What Is Horsemanship?

Horsemanship is an ancient skill that has been passed down through generations for centuries. Horsemanship can be used to describe any equestrian sport and refers to the process of training and caring for horses and riding them. There are many horsemanship principles that you might want to know about to increase your understanding of this fascinating world!

For a long time, horses were used for work and needed to be trained quickly to become compliant, these methods may yield fast results, but they are not reliable over time and can damage horses mentally and physically.

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!

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 - 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 - 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.”

Brandon McAulson - BMc Horsemanship

"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". Of course, every job or sport needs its specific training; some more, some less. Horsemanship covers - in hand, liberty, freestyle and finesse riding techniques. Also, it will touch on most practical work and sports to some degree, so the speciality training should fit on seamlessly.

David Zuend - 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

“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


History of Horsemanship

The art of horsemanship is a very old one. It has been passed down through generations for centuries 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.

The idea of working sympathetically with the horse's nature goes back at least 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 as well as having emotions like joy or fear.

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 to be one if not the most influential people in equine training history!

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

The Dorences were the first to really 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 make sure they are comfortable in their environment.

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


What are the Principles of Horsemanship

At its core, horsemanship principles are based on horse psychology and natural behaviour. The principles are designed to help the horseman understand and communicate with their horses.

The Principles of Horsemanship can include Training, Communication & Understanding.

In terms of the application of 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 him 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 not actually be anything 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 wellbeing.


Understanding the Horse's Natural Behaviour

The terms horsemanship and Natural Horsemanship tend to be used interchangeably; natural horsemanship was coined by Pat Parelli in the 1970s. It is a philosophy that emphasizes understanding and respecting horses' natural behaviour, using minimal equipment to train them in ways they would learn on their own 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 as well its physical body language or "body talk".

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


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 amazing 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 all kinds of horse-human relationships.


Why is horsemanship controversial?

Horsemanship is controversial because it's a personal art. There are numerous different 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,s 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 find yourself disagreeing on some points - just remember we all have our own opinions that make this world such an interesting place! 

Anyone who is 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 when around other horses. They have a herd mentality, so if one horse is spooked, the others follow suit. 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. The way in which 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 the 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 is used to teach new behaviours by rewarding correct responses, so it becomes more likely this same response will happen again and again until it becomes automatic.

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


Horsemanship Gear

An essential part of natural horsemanship is using the appropriate gear. Developing a better relationship with your equine partner means that you need to ensure that you are using equipment that encourages their mental harmony. 

An excellent place to shop for your horsemanship gear is The Western Saddler. They have an incredible selection of western and treeless saddles with a large array of saddle accessories. If you're looking for high-quality ropes and rope reins, look no further than Total Horsemanship Ltd, as this is their speciality! They also sell rope halters, leads and more.


Natural Horsemanship Trainers

When seeking Natural Horsemanship practitioners, Total Horsemanship Ltd coordinates UK horsemanship clinics for big names, such as Buck Brannaman, David Stuart & Mike Bridges. They also sell a variety of horsemanship books and DVDs.

Sean Coleman Horseman is a great place to take horsemanship clinics in cow work, liberty and gymnastic training and trail riding. 

Franck Jeanguillaume is an Equine Psychology, Horsemanship and Rehabilitation trainer that offers clinics in behavioural, horsemanship and bodywork (in hand, groundwork and ridden).

As a Horse Development Specialist, clinician, and eventer, Hanna Walton bridges the gap between natural horsemanship and high-level performance, focusing on dressage, show jumping, and eventing. She offers horse starting, problem-solving, training and competition livery, plus clinics, camps and 1-2-1 lessons.

BMc Horsemanship in Scotland offers UK and International Clinics and horse and rider training using western and classical horsemanship principles.

Ireland's Only Licensed Parelli Professionals, Chris and Sarah Brady, teach the Parelli Programme and many other courses at their facility in Sallins, Kildare. Chris also starts and restarts young and difficult horses.

Also based in Ireland is Helen O'Hanlon. Helen's philosophy involves understanding the horse and human's point of view and solving problems with communication and understanding. Her signature coaching style is caring and compassionate for horses and humans. Helen is also a regular author for Horsemanship Journal.

Angélique Mould coaches clinics on the horse and human communication, understanding, trust and feel, enabling understanding, exploration and horse development.

Last but not least, Alison & David Zuend are Licensed 4-star Parelli professionals with a passion for natural horsemanship in Hartland, UK.


Natural Horse Care

Natural horsemanship also extends to the horse's environment, caring for them in a way that supports their natural instincts, such as foraging for food or enjoying the comfort and safety of a herd and learning where our well-intentioned care may actually cause them discomfort or stress.

Zoopharmacognosy is a fascinating topic that describes the process by which animals self-medicate in the wild on plants, clays, algae and insects to restore and maintain health.

Whitethorn Equine Health, Co. Sligo are specialists in Equine Zoopharmacognosy: Providing Equine Herbs & Essential oil supplies, Live online workshops, Mentoring & Clinics for horse owners wishing to support and restore their horse's health with an effective Herbal approach.

Modern natural horsemanship is an intelligent, compassionate and less invasive method of horse training that creates a special bond and relationship between horse and rider. It requires a mixture of equine knowledge and self-awareness to help improve communication, trust and understanding between both partners. By utilising the appropriate gear and adhering to the guidance of horsemanship principles and professionals, a more cooperative and harmonious equine/human relationship can develop.