Rethinking Early Training for Thoroughbreds: Incorporating Natural Horsemanship
Even in Nashville, Tenn., there are certain places you just don’t expect to see cowboys, and the annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners might normally be one of them. In December, however, the five-day meeting kicked off with a keynote address from Buck Brannaman, well-known clinician and natural horsemanship practitioner.
Brannaman’s presence signaled the continuation of a paradigm shift in more traditional segments of the horse industry.
The brief encounters that many veterinarians have with their patients may not seem like training opportunities, but Brannaman was at the conference to let veterinarians and horsemen know that not only are all experiences training opportunities for horses, they are opportunities to use natural horsemanship.
Natural horsemanship incorporates a horse’s sense of herd structure into the communication between horse and human. Traditional methods, by contrast, tend to be based on cues that are more intuitive and convenient for the handler than the horse.
Brannaman was quick to point out that these training methods aren’t necessarily complicated ones.
“As much as you’d like to anthropomorphize the horse … you have to understand that horses are going to process things one way: they’re going to process things the way they see other horses, the way things work in a herd,” said Brannaman.
“It all comes down to the simplest thing in the beginning—the horse is constantly asking the question ‘Do I move his feet, or does he move mine?’”
By establishing themselves as the herd leaders, trainers encourage horses to feel comfortable obeying people and provide a safer environment for both horses and humans, according to Brannaman and other natural horsemanship theorists.
This notion of using natural horsemanship methods to address or prevent behavioral issues is common in some disciplines but relatively new for other segments of the horse industry. Until recently, the approach was relatively uncommon in the Thoroughbred business but has gained steam on farms and in training barns in recent years.
Natural horsemanship isn’t entirely new to Taylor Made Farm, home base for Double Dan Horsemanship. Some 25 years ago, renowned “horse whisperer” Monty ￼Roberts schooled the farm’s managers and grooms on the best methods for horse handling. Since then, the Taylors have incorporated those cues into training for their yearlings.
“It’s just a better way to deal with problem horses. If we have horses that are giving us problems we’ll take them in the round pen to work them for a few days and mentally it just changes them,” said Frank Taylor, vice president of boarding operations at Taylor Made.
Australians Dan James and Dan Steers, founders of Double Dan Horsemanship, connected with the Taylors after the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., and they’ve been working with the farm’s sale yearlings ever since. After seeing their work firsthand, Taylor is confident that natural horsemanship methods will eventually be industry standard for training and breaking young horses.
The Dans expanded their influence last year, when they spent the autumn at Winstar Farm preparing 43 late yearlings for the track.
The process at Winstar began with ten days of ground work outside, breaking the conventional boundaries of desensitizing a horse to a saddle pad in the stall in just a day or two. James and Steers introduced the whip and taught horses about steering and forward motion by ground driving before giving riders a leg up.
The idea, James said, is to halt training or behavioral problems before they begin.
“Most of the problems I see that arise in horses I feel fall into two major categories— being truly obedient to the bridle, in any situation … and then also, really going forward. If you break that down, any horse that wants to buck, rear, run backwards: they don’t understand they need to go forward,” said James.
James, who worked with Thoroughbreds and event horses in Australia, said the conventional timeline and methods for teaching young horses appear to work fine while they’re on the farm, but once they ship to the racetrack, he often sees a different scenario. As exercise riders begin taking a stronger hold on horses’ bits in preparation for higher-speed work, many horses become offended and escape the pressure by backing up and (sometimes) flipping over. A better foundation can prevent these hazards later, James said.
Another factor in a good start to early training is maturity. Upon client request, James ranks horses based on their physical balance and their mental attitude on scales between one and ten; the closer the two numbers are to each other, even if they are fives or sixes, the better he believes the horse will perform.
“The more educated the horse is, the more chance then he has to go out and perform, and I think there have been so many potential great horses who have fallen through the cracks, not due to a lack of ability but through a lack of knowledge,” said James.
Overall, James said that he and Steers have encountered open-mindedness when they make unconventional training suggestions to Thoroughbred folk.
“I think that with ‘old Kentucky bootlegs’ it can be a challenge to step in there because you’re confronted with, ‘Oh this is how my grandfather did it for the past 50 years,’” he said. “Fortunately, the people at Winstar and Taylor Made are progressive enough to allow us to come in and share.”
James believes, just like natural horsemanship practitioner Brannaman, that incorporating these methods into traditional Thoroughbred training programs will produce happier racehorses and sales prospects and also improve safety. After a year of successful natural horsemanship training sessions at two of the biggest commercial farms in central Kentucky, they are convinced (as is Frank Taylor) that the practice is bound to become more common among Thoroughbred operations in the coming years.