalated to arguments, and the topics of those arguments increasingly expanded to include everything from standing in the barn aisle to walking back to the pasture—things the horse did perfectly well before leaving for training. I was afraid even to go out and hand graze him because he would explode and fight from the end of the lead rope over the most minor things.

All the while, it wasn’t clear to me whether it was my fault or the training. I definitely had a number of long, brooding drives home where I contemplated whether I was the reason my horse’s behavior seemed to worsen week to week, especially since the trainer so often reassured me that her sessions with the horse were going perfectly. Every time I would try to have a frank conversation with her about it, it would naturally circle back to that self doubt and self recrimination, and I would agree to give it another month.

I finally found a new situation for the horse and moved him. A month out of that program, and it’s like I have a new horse. Yes, we had the same “arguments” at the beginning. But the confrontations were virtually one-and-done. We worked through it, the behavior stopped, and we moved on. I don’t see the same bullying/threatening behavior on the ground. Even the spookiness has improved, and that’s despite being on a new property with a smaller turnout… all that to say, WTF was that trainer doing to my horse? Has anyone else experienced these results with natural horsemanship? I’m about this close to starting a bonfire for my rope halters and 14 ft yacht rope, because all I can say is it really did a number on my horse’s sanity.


I haven’t had this happen but have seen the shockingly dangerous results. Good for you for leaving the cult.

Enjoy your bonfire!


No, natural horsemanship won’t mess up your horse. Using training methods that are abusive, cruel or confusing to a horse would do that though. That’s not natural horsemanship.


My feeling is national horsemanship can be helpful, but a lot of folks don’t know how to use it correctly. It is too much A + B = C with no adjustments made if the horse is not getting to C. I have seen several folks borderline abuse their horses because they keep upping the pressure when the horse didn’t respond how they thought they should. With certain horse personalities, this can escalate into dangerous behaviors quickly.

Having said that, sometimes things will get worst before they improve. If you have an ingrained behavior you are trying to fix, sometimes it takes a while to ingrain the new behavior. Unless you are trying to fix a dangerous behavior, it should never escalate into dangerous behavior. The changes should be broken into steps the horse can understand to minimize stress to the horse.


Snort! :laughing:

I’m sorry you went through that and glad your horse is doing better now. I think there can be some degree of things getting worse before they improve, but not for as long as you’re describing or without a plan to get through it. Really if done correctly there should be little to no fighting with the vast, vast majority of horses/problems. There are good groundwork trainers out there. If you’d like to see a different/better approach than what you experienced, maybe check out Warwick Schiller’s YouTube page. You could try a lot of his stuff on your own with no particular tools needed and not much risk of screwing the horse up.


yep this!
the theory / practice of natural horsemanship (although I dislike that term) is not bad, however the application of it by a bad trainer definitely can be though


I’m having trouble trying to come up with a scenario where this would occur. Can you help me out?

Maybe I’m thinking too much in the box/from personal experience because I can’t get around thinking that there is almost no handling scenario when I’d be ok with the horse getting worse before it improved, previously shut down or not.


[quote=“Libby2563, post:5, topic:771493”]
I’m having trouble trying to come up with a scenario where this would occur. Can you help me out?

My personal experience with this phenomenon — with things like trailer loading, or working calmly on the lunge — is that you get a crescendo of resistance right before the horse settles down and gets on with it. But it’s an “in the moment” thing, not something that drags out over months, and not something you have to repeat every time from square one.


There are many training issues that get worse before they improve. Do you not feel when you first learn something that you become slightly worse at whatever it is after you get over the hump of beginner’s luck?

Often I attribute it to my mare and I sometimes needing to “duke it out” over who is in charge. When I introduce something new, she often comes back at me with, “no, we do it this way.” But that’s not true anymore. So there is a little back and forth before she understands that trying something a different way isn’t the end of the world, but next time we try something new, I expect the same argument. It doesn’t mean I’m abusing her or expecting too much. TBS, I don’t know if that applies here. Parelli training is somewhat aggressive and there’s rarely a “conversation.” Some horses can’t handle that. (I don’t use it, b ut this is what I have come to understand from videos and watching people IRL, as well as hearing others experiences on the board). Simple baby-starting groundwork in a rope halter on a circle, sure, I’m very familiar with.

Agreed about the term, I think there needs to be a better term for what it is in this day and age. Maybe just “horsemanship” lol


Ok, that makes sense.

Sure, but my behaviour doesn’t escalate to dangerous :rofl: I guess I just don’t understand how it applies to basic horsemanship like leading, loading, standing still, etc. For me, those things have always been a steady climb to the peak, not beginner’s luck and backsliding and arguments before further progression.


No where did I say a dispute with my mare ever escalated to dangerous except for the occasional head twisting or hump/buck. If a horse is becoming distressed enough to become dangerous to itself or the audience, then something is wrong. AKA the general consensus here that this training method was not working for OP and their horse.


:laughing: :laughing: :laughing: I’m sorry for laughing. Kind of. But this is pretty much what goes on out here in the hinterlands of north/central Arizona with the self-proclaimed natural horsemanship gurus. Lots of groundwork that never seems to culminate with actually riding the horse. And yes, some of the horses end up far, far worse than when this “training” began.

Recent case in point: Dad buys his novice, adolescent daughter a (supposedly) trained Arabian gelding. Gets to new barn/trainer and horse proves to be too much for daughter and downright spooky in arena. Trainer says, “Enough of this nonsense. You bought the wrong horse for your novice kid. She’s going to get hurt.”

Dad pulls horse out in a huff and sends to “problem horse fixer” who only uses “proven natural horsemanship methods.” (Whatever that means).

60 days later, horse arrives in new barn. Comes with a 2-page, single-spaced, typed letter describing the horse as if it’s been psychoanalyzed like a person, not a horse. All kinds of stuff about what stimuli can cause the horse to “exceed his threshold” and instructions that he should always be allowed to “sniff his tack before each ride.” Then there was this equation: “Wind plus other horses in arena plus rabbit in field equals spook and bolt.” Uhm, okay. And finally, the solution to the horse being overwhelmed and over his “threshold” is to PUT HIM BACK IN HIS STALL.

So. Can the theories of natural horsemanship, when properly applied, work wonders on certain horses? Absolutely. Can the theories of natural horsemanship, when misinterpreted and applied inappropriately by zealous nutcases cause undue harm to a horse and possibly its rider? Absolutely.

Of course this is just my opinion.


I think it’s very horse dependent. Many horses respond to pressure by exploding–rearing, kicking out etc . Most horses outgrow this phase relatively quickly once they see that it doesn’t get results. Some outgrow it before they even get started under saddle. A few continue to fight every time (or every time they are put in a new situation.)


Sorry - unclear wording - I sort of tied in the OP’s scenario to what you said. They should have been separate thoughts!

My two cents is that so-called Natural Horsemanship is not for every horse. It was developed in response to the “break their spirit” type training in the American west, and it seems to be most effective on horses with a Quarter Horse temperament. The “pressure” and “release from pressure” style training can cause serious resistance in horses that never respond well to pressure.

I always like to point out that people were training horses just fine in Europe for centuries before the Americas were colonized. They had slow, systematic ways of schooling that turned out well trained horses. (That’s not to say that there was no abuse, of course). But in the American west, they needed trained horses on the fly, so they had to get them rideable in the quickest possible time, and their methods were often brutal. Natural Horsemanship is definitely an improvement from that, but it’s not a good method for every horse, and it’s really unnecessary if the trainer takes their time and follows the old school methods.


Hmm, see, I think it’s out job to instill yielding to FAIR pressure and FAIR requests as something that doesn’t need to be fought against and to make that happen it’s our biggest job to quickly help the horse understand that although we may ask for weird stuff sometimes, it will never be beyond their capabilities. For me, if there’s continued/extended fighting beyond a (possible) initial discussion about boundaries, then I am doing something wrong.


There are plenty of big time trainers in Europe who use natural horsemanship methods with (gasp) warmbloods. Take a look at Morten Thomsen for example

Sure, absolutely. But also I think sometimes there is just something physically or mentally wrong with the horse that we haven’t diagnosed or don’t have the diagnostic capability to understand yet. I’ve run across a few horses over the years that fell into this category. A couple have been straight up dangerous, others have been okay but still require very careful management to keep everyone safe and happy.


60 days later, horse arrives in new barn. Comes with a 2-page, single-spaced, typed letter describing the horse as if it’s been psychoanalyzed like a person, not a horse. All kinds of stuff about what stimuli can cause the horse to “exceed his threshold” and instructions that he should always be allowed to “sniff his tack before each ride.” Then there was this equation: “Wind plus other horses in arena plus rabbit in field equals spook and bolt.” Uhm, okay. And finally, the solution to the horse being overwhelmed and over his “threshold” is to PUT HIM BACK IN HIS STALL.

Yes! Yes, this is it. I am a bleeding heart, I will cop to it. I want to be kind and compassionate to my horse. The talk about keeping the horse below threshold and relaxed through each training session was resonant to me. But what I thought would happen was that the horse’s comfort/tolerance would progressively increase. Instead, it was like that whole approach effectively re-sensitized him to every little thing so that his ability to tolerate the stress of even basic handling was zero.