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The natural touch

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what's in our latest issue, click here.

Tristan Tucker. © TRT Methodc

Tristan Tucker.

© TRT Method

Starting from the ground up, natural horsemanship emphasises tenderness over force to bring out the instincts of a horse and let it feel comfortable and confident in its body and in its choices.


“NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP” IS a term that apparently appeared in the 1980s referring to a broad range of approaches to horse-training philosophically, based on understanding the horse as a herd animal with a good capacity for communicating to its peers and humans non-verbally, and explicitly using operant conditioning (pressure release) to train specific responses from the horse. There is an emphasis on work from the ground preceding ridden work. Many of the principles, one can argue, are common to all good horsemanship. So-called natural horsemanship advocates gentle techniques and is against unnecessary use of force. This was a departure from techniques used for breaking in and training in the cowboy areas of the United States, where Tom Dorrance and his brother Bill pioneered this new approach. The horse is offered a choice. Ray Hunt talks about making the “right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult”, and allowing the horse to choose. This promotes expression in the horse. These principles are not unique to natural horsemanship. In Ancient Greece, Xenophon expounded gentleness, as did de la Gueriniere (1733) in France.

“Operant conditioning” is a term from learning theory describing the fact that behaviour is shaped by the consequences of behaviour. Skinner described this is 1938. Behaviour that is followed by a good consequence, such as reward or release of pressure, will be repeated. The horse moves forward from a kick because when he goes forward the rider takes the leg away. It is the release (italics please) of pressure that trains the horse. I have often written about this. It is one of the most fundamental principles in all training.

The Dorrance brothers were born in Oregon before World War I, when horses were an integral part of life and work. They were very influential through the 1900s. Master trainer Ray Hunt popularised their methods in demonstrations, clinics, books and articles. He came to Australia several times. Buck Branaman is the highest profile student of Ray Hunt and inspired author Nicholas Evans for the book “The Horse Whisperer”. There has also been extremely successful commercial marketing of some of these methods. Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts have travelled extensively promoting their training methods informed by these principles and need no introduction. They have both had a big role in popularising natural horsemanship principles, particularly with the base of the sport.

At the same time the Dorrances were developing their techniques, Kel Jeffreys was developing his very gentle method to start young horses working all by himself in Australia. Tom Roberts was also developing pressure release training methods in Australia before the popularisation of operant conditioning. Tom describes that the reason you jump up if you sit on a pin is to release the pressure, and it is release that is rewarding.

Groundwork is common to all the variations of natural horsemanship. Most often a lightweight rope halter with an integrated lead (rather than a snap hook) is favoured. This gives a very direct feel to the horse. The horse must respect the space of the human. He learns to keep his distance. He learns how to yield the quarters, how to yield the shoulders and how to bend his body with a soft ribcage. The trainer may use an aid such as a bamboo cane, a flag on a stick, to apply pressure, usually without touching the horse, or he (or she) may use his posture to communicate with the horse. Horses communicate between themselves using body language. The position of the head, the ears, the lips, the legs all communicate intention and feelings to other horses. Of course, in-hand work has always been a part of the classical tradition also.

Equestrian trainers in the Olympic disciplines have not always seen the relevance of these techniques, developed generally with wild and young relatively unhandled horses, to training complex tasks in higher level horses. This is changing. There is growing recognition that horses trained in this way often remain relaxed in their bodies and minds with a confident attitude to strange situations, resulting in good performance.

Natural horsemanship influenced methods are now, in the 21st century, moving out of the round yard and into the elite arenas of the Olympic disciplines. Very skilled and sophisticated horsemen such as Tristan Tucker are leading the way in showing how training based on these techniques can produce relaxed, high-level dressage horses. Tristan went from Melbourne to Europe, where he is in much demand as a trainer and presenter. He has presented at the Global Dressage forum twice, and the Dressage Convention in the UK, among many others. He trained Dutch team member Katja Gevers, and has helped Spanish Olympian Beatriz Ferrer-Salat, and Canadian Ashley Holzer. His alter ego, Brett Kidding, has been seen by over one million viewers on Facebook. He has launched his own training system, TRT Method, informed by natural horsemanship principles and is deliberately working to bridge the gap between horsemanship and sport.


Tristan Tucker trained Dutch team member Katja Gevers.

Photo supplied.

Tristan emphasises that the horse must understand what is being asked for. “One plus one equals two,’’ he says. Pressure plus response equals release of pressure. The response will always include relaxation. He starts with the groundwork, using the rope halter. He teaches the pattern of: keep your distance, yield the hindquarters and then yield the shoulders as a foundation. Tristan really emphasises the need to do this in a way that the horse learns to be relaxed in its body. The horse learns that relaxation in the body is the correct response and results in release of pressure. He teaches these basics with an emphasis also on the horse developing the posture and balance required for collection. The hindleg must step under to carry weight as the horse yields the hindquarters. The front leg must step back to narrow the base of support as the shoulder yields. The horse learns to follow the posture of the person and the energy of the person's posture is reflected in the energy of the horse's response. Tristan believes that through this process he “gives the horse the knowledge of how to learn, the knowledge to look for the release of pressure.” 

Pressure in the environment includes movement, touch, and sound, and later, approach. The horse learns what to do with the body when he is affected by pressure. They are in control. “Naturally, a horse is a flight animal: if they don't know the right answer they will run away.” So, by training the horse to remain relaxed and soft in the body in response to the pressure in foundation training, the horse learns to look for the release of pressure. The release of external pressure by the horseman when he gives a relaxed response helps him to learn to remain relaxed in his own body. The horse likes the feeling of relaxation in their body, so that is itself reinforcing. When the horse encounters pressure in the form of noise, or approaching objects at the competition the horse knows to relax his body. He has “the knowledge to look for the correct answer’’, Tristan says.

While the horse is learning to look for the release, and is learning how to learn, he also “learns what to do in his body. He learns to control his physical self at the moment of pressure. When he can control his physical state he can control his mental state. He develops body awareness, understanding each of the body parts, in the foundation training. With awareness of his body he can start to control his body consciously. He can choose a relaxed response in his body. When he releases physical tension in his body, he produces mental relaxation,’’ Tristan says. We know from research that this is true for all mammals.

Watching Tristan is a real privilege. (I have written about attunement in horse training in previous editions of Equestrian Life). Tristan is the most attuned horseman I have ever seen. His horses tune into him. He communicates with his posture, his movement and some external aids like the dressage whip, which rarely touches the horse.

Now, we know that our brains are equipped with mirror neurones that help us achieve that when we tune in without feeling right brain and mirror posture. So, in this century we have a stronger scientific basis for understanding how we can use our posture to train. It is a reciprocal way to communicate as we have the opportunity to feel in our bodies something of what the horse feels, especially if the posture is intentional, as that is what mirror neurones mirror, intentional movements.

Cody and Sarah Rawson-Harris train horses and other animals for television and movies in Victoria. They start young performance horses and retrain difficult horses, including high-level competition horses. Cody says “everything on the ground has a parallel in the ridden work”.  He quotes Tom Dorrance, who said, "I wasn't big enough to manhandle them." So he learned to approach the horse as an equal and look at things from a horse’s point of view. To do that, Dorrance stated, "You have to get yourself right inside the horse and feel exactly what is going on in the animal". We know that you can do this cognitively and through posture.


Cody and Sarah Rawson-Harris train horses and other animals for television and movies in Victoria.

Photo supplied.

Gavin Robson is a two-time WEG reinsman, Boyd Exell's team-mate. Gavin believes that he would not have succeeded to train his teams to the level required for WEG in the time available to him without using groundwork to establish the relationship of trust and relaxation. Both of his teams had some difficulties before they came to him. Horses involved in runaways in four-in-hand teams need to rebuild confidence. Gavin knows, “If you are the boss the horse will be relaxed; they worry if they are the boss. Horses need to be relaxed in order to learn.” He emphasises the need to demonstrate leadership from the ground by never stepping backwards. He wants to control the feet and bend the ribcage without touching the horse. Like Cody, he uses a flag and his body to indicate pressure. He teaches the same basic responses to start with: yield to pressure to give personal space, yield the quarters sideways, yield the shoulder sideways.