Horsemanship is the art of riding and training horses. From the ancient Greeks to the cowboys of the Wild West, horsemanship has played a vital role in society. But have you ever wondered what it means or how it differs from what you already do?

Horsemanship requires patience, dedication, and an understanding of horses' behaviour. It involves learning to communicate with these majestic creatures through body language and subtle cues. A skilled horseman can make a horse perform intricate manoeuvres and develop a bond with the animal.

In this article, we will explore the history of horsemanship, its various styles and techniques, and the benefits of mastering this skill. 

The editors of Horsemanship Journal magazine have written this article based on over 10 years' worth of articles published by our magazine to provide a comprehensive overview of horsemanship. We regularly update the article as we learn new information.

As a horse enthusiast, caring for the wellbeing of your companion is paramount. Understanding the principles and history of horsemanship can deepen your connection with your horse and help ensure their health and happiness. Whether you're a rider or trainer, a basic knowledge of horsemanship can go a long way in promoting your horse's physical and emotional wellbeing.

What Is Horsemanship?


Horsemanship is a term that encompasses the training, care, and riding of horses and applies to all types of equestrian pursuits. Understanding various horsemanship principles can enhance your knowledge and appreciation of this captivating world.

Horses were commonly used for labour in the past and were required to be trained quickly to obey commands. However, the traditional training methods employed, which relied on force and fear, may produce rapid outcomes, but they are not sustainable in the long term and can cause psychological and physical harm to horses.

The most important thing to remember is that horses are not machines. They have their own minds and thoughts, which means they need a lot of patience from the rider for them to be happy with what's happening around them at any given time!

Many consider horsemanship a more ethical approach to training horses because it emphasises building a partnership with the horse based on trust, respect, and understanding. Unlike traditional training methods that rely on dominance, fear, or punishment, horsemanship focuses on clear communication and positive reinforcement.

This approach promotes the horse's physical and emotional wellbeing, encouraging the horse to willingly participate in training and work with their human partner. Additionally, horsemanship techniques can address behavioural issues or trauma gently and compassionately rather than resorting to harsh or inhumane practices. Overall, horsemanship values the horse as a sentient being with their own needs and personality rather than as a tool or object to be controlled.

What is Horsemanship

Defining Horsemanship


We asked our readers, authors and natural horsemanship practitioners how they define horsemanship. Here's what they said:


"The way of BEING around a horse that fits a horse. It's not just stuff we DO - it's more important to understand the why, when and how"

Ben Longwell, horse trainer and clinician | True West Horsemanship


"The ability to interact with the horse offering a two-way Conversation, and then believing, addressing, and supporting the horse during the interactions to create a mental availability, emotional quiet, and physical softness."

Samantha Harvey, Horsemanship Clinician, Lecturer, Columnist | Alternative Horsemanship


"The horse must maintain it's natural disposition - If we make sure our horses are both mentally and physically comfortable in their work - this produces both a superior athlete, as well as a far more rewarding relationship."


"The understanding and skills necessary in the human and the horse to have a foundation, then to be successful in practical work, sport or entertainment". 

David Zuend, 5-star Senior Parelli Instructor| The Horse Place


"The whole thing is an art, and I approach it like an art, with the respect and dignity that it deserves."

Buck Brannaman | one of the world's leading practitioners of handling horses based on classical concepts from the California vaquero tradition


"The word horsemanship is used a lot. To me, horsemanship is using communication, understanding and psychology. If you aren't communicating on that level, then you may be using mechanical devices, fear, or hope and a prayer!"

Pat Parelli | Pat promotes the concept of love, language and leadership


History of Horsemanship


The art of horsemanship is a very old one. It has been passed down through generations from people to their descendants or other riders in the area where they live, and it was often an essential skill that helped them survive. According to archaeological findings (McMiken DF. Ancient origins of horsemanship), the earliest known proof of riding dates back to Mesopotamian plaques and the correspondence of the Kings of Mari around 2000 BC. The Indo-Europeans are believed to have introduced horses to the Near East, where specialised knowledge was used for breeding and training many horses for military purposes outside their natural habitat.


The idea of working sympathetically with the horse's nature goes back to Xenophon, who wrote in the fourth century BC that "a horse is a delicate animal and needs to be treated with care." The ancient Greeks believed horses were intelligent, social animals capable of feeling pain and having emotions like joy or fear.


"On Horsemanship is the English title usually given to Περὶ ἱππικῆς, peri hippikēs, one of the two treatises on horsemanship by the Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 430–354 BC)."


During the industrial age, horses were seen as mere tools, but in the last century or so, a new generation of riders have created partnerships with their horses rather than seeing them simply and solely for what they can do.

Tom and Bill Dorence are generally credited with modern horsemanship. Today, many famous names learned from these two men, including Buck Brannaman, who is considered one if not the most influential people in equine training history!

The modern Natural Horsemanship movement developed primarily in the United States Pacific Northwest in response to a need for more humane and less invasive training than traditional methods.

The Dorences were the first to start teaching horsemanship as a way of life rather than just riding horses for sport or work purposes only! They believed that if you want your equine partner happy with what's happening around him/her at any given time, then it is upon them - the horseman - to ensure they are comfortable in their environment.

These two men also created many principles and techniques based on horse behaviour passed down to the next generations, including Buck Brannaman, Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli and Linda Parrelli. These modern horsemen and women have brought natural horsemanship approaches to the attention of equestrians worldwide.


What are the Principles of Horsemanship


At its core, horsemanship principles are based on horse psychology and natural behaviour. The principles help the horseman understand and communicate with their horse. The Principles of Horsemanship can include Training, Communication & Understanding.

In terms of applying these methods, they can be divided into two broad categories: Pressure/Release and Positive Reinforcement.

Pressure is the use of force to make a horse do something, while release refers to any action that makes it easier for them. For example, the pressure might be pushing on their side with your legs to get them into motion, whereas releasing would include slowing down or stopping when the horse performs the action or behaviour you want. The release is the removal of pressure and is the reward for the horse giving the desired behaviour.

Positive reinforcement techniques like clicker training which is based on operant conditioning that uses positive reinforcement techniques like food rewards when the desired behaviour occurs so it becomes more likely this will happen again next time around) to teach new behaviours by rewarding correct responses until they become automatic).


Equine Psychology


Over time through research, we have learned a great deal about equine psychology. Horses are social animals, and they need to be around other horses. They also have a herd mentality, which means that if one horse is spooked, the others will follow suit even though there may be nothing wrong with them or their environment.

Understanding horse psychology helps us understand how to train them and what they need for their mental and physical well-being.


Modern horse psychology attempts to anticipate the probable behaviour of horses under different conditions and establish those conditions that encourage responses consistent with the goals of the horse handler. University of Missouri


Understanding the Horse's Natural Behaviour


The terms horsemanship and Natural Horsemanship tend to be used interchangeably; Pat Parelli coined natural horsemanship in the 1970s. It is a philosophy that emphasises understanding and respecting horses' natural behaviour, using minimal equipment to train them in ways they would learn independently if not interfered with by humans (i.e. until these behaviours become automatic). It also advocates for an increased awareness of how our actions affect a horse's mental state and its physical body language or "body talk".

Understanding the horse's subtle communications can help you communicate, as does understanding how horses interpret your body language. This is a horsemanship skill that can be learned by anyone. Still, developing the necessary understanding of both horses' behaviour and your body language takes time for this communication process to work effectively without misunderstandings or confusion.


What is the difference between natural horsemanship and traditional horse training?


It would be wrong to say that one method is good and the other is bad; there are fantastic horse trainers and owners/riders in traditional horse training and natural horsemanship.

Traditional methods rely more heavily upon force or coercion to train animals into submission for human purposes. Traditional Horse Training largely stems from the Military and early domestication of the horse. 

Natural Horsemanship is a more modern approach to horse training that relies on understanding the animal's natural instincts and behaviours. It also focuses heavily on communication between human and equine partners.

In all horse training, our understanding is growing and being incorporated into horse-human relationships.


Why is horsemanship controversial?


Horsemanship is controversial because it's a personal art. There are numerous ways to train horses, and what works for one person may not work as well with another horse or rider/owner relationship - so there can be disagreements about how best the job should get done!

As with anything in life, some are entrenched in their way of doing things (and won't budge), but also people who love exploring new ideas. Don't worry if you disagree on some points - just remember we all have our own opinions that make this world such an exciting place! 

Anyone doing their best for their horse's mental and physical welfare deserves respect and understanding, whatever path they choose to follow.


What Do You Need for Natural Horsemanship?


Equine Knowledge


The foundational knowledge of horse psychology and natural behaviours is at the core of horsemanship. Like humans, horses are social creatures and do best around other horses. Understanding things like this can help you choose the appropriate training environments. 

When we take the time to respect a horse's natural behaviours, it will increase our equine partner's trust, security, and mental state. Several equine psychology and behaviour courses can be done in person or online to help you better understand your horse's tendencies. Taking this time to learn is critical to better understanding what your horse is trying to communicate to you.




For horsemanship to work, we also have to take ourselves into account and consider what sort of body language we are giving off to our horses. Natural horsemanship requires intelligence, mindfulness and patience. How we approach training is important. Two main training methods in horsemanship are pressure/release and positive reinforcement.

Pressure refers to using force to get a horse to do as asked, while release is the action that helps make it easier for them. For example, the pressure could be when pushing on a horse's side with your legs to encourage them into motion, whereas the release could include slowing down or stopping once the horse has performed the action or behaviour you requested. The release, or removal of pressure, is the reward for the horse giving the desired behaviour.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as clicker training are based on operant conditioning that utilises positive reinforcement techniques, like food rewards, once the desired behaviour is carried out. This method teaches new behaviours by rewarding correct responses, making it more likely that this same response will repeatedly happen until it becomes automatic.

These methods require self-awareness of our reactions to positive or negative equine responses.




If you are still trying to understand why you should bring horsemanship into your horse care and riding, consider the safety aspect. Too often, equestrians turn to horsemanship after an incident, but many incidents could be prevented by understanding horses and ourselves better.


  1. Proper training: A well-trained horse is less likely to spook, bolt, kick or bite.
  2. Understanding horse behaviour includes recognising signs of stress or discomfort in the horse and adjusting your approach accordingly.
  3. Communication: Clear communication between horse and rider is vital to sound horsemanship. This involves using appropriate cues and signals and knowing how to respond to the horse's movements and reactions.
  4. Safety precautions: in any equestrian pursuit, take appropriate safety precautions, such as wearing a helmet and using proper safety gear. It also involves knowing when to dismount and how to lead the horse safely.


Overall, good horsemanship is about developing a solid and positive relationship with your horse and taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety and well-being of both horse and rider. 


Additional Resources


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